Tag Archives: editor

A pale white man shows us what journalism is

My weekly Loose Wire Service column.

Is the Internet replacing journalism?

It’s a question that popped up as I gazed at the blurred, distorted web-stream of a press conference from London by the founder of WikiLeaks, a website designed to “protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”.

On the podium there’s Julian Assange. You can’t make a guy like this up. White haired, articulate and defensive, aloof and grungy, specific and then sweepingly angry. Fascinating. In a world of people obsessed by the shininess of their iPhones, Assange is either a throwback to the past or a gulf of fresh air.

WikiLeaks, which has been around for a few years but has, with the release of mounds of classified data about the Afghan War, come center stage.

Assange doesn’t mince his words. He shrugs off questions he doesn’t like by pointing his face elsewhere and saying “I don’t find that question interesting.” He berates journalists for not doing their job — never

something to endear an interviewee to the writer.
But in some ways he’s right. We haven’t been doing our job. We’ve not chased down enough stories, put enough bad guys behind bars (celebrities don’t really count.) His broadsides may be more blunderbuss than surgical strike, but he does have a point. Journalism is a funny game. And it’s changing.

Asked why he chose to work with three major news outlets to release the Afghan data, he said it was the only way to get heard. He pointed out that he’d put out masses of interesting leaks on spending on the Afghan war previously and hardly a single journalist had picked it up.

Hence the — inspired — notion of creating a bit of noise around the material this time around. After all, any journalist can tell you the value of the material is less intrinsic than extrinsic: Who else is looking for it, who else has got it, and if so can we publish it before them.

Sad but true. We media tend to only value something if a competitor does. A bit like kids in the schoolyard. By giving it to three major outlets — New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — Assange ensured there was not only a triple splash but also the matchers from their competitors.

So Assange is right. But that’s always been like that. Assange is part of — and has identified — a much deeper trend that may be more significant than all the hand-wringing about the future of the media.

You see, we’ve been looking at media at something that just needs a leg-up. We readily admit the business model of the media is imploding.

But very little discussion of journalism centers on whether journalism itself might be broken. Assange — and others – believe it is.

The argument goes like this.

The model whereby media made a lot of money as monopolistic enterprises — fleecing advertisers at one end, asking subscribers to pay out at the other, keeping a death grip on the spigot of public, official or company information in the middle — has gone. We know that.

But what we don’t perhaps realize is that the Internet itself has changed the way that information moves around. I’m not just talking about one person saying something on Twitter, and everyone else online reporting it.

I’m talking about what news is. We journalists define news in an odd way — as I said above, we attach value to it based on how others value it, meaning that we tend to see news as a kind of product to grab.

The Internet has changed that. It’s turned news into some more amorphous, that can be assembled from many parts.

Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks don’t just act as a clearing house for leaked data. They add extraordinary value to it.

Don’t believe me? Read a piece in The New Yorker in June, about the months spent on cracking the code on, and then editing video shot in Iraq.

In a more modest way this is being done every day by bloggers and folk online, who build news out of small parts they piece together —some data here, a report there, a graphic to make sense of it. None of these separate parts might be considered news, but they come together to make it so.

Assange calls WikiLeaks a stateless news organization. Dave Winer, an Internet guru, points out that this pretty much is what the blogosphere is as well. And he’s right. WikiLeaks works based on donations and collaborative effort. Crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I agree with all this, and I think it’s great. This is happening in lots of interesting places — such as Indonesia, where social media has mobilized public opinion in ways that traditional media has failed.

But what of journalism, then?

Jeff Jarvis, a future-of-media pundit, asked the editor of The Guardian, one of the three papers that WikiLeak gave the data too first, whether The Guardian should have been doing the digging.

He said no; his reporters add value by analyzing it. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Alan Rusbridger told Jarvis. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

That’s true. As far as it goes. I tell my students, editors, colleagues, anyone who will listen, that our future lies not so much in reporting first but adding sense first. And no question, The Guardian has done some great stuff with the data. But this is a sad admission of failure — of The Guardian, of reporting, of our profession.

We should be looking at WikiLeaks and learning whatever lessons we can from it. WikiLeaks’ genius is manifold: It has somehow found a way to persuade people, at great risk to themselves, to send it reams of secrets. The WikiLeaks people do this by taking that data seriously, but they also maintain a healthy paranoia about everyone — including themselves — which ensures that sources are protected.

Then they work on adding value to that data. Rusbridger’s comments are, frankly, patronizing about WikiLeaks’ role in this and previous episodes.

We journalists need to go back to our drawing boards and think hard about how WikiLeaks and the Warholesque Assange have managed to not only shake up governments, but our industry, by leveraging the disparate and motivated forces of the Internet.

We could start by redefining the base currency of our profession — what news, what a scoop, what an exclusive is. Maybe it’s the small pieces around us, joined together.

The Dangers of Faking It

(my weekly column, syndicated to newspapers)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A 40-ton whale jumped out of the water and crash-landed onto a sailboat the other day. The moment was caught on camera by a tourist, the whale suspended a few meters above the boat before it smashes into mast and deck, leaving behind a mass of barnacle and blubber.

Amazing stuff. So the first question from a TV interviewer to the survivors of this close encounter between man and mammal? “Was this picture Photoshopped?”

Sad, but I have to admit it was my first question too.

Photoshopping—the art of digitally manipulating a photo—has become so commonplace that it probably should be the first question we ask when we see a photo.

After all, it’s understood that every photo in every fashion magazine in the world is Photoshopped—a wrinkle unwrinkled here, eye unbagged there, an inch lost or gained below and above the midriff. We assume, when we look at a flattering photo of a celebrity that it was Photoshopped first (apparently every celebrity has a Photoshopper to do just this.)

But what of news photos? How do we feel about manipulation then?

Take the latest hoo-ha over some BP photos. Turns out that some photos on its website were tweaked to make BP look a bit more on-the-ball about monitoring the Gulf oil spill than it really was. Blank screens at its Houston command center were filled with images copied from other screens, prompting a search of BP’s website for other altered photos.

Another photo showed a helicopter apparently approaching the site of the spill. Upon closer inspection the helicopter was actually on the deck of an aircraft carrier. One can only guess why BP thought it necessary to make the chopper look as if it was flying.

BP, to its credit, has come clean and posted all the photos to a Flickr page “for the sake of transparency.”

But of course, it’s not enough. First off, the explanation is weasel-like: it places the blame on a “contract photographer” and writes vaguely of incidents where “cut-and-paste was also used in the photo-editing process.” It promises to instruct the photographer not to do it again and “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.”

Well, yes and no. I’m willing to bet that a contract photographer did not make these kinds of decisions alone. And to suggest that a photographer contracted by BP to make photos for BP is somehow being asked to perform as a photo journalist is disingenuous.

I’m guessing, for example, that if the contract photographer had snapped some images of dying pelicans or oil-heavy beaches they wouldn’t be posted to the BP website “to adhere to standard photo journalistic best practices.” (In fact it’s quite fun to browse their photo gallery and look at how carefully the photos have been collected and presented. Compare them with others on Flickr, the titles of which sound unfortunately like items on a menu: “Hermit Crabs In BP Oil,” for example.)

Of course, no one expects BP to publish anything that may undermine its position. The problem lies with the fact that someone, somewhere in BP thought it worth tampering with what it did publish to improve its position.

Some have argued, so what? They fiddled with a couple of photos to make themselves seem a bit more industrious than they really were. So what?

Well, I would have thought it obvious, but the fact that people have argued this suggests it requires an answer. First off, it was bloggers who exposed the fraud. Hats off to them. A sign that crowd-sourcing this kind of thing works.

Secondly, while in itself more pathetic than malign, the manipulation proves that manipulation happens. We (well, not we journalists, but we bloggers) checked, and found the photos were faked. What else has BP faked?

Suggesting it’s the work of some rogue contract photographer doesn’t cut it. If BP’s PR crew knew what they were doing, and held themselves to “stand photo journalistic best practices, ” they would have spotted the amateurish Photoshopping and taken action.

Instead they didn’t spot it, or spotted it and didn’t care, or they actually commissioned it. Or did it themselves. Whatever, they didn’t come clean, so to speak, until they’d been had, and then wheeled out the “transparency defense”—a tad too late, I fear, to convince anyone that that’s where their instincts lay.

Photos, you see, are pretty strong stuff.

Since their invention we have granted them special powers. Photographs preserve information and speak to us in a way that words do not—and, perhaps, video. Think of all those photos that have captured not only a moment but a slice of history: 9/11, the Vietnam War, the Spanish Civil War.

The problem is that we’re gradually waking up to the fact that photographs lie. It’s an odd process, this learning about the power of misrepresentation. It’s part technology, part distance, part a growing understanding that we have ascribed photos a power and finality they don’t deserve.

Let me put it more simply through an example: Robert Capa’s famous 1936 photo of the Falling Soldier. This one photo seemed to sum up not only the Spanish Civil War, but war itself. Only, it’s now widely believed the photo was staged, that Capa may have asked the soldier to fake his death. Does it matter?

Capa’s biographer Richard Whelan argues it doesn’t, that “the picture’s greatness actually lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy.”

This, is, of course, incorrect. Its symbolic implications lie in its accuracy.

And, of course, this is the problem. We need our photos to say something, to express a view that supplements, that goes beyond, the text that might accompany them, the truth that we need to have illustrated for us. And that’s where the problem begins.

Capa may not have intended his photo to be quite so iconic. After all, he took a bunch of photos that day, most of them unremarkable. An editor decided this was one of those he would publish.

Photographers are now aware they get one shot. So they’re pushed to capture more and more in the frame—more, perhaps, than was ever there. And, it turns out, have been doing so for as long as there have been cameras. One of the first war photographs, of the Crimean War’s Valley of the Shadow of Death by Roger Fenton in 1855, was staged—by physically moving cannonballs to the middle of the road.

Nowadays the cannonballs could have been moved more easily: by Photoshop. A mouse click can add smoke to burning buildings in the Lebanon, to thicken a crowd, darken OJ Simpson’s face, or, in the case of Xinhua photographer Liu Weiqing, add antelope to a photo of a high-speed train.

Just as digitizing makes all this easier, so it makes it easier to spot errors. The problem is that we don’t have time to do this, meaning that it falls to bloggers and others online to do the work for us.

But it’s not as easy as it may look with hindsight, and the fact that we create a distinction between images we expect to be faked—fashion, celebrity, sex—and those we don’t—news, suggests that we either have to get a lot better at spotting fakery or we need to insist that photos contain some watermark to prove they are what they’re purporting to be.

The bottom line is that it’s probably a good thing that the first question we ask of a photo is whether it’s fake. Turns out that we should have been asking that question a long time ago.

But there’s another possibility: that there may come a point where we just don’t trust photos anymore. It’s probably up to us journalists to find a way to stop that from happening.

Why Hotels Should Avoid Social Media

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a copy of my column for newspapers)

If The Wall Street Journal is to be believed—and as a former contributor I’ve no reason to doubt it—the best way to get decent hotel service these days is to tweet about how bad it is.

And reading the piece made me realize that, when it comes to an industry like the leisure industry, social media can only be a disaster for your brand.

An article by Sarah Nassauer says that “hotels and resorts are amassing a growing army of sleuths whose job it is to monitor what is said about them online—and protect the hotels’ reputations.” It also offers a handy list of eight tips on how to “snare better service”, including:

Before you check-in: Post a comment on the hotel’s Facebook page or send a tweet saying you’re looking forward to your stay. A savvy hotel will put you on its radar and may dole out perks or give specialized service.

or this one:

Have a lot of online friends or followers. Hotels will pay more attention to your requests.

Now I’m a big fan of social media. And hotels. And the Journal. But this kind of advice is WRONG.

Basically, what the paper is suggesting is that you abuse social media, and the hotel’s check-in system, to snag yourself better service. Unfortunately it betrays a distinct lack of understanding of how things like Twitter work.

First off, you don’t just “have” a lot of online followers or friends. Followers and friends are earned through providing interesting commentary, in the case of Twitter, or being there for them, in the case of friends. OK, you can buy both, but that’s not the point.

Although I suppose you could calculate your savings through free hotel upgrades and offset that against the purchase off Twitter followers through services like usocial (“become an overnight rock star on twitter!”).

Now I’m not averse to hotels and other companies using Twitter and Facebook to keep an eye on what people are saying about them. That’s good, and, frankly, it should have happened a long time ago. I’m frankly amazed that companies measure their footprint on social media quantitatively rather than qualitatively: in other words, they count the number of followers they have, rather than look closely at who those followers are, learn about them and recruit them as unpaid evangelists.

As the piece mentions, hotels and resorts are setting up their own social media monitoring centers which sound like Churchill in the bowels of London in the middle of the  blitz, but is probably more likely some overworked drone monitoring a laptop in the hotel kitchen or a workaholic F&B manager checking TripAdvisor his BlackBerry while his wife is delivering their 4th baby.

The problem is this: Social media is social. If I grumble about my hotel on Twitter, it’s presumably because the other options open to me aren’t working. And those options usually involve something other than boring all my friends about the state of the bath, or the shortage of Mountain Dew in my minibar.

These are things that I should be bringing up with room service, or the front desk, or the F&B guy. If I’ve started twittering about it, it’s proof the system doesn’t work.

So, unless I’ve got really patient followers and friends, using them as a platform for my grumbles isn’t only an abuse of social media, it’s an abuse of my friends.

The problem with the Journal piece is that it assumes that social media is merely a public platform for self-promotion: either for getting better deals, or for getting better service.

But it’s not. Social media only works because we’re interested in what other people are saying. Those people who tell the world they’re about to have coffee don’t have many followers, unless they’re someone famous.

The value in social media—in any network—is the information it’s carrying. Whines about the view from one’s room isn’t information. It’s a whine. (Unless of course it’s me, in which case I’m being wittily ironic in a post-modernist sort of way.)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and a recent case in point: hotel guest complains about the quality and price of Internet in their hotel on Twitter, including the hotel’s twitter name. Hotel responds within seven minutes, asking guest to direct message them—in other words, to send a message that can’t be viewed by anyone else.

So, now the conversation goes offline. No more tweets that anyone can read. In short, guest is basically saying to his followers: I’ve got what I wanted, thanks to all of you for helping me get my way. Hotel is saying: We’ll solve this problem privately, thank you, and leave no-one the wiser about whether this was a one-off complaint or something other guests may have to worry about.

Neither respects the audience on social media who have to watch this public face-off and miss the private make-up.

The upshot: Guests learn that twittering gets results. Hotels learn that twitter guests can be bought off as easily as non-social media guests. And the followers of that particular twitterer come away none the wiser and feeling slightly used.

For sure, it makes sense to use social media as a platform to air your grievances–if other paths have failed. If you want to warn others. Just like writing a letter to the editor back in the old days.

But hotels and other companies that scour social media to buy off bad-mouthers will do terrible damage to themselves, and to social media, if they seek to reward anti-social behavior. If you broadcast to social media that bad-mouthing your brand pays dividends, expect to get lots of bad-mouthing on social media.

If you then try to solve the problem in private, all you leave is a paper-trail of bad-mouthing, and no happy ending.

So the solution is simple: Social media should be monitored. Grievances should be addressed. But rather than setting up time-consuming twitter monitoring teams money would be better spent on developing rapid responses internally—a instant messaging service only accessible to guests, say, or a texting service so guests don’t have to listen to jingly jangly phone music while they’re being connected to reception.

It comes back to an old adage: Social media is not another broadcast platform. It’s a very public forum. So having a twitter feed is a life-time commitment to allowing every customer grumble to be seen by everyone on the planet. Don’t go there unless you have to.

Instead, keep those private channels with your guests as free of friction as possible. Don’t encourage them to go public, because however it works out, it won’t be pretty.

Oh, and provide a decent service. That always works.

The Publisher Audience

By Robin Lubbock

For years I’ve been meaning to write this post, but it seemed so obvious that I kept neglecting to write this thought down.

I am the publisher. You are the publisher. Anyone with a screen is the publisher. That changes everything. It moves institutions that are publishers on paper or on the air one step further away from the audience. It means newspapers and broadcasters have to find ways to market their wares to the new publishers.

Let me say that again with a little more detail.

In the old days newspapers and broadcasters made selections from a wide range of competing news producers (AP, Reuters, staff, freelancers, etc.) and decided which of those sources would be published on any given day. The newspaper editor decided what would go into the paper, where each story would appear on each page, and therefore what the audience would read.

The person who buys paper as a vehicle for news has the decisions about what appears on that paper made for him by the editor.

But when people started buying screens instead of newspapers that changed. The decisions about what appears on the screen were, and are, no longer made by the newspaper publisher or the broadcaster.

The person who buys a screen, not matter what size, as a vehicle for news, also decides what news will appear on the screen. The screen owner has become the publisher. The people who used to be called the audience have become the publishers.

Each day each member of the new publisher/audience produces a single, individual, unique publication for one person: themselves. That publication includes some e-mail, some news, some productivity applications, some video, some blogs, some comments, perhaps an e-book, some more e-mail and so on.

The power that newspapers and broadcasters used to have to decide what the audience would read, hear and see, is gone. That means the old idea that newspapers and broadcasters are the gatekeepers is also gone.

The institution that used to be the publisher or broadcaster has become just another news producer which has to try to get the new publisher/audience’s attention, in competition with the same organizations that used to compete for its attention.

The old publishers have moved back a level. The new publisher is the audience.

The implications of the audience being the publisher are huge and a little obvious, but deserve a separate post. Coming soon…

And of course the newspapers, broadcasters and booksellers are trying to get their hegemony back by producing tethered devices and apps. But that too is another story.

In the browser-based world we mostly inhabit the publisher audience is still enjoying the fruits of the screen revolution.

Driver Phishing II, Or Who Is Trentin Lagrange?

I’m fully awake now, and doing some digging on who is behind the Driver Robot “driver phish.” The digging has introduced me to a whole level to the software scam industry.

The company that sells it is Victoria, BC, Canada-based Blitware (“or Blitware Technology Inc.,  to be precise,” as its website urges us). Nothing gives on its Who Is page, nor on the driverrobot.com website the software is hosted at. But a clue to the possibility that this isn’t just some cute little software developer is back on the LogitechDriversCenter website, which carries some named testimonials, among them this:

“I got a new graphics card but the framerate was terrible, and the manufacturer’s website didn’t help at all. It turns out that the driver that came with the card was 6 months out of date! Driver Robot got me the latest driver automatically, and now my whole system is more responsive, especially the games.”

Trentin Lagrange, CA

The good thing about a name like Trentin Lagrange is that it’s not that common. Not like the other two testimonials, which come from one Tim Whiteman and one Susan Peterson (not that they aren’t helpful. But nothing like Trentin.)

Who is Trentin?

A Google search of Trentin Lagrange indicates that either he’s a huge fan of driver update software, or that it’s not just about Logitech drivers or one small Canadian company anymore.

Trentin Lagrange, it turns out, has left glowing testimonials for driver update software, not just on the dodgy Logitech website (and a sister one at logitechdriverdownloads.com) but on websites like Realtekdriver.net, which also carries the company’s logo and calls itself “Realtek Drivers Download Center”:

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As with the Logitech website, it’s only if you scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on a link “About us”

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do you get to the truth of whether it’s a company website:

REALTEK is registered Trademarks of Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
All other trademarks are properties of their respective owners.
This website is not owned by or related to Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
We are not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.
We are just running a site to help users who have trouble to getting hardware device drivers,
This web site is not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.

Trentin has also left testimonials on websites that impersonate Dell-–delldriverscenter.com—complete with Dell logo

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and favicon

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And SIS at sisdrivers.org:

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and MSI at msidrivers.org

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and Intel at inteldriverscenter.com

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and Asus at asusdriverscenter.com

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and Acer at acerdriverscenter.com

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and canon at canondriverscenter.com

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as well as HP – hpdriverscenter.com

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and driverforhp.com, with this HP-looking banner atop:

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No denials of being associated with HP on their about page, so I’m guessing HP’s lawyers haven’t been in touch yet.

Another website, atidriverscenter.com, seems to have closed. It was active in July, when this person fell for the scam and complained on a forum.  At least some companies seem to be watching.

Well, maybe not. This website, atidrivercare.com, is still working:

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You get the picture.

Google’s Role

All of these websites appeared as sponsored ads above the search results in Google when looking for that manufacturer’s drivers (hp drivers etc) which throw up links to, for example, “official HPs [sic] Drivers & Updates”:

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(For many users these sponsored ads are either normal search results, or sponsored in the sense of vetted, so they’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re clicking on something official.)

It seems that either Trentin, Tim and Susan are just really generous with their comments and share software tips on a regular basis, or this software schmoozefest is linked to Swishsoft the company that sells Swift Optimizer, software that compresses Flash files. All three put glowing reviews on the software website, althought it seems Susan has moved from the U.S. to Australia in the meantime. Must be the taxes.

And no, I couldn’t find any reference to Trentin Lagrange apart from glowing software testimonials. Either the guy just lives to write software reviews or he is not really living.

So, we’re clear that whoever is behind DriverRobot is also behind a number of websites that basically impersonate the websites of popular hardware vendors, either within the boundaries of the law or outside the knowledge of these companies’ lawyers.

Sponsored Run

But it’s also energetically fending off accusations that it’s all a scam. Do a Google search for driver robot and you get these sponsored ads above the results:

Similarly, the ads on the side of the results:

  • DriverRobot This Is The Real Deal?
    The Truth Will Shock You! reviewblogs.info
  • “DriverRobot” Report We Bought It And Tried It.
    The Truth Will Shock You! www.todaysreview.info/DriverRobot
  • Driver Robot Exposed Buying Driver Robot?
    Get The Facts! RealityChek.net

    The top one is a straight link to the download site. The others sound like links to stories exposing the scammery, right? But they’re not: They all take you straight to driverobot.com. No reviews, or even pretence at reviews.

    Clever, huh? Outwit your detractors who accuse you of impersonating official company websites by impersonating your detractors. There’s a twist I hadn’t thought of.

    Where are the Reviewers?

    But what about those logos from respected software reviewers, like PC Magazine, Softpedia (five stars!), Geek Files ((5/5 stars, Exceptional Product!) and Chip on the LogitechDriversCenter.com website and elsewhere?

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    I could find no reference to Driver Robot on the PC Magazine website. On Softpedia’s website I could find no “editor’s review” but found one user review—giving it two stars out of five but saying it used “borderline means to promote its service.” GeekFiles.com contained only discussions, no reviews.

    Depressing

    All of this is faintly depressing, because all the usual checks and balances we look to on today’s web seem to have gone out of the window:

    • a website address can contain a company’s name, with no apparent action from the company itself to protect either its name or its customers;
    • Googling a product doesn’t seem to work: sponsored ads mislead with words like “official” and what look to be review sites are actually redirects owned by the product’s owner
    • Badges from third party download and software websites don’t seem to be a guide, because they are either out of date or fake.

    The fact is that many people are going to be taken in by this kind of thing. Everyone needs drivers, and everyone searches for drivers by googling the manufacturer’s name and the word driver. As many people search for hp drivers as search for kenya on Google:

    So what I want to know is:

  • What are the companies involved doing to protect their brands, their products and their customers from misleading and potentially damaging products sold in their name?

  • What are software reviews sites doing to protect their brands, and their consumers from fraudulent badges?

  • What is Google doing about sponsored ads that mislead the public? 

Telling the Story in the Third Dimension

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The bitter end of the Tamil Tigers has been fought away from the news crews, but not the satellites.

But did we make the most of this technology to tell the story of human suffering and the end of a 35-year guerrilla movement?

A month ago the U.S. government released satellite images apparently showing how tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians had been squeezed into the last tract land held by the LTTE, a story covered somewhat cursorily by the media. This three paragraph piece from The Guardian, for example:

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A week ago (May 12) Human Rights Watch issued its own report based on images it had commissioned from commercial satellites. The photos, the organisation said, “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area.”

The full report was available as a preliminary analysis, downloadable in PDF.

The report was carried by the BBC and others.

But I could find no one who had dug into the report to find a way to bring this remote tragedy closer to home.

For example, it could be as simple as double checking the images and coordinates given against Google Earth (easy enough; just enter the lat/long digits into Google Earth and see where they take you. HRW could have done a better job of providing the full coordinates here, to the full six decimal places–9.317999, for example—rather than the meager two they gave: 9.32.)

But a much better way of presenting the data lurks in a link on page four. Click on the link, and, if you’ve got Google Earth installed, the KML file (a KML file is a XML-based way of expressing geographic information that can be read by programs like Google Earth) will load a layer that tells the grim story in a different way.

The first is the most recent picture from Google Earth, dated 2005. As you can see, very little human habitation (click on each image to enlarge).

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The one below is from May 6. A dense city has appeared in the meantime, with its own streets:

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Four days later, most of it is gone:

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Toggling between these images in Google Earth is a sobering experience. Of course, such imagery does not explain what exactly happened to these people, but it asks tougher questions than any talking head can. And yet CNN chose to focus on that, and on familiar footage of the war.

My point is this: we’re now in a world of three dimensions. We journalists can see things our predecessors couldn’t.

If I was an editor I would have mined that HRW report until I’d found a way to use their imagery to tell the story. Buried in that single, 50 KB KML file is a wealth of detail:

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Which could have been used as time lapse, or juxtaposed over a map like the one the BBC used for its report:

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The bottom line: We as journalists need to understand this kind of thing better so we know what is possible, what is doable, and, if nothing else, to be able to know that when we see a link to a KML file, we may be on the way to a treasure trove of information to help us tell the story.

Why You Should Pay for Your Email

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Screenshot from Search Engine Journal.

(update Dec 2011: Aliencamel is now more, unfortunately, and Fastmail has been sold to Opera.)

Using free email accounts like Gmail is commonplace, but not without risk. As Loren Baker, an editor at SearchEngine Journal, found to his cost, when Google disabled his account without warning. (At the time of writing there’s no explanation why his account was suspended, nor whether it had been resolved.)

The comments are supportive, but also point out the dangers of relying on a free service for business. This point, in particular, struck home; when it’s “free”, we’re not really the customers, except insofaras we’re the recipient of ads:

[such services] see the money coming from the investors rather than the users. Without monetary payment they are not even “customers”.

So what are the alternatives? Well, hosted email makes a lot of sense. If you’ve got your own domain, better to use that. But there’s also paid email services which, until Gmail came along, were where the smart users usually went.

So I asked a couple of them, AlienCamel and Fastmail, to give me five reasons why paid email services are better than free. Here’s what they had to say:

Here are Sydney Low’s of AlienCamel:

  1. No ads, no robots crawling through personal stuff
  2. Email infrastructure is expensive, you get what you pay for
  3. We backup your emails in US and in Europe
  4. Our spam blocking technology – pending email advisory – is patented and unique
  5. We’re limiting our growth to 2500 accounts – so it’ll always be fast and good

As a follow-up I asked him to elaborate on the last point: the logical thing would be that a larger provider would provide better support. His response:

Syd: scaling email backend is not linear – to go from about 3000 accounts and have the features and backup/redundancy, we would have to build a platform that would go to 10-20,000 accounts as a fixed cost business, we would need to not only spend $ on the infrastructure, we would have to spend $$$ on marketing to get the customers to pay for that infrastructure so, the business grows in complexity, cost, and we lose the closeness to the customer.

Jeremy: so a ’boutique’ email service is probably a better bet, in your view, than a mega one?

Syd: I believe so.

Here’s what Jeremy Howard of Fastmail had to say (abbreviated for space and fairness). Fastmail has been in the business a while, and is the provider of choice for those groups like Falun Gong who fear hacking by nefarious agents of the enemy (Chinese government, cough): 

  1. Support. FastMail has help for for pre-sales/configuration help and ongoing help
  2. Specialization. Free accounts are all about maximising ad revenue, not maximising your productivity
  3. Archival and compliance: FastMail provides 2 levels of archival – journalling of all of a business’s sent/received mail to a separate (searchable) archive mailbox, and on-line per-folder backups which can be used to restore a complete folder on demand. Also: searchable, complete, unmodifiable journal of all sent and received email for compliance.
  4. Supervision and control of staff’s use of business email, for security, policy-enforcement, and training purposes.
  5. Reliability.  Every email on FastMail’s systems has five levels of redundancy – Redundent HDD storage (i.e. RAID) on both a primary and real-time replica system, plus a complete on-line backup (accessible at a per-folder level).

It’s interesting stuff. It also highlights how we are perhaps being a bit too cavalier with the most important part of our lives—email has crossed the line between private and business, so many of us use our email accounts for both (Palin, cough.) Given that, we need to think hard about how we use that email, and whether free email is a false economy.

When Technology Lets Us Down

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(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.