The Scam Potential of Presence Messages


David Weinberger as ever hits nail upon head with dose of humor, but his point to me opens the gates to all sorts of thoughts, some of them Web 2.0ish:

Often, on the back of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is a ‘Make Up My Room Now’ message of some sort. But, now matter how they phrase it, isn’t it the same as an “I’m Out, So This Would Be a Good to Rob Me, Especially If You Are Squeamish about Violence” sign?

My question is this: When will Web 2.0 presence tools start to create the same informational hazard? Whether it’s twitter, saying you’ve nipped out for coffee, or dopplr, saying you’re planning an overseas trip, at what point do scammers decide this information is useful to them? Or are they already doing so? I’ve long considered automatic Outlook away messages to be dangerous, but I wonder at what point do the scamsters start to pick up on the usefulness of this presence, or rather absence messages.

P.S. I’m off out for a coffee.

Joho the Blog » The opposite of Do Not Disturb

Photo credit: ores2k

Demise of Contemplative Space

Demise of Contemplative Space
Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

Now there are TVs on buses, in lifts, in waiting rooms, is there any room left for contemplation?

In tandem with my earlier musings about the demise of downtime, we’re seeing those places that once, by accident or design, encouraged pondering, mulling, whatever you want to call, shrink in number.

In this case, it was a Singapore bus where passengers are assaulted by strategically placed screens and ubiquitous noise (playing a three minute opera based on the word ‘miaow’) . I used to love sitting on a bus and looking at the world outside, generally speaking undisturbed, everyone collectively lost in their individual thoughts. Now all eyes are inward, drawn towards the TV that is so hard to ignore.

No TVs on the subway — yet. Think I’ll take that next time.

Bald-headed Britney and the Lost Art of Linking

I think we’ve missed a big trick with links. You know, those underlined words on a web page that take us somewhere else. They’ve been around a while now, so you’d think we’d have explored them a bit, built a little etiquette around them, what to do, what not to do when you link to something else. After all, by turning a word, an image or a button into a link you’re building a door into another world, sort of.

Links are great, it’s just we don’t know how to use them. When we come across a link like this, we’re automatically thrown into confusion: Where does the link go? Do we click on the link and stop reading what we’re reading? Do we not click on the link and keep reading and make a mental note to come back and click on the link later and yet never do? Do we click on the link and open it in a new window? A new tab? A new computer? And then what happens?

Sure, something similar happens in newspapers. You come to the end of the page, and there’s a link to what we professional journalists call The Jump. As in DRUGS, continued on page 4. CARS, continued on page 5. TEDIUM, continued on page 7. UK satirical magazine Private Eye realised these links’ comic possibilities by adding Continued on page 94 at the bottom of its sillier pieces until the term entered the lexicon itself. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon with its usual literalness (“No issue of Private Eye has ever run to anywhere near 94 pages.”)

But this doesn’t induce the same confusion as online. What are we supposed to do when confronted with a link that doesn’t explain where it’s going? When I insert a link under the words “Wikipedia explains” above, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry on Private Eye. But most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time we have no idea what words are linking to what. Don’t bother clicking on any of those links; I was just trying to make a point. Which is this: Words or phrases with links on that aren’t clear where they’re going would be like marking doors with obscure labels like ’open’ or ‘Ffortescue was here’ or ‘door’. (And don’t get me started on those links that look as if they’re going one place and actually go to another internal page, like the company links in this page at Webware.)

Which is why I like MTV’s website and their coverage of Britney Spears going Rehab AWOL again. OK, so the links don’t go outside the site but to other MTV stories, but I both admire the fact that MTV explains what they’re linking to in the link, and the, er, clarity it throws on Britney’s recent lifestyle deviation.

This time, her family and manager intervened, and announced yesterday that Spears had voluntarily entered rehab (see “Britney Spears Checks Into Rehab”).

Now that’s a link that explains itself. Actually it explains itself so well you don’t really have to click on it. Plus it really bolsters the bald (sorry) assertion that precedes it. You’ve got to hand it to MTV . No silly, teasing but vague headlines for them. These guys probably moonlight at Wikipedia.  Like this one:

After returning from her first trip to rehab, Spears made a shocking public appearance Friday night, debuting her newly shaved head at a tattoo shop in Sherman Oaks, California (see “Britney Spears Shaves Head, Gets Tattoo”).

or my personal favorite (The combination of story and the title of the link would not look out of place in Private Eye itself):

“She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” agreed Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, a longtime family friend to whom Spears was briefly married (see “Britney On Her Marriage: Vegas Made Me Do It”).

Maybe it’s just Britney’s story naturally lends itself to links that make sense. But I would wager that it’s more MTV’s excellent linking that leaves us in no doubt of what we’re clicking on. I’m going to take a leaf out of their book and practice safe Link Labeling from now on (see “Loose Wire on Linking: Britney Made Me Do It”)

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Crying Out for Clarity

Interesting post and thread at Signal vs Noise on the overuse of buzzwords, particularly on job applications. One thing caught my eye, though: the assumption that shorter, briefer is better. One commenter wrote: “I’ve always noticed that the shortest emails come from those with the most power in the organization.” That’s probably because they’re using a BlackBerry. Shorter isn’t necessarily better, although it might be. Clarity is better. Not always the same thing. (Having just read through a dozen award applications I see a crying need for clarity.)

Anyway some horrible buzzwords that crop up in the comments or my head:

  • anything with 2.0 in it
  • ‘space’ meaning market
  • ‘interface’ as a verb
  • stakeholder
  • grow as a transitive verb
  • more buzzwords here.

Revisiting the Kryptonite Affair

Remember the Kryptonite Affair? It was back in September 2004 when a company that sold bicycle locks crashed into the power of forums and blogs and came away battered and bleeding when it failed to respond in Internet time to complaints that some of its bicycle locks could be opened with a Bic pen. Here was my take at the time (well, not exactly at the time; I was only a couple of months late). Kryptonite became a poster boy of how not to handle adverse PR when it comes via the Internet. (A Google search for BIC Kryptonite throws up more than 51,000 hits.)

But now a reassessment of Kryptonite’s response has begun with a post by Dave Taylor, a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and blogger. Dave interviews Kryptonite PR chief Donna Tocci, and concludes that Kryptonite’s response was in fact measured and swift. Instead, he says, a myth has developed around the whole incident that should be laid to rest:

Always remember that ultimately the company has to meet its market, too, not vice versa. Oh, and don’t discount the effect of mythologizing along the way too: Kryptonite handled its situation with savvy and professionalism and has recovered its position, but the “myth” of bic pens and the crushing blow of blogging has grown far beyond the reality of the situation.

An interesting perspective. But what myth, exactly? That BIC pens can’t open some Kryptonite bike locks? Yes, they can. Indeed, Donna was quoted by the NYT at the time as making the argument that arguing that locks made by other manufacturers shared the same vulnerabilities.

Then there’s the “myth” of Kryptonite’s allegedly slow and leaden response to the whole thing. Dave says a myth emerged that “the company wasn’t paying attention to the blogosphere and that it took weeks for it to learn that there was a problem”. Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid at the time was merciless in his chronology, saying that there was nothing on the Kryptonite website to suggest there was a problem with the bike locks until at least Day Seven. This is not exactly true. Kryptonite did post something within a few days on its website offering free replacements to any owner “concerned about the security of this lock” while not acknowledging there were problems with the locks, or indeed, why customers might, or should, be concerned.

But is Dave right in saying that the myth wasn’t true, since “Donna and her team were aware of the problem from the very first day”? Well, a couple of things here. Just because Kryptonite was aware of the problem from the first day doesn’t lessen the problem. Even Donna herself acknowledges that she should have posted “a note on our website about us working on the issue a day or two earlier.” Indeed, one could argue that if they did know about the problem from day one, they should have put something on their website to reassure customers, or given them some hint that there was a problem, before they started doing anything else.

Indeed, what is surprising about the whole episode was not the discovery that some bike locks could be opened with a plastic biro, but information along these lines had been available for 12 years in the form of an article in a biking magazine. Obscure, maybe, but if the argument is that the blogosphere is just too big too monitor effectively. Fair argument, but bicycle magazines? How many are there in the world? Maybe 200? 1,000? Is that too many to monitor, over a 12-year period?

The bigger point is that the issue spread like wildfire when it resurfaced 12 years on because of the Internet. That’s what the Internet does, or can do. Kryptonite’s failure was letting down its customers who looked to its website for guidance. So when Donna says “we know that the majority of the people who participated in our lock exchange program heard about it from traditional media sources”, instead of this being evidence to back up Dave’s skepticism that “a lot of blog pundits are fond of pointing to this situation as an example of why companies need to keep track of the so-called blogosphere”, I’d say it highlights the opposite.

If you visit a company website a day or two after damaging news has broken about that company’s products, and there’s no sign of any acknowledgement on the website about this, why would you then keep revisiting it until there is something there? It may not be fair, and it may not fit your schedule, but the Internet requires an in-time response, even if it’s just “we are looking into reports that there’s a problem with some of our products. If you’re concerned, drop us an email and we’ll get back to you.” It’s not rocket science.

So, Dave is right in that Kryptonite will forever be associated with PR problems in the Internet age, and it’s good to get a bit of balance in there. But perhaps the myth is that Kryptonite as a company and brand were permanently hobbled by the episode. Donna — who still has her job — claims the brand is not “as damaged as the blogosphere would have you believe”. She gives no sales figures. But she also acknowledges that the tubular lock — the source of all the problem — no longer exists as a Kryptonite lock. Indeed, more than 380,000 of them have been replaced. She’s a good PR person: she portrays this as a positive, a sign of the company’s logistical skill. But how could one argue the demise of one’s main product, and the expensive replacement of hundreds of thousands of units, as a good thing? I’d say that it’s a pretty fitting testament to the power of the Internet. On balance, I’d say, the myth stands.

It’s Not Always About Online

Software developers used to write programs that looked and worked great on their big-monitored, big-powered, big-hard drived computers, forgetting that most of us have small screens, weak computers and no disk space. Now, with Web 2.0, they’re writing programs that assume we’re always online. Well, we’re not. Cameron Reilly of The Podcast Network, trying to retrieve his flight booking in a hurry, highlights the dangers of relying on something like Gmail when either you, or it, isn’t always online:  

Pull up Gmail to check my booking. Gmail down. GMAIL DOWN??!??!?!?! Get a message saying “sorry, gmail is down. we’re trying to fix it. please check back in a few minutes.”I don’t have a few minutes. Need to get my ass to the airport or miss my flight. Jump in car. Check Gmail again from my mobile while I’m driving (don’t crash don’t crash oh don’t crash) – still down.

Yes, he probably should have printed it out at the time. Yes, he should have saved a copy to his hard drive/phone in case. Yes, we shouldn’t rely on free email services, however big and snazzy the company. But the truth is that (a) Cameron is as human as the rest of us and (b) we use these services as if they are a service, which they’re not. They’re a luxury that only exist as long as the company want them to exist, and as long as we’re online. 

This second lesson is easier to remember if you live in a part of the world where most of the people are not online for most of the day. This is partly because it’s not that kind of culture, and it’s partly because the quality of cable Internet here is so low. But this is a good thing, because it means I never rely on online email for important stuff, and because it means that whenever I find something good I save it somewhere I can retrieve it whether or not I’m online.

Bottom line: I love web-based applications like Basecamp. But I’m never going to build critical tasks around them so long as I can’t access them, or a recent backup of them, when I’m offline. This is one area where the likes of Groove have an edge. And while the argument may follow that one day everyone will be online, I’m betting that one day, too, everything will come to a shuddering halt when the Internet fries one day and we’re all scrambling for our offline backups.

Oh, Cameron made his flight ok, by peering into his offline backup. In this case his brain.  

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Podcast: The Technology of Hotels

I’ve been recording pieces, usually derived from my and WSJ Asia Loose Wire columns, for the BBC World Service’s World Business Report for more than a year now, and they’re a lovely bunch of guys. (Here’s a link to Jonathan’s recent house move. As someone who hasn’t live in London for nearly 20 years I’m jealous.) Anyway, some listeners have requested a podcast type repeat here, and the BBC have kindly agreed to allow it, so here’s the first podcast of my BBC pieces for now: on hotels. Download Hotels.mp3

Hopefully, if I’ve done my sums right, this will appear as a podcast in the RSS feed. Apologies if it doesn’t. More to follow.

The TiddlyWiki Report, Part I: Jonny LeRoy

This week’s column is about the TiddlyWiki (here, when it appears Friday), which I reckon is a wonderful tool and a quiet but major leap forward for interfaces, outliners and general coolness. I had a chance to chat with some of the folk most closely involved in TiddlyWikis, but sadly couldn’t use much of their material directly, so here is some of the stuff that didn’t fit.

First off, an edited chat with Jonny LeRoy, a British tech consultant who offered his view on TiddlyWikis over IM:

Loose Wire: ok, thanks… i’m doing a little piece on tiddlywikis, and was intrigued to hear how you got into them, how you use them, where you think they might be of use, how they might develop etc…
Jonny LeRoy: sure. I first came across them when a colleague sent round a link. The thing that hooked me was the “install software” page which just said – “you’ve already got it”. I’ve been doing web stuff (mainly Java server side development) for quite a while and seeing the immediacy of the tiddlywiki was great. I’ve tried all sorts of tools for managing thoughts and tasks and generally end up going back to pen and paper after a while. tiddlywiki is fast and easy enough for me to keep using it. The micro-content idea is pretty interesting but I’m also pretty interested in how they slot into general progressions in the “Web 2.0”. more and more functionality can now be pushed client side – especially with Ajax and related async javascript technologies. TiddlyWiki takes this to the extreme by pushing *everything* client-side …
That does raise the problem of sharing and syncing the data, but it’s not really in essence a collaborative tool. though there’s no reason why that can’t be added on top of what’s there. Does that make some sense?
Loose Wire: it does. very well put…
Jonny LeRoy: cheers 😉
Loose Wire: 🙂 i particularly like the tagging idea, which you seem to have introduced…

Jonny LeRoy: Yup – for me when I started using tiddlywiki the main thing missing was any kind of classification. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with pretty complicated taxonomies and ontologies – particularly for managing / aggregating / syndicating content on a travel start-up I was involved in. but the simplicity of sites like delicious and flickr started to make me realise that some simple keyword tags gets you nearly everything you need. and also removes half of the issues related to category hierarchies and maintenance. particularly when your dataset isn’t massive. even when the dataset and tag list grows there are ways of “discovering” structure rather than imposing it … see flickr’s new tag clusters for a good example of this. In the good open source fashion I had a quick hack at the TW code and put some basic tagging functionality in place. A few other people were creating tag implementations at the same time, but they were more based around using tiddlers as tags ….. I was fairly keen just to keep the tags as metadata. I’m still yet to see a good online wiki that has tagging built in. for me that’s been an issue with most wikis I’ve used

Loose Wire: i get the impression that tagging is still considered a social thing, rather than tagging for oneself, as a way to commit to hierarchies, a la outliners etc?
Jonny LeRoy: that’s one of the beauties of it – though not so much in TW. the free-association you get by browsing other people’s tags is amazing. comparing what you can find through something like delicious compared to open directory projects – dmoz etc is quite interesting
Loose Wire: it is great, but i feel there’s huge potential in using tags for oneself, too?
Jonny LeRoy: yup – when you’re using them for yourself you can set your own little rules that get round some of the hierarchy problems. overloaded tags – with more than one meaning can get confusing in a social context, but personally it’s much easier to manage how you refer to things. also the ability to add tags together – so you can search on multiple tags creates an ad hoc structure.
Loose Wire: yes. i’d love to see TWs let you choose a selection of tags and then display the matches… oops, think we’re talking the same thing there…
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – I’d been meaning to put that in place, but haven’t had a moment 🙂
Loose Wire: is that going to happen? all the various TWs are now under one roof, is that right?
Jonny LeRoy: Yeah – Jeremy Ruston – who started it all off seems to be managing things reasonably well. and pulling together different versions. there was a bit of a branch with the GTDWiki which got a lot of publicity.
Loose Wire: is that a good way to go, do you think?
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a weird one, because it’s not like a traditional open source project with code checked into CVS. so versioning can be quite hard. but it’s also one of the beauties of it – anyone with a browser and a text editor can have a go.

Loose Wire: i noticed the file sizes get quite big quite quickly?
Jonny LeRoy: a lot of that is the javascript – if you’re just using it locally then you can extract that out into another file. that makes saving and reloading a bit quicker. the file will grow though with the amount of data you put in.
Loose Wire: is that tricky to do?
Jonny LeRoy: no – you just need to cut all the javascript – put it into a new file and put in an HTML tag referencing it
Loose Wire: how much stuff could one store without it getting unwieldy?
Jonny LeRoy: That really depends on your PC / browser combo – how quickly it can parse stuff.  if you were going to want to store really large amounts of data then you might want to look at ways of having “modules” that load separately.

Loose Wire: is it relatively easy to turn a TW into a website/page?
Jonny LeRoy: yeah – couldn’t be simpler – upload the file to a webserver … and er … that’s it. it does rely on people having javascript enabled – but 99% do. one issue is that since all the internal links are javascript search engines like google won’t follow them. but google will read the whole text of the page if it indexes you

Loose Wire: where do you think this TW thing could go? do you see a future for it? or is it going to be overtaken by something else?
Jonny LeRoy: Definitely – the company I’m working at right now (ThoughtWorks) have used it for a major UK company . they used it for a simple handbook for new people
Loose Wire: oh really? excellent!
Jonny LeRoy: really simple to use and quick to navigate – it got pretty good feedback. I see more people being likely to use it personally on their own pcs though. I use it to keep track of things I’ve got to do or have done. the dated history bit is really useful to work out what was going on a couple of weeks ago.
Loose Wire: the timeline thing?
Jonny LeRoy: yup
Jonny LeRoy: I can also see new TW like products coming out for managing tasks better – an equivalent of tadalist on the client side. beyond that it’s a good thought experiment in how datadriven sites can work. the server can push the data in some structured format to the browser and then the browser uses TW like technology to work out how to render it.
Loose Wire: yes. … [however] i feel a lot of people like to keep their stuff on their own pc (or other device, USB drive, whatever). not all of us are always online….
Jonny LeRoy: exactly – the wiki-on-a-stick idea is great. you can stick firefox and your wiki on the usb key and off you go
Loose Wire: yes, very cool…
Jonny LeRoy: The next step is then to have the option to do some background syncing to a server when you end up online
Loose Wire: do you think more complex formatting, layout and other tasks could be done? and could these things be synced with portable devices?
Jonny LeRoy: the portable devices question is interesting – it really depends on how much javascript they’ve got on their browsers. there’s no reason why it’s not possible, but there are more vagaries of how the functionality is handled
Loose Wire: javascript is the key to all this, i guess….
Jonny LeRoy: it’s a bit like the web in the mid 90s where you didn’t have a clue what people’s browsers would support. it’s actually having a bit of a comeback. many people just see it as a little glue language to stick things together or move things around ….. but it’s actually really powerful – I discovered more of it’s dynamic possibilities while playing with TW. the best thing about it for me is that anyone who’s got a modern browser can run javascript – there’s no extra install.

Loose Wire: yes, making the browser an editor is a wonderful thing… what sort of things do you think we might see with it?
Jonny LeRoy: I’m not sure what new thing we’ll see, but we’ll definitely see the things we use the browser for already getting much better and smoother. the user interaction is starting to become more like working on a locally installed application.

Thanks, Jonny.

When A Food Critic Goes Bad

Forget Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass. What happens when you can’t even trust the words of a food critic?

Bart Ripp, restaurant critic of the Tacoma News Tribune, has quit ”after 32 years in the newspaper business, 15 of them here as a features writer, historian, postcard savant and restaurant critic.” Now, according to Komo TV and other sites, his former bosses accuse him of taking food for free and making up at least 25 interviews. He resigned early this year and, according to Komo News, is now a sales representative for an advertising firm.

What’s interesting about this, from a tech and journalism point of view, is how long it took the News Trib to find him. Indeed, it seems to be the same problem of giving a journalist the benefit of the doubt: According to the American Journalism Review, editor David Zeeck has had his suspicions since November 2002, but only earlier this year did the editorial team start to dig deeper.  

Apparently, Ripp’s transgressions were easier to spot with the help of a database called Accurint, a tool for finding people and information about them, which the paper had bought since the 2002 incident. Accurint  offers customers to “use the world’s most comprehensive and accurate locate and research tool to achieve better results at a lower cost. Find people, businesses and their assets. Obtain deep background information. Uncover bankruptcies and criminal histories.” Using that it was pretty easy to see whether the people Ripp was quoting existed. Apart from the awful name, Accurint sounds like a good service, and one that every newsroom should have. Just knowing it — or the many services like it — is there should make wayward hacks think twice before making stuff — and people — up.

One of the things that depresses me about all this is that why would someone fake interviews for a food column? I can understand — though not condone — the pressures that may have pushed the likes of Blair and Kelley to make up stuff, but a food critic? What kind of pressure is a food critic under, exactly? I’m not dissing the hard work columnists have to do, as I’m one, but I just can’t see why someone would not go out and find real people to talk about food. It’s not the kind of thing people will only discuss on deep background in darkened parking garages. As Zeeck is quoted as saying:  “These are the easiest interviews in the world. Why would you make these things up?”