Tag Archives: Texas

A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

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Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

The Problem With Memory Sticks

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… is that you forget you have them in your pocket. According to Credant Technologies, a Texas-based security company, about 9,000 USB sticks have been left in people’s pockets in the UK when they take their clothes to the dry cleaners.

This is based on a survey (no link available; sorry) of 500 dry cleaners across the UK who, on average, had found 2 USB sticks during the course of a year. There are, according to the Textile Services Association, some 4,500 dry cleaners in the UK. A survey by the company of taxi drivers in London and New York last September showed that over 12,500 handheld devices such as laptops, iPods and memory sticks were left in the back of cabs every 6 months.

Taking these figures with the caution they deserve—two? Is that ‘We find on average two thumb drives each year’ or ‘yeah I suppose you could say a couple’?—it doesn’t sound surprising. Indeed, you’d think it would be higher, and, indeed, in the centre of London, it is: One dry cleaner in the heart of the City of London said he is getting an average of 1 USB stick every 2 weeks, another said he had found at least 80 in the past year.

Credant want to remind us that data on thumb drives is probably going to be valuable, and there could be a lot of it. With most drives now at least 2GB in capacity, that’s a lot of files that some bad guy could have access to. Encrypt, they say (using their software, presumably.)

They have a point. Though maybe encryption isn’t so much the answer as asking whether there’s perhaps a better way to carry sensitive data around with you? Like not?

Illustration from Computer Zeitung used with permission

Pig Gelatin Proves Oswald Acted Alone

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Advances in technology—specifically, in blood spatter analysis and crash test dummies—have been harnessed to prove that it was, in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald who killed JFK.

Blood spatter analysis has, apparently, been around for a while, but only recently has it gotten good enough to know what the spatter actually means. (More here, if you need to know and don’t mind pictures of spatter.)

Reconstructing the scene for a documentary by the Discovery Channel also involved another key piece of technology: the lifelike dummy. Technically they’re called ‘artificial surrogates’ and they’re made by an Australian company called Adelaide T&E Systems (motto: “engineering the world’s most biofidelic test platforms.” Biofidelic is a fancy word for lifelike.)

The Frangible Ballistic Heads (a great name for a band) are made from three different materials which simulate the brain, skull and external soft tissue (skin), which goes to make the spatter more lifelike. (The brain is made from gelatin made from pig skin and then dyed green, in case you’re trying your own Grassy Knoll reconstruction at home.)

The head was custom-fitted, based on JFK’s hat size. It was then attached to the company’s Hybrid III neck (“for improved response,” according to the website.) This is then attached to the company’s latest product, the Human Thoracic Surrogate, which can be fitted with “loadcells, accelerometers and pressure gauges to facilitate injury scoring,” according to Wesley Fisk, a partner at A&E.

They then brought in a bunch of scientists who did not know that they were investigating JFK, although the mock-up of the Dallas, Texas crime scene, complete with depository, grassy knoll (using real grass), etc, might have offered a clue. They were impressed by the Frangible Ballistic Heads. “The heads they used were quite interesting,” said one of the experts. “They were considerably more sophisticated than anything I’ve seen before.”

After the fake Oswald shot the fake JFK, they were asked to look at the spatter of all the green-dyed pig-gelatin. Turns out the the key was the lack of back-spatter—the stuff that goes the opposite way you’d expect if you’d just shot someone in the head:

The general lack of back spatter and the preponderance of spatter in another direction are two of the clues, among others, that the investigators used to pinpoint the origin of the shots.

Conclusion: just one shooter.

PS: The program hasn’t aired yet, but already it’s being called ‘baloney.’ Unsurprisingly.

Illustration: T&E Systems

Blogs and Diaries from the War

I’ve been writing in my WSJ.com column recently about the loss of tangible history, where our move to digital artefacts — letters replaced by emails, snapshots by digital pictures, SMS messages by postcards — is depriving of us of things we can touch to reconnect us to the past. A wonderful piece by the NYT’s Seth Mydans in Vietnam touches on the theme, although that’s not his intention when writing about the massive popularity of a recently discovered wartime diary by female doctor Dang Thuy Tram, who was killed in 1970 at the age of 27 in an American assault after serving in a war zone clinic on the Ho Chi Minh trail for more than three years.

It made me realise a couple of things, as I consider the unmeasured, and perhaps immeasurable, impact of digitization on our lives: My columns were fired by a conversation with a friend who had recently discovered the long lost letters of her mother, who had died when my friend was very young. It was a great way to connect to a woman she didn’t really ever know. But I didn’t really consider diaries. Diaries are hot zones. They plug straight into the heart. Here’s Tram’s tale, as Seth interviews the American soldier who saved her diary, Fred Whitehurst, whose visits to Hanoi have drawn wide attention:

Speaking by telephone from North Carolina, Whitehurst, now a lawyer, said he had been a military interrogator whose job also included the sifting of captured documents and the destruction of those that were of no tactical value. He said he had come to feel that his discovery of the diary linked him and Tram in a shared destiny and he now calls her “my sister and my teacher.” “We were out there at the 55-gallon drum and burning documents,” he said, describing that moment, “when over my left shoulder Nguyen Trung Hieu said, ‘Don’t burn this one, Fred, it already has fire in it.'”

In the evenings that followed, Hieu, his translator, read passages to him from the small book with its brown cardboard covers and, Whitehurst said, “Human to human, I fell in love with her.” According to Tram’s account, two earlier volumes were lost in a raid by U.S. troops, which means the published diary begins as abruptly as it ends, in mid-conversation.

Last year, after keeping it for decades at home, Whitehurst donated the diary to the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Within weeks, Tram’s family was located in Hanoi and last October her mother and sisters were brought to Texas to receive the diary.

“It seemed that my own daughter was in front of me,” her mother said in an interview at her home. “For me the information in the diary is not the important thing. What is important is that when I have the diary in my hands I feel I am holding the soul of my daughter.”

She said she was able to read the diary only in small sections because of the power of the account. “She wrote us letters, but we never imagined that she was suffering those dangers,” Tram’s mother said.

Powerful stuff. I’m a sucker for a story like this, and of course the beleaguered Vietnamese Communist Party is milking this: A beautiful woman who is in love with the party as much as her missing boyfriend, sacrificing herself on the Ho Chi Minh trail? Never mind the self-doubt. Compared to today’s soft youth this woman was a rock.

What I find so powerful about this story is the pure chance that led to the diary’s rescue from the fire, and the long journey it took to get home. I love too the idea of the mother holding the diary in her hands, something tangible she can grasp instead of her daughter’s hands. I love the idea, too, that Tram wrote this for herself, to grapple with the demons and self-doubt within her. She had no audience in mind, no Comments page. She might be somewhere above us horribly embarrassed by the attention, of course, but our diary, and our letters, our writings, are our immortality. They are what will outlive us.

Blogs do this too. And they do a lot more: They connect us with the world, so we won’t be lonely, even if we’re in Dili in the middle of a firefight between rogue soldiers. But perhaps we need that loneliness sometimes, that feeling of writing for ourselves: writing as a form of exorcism and self-discovery. We don’t always need to be validated by others. Our existence is validated because we exist. I think I might be getting too existential here. I guess my point is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that writing a diary and writing a blog are the same thing. By moving our lives online, in the tiny glare of the few folk who read our musings, are we losing the intensity and unselfconscious honesty for when we write only for ourselves?

 

VoIP and 911

An interesting case in Texas that highlights the weak spot in the whole VoIP thing:  Net Phone Firm Vonage Sued Over 911 Access, reports the LA Times:

As two gunmen forced their way into her Houston home Feb. 2, Sosamma John yelled to her daughter, Joyce, to call the police. Joyce ran upstairs, grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Instead of getting a police dispatcher, the frantic teen got a recording telling her that 911 wasn’t available from the family’s phone.
Joyce escaped the house to call from a neighbor’s — but not before the gunmen had shot her parents and fled.

On Tuesday, the state of Texas sued Vonage Holdings Corp., the nation’s largest Internet-based phone service provider, for allegedly failing to make clear that 911 calls weren’t included in a basic subscription.

The lawsuit highlights a challenge for the exploding business of Internet-based telephone service: Consumers attracted by the cheap rates may be giving up full access to emergency operators.

It also shows Internet phone companies and federal regulators, who are taking a hands-off approach to so-called voice over Internet protocol service, that state authorities are willing to step in with consumer-protection laws at their disposal.

It’s hard to imagine that VoIP services couldn’t provide some sort of emergency access, so perhaps this might be a blip. Or else it’s the thin end of a regulatory wedge that makes the whole cheap phone call thing a flash in the pan.

Could Moblogging Replace Photojournalism?

A panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas last weekend discussed the future of moblogging — the art of creating online journals composed mostly of photos uploaded in part direct from camera-phones — and, in part, whether such activities may threaten journalism. With so many folk armed with camera phones — and some even knowing how to use them — might they be better placed to record momentous events than journalists and photographers?

Heather Somers, managing editor of the excellent Weblog of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, reports from the conference that at least one panelist was unconvinced. Molly Steenson, a professor at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy, said journalists should have no fear that they will be replaced by roving digital chroniclers. “They’re not a threat — we shouldn’t even be going there,” Somers quoted her as saying.

I’d agree. A blurry lo-res snap is not the same as a decent photo professionally taken. But camera phones bring to the table two important things: immediacy and ubiquity. If we can get pictures onto the web within seconds of an event occurring, that means that events small and large are likely to be available to a lot of people very quickly (remember that camera phones work both ways: It’s possible to receive photos as well as transmit them.) The ubiquity thing — everyone has them, and everyone is everywhere — also means that few events are likely to be witnessed without someone with access to a cameraphone.

The bottom line: While journalists are used to writing history’s first draft, I think they (we, I guess) need to get used to the idea that there may be an even earlier draft, written by tech-savvy individuals who are on the spot and have the technology to get their version, along with pictures, out to the world more quickly than we can. We need to adjust to that. In fact it’s a great resource: Now we have witnesses who can show what they saw. Would we still be in a state of confusion if moblogging had been available at the time of JFK’s assassination?

Will mobloggers replace photojournalism? No, but I think they will change it.

News: The Power Of The Net

 Pointed out by my old friend Robin Lubbock, here’s an excellent essay by Dan Gillmor on the self-righting Internet community, where one bad turn is usually overwritten by several good ones. He makes some sharp comments on the VeriSign ‘domain-stealing’ controversy, which I haven’t touched on in this blog. The bottom line: there are some pretty awful people out there, but they usually get drowned out by the decent folk. Long may it last.