Tag Archives: Twitter Inc.

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

Social Media Phishing Hazards

As usual, I feel we’re not being smart enough about the way that scammers improve their skills. We demand everything to be easier, and they just reap the winnings.

What they’re exploiting is the fact that we use a lot of different services (twitter, email, Facebook), and services within services (those which use those primary services as authorisation—in other words, borrowing the login name and password) to make things easier for us or to offer ancillary services (backing twitter, measuring the number of Facebook friends you have in Angola, etc etc).

All of this leaves us vulnerable, because we tend to get overwhelmed by the number and complexity of the services we subscribe to. Scammers exploit this.

I found this message in my inbox the other day:

image

The text reads:

Hello,

You have 2 unread message(s)
For more details, please follow the link below:
http://twitter.com/account/message/20111007/?userid=789837192

The Twitter Team

Needless to say, the link itself goes elsewhere: http://lewit.fr/primitives.html which is, as far as I know, a phishing website (so don’t click on it.)

This scam isn’t new; this website talks about it last year—though they seem to have improved the spelling (it used to be ‘unreaded’).

This is clever, because while Twitter says we won’t send you messages like that, of course they do, all the time:

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So it’s understandable why people might fall for this trick. (I don’t actually know what the trick is, but I assume that if you visit an infected website they’ll try to get as much malware on your computer as you can, so this is not (just) about grabbing your Twitter details.

What worries me is this: The usual defence against this, if Google or whoever is hosting your email hasn’t caught it, is to inspect the link under the link. In other words, to look at the actual link that the proffered link conceals. In the above case, the twitter.com/account etc link is really going to the lewit.fr page. But you’ll only know that if you mouse over the link and look at the status bar in the bottom of your browser, or paste the link somewhere else. If the link looks dodgy you know not to go there.

Or do you?

Take this email I received at more or less the same time:

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It’s a request from backupify (an excellent backup service) for my twitter account.

The problem I have with it is this: The Backupify link in Step1 is actually this link:

http://mkto-l0091.com/track?type=click&enid=[etc] (I’ve removed the rest.)

How can I tell this is a legit email? Well it’s addressed to me, but spearphishing is pretty good these days. And chances are I’ve succumbed to backupify’s prodding to tweet to the world that I’m using their service, so an accomplished phisher need only harvest those twitter accounts which have mentioned backupify. Child’s play, in other words, to get into my account.

But the domain looks extremely dodgy. In fact a who is search reveals it belongs to a company called Marketo Inc which is basically an email marketing firm. So that suggests it is legi—or that their site has been infected. I have no way of knowing.

Now everyone uses these third party companies to handle bulk emails; that’s understood. But when you’re asking to ‘reauthorize’ an account this effectively means you’re handing over details of your account to a third party—a step that should be treated in the same way as reentering passwords or other sensitve account details. You shouldn’t be using a third party emailer for that.

I’m going to reach out to backupify and see what they say about this. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this, and I suspect it’s more widespread than one would like to think. For users, I think the lesson is clear: Don’t click on a link if you’re not sure. Go to the actual page of the service in question and check it out that way.

Locking Users In the Smart Way

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I was directed to this excellent piece, A Victim Treats His Mugger Right : NPR, via Facebook last night.  And it made me realise how publishers don’t make the most of that kind of referral.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that nowadays we tend to get more and more of our reading from peer suggestions like this. Navigating News Online from the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that while Google still accounts for 30% of traffic to the main U.S. news sites, Facebook is the second or third most important driver of traffic. And yet all news sites do to respond to that is put a Facebook like button on their stories and cross their fingers.

What they should be doing is create what I would call “corners”, but might also be called “series” or “seasons”. The same PEJ report notes that casual visitors to a news website account for the vast majority of visitors–USAToday, for example, a third of users spent between one and five minutes on the paper’s website each month. Power users–those that return more than 10 times a month and spend more than an hour there–account for an average of 7% of total users for the top 25 news sites.

This represents a huge failure on the part of websites to get users back, and spend more time there.

And I don’t see a lot of websites doing much about it. Which is a shame, because it’s relatively easy. You just need to think of your publication as a TV network, and your content as individual brands. Or, to continue the analogy, seasons.

If I start watching Archer, or Secret Millionaire and I enjoy it, chances are I’ll set my TV to record each episode. I like one bite; I want take the whole season. It may not be smart television, but it’s smart branding. But apart from columnists and a few other regular features, we don’t think the same when it comes to our content.

Take the NPR piece. It’s about a New York social worker called Julio Diaz who is mugged. He gives him his wallet, and then, invites the mugger to dinner. It’s a touching tale, and has been tweeted 635 times, shared on Facebook more than 200,000 times and has 92 comments. And, get this: It was published on March 28, 2008. More than three years ago. I didn’t even notice that when I was pointed to the story by a friend on Facebook. And I wouldn’t have cared: Once I started reading the story I was hooked, and listened to the recording all the way through.

This piece comes from a series called StoryCorps, a magnificent oral history project for which NPR is one of the national partners. Through three permanent StoryBooths and a traveling MobileBooth it has recorded more than 35,000 interviews since 2003. It has its own StoryCorps Facebook page, with more than 25,000 followers and a lively feel to it. (I recommend watching some of the animated accounts; they’re very moving.)

My point is this: StoryCorps is like a TV series, Loyalty is built around the brand itself: People know that if they like one item, they’re sure to like the next. And yet we do so little in our media products to make the most of this human desire to hear/read/watch more of something we like. Because we are news people, we think news is enough of a brand, we forget that for most people news is not in itself a reason to visit a news website. We are instead looking for more of what we may have liked before, and if we can’t find it, we won’t come back again.

Hence the dreadful statistics mentioned above.

So how to change this? Well, looking at the NPR page of the Julio Diaz story, we see a lot of the usual efforts to retain interest. There’s the most popular slot on the right, the related stories below, and then below that More From This Series. There are also links to subscribe to the podcast of the series, and to the RSS feed for this series.

This is all good. But it’s just the start. Let’s break down what these elements are:

  • The twitter/facebook like buttons are fine. But these are just ways of driving non-users to  to the same individual piece of content–in other words, this page.
  • The related links are ways of driving casual users to other internal content.
  • The podcast/RSS are ways of converting casual users to regular users of the content.

By defining them like this, it’s clear that only the last one really has any long-term objective to it. If we can get a user to subscribe to the podcast or the RSS feed, then we have actually got a loyal user–someone who is likely to spend more than a few minutes a month on our site, and to actually demonstrate some loyalty to our brand.

(Included in this last section is the Facebook page for a publication too, but I’m not going to go into that here.)

Now it’s probably no accident that RSS and podcasts are in steep decline. (Evidence for the decline is anecdotal, because usage of readers like Google Reader are still rising, but the rate of increase is falling, according to this piece on Quora; besides, a lot of other RSS readers have died off: Bloglines was closed down last September and NetNewsWire was sold earlier this month.)

Searches for the term RSS on Google have been falling steadily since 2006:

And podcasts haven’t fared much better. Their hey day was 2005 and 2006:

I think it’s no accident that both peaked around five years ago. That was the era of Web 2.0, and now we’re into the era of Social Media, which is dominated by Facebook and Twitter. Again, no accident that both use RSS, or used,  but have since moved on, or tried to move on.

The bottom line with both RSS and podcasts is that both have had their day. Both are a little too nerdy for most people: RSS is still way too tricky for ordinary users to master, and podcasts may be relatively easy to grab from iTunes, but still require a degree of managing that clearly doesn’t sit well.

Web 2.0 has moved on, and as social media has become more popular, and the tools for using it more user-friendly, podcasts and RSS have been left behind.

But, and here is the key point, Facebook and Twitter haven’t replaced them. RSS was/is a way for me to get your content to come to me. Facebook doesn’t really offer that, and neither, if you think about it, does Twitter.

For me to see your content I have to go to your Facebook page, or, alternatively, wait for it to pop up in my user feed. The latter is true of Twitter.

RSS allowed me to decide which of your content I liked–assuming you offered more than a single feed–and then to be able to access that on any device I liked. Podcasts were similar, but for audio and video. Now both are more or less dead, and, at least in terms of building loyalty to media channels, we’re not only back at square one, we’ve allowed other platforms–Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+–to place themselves between us and our reader.

I think this illustrates the weak thinking that media has tolerated. We need, somehow, to develop successor tools to RSS and podcasts that help us to build pipes direct to our readers/users.

Some people are trying this with iPhone/iPad/Android apps. It’s a start. But it doesn’t scale particularly well: The more apps there are, the less time people will spend on them.

And, more important, it’s still making a fundamental mistake by assuming that our readers are interested in us as a brand. They’re not. They’re interested in the channels we offer–thinking of them as seasons, I hope makes more sense, because we don’t just watch anything on a channel, we watch shows we like.

So we need to break down our content in this way, and then develop tools–apps, if you like–which cater to this desire and interest in content that is directly related (not automatically selected, or ‘may be related’) to the content that a user is interested in.

This is not that hard. NPR could build an app which helps to make it easier for anyone interested in the StoryCorps series to get all that content in a more straightforward way than RSS or podcast.

But it shouldn’t stop there. Measuring interest in a series should spur imaginative regeneration, repurposing and forking of content. The piece I mentioned, for example, had clearly resonated with the audience and should be paired with follow-up stories. Indeed, the StoryCorps corner of the NPR website should be a brand in itself, a community where editors regularly interact with readers and find ways to turn those casual users into regulars.

This is not rocket science. It’s simple math. At the moment we’re allowing other platforms to determine what people read on our website, and when they do drop by, we rely on HTML code, widgets and buttons to try to keep them.

Worst, we think merely about ‘keeping’ in terms of ‘sticky’: distracting the reader by luring other stories in front of their nose until eventually they get bored, or go home, or die, or something. I use the same tricks to entertain my 9-month-old. We need to be smarter than this.

Thinking our content in terms of ‘series’ might be a good place to start.

How To Use Google To Get Round Super Injunctions

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As you may know there’s been lots of talk about a so-called super injunction taken out by a British footballer against revealing his name in connection with an affair he’s alleged to have had with a minor UK celebrity. One British newspaper has ignored the injunction, effectively identifying him. Twitter has also been abuzz.

It amused me to notice that Google has ignored the injunction, too, effectively.

With Google Instant autosearch on, start typing “super injunction footballer imogen” and the answer–or at least what everyone assumes is the answer will appear in the drop down list below. As I’ve illustrated above, but with the name blanked out.

I’ve talked about how to get the best out of this feature before. Check out Google Suggest: Your Company + Scam – loose wire blog

A Call for Diminished Reality

(a copy of my weekly syndicated column. Podcast from the BBC here.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

A Call for Diminished Reality

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was walking the infant the other day, when I saw a vision of my future.  A mother and father, out with their son and dog.  The mother sat on a park bench, dog sitting obediently at her feet as she flicked absent-mindedly at her iPhone.

In the playground, the boy wove his way through a tunnel, across some ropes, down a slide–the father nearby, lost in his own iPhone. Occasionally he would waken from his 3G trance and, without looking up, point the phone at his son as if scanning him for radiation.  The resulting photo probably went straight to his Facebook page.  Ah, happy families, connected by place but detached by devices.

It’s a familiar lament.  Our devices distract so much we can’t ignore them.  We ignore our kith and kin but obey their beeps, walk into traffic or drive into pedestrians to heed their call.  And the solutions are usually less than imaginative, or practical: holidays where you check them in at the gate, where you put them in a glove compartment, or (shock), leave them at home entirely.

I have tried all these and they don’t work.  Which is why I fear I will be that family. Perhaps I already am; desperate to catch my infant’s first steps, words, or symphony, I think it more important that my cellphone camera is there, somehow, than I am. This is silly.  But I think I have found the answer in something called augmented reality.

Augmented reality is where our devices use their camera and positioning capability to add layers of information to what is in front of us: little pointers appear on the screen detailing where the nearest ATM is, or Chinese restaurant, or how far away and in what direction the nearest Twitter user is. The reality is the scene in front of us viewed through our camera, the augmented bit are these layers of extra information.

This is not new, but it’s becoming more popular.  And it’s kind of fun.  It is related to another technology that adds a layer onto what we see—so-called heads-up displays, that project information onto the windscreen of our airplane, or car, or goggles, that help us identify a target, a runway, an obstacle in the road.

Interesting, but I think they’ve got it all backwards.  Our problem is not that we need more information overlain on the world, we need to have the world overlain on the screens that command us.  We spend so little time interacting with the world now that we need technology to help us reintroduce the real world back into our lives.

I don’t think handing over our devices to well-intentioned guards at hotel gates is going to do it.  I think we need to find a way to fit the real world into our device.

Which is why, two years ago, I got very excited about an application for the iPhone called Email n Walk.  This was a simple application that overlays a simple email interface on top of whatever is in front of you.  The iPhone’s camera sees that for you, but instead of putting lots of pins about ATMs, Chinese restaurants and twitter users on the image, it puts the bare bones of whatever email you’re typing.  You can type away as you’re walking, while also seeing where you’re going.

Brilliant.  And of course, as with all brilliant things, it got lots of media attention and promptly disappeared.  The app is still there on Apple’s software shop, but the company’s home page makes no mention of it.  I tried to reach the developers but have yet to hear back.

They’re careful not to claim too much for the software. We can’t take any responsibility for your stupidity, so please don’t go walking into traffic, off of cliffs, or into the middle of gunfights while emailing, they say.  But it’s an excellent solution to our problem of not being able to drag our eyes from our screens, even to watch our son clambering over a climbing frame.

It’s not augmented reality, which purports to enrich our lives by adding information to it.  It’s a recognition that our reality is already pretty hemmed in, squeezed into a 7 by 5 cm frame, and so tries to bring a touch of the real world to that zone.  I believe that this kind of innovation should be built into every device, allowing us to at least get a glimmer of the real world.

Indeed, there are signs that we’re closer to this than we might expect. Samsung last month unveiled what may be the world’s first transparent laptop display, meaning you can see through it when it’s turned on, and when it’s turned off. I don’t pretend that it’s a good solution to the growing impoverishment of our lives, which is why I have no hesitation to call this inversion of augmented reality ‘diminished reality.’

And now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is making funny faces at me through the screen so I better grab a photo of it for my Facebook page.

Nursery Rhymes: History’s Most Viral Startup?

(This is a copy of my weekly column for newspapers and radio.)

As the father of a child born in the era between the first and second iPads, I am made acutely aware that technology is driving baby rearing–just as it is driving everything else. But I find the field surprisingly uneven.

Nappies, for example. They’re definitely easier than in my day: Even I can change one. They carry logos of Winnie the Pooh and other lovable characters–all presumably a little surprised to find themselves so close, as it were, to the waterline. There are little adhesive strips on the side and wingtips for extra coverage and flair. All very nice, but I’m surprised not to find sensors, in there to register changes in, er, volume or aroma.

After all, we’ve got digital thermometers, digital bottle warmers, digital breastpumps, digital sterilizers, digital swings. I’ve counted more than 100 iPhone programs, or apps, simply for nursery rhymes. A British company has just launched an application that will let a harried father, marooned at work, recite a nursery rhyme over his iPhone which is then synchronized with a remote iPad application where his bed-ready daughter can watch the simulated action unfold—Jack falling down the hill, Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, Baa Baa Black Sheep taking orders for wool.

I’m all for this: Walking into a baby store now is little different to walking into an electronics store.  I’d love to see more of this: I already record little ditties that then loop around so I can go wander off and prepare milk, brush my teeth, write columns, before my offspring notices. It’s not exactly quality time but the recording quality is excellent.

The bit that I don’t get are the nursery rhymes. Everything else is so, well contemporary, and we’re singing ditties that go back to the 14th century? Most of them of questionable taste: throwing people down the stairs for not saying their prayers? Cutting off tails? Marching soldiers up and down hills for no good reason?

I wondered whether this kind of thing was what I wanted my little cherub to know about. So I looked into it. Turns out, as you may know, that a lot of these rhymes were politically subversive. Often they were dangerous parodies of the ruling class. By making them look like they were for kids not only made them seem harmless, but made them easier to pass around and thereby spread.

It was then I realised that nursery rhymes were the social media of their day—a way to distribute information through peer networks with some protection from the powers that be. When one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 gave a sermon on Blackheath he started, simply, with a two line rhyme, asking whether any ruling class existed in the Garden of Eden: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This was easy to grasp and easy to pass on, and the movement grew.

Nursery rhymes as a  harbinger of the political power of Facebook and Twitter? As long as we keep learning the words to Goosey Goosey Gander I guess we’ll have to acknowledge their abiding power. Helped on, a little, by our iPads, iPhones and other digital rearing technologies. I stand corrected: Still going centuries on, nursery rhymes are about as viral a technology as you can get.

Sharing on Evernote

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Despite some competition, Evernote still owns the space where we save stuff we might need for ourselves. But is it up to the task of our increasingly collaborative world? I’ve gotten a bit confused about what can and can’t be synced and shared and with whom so I asked them. This is what I think I learned: (some corrections made after checking with Evernote)

Syncing between devices

  • If you’re a free user, anything you add on any device can be viewed (and edited) on any other device.
  • If you’re a premium user then you’ll be able to download and store offline all notes to your Android or iPhone.

Sharing notes

Notes can be emailed to other users.

As of today it’s possible to share a note with anyone via the web app (desktop apps soon) via the share button:

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which allows you to share via Facebook (and later Twitter etc) as well as via a link which can be pasted elsewhere. Others will not be able to edit this shared link, but any changes you make to the original note will update the shared page.

Sharing notebooks

(this is where I might be off the mark. Expect corrections)

  • Any notebook can be shared with any other user via any app.
  • One of you needs to be a premium user for others to be able to add to the notebook.
  • If you’re on the web app (just redesigned; very nice) and/or a Mac, any additions or edits any shared user makes will sync to the others’ devices. (Other platforms coming soon; the pre-release version of Windows includes this feature already.)
  • Any imported files or watched folders will also be synced between users if one of the users is premium.  (Free users are limited to to text, audio, images, and PDFs. If the contents of the shared notebook/watched folders are limited to those file types, then any user can share them. If the file types go beyond that, or if the sharer wants recipients to edit the content, then the individual that’s sharing the notebook must be Premium.)

Footnote

Three things I asked Evernote if they might work on:

  • Drag and drop doesn’t seem to work for copied text and images. Just copy some text from a page and drag it over into Evernote. It used to. Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • I feel Evernote has fallen behind on the ability to extract the relevant content from a web page and copy that, without all the extraneous stuff.  Readability and Thinkery.me do this very well (the latter, brilliantly; a Chrome plugin lets you merely right click a link for Thinkery to rush off and grab the salient text and save it.) Evernote answer: fair point. We’ll look into it.
  • Revive the timeband. I loved that thing. Evernote answer: any 3rd party developers interested in doing it?  

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.