The Trojan That Never Was

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How not to handle a PR debacle, Part 767:

Avast, the free antivirus I’ve been using, and recommending, for while, has lost my confidence by a double whammy: mis-identifying pretty much every executable on my computer as a Trojan, and then not telling me about it.

Apparently an update to the software will misidentify a lot of files as containing the Trojan Win32:Delf-MZG, suggesting you do a boot scan to clear out infections. Do so, and you’ll likely find that Avast will be deleting a lot of major program files, including those in the Windows directory.

This is bad, because these are what are called false positives—i.e. not infected. An update to the Avast virus database created the error—and has, apparently, since been corrected with a further update. But not before hundreds, maybe thousands, of users, did what I did: boot scan and religiously delete
“infected” files.

You won’t, at the moment, know any of this from Avast.

Their blog hasn’t been updated since November 30. There’s nothing on their home page to suggest there’s a problem: the website lists the latest update and doesn’t indicate there’s been a problem.

But do a Google or twitter search and you get a sense of the frustration:

Twitter is throwing up a tweet every couple of minutes:

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Yahoo! Answers is exhibiting similar frustrations. Even Avast’s own forums are lively with confusion.

The point here is that everyone makes mistakes. But Avast don’t seem to have helped their users to avoid panic by not only correcting the problem but in trying to ensure that their users find out about it easily and quickly.

This is not excusable in this era of the real time web. Twitter is the obvious choice, but there’s no sign of Avast on its official twitter feed since November 30. (see screenshot above.) Avast should be using all channels to reach its users.

Antirvirus is just an extreme example—it’s an industry that is used to updating its product on the fly. But security is also about informing its users—and Avast, sadly, is not much different from most companies that think they can brush over glitches and pretend they never happened.

A mea culpa is in order, and a promise that this isn’t going to happen. Crying wolf on viral infections is not a good security procedure.

How to Abuse Social Media and Lose Friends

I’m sure they’re not the first to do this, but I really hate it: referral marketing.

SingTel, Singapore’s main phone operator, is encouraging Singaporeans to spam their friends via email, twitter, Facebook and SMS.

The sad thing is they’ll have to do this a lot to get anywhere. You get 1 point for every tweet post a day, and 1 point for every post on Facebook a day. If you get a friend to sign up for the program you get 10 points.

Get in the top five and you get to win a Macbook or an iPhone.

Given the top guy already has 742 referrals, I’m pretty sure that means someone is going to have to send out 7,420 tweets to get close. (The rules aren’t clear on this.)

As you can see, however, it’s appallingly popular. Ten in the past minute:

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Ugh. Any of my Facebook or twitter friends do it and they’re off my Christmas card list. 

And companies that don’t understand social media, who think it’s just another spamming channel, need to get a wake-up call. That’s you, Singtel.

Win an iPhone with SingTel Youth Buddies

Xoopit, Or Channels vs Trenches

I’ve been a fan of Xoopit so I guess I am a bit surprised that Yahoo! has bought it. Xoopit, for me, was the future of email. Or a part of it.

(For those of you who haven’t used it, or those who didn’t “get” it, Xoopit is a plugin for Gmail—for others, too, but Gmail is the best working one—which extends Gmail’s functionlity: better search for attachments, dovetailing with Facebook so you can see who you’re talking to on Gmail etc.)

Xoopit, for me, was/is a way to push email beyond being one channel of communication to being part of a single channel of communication. In other words, I believe it will make no sense to future generations that we have different applications for communicating with people.

Right now we have SMS, phone, email, Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter, face time, and then within those we may have several accounts, depending on whether we’re at work etc etc… This does not make sense.

Some of us would argue that it makes sense if we want to keep our work friends in LinkedIn, and our family friends on Facebook. Yes, but those shouldn’t have to be product choices, surely?

We didn’t use separate postal services to communicate with different kinds of people we knew, or different phones for different kinds of friends? (Well, OK, we may have kept a work phone and a personal phone, but I don’t see many people doing that these days.)

What we are really looking for is a way to organize our increasingly complex social, work and family lives into a coherent web that allows us to control how we communicate with them—not dictated by service, device, product, but by our preferences.

For example, I want to communicate with friend A via SMS because that suits me (and her). I should be able to send that SMS through pretty much any device I want—phone, voice, computer (email, twitter, Facebook etc), TV, pigeon, whatever. It shouldn’t matter to me.

Similarly, the method and format that Friend A receives the message in should be her choice. It shouldn’t be an issue that I sent it as an SMS. She should be able to receive however, and wherever she wishes—guided by whatever factor is important to her (priority—’let everything from Jeremy through’—or cost—‘don’t send me anything by SMS because I’m on roaming, but data is free’ or device—“I’m only carrying my no-data cellphone so route all important communications thro via SMS”.)

Right now this is only a dream, for the most part. Why? Because we’re still stuck in a world of platforms, packages and a lack of understanding of why and how people communicate.

We don’t love twitter because it’s twitter. We love it because it opens all sorts of new doors for sharing information and experiences. And because it’s an open platform, which means we can control how we send and receive.

But we’re still some way off.

Some way off a world where I decide who I communicate with and how I communicate with them, instead of being nudged into one or another walled garden. I may want to talk to Friend A about their holiday on Facebook, but about the new project we’re working on via Gmail. I should be able to do that however I want, and from the same place, and she should be able to decide how she receives and reponds to those emails.

Right now we’re stuck in these trenches dug for us by the creators of the services.

A truly open system will be one where we control these channels.

Xoopit was just a small step, but it had potential. Being able to see whether someone I was talking to on email had a Facebook account—and, if they did, being able to see their profile picture—was great for me, as I communicate often with people I’ve not met, and who often have first names that aren’t always gender specific. Always good to know.

Imagine if that service extended to LinkedIn, twitter and others. Gmail would become a console that would enable me to manage and extend my networks more efficiently than occasional trawling through the network services pages themselves.

And finding attachments? Sounds trivial but it made finding stuff easy, and turned Gmail into an online repository of files I could—relatively—easily share and pass on to others.

Small shifts, but in the right direction.

The chatter on TechCrunch is that Google didn’t buy because it’s launching Wave.

Maybe true, but great though Wave sounds it doesn’t, I think, move us in the direction of open channels. Instead, it sounds a lot like Google wasn’t interested in Xoopit because it was taking Gmail in the wrong direction—into the world of open channels—when Wave is designed to keep us in the trenches.

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 End of the Reply All Button

I did a piece for the BBC World Service on the Reply All button the other day (MP3 to follow). I’m not saying there’s a causal link, but now Nielsen have issued a memo: 

We have noticed that the “Reply to All” functionality results in unnecessary inbox clutter. Beginning Thursday we will eliminate this function, allowing you to reply only to the sender. Responders who want to copy all can do so by selecting the names or using a distribution list.

Apparently they’re not the first to do this: Standard Chartered have done it some time back, according to comments on Techcrunch.

There’s a lot of people who don’t like this; they think it’s a dumb move. I’d tend to agree, but for maybe different reasons. Why not try to understand why the Reply All button is there, and try to find another way for staff to disseminate information?

All I can imagine from this is the time wasted as employees add email addresses one by one for fear they leave someone out of a message. There’s got to be a better way. Wikis, blogs, RSS, twitter, Yammer, anyone?

Dunder Mifflin Alert! Nielsen to Disable Employees’ ‘Reply to All’ E-mail Functionality – Dylan Stableford – Blogs B2B @ FolioMag.com

The Big Chill Hits Google

So is Google, like, the new Yahoo?

Google is closing some of its services, or at least no longer supporting them. Which for me is a tad sad, since I’ve always loved prodding around inside the Googleplex, convinced that one day all these disparate services would come together in the same way Google Docs, Calendar and Gmail have. I thought Chrome would be the centerpiece of all this. Now, maybe not.

But no. Jaiku is now open source, meaning it’s not going to become Google’s competitor to twitter or anything like that. For me Jaiku had tons of potential because it seemed to understand that many of us work from our cellphone as much as our laptop. Anyway, it’s not going to happen.

Google Notebook is also on the deathlist. Another shame: While I never used it as much as I should have done, I have been busy divining a catch-all answer to everything, and the Notebook app, and its Firefox extension, was a key part of it. Google has said it’s no longer supporting it, but existing users will be able to continue to add and access their material.

The other thing they’re dumping is Google Video. It always took a back seat to Youtube, but for me that was a good thing. No inane comments, and no restrictions on file size. The result was a mostly classy collection of videos. Gone.

So what should we use instead?  Well much of what you do in Google Notebooks could as easily be done in Evernote, while others recommend Zoho Notebook. Jaiku? Well, Facebook and twitter, and I guess FriendFeed, have already moved into the space that Jaiku looked so likely to dominate, once upon a time.

I feel sorry for the guys who started Jaiku. They were an impressive and fun bunch, when you could understand them. I hope they walked away with a decent stash.

The Aviators of Social Media

What’s more astonishing: Twitter’s extraordinary capabilities for distributing information, or news managers’ reluctance to recognize its power?

When describing a digital media phenomenon to old media staff it’s useful to look for an old media analogy. I describe Twitter, as being like an old AP news printer, sitting in the corner of the newsroom, spitting out news all day long. Except it’s written by the people you choose to follow.

And there’s more. Unlike the news printer which only delivered you information, if you want to you can follow stories back to your sources and see who they were talking to about whatever it is that interests you.

But even after my analogies, my bubbling enthusiasm for Twitter, and my “see, I can see what people who do my job are saying all over the country,” I’m still often met with those “whatever makes you happy” smiles.

Which leads me to another analogy. Perhaps the Twitterati, and other news people experimenting with digital media tools are a little like the early aviators.

In the years before the First World War there were very few of them. They were flying planes, building new planes, talking about planes and constantly trying new ideas. I’ve no doubt they were totally obsessed with flight. Are two engines better than one? Will monoplanes fly faster than biplanes? How about using metal for the wings?

But for everyone else, planes probably seemed fun, but dangerous and of no real interest to them. How would planes ever impact their lives? Besides everyone else had better things to do on carts and trains. And those crazy aviators; well, good luck to them.

Times have changed. No one thinks twice about flying today. No one thinks about whether the plane will have enough fuel or what makes it stay up. Flying is just a part of life, in spite of the fact that the general idea of a flying machine has really changed very little in a hundred years. It still has two wings, a body and a tail. It’s just more refined and developed.

One day soon we’ll be in Twitter’s age of commercial flight. Everyone will take micro-blogging for granted, and wonder what life must have been like buying newspapers for news, or looking at one of those old televisions. “Remember those,” we’ll say, with a smile.

The Revolution That Keeps, Well, Revolving

It’s interesting to watch how quickly our Web 2.0 tools are changing, changing us, changing the way we communicate, and being changed by us. And how each step feels like a revolution, and yet, usually, isn’t.

The latest thing is Twitter 2.0, as I would call it. Nothing has actually changed in the software, but the way people are using it has. What was originally a presence and status tool has become a communication, networking, information delivery and spamming tool. And it’s creating its own unique problems–which probably aren’t that unique, if you stand back from them–and now, its own rules.

Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, is the first I’ve noticed who is trying to wrestle with the new realities.

He starts out:

I’m a passionate about Twitter.  I spend more time in on it than in any other social media venue.  Twitter has been good to me.  It is the source of leads for my text and video blogs, not to mention several very nice consulting and speaking offers.

This has created what Shel calls “the most up close and personal of social media”. Shel uses Twitter as a place to communicate with fellow twitterers and meet new people within a “small neighborhood, one where it’s safe to speak out, where strangers are scrutinized by locals this all happens at a certain easygoing pace.”

But then he goes on to talk about the “new wave of adopters coming in”. I suspect we’ve all noticed this: legions of “followers” who add your twitter feed (“tweets”) to their list. The worry is that now the conversation Shel was having with his small neighborhood is being listened to by a legion of outsiders who may or may not be anonymous.

Twitter, it should be pointed out, allows various options: You can be private, or you can allow anyone to follow your tweets, or you can vet who follows you. If someone follows you, it kind of behoves you to check out their tweets, if not to actually follow them, then at least to get a sense about whether the person following you is the sort of person you want to have following you.

Shel has come up with what he calls his “Twitter Follow Policy:”

  • If I do not know who you are, or what you look like, or where you are coming from I will not follow you.
  • With very few exceptions, I will not follow brands, candidates, causes or company names. I wish to talk with humans, not brand icons, neither surveys nor bots. If you are a real person & you are passionate about your work, then I embrace you. If you are a Direct Marketer using Twitter to push you brand into my forehead, I will block you.
  • Even if you are a real person, I may not follow you. I need to see that you are talking either about topics or people I care about.
  • If you disagree with me, do it under your own name and I will respect you. If you personally insult me, I will block you. If you are consistently unpleasant or just boring, I will unfollow or block you.
  • With extremely rare exception, I will not follow anonymous Tweeters.

Wise stuff. But as some of the commenters on his blog post point out, people use Twitter for different reasons. Not everyone follows Shel (or to a much more modest extent, me) because they want a conversation with me. I don’t follow others for the conversation, necessarily. Many people don’t want to be followed, just like many people read blogs but don’t necessarily blog.

The problem here is that Twitter is a great tool that has already broken out of the constraints of its creators’ imagination. But now it’s created uses that may conflict with each other and create fresh problems, such as those experienced by Shel who see the informal networks with fuzzy but distinct ‘village limits’ undermined by outsiders who don’t know the ‘rules.’

I applaud the new lease of life that Twitter has been given with this new kind of usage. In some ways it is a striking counterbalance to what I believe is the failure of Facebook to evolve beyond the huge surge of a few months back; I’ve noticed that usage in my little world have fallen off quite dramatically since the beginning of the year. Facebook will eventually become a sort of ‘profile cemetry’ unless these users are convinced it represents more than a novelty ‘old friend discovery’ tool.

Twitter has stepped into the gap left here by the declining appeal, and lack of direct communication that presence tools offer (Jaiku et al) and the walled-garden, asynchronoous web page to web page/email world of Facebook. Twitter, via delivery mechanisms like Google Talk, have colonised a space that is “instant messaging with social characteristics.”

Shel’s approach is a smart one. Though I wonder how many of these kinds of policies we’ll have to come up with as the landscape continues to evolve.

Global Neighbourhoods: My Twitter Follow Policy

The Revolutionary Back Channel

A tech conference appears to have marked yet another shift in the use of social tools to wrest control and flatten the playing field.

Dan Fost of Fortune calls it Conference 2.0 but I prefer the term (which Dan also uses): The Unconference Movement. (I prefer it because anything with 2.0 in it implies money; calling it a movement makes it sound more like people doing things because they want to.)

Dan summarizes what is being billed as a pivotal moment: an ‘interview’ session where columnist Sarah Lacy faces a growing discontent of the audience for her interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. (You can see the interview here, and the comments are worth reading.)

Jeremiah Owyang pulls it altogether and tags it as a Groundswell, which happens to also be the name of a forthcoming book by his Forrester colleagues. A Groundswell, he says, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.”

Shel Israel sees it as “revolutionary in the same way that American colonists wrested power from the British; that Gandhi did it with homespun cloth and boycotting British-supplied salt and in the same manner that students attempted to do it in America of the 60s.”

Tools used: twitter, meebo.

What’s interesting here is this:

Twitter has changed, at least for some people, from a presence/status tool (“doing the ironing in my underwear”) to a communication tool (“@burlesque you were right to slap him. where’s the altavista party?”)

I must confess I haven’t caught up with this trend. When I complained to a geek friend that tweets were no longer entertaining and now more likely to feel like eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, he said that was the point. But it’s not eavesdropping: these conversations are public and, by definition, open to including others.

Indeed, that’s how, at SXSW, a lot of the parties and gatherings evolved: one tweet offering a party in an empty bar attracted 100 participants in minutes.

But we need to recognise this isn’t for everyone. Twitter tools work great for people who share the same interests, or inhabit the same area. And the difference with Facebook here is instructive: Status messages are just that, while postings on friends’ walls can be seen by other friends, which makes those messages social (while messages can’t).

Which is more social? Facebook is a walled garden of trusted friends; Twitter is an anarchic network that allows users to hunt down new friends based on what they’re talking about. In a way it’s more like music taste-sharing sites like Last.fm than Facebook: I join a service like that not because I only want to hang out with the people I know, but to meet people I’ll draw value from via a shared taste and interest.

So what else is worth noting from this ‘Groundswell’?

Is this revolutionary? For those of us who have nodded off in presentations and dull panel discussions that could, for all the lack of connection with the audience, be on another planet, this can only be a good thing. Allowing the audience to participate is clearly a must, and any interviewer or moderator in that format who denies that is wasting a key resource: the audience.

That was always true, but the audience is not passive anymore: They have the tools to discuss and organize among themselves, and, in the case of the Facebook session, to fight back. It can get ugly (at times the video felt more like a mob lynching than a ‘Groundswell’, but after 45 minutes of poor questions, maybe my patience might have snapped too.)

I am not sure this is a revolution on the par of Shel’s comparisons, but there are lots of things happening here. Destructive as it may appear on the video, this is actually an example of collaboration, however chaotic, and alliance-making, however brief, that is social media at its best. A group shared a technology that allowed them to communicate, and they collaborated. The mood of the room could be felt by those present. But the mood defined itself on the backchannel chat (“Am I the only one here who is finding the questions boring and irrelevant?”) and then expressed itself vocally–one individual, initially, but supported by the applause of others in the face of the interviewer’s defensiveness.

I’d love to think that audiences, with their collective knowledge, enthusiasm and, let’s face it, investment in being there, can turn the traditional format of dominant speaker/moderator and appreciative but docile mass on its head. If that’s a revolution then I’m up for it.