Sep 062012

Twitter Political Index

The complex relationship between elections and social media continues its rapid evolvution during 2012 election. Where we once measured media interest in TV viewers, we increasingly look to data in social media to assess interest in a supporter or candidate’s performance. Of course not everyone uses Twitter and other social platforms, but the immediacy of the feedback makes them all but impossible to ignore.

Witness the current assessment of the speeches at the Republican and Democratic conventions.  If  Ann Romney speech generated a little over 6,000 tweets a minute, Mrs. Obama shot up to 28,000 tweets per minute during her speech yesterday evening in Charlotte. The well-received speech trounced Mitt Romney’s own performance at the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, which tallied some 14,000 tweets per minute last week.

Tweets per minute do not equal votes, but they do gauge the interest of a generally younger, high technology user demographic. And Twitter trending lines now tend to closely follow Gallup poll popularity ratings. No doubt, we’ll have a better understanding of this by the 2016 election, but it’s worth watching even now.

Bloomberg News notes how dramatically it has changed in just the past four years:

Four years ago, the term “social media” wasn’t widely used. On Election Day in 2008, there were 1.8 million tweets; now that many tweets are sent every six minutes, said Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter spokeswoman. In 2008, Facebook was popular mostly among college students. This year, there are more than 110,000 political Facebook pages in the U.S. and 11,000 pages for politicians, said Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy and communication for Facebook.

From a full election day to an equivalent number of tweets in six minutes today – with that rate of growth, picture the political environment in four years.

So, if you’re interested in elections and social media – or perhaps just one or the other – it’s worth following the new Twitter Political Index, or Twindex, put together by Twitter, the Topsy data analysis firm, and two polling outfits. Here’s the details offered by Adam Sharp, head of government, news and social innovation at Twitter:

We believe the Twitter political index reinforces the transitional models of research,” explained Mr. Sharp. “By providing more signals, more dials — that can agree or disagree — these new technologies give a more complete picture of crafting a political forecast.”

On a company blog post, Twitter said the Twindex was built in partnership with a data analysis team from Topsy, an online search and analytics company, and two polling firms, the Mellman Group and North Star Opinion Research.

Topsy sifts through Twitter messages and uses advanced semantic analysis software to determine if someone is in support of a candidate, or a detractor.

Mr. Sharp said the index had a database of thousand of words to understand if these Twitter messages were for or against a candidate. As these messages are being shared by millions of people on Twitter, the software also takes into account colloquialisms.

Mr. Sharp noted that “bad,” for instance, could mean bad, or it be slang for good. He said that Topsy could differentiate between these words in a sentence and if they are positive or negative. 

As I write this, President Clinton just peaked at 22, 087 tweets per minute. Not quite what the First Lady did but far above everyone else. As there’s no embed option, you’ll need to visit Twindex to see the data in action, but here’s a snapshot of the historical data:

Twindex Historical Data

Aug 202012
Apple and Twitter


With debate raging over the new Twitter API, here’s a provocative perspective from Forbes on what might be going on behind the scenes. To recap: Twitter moved last week to sharply limit API calls for an App without a specific agreement and narrowed the display guidelines for the Twitter timeline which will hamper developers. Now add in the fact that Apple is a control freak, has done poorly in the social networking arena, and the rumors flying a while back about Cupertino taking a significant stake in the popular social media platform. None of this is concrete evidence for a firm conclusion, but listen to the speculation by Anthony Wing Kosner in an article “The Anti-IPO: Is Apple Grooming Twitter for an All-Out Acquisition?“:

Twitter is now integrated in iOS and OS X Mountain Lion, and I would guess will be in the next version of the iTunes and App Stores and Apple TV, as well. But does Apple really want to do all of this with a company it doesn’t own? What if Twitter turned around and did to Apple what it is now doing to developers?

If my theory is correct, that won’t happen, because Twitter’s API policies have been seriously coached by Apple. Twitter has had API changes before, but nothing like this. The timing of Apple’s supposed negotiations with Twitter were just as Apple’s previous deal with Facebook was falling apart. Facebook wanted to go public and would not subsume its interestes to Apple’s.

So why would Twitter subsume its interests to Apple’s? To beat Facebook.

There’s a further reason, other than owning a social network, why Apple might be interested in Twitter. User experience. Twitter has done a great job of taking a simple product and, for the most part, keeping it simple. Even its sponsored tweets and the introduction of “cards” has not really bogged the system down yet or shifted the balance too far in the direction of marketing.

Apple, the user experience leaders, is actually in danger of losing the “it just works” simplicity that has been a big part of its appeal to consumers. So Apple can make Twitter bigger and Twitter can, perhaps, help Apple stay simple.

I wonder if it’s already a done deal. 

Hard to say, but with Apple’s known penchant for secrecy and Twitter surely being aware of the backlash that the new API policy would create, some sort of agreement is entirely plausible. We’ll know for sure in a couple of months and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Apple make the acquisition. One nice point about this (from Apple’s perspective): Twitter is not a publicly traded company so there’s no issue with an offer for stock that shareholders want to bid higher. It would all be done through a agreement with the current stakeholders. And if it’s worth roughly $10 billion or so at the moment, Apple could still buy the entire enterprise for a tenth of its current stash of cash and resources. More likely, Apple would just take a sizable stake in Twitter – enough to ensure that the integration was complete.

Aug 162012

Facebook is hitting the skids again and according to CNNMoney, its life as a public company has been a nightmare. As with most public IPOs, Facebook’s initial stock offering included a “lockup” agreement which requires early investors to hold their shares for a set period. That prevents the initial market from having shares dumped, driving down the price. But one of the lock-up periods ended Thursday and whether or not investors sell, it has made others skittish that they might. Some 271 million additional shares can now be sold, though many early stakeholders (for example, Microsoft) will probably hold their shares.

Facebook Stock Chart - Year-to-Date

Facebook Stock Chart – Year-to-Date (Fox Business News)

But this is only the first of many rounds Facebook will have to endure in this:

The big Facebook stock dump could come in mid-November. That’s when Facebook will convert the special form of restricted stock units, or RSUs, held by most of its staff into actual shares of its stock. 

Obviously, employees may have a much larger incentive to sell – prompted by a “let me take my investment while I can” attitude. All total, some 1.8 billion shares will be potentially released over the next nine months – today’s action boosted the available shares on the market by 60%, but it’s only 14% of what will become available in the future. Of course, the lower a stock goes, the more attractive it becomes – Netflix CEO Reed Hastings just bought a million shares of Facebook but he is a member of the board. I doubt many others will follow up on his move.

There’s enough talk on the Web that this means the “end” of the social network bubble. Everyone in the arena is trying to figure out ways to bring in revenue especially on mobile platforms and a few such as Zillio and LinkedIn have done well. While it may not be something like the bust back in 2000, investor expectations clearly got ahead of themselves. From the Huffington Post (July 27th):

With a few exceptions, the first wave of social media firms to trade on the public markets has delivered a disastrous performance that conjures memories of the dot-com bust of 2000.

“Farmville” publisher Zynga, which went public in December at a valuation of $7 billion, is trading around $3.15 a share, more than 68 percent off its $10 IPO price.

Daily deals site Groupon, touted as the firm that could reinvent local commerce, has fallen from its $20 IPO price to about $7.15 in nearly nine months. Music service Pandora Media has dropped from $16 at its June 2011 IPO to around $10 on Friday.

For now, let’s just leave it where Bloomberg News does: Facebook goes down as the worst large IPO on record. Zuckerberg, time to do some more of those serious all-night marathon coding sessions.

Aug 142012 and, the new social network under development with a very successful Kickstarter campaign has my support (and money). I agree with Dalton Caldwell’s criticism of Twitter that it reached a fork in the road and opted for the Google model of commercial support. The end result is that the social network has become more commercially oriented instead of focusing on the needs of users. As Forbes noted, Twitter’s recent tightening of its API’s only confuses users, but developers are livid. I still love Twitter and use it on a daily basis, but the ads make it frustrating and it’s clearly not moving in the right direction.

So enter Caldwell with a proposal for a user-funded social network without advertising and providing developers with easy access to its API’s. An admission fee of $50 will get you a social network without advertising and open to creative minds not thinking about how to monetize user activity. Does it become a walled garden? Perhaps. Can it succeed in an environment where people expect “free” services even though their personal data and activity is being used as the basis for corporate revenue? I’m not sure. But it’s worth the experiment and what one has to see as an important development in terms of social networking platforms. I’m happy to be part of it.

Here’s Caldwell’s take on what happened to Twitter at

I remember when you could go to and see the global firehose on the front page. They had no traffic. The global feed was mostly employees and their friends talking to each other.

When Twitter started to get traction, a year or two into their existence, I decided that Twitter was the Best Thing Ever. I realized that Twitter, because of their API, actually was a real-time protocol to connect various services in a novel way. I had debates with my other tech-nerd friends about whether Twitter could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the Internet via their powerful API. When reporters or investors asked me what I thought the most exciting company in the valley was, I would invariably answer “Twitter”.

As I understand, a hugely divisive internal debate occurred among Twitter employees around this time. One camp wanted to build the entire business around their realtime API. In this scenario, Twitter would have turned into something like a realtime cloud API company. The other camp looked at Google’s advertising model for inspiration, and decided that building their own version of AdWords would be the right way to go.

As you likely already know, the advertising group won that battle, and many of the open API people left the company. While I can understand why the latter camp wanted to build an ad-based business, the futurist in me thinks this was a tragic mistake. If you are building an advertising/media business, it would then follow that you need to own all of the screen real-estate that users see. The next logical step would be to kill all 3rd-party clients, and lock down the data in the global firehose in order to control the “content”.

Perhaps you think that Twitter today is a really cool and powerful company. Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have been much, much more. I believe an API-centric Twitter could have enabled an ecosystem far more powerful than what Facebook is today. Perhaps you think that the API-centric model would have never worked, and that if the ad guys wouldn’t have won, Twitter would not be alive today. Maybe. But is the service we think of as Twitter today really the Twitter from a few years ago living up to its full potential? Did all of the man-hours of brilliant engineers, product people and designers, and hundreds of millions of VC dollars really turn into, well, this?

Nowadays, every time I get a K-Mart ad in my feed, or see wonky behavior in the official clients, or see Twitter drop another bomb on their developer ecosystem, I think back and wish the pro-API guys won that internal battle. 

I’m not sure how open can be – after all, the Internet is built on standards, protocols which Internet servers must recognize. In some ways, will still need a central, coherent infrastructure, but perhaps it can do that on the model of WordPress. At the end of the day, it’s not just a Wikipedia page – and even the latter functions only with editors and standards – but a platform that links to other networks.

I’m hopeful . . . and eager to see where it goes.

Jul 312012
Facebook logo image


Facebook is already down significantly from its opening high, and it appears headed much lower. The past three days have seen declines (now down to $21.83 as of Tuesday afternoon) and with declining user growth and no forecast for the year (did they not get the idea that you need to make earning and growth projections as a publicly held company?), investors are spooked. Even worse, there is potential deluge of over 200 million shares being dumped on the market beginning August 16th when the lockup period on employee owned shares expires. If the IPO wasn’t bad enough, earning Facebook and permanent place in business textbooks, the post-IPO slide of Facebook stock makes it appear that the debacle is continuing.

Of course, many people at Facebook will still walk away with millions of dollars, but many investors will wish they had never heard of the stock. So much for ethics and a little common sense in the stock market. Here’s the bad news from Reuters:

Facebook Inc’s shares dived 6 percent to another record low on Tuesday, sliding for the third straight day since a lackluster quarterly report showed decelerating user growth.

Investors have punished the stock of the No. 1 social network and other consumer-focused Internet companies such as Zynga Inc, questioning their ability to sustain growth and maintain lofty valuations. Last week, Facebook reported results but offered no outlook or forecast for the year, spooking investors who sought reassurance about growth in 2012.

Wall Street is also bracing for a potential deluge of millions of shares after August 16, when a post-IPO lockup period on employee share sales expires.

Despite having shed 40 percent of its value since a May 18 IPO, Facebook still trades at about 47 times forward earnings, versus Google Inc’s 15 times.

On Tuesday, Bernstein Research analyst Carlos Kirjner upgraded Facebook to market perform, but estimated the lockup’s expiry could unleash up to 211 million shares.

He valued Facebook’s core display business at just $19 a share. But he said the company’s potential around its innovative social graph was worth a $4 premium. Bernstein set Facebook’s 12-month target price at $23.

Stock predictions are notoriously unreliable but I suspect that many investors would love to see a share price of $23. But if Facebook’s mobile initiatives do not pan out (advertising revenue is very much at stake here) and user growth continues to decline (this is the future of the company), $23 dollars a share may seem hopefully idealistic.

May 162012
Kali Ma beer advertisement

Kali Ma beer advertisement

Burnside Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon decided to offer a beer named “Kali-Ma” celebrating their “favorite childhood movie” Temple of Doom only to be stopped by the global reach of social networks. Hearing of the beer and the ads, a New York-based Indian, Shikha Sehgal, began an online campaign that quickly spread to India and communities of Hindus around the world.

From the Gothamist:

Now Burnside Brewing Company is getting some sensitivity training, thanks in no small part to one Shikha Sehgal, a New York-based Indian who started an online backlash against the beer, writing on her Facebook page, “My Indian friends here and I are never going to sip a single drop of that beer even if it’s available for free. How could they take our religion for granted?” News of their special Kali-ma beer soon spread all the way to the the Indian Parliament, where officials called for the US ambassador to explain the meaning of this, and one lawmaker asked, “Can they show the god of any other faith like this?” (Well, legally, yes.) 

As of now, release of the beer has been “postponed” (until they come up with a different name perhaps?) and Burnside Brewery has issued an apology.

While the Temple of Doom might be someone’s favorite movie (but, really? It’s not even the best one in the series), one might be well advised to ask how it was received outside of America before using it for product naming and an advertising campaign. Temple of Doom was generally well received in the global market . . . but not quite so well in India. And in all honesty, doing an advertisement that portrayed a deity with three severed heads just might create a bit of a backlash. I’m trying to imagine how well a beer from another country would be received here if it was named “Christian Crusader Beer” with an ad campaign featuring a cross and, well, it could still have the three severed heads.

It’s a textbook case of product development and social media – and how an increasingly connected world is forcing people to look beyond their own borders.

May 152012

Azerbaijan arrestCountries that see social media as a threat to their stability usually try to censor content or limit access, but the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan has tried a different approach. In the news recently as the upcoming host of the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the world’s most popular and widely followed non-sporting events, Azerbaijan has poured money into infrastructure projects to clean up its image. But this small country has made it very clear over the past few years that it has no love of the Internet and has taken a novel approach to keeping people off line.

According to Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce in Slate:

Over the past few years, the Azerbaijani government has waged an aggressive media campaign against the Internet. Social media has become synonymous with deviance, criminality, and treason. Television programs show ‘‘family tragedies’’ and ‘‘criminal incidents’’ after young people join Facebook and Twitter. In March 2011, the country’s chief psychiatrist proclaimed that social media users suffer mental disorders and cannot maintain relationships. In April 2012, the Interior Ministry linked Facebook use with trafficking of woman and sexual abuse of children. Since May 2011, the Azerbaijani parliament has been debating laws to curtail social media, citing the deleterious effect on society. Social media has become a vital political issue despite the fact that 78 percent of Azerbaijanis have never used the Internet, only 7 percent go online daily, and just 7 percent—almost all male, highly educated, and wealthy—use Facebook.

Is the campaign successful? Just compare Azerbaijan to its two neighboring countries Armenia and Georgia where the cost of technology and access is comparable. In the latter countries, 20% are online every day while in Azerbaijan, it’s only a paltry 7 percent. And with ongoing arrests of anyone who speaks out on the Internet, online discussions are not a means of empowerment but potential evidence for the state police.

Social media can be a powerful tool, but for the moment, Azerbaijan has proven that given a certain set of circumstances, users can be controlled. If you want more details on the situation there, Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce provide a more scholarly account in a March 2012 article in the Journal of Communication, appropriately titled: “Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbaijan.” As they see it, networked authoritarianism is the third stage of censorship, creating an illusion of transparency while undermining political dissent.

The first generation is characterized by widespread filtering and other attempts at direct censorship. These were rarely exclusively practiced in the former Soviet Republics (today’s Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] countries). Second-generation controls involving the manipulation of law to regulate Internet content are used in the CIS countries. Specific tactics include redefining what is acceptable content within the national media space, and most notably for our purposes, ‘‘expanded use of defamation, slander, and ‘veracity’ laws, to deter bloggers and independent media from posting material critical of the government or specific government officials, however benignly (including humor)’’ (Deibert & Rohozinski, 2010, p. 25). Third-generation controls do not attempt to control Internet access, but to compete with it ‘‘through effective counter information campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents’’ (Deibert & Rohozinski, 2010, p. 27). 

Worth reading if you have a strong interest in social media and its relationship to political freedom.

Clockwise from top left: Azerbaijan Eurovision entrant Sabina Babayeva; Baku skyline; journalist Idrak Abbasov in hospital; police detain an opposition activist at a demonstration; Abbasov on the ground shortly after being assaulted; military parade in Baku last year; a park in central Baku; Engelbert Humperdinck; Ell and Nikki (centre), Azerbaijan's Eurovision winning entry from last year

Clockwise from top left: Azerbaijan Eurovision entrant Sabina Babayeva; Baku skyline; journalist Idrak Abbasov in hospital; police detain an opposition activist at a demonstration; Abbasov on the ground shortly after being assaulted; military parade in Baku last year; a park in central Baku; Engelbert Humperdinck; Ell and Nikki (centre), Azerbaijan's Eurovision winning entry from last year Image from the Daily Mail

May 062012
Sheriff B. J. Roberts of Hampton - Reorganizing or Political Retaliation

Sheriff B. J. Roberts of Hampton - Just Reorganizing or Political Retaliation?

Once again, technology faces off against our conceptions of free speech as a Federal Judge ruled that the “Like” button on Facebook is not protected speech covered by the First Amendment. The New York Times has the details of the case which will no doubt lead to an appeal:

Exactly what a “like” means — if anything — played a part in a case in Virginia involving six people who say Sheriff B. J. Roberts of Hampton fired them for supporting an opponent in his 2009 re-election bid, which he won. The workers sued, saying their First Amendment rights were violated.

Sheriff Roberts said some of the workers were let go because he wanted to replace them with sworn deputies while others were dismissed because of poor performance or his belief that their actions “hindered the harmony and efficiency of the office.”

One of those workers, Daniel Ray Carter, had “liked” the Facebook page of Sheriff Roberts’s opponent, Jim Adams.

While public employees are allowed to speak as citizens on matters of public concern, Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Federal District Court ruled that clicking the “like” button did not amount to expressive speech. In other words, it was not the same as actually writing out a message and posting it on the site. 

Facebook "Like" ButtonSpeech on Facebook and other social networking sites has come up before, but the court cases always involved actual words (such as posting a message on a site). This case focuses on clicking the “Like” button so it enters uncharted territory. Physically doing a thumbs-up gesture has been seen by the courts as protected speech, and given that the “Like” button seems to fall somewhere between that and a form of writing online, you would think the ruling would have gone the other. Otherwise, we’ll get into a strange dichotomy where actual words are covered but anything symbolic online (text message emoticons) are not.

We’ll see how a higher court rules.

Mar 032012
KLM Interior

KLM Interior

A new KLM Royal Dutch Airlines feature will allow customers to choose seat assignments based on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. According to MediaPost, this is only available on a few routes at present, but they plan on expanding the option throughout their service area. Customers can see profiles of potential seatmates, select someone with similar interests (or perhaps someone they don’t think will talk to them), and an email will go to the other passenger with a link to the selector’s profile.

Interesting concept, though I doubt everyone will jump on it – it’s one thing to have a follower online that you’ve never met; quite another to have to sit next to them for six hours on a transcontinental flight. But no doubt there will be some takers.

It will be interesting to see just how popular this becomes, or if it is applied to other travel modes. Trains may seem a more likely option since there’s more space and in many cases the option to politely end a conversation through a trip to the cafe car.

Feb 122012

Path AppSome software we have to pay to use, but many apps and services these days are free. But free, especially in the social networking arena can come at a price.

Take the App, Path, for example. As Read Write Web notes, it does everything you’d want a free social App to do. There’s just one little problem, it also grabs the contents of the address book from your phone.

Path didn’t say what it was doing with your data; but it would be nice to know in advance. It would be even better if we knew this without having to wait for a hacker to accidently discover it by watching Path’s API calls. Hey, I’m often happy to give up some of my data – I know there’s always a catch when something is free – but at least, let me know you’re mining it. Otherwise, I feel a little like a strip mine.

From Read Write Web:

Path is a lovely app. It pushes all the right buttons. It’s mobile, it’s tactile, it’s personal, it’s full of people we love and moments that matter to us. It makes us feel good. It’s got all the greatest hits a post-Facebook social app should have. It’s also free.

Facebook will always be free,” it tells us, so free is now the standard. Free apps are expensive, though; we pay with our data. Whenever Facebook or Google messes with our privacy, this is the cost of doing business for free. Path is no different. It’s already using our personal data in ways we didn’t expect. Arun Thampi discovered today that it uploads the entire iPhone address book to its servers. Surprised? Don’t be. . . . 

Why didn’t we know about this until an enterprising hacker stumbled over it by accident? Is this a sign of how Path will treat user data in the future? What do Path’s adoring users do now? Well, they should get used to it. This is the price of free. 

To the credit of Path’s CEO, Dave Morin, here was his prompt response to Arun Thampi:

We upload the address book to our servers in order to help the user find and connect to their friends and family on Path quickly and efficiently as well as to notify them when friends and family join Path. Nothing more. 

That’s cool. But it’s still an issue when you wait for someone to point it out. Give me the option to opt in – or at least let me know just what you’re going to do before I take the App. Otherwise, free just may be a price that’s higher than I’m willing to pay.


Aug 172011

The recent story about a flash mob in Maryland robbing a store may spur a reassessment of the role of social networks in society. The quick summary is that a group of kids came into a 7-11 in Germantown, MD after organizing on the Internet and robbed the store in about a minute, and then left at the same time. The details are still sketchy and there would need to be evidence that social networking platforms were used. But it’s possible and it appears they have been used for criminal gatherings in Philadelphia.

Of course, technology is neutral and just as telephones are used for illegal actions, so will every platform on the Web. But if this becomes widespread, the early optimism over the positive aspects of social networks may become a tough sell in the face of a fearful public. I’m not drawing any conclusions here but watch this trend carefully and the way it plays out on the mainstream media. And remember, crime is never about the actual statistics, but about the public perception of criminal activity. Here’s the video of what the LA Times referred to as a “mellow but still criminal” event:


Aug 152011
Old Blackberry-messenger-contest

Indeed, do tell: old Blackberry-messenger-contest ad (2010)

Psychology Today has a short article on social networks and their role in the London riots. If you’re following this issue, you know that critics are saying social networks are partly responsible for the unrest (and calling for regulations on their use) while others argue that they did not fuel the riots. Rutledge casts the debate in a way that perhaps it should be framed, the dynamics of crowd psychology:

Crowd psychology or group mentality doesn’t mean that we should overlook culpability for either the destructive behavior of the individuals or the inherent issues and systems in society that underlie social unrest – both in the ability to provide opportunities and deliver structure.  Social media may have accelerated the pace of information travel, bringing groups together faster, but it did not put bricks and fire bombs into the hands of the looters.  Social media did not create the anger or sense of powerlessness against authorities.  It did not create the heightened emotions of the group, crowd leaders, the adrenalin that comes from a sense of danger and risk, the lack of empathy for others, or the sense of no consequences.  Emotion may be contagious, but social media is not.

She argues that social networks change our sense of agency, our view of our actions in the world, and broadens our view of what others are doing (or might do). But if words on a mobile screen can bring people into the streets, it is the dynamics of crowd psychology (contagious, converging, no empathy for others) that emboldens people to act. You’re not going to vandalize a store because you read a tweet; you’re much more likely to if the crowd immediately around you is doing it.

What is scary here is the number of people (though not a majority in the polls I’ve read) in favor of letting authorities control our social media platforms. If Rutledge argues that this is due in large part to a reaction of fear (so that we willingly surrender our rights), it’s equally due to our collective discomfort over the unknown. Allow me a quick illustration.

No doubt some of the riot participants made phone calls (even using land-lines) about what was going on in the streets, but no one has proposed temporarily shutting down the phone system when an outbreak of civil unrest takes place. I suspect such a proposal would bring strong opposition – and that’s simply because we are comfortable with a phone-based network, thinking that we understand its power and limitations (even if, truthfully, we don’t). But digital networks are different, throwing us onto shifting ground where new technologies mediate our relationships. None of us know where all this leads to, and for some, that’s reason enough to close the door on the future.

Aug 102011

A number of reports of 4 – 5 flash mobs in the city of Philadelphia this year, the latest one leading the Mayor to lecture parents and implement more restrictive curfews for youths. The gatherings seem impromptu, utilize social networks to bring kids together in some area of the City, and then violence and minor looting follow. If this spreads, it will cast social networks in a vastly different light then the Arab Spring has done.

Best account for the moment is in the LA Times; no links to videos as they keep getting removed, but you can find them if you’re curious.

Jul 092011
Syrian Sniper Shooting at Cameraman

While it’s clear that social media can include very powerful organizing tools that bring people together in opposition to an oppressive regime (witness the Arab Spring), they can also undermine that very effort when a government is equally effective in using the tools to anticipate meetings, demonstrations, or simple visits to an area/country. Sometimes these counter-efforts by those in power are crude and brutally direct – the charge on the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook page that snipers have been ordered to shoot protesters holding cell phones to prevent video from getting outside the government imposed media blockade.  One might assume that direct approaches usually reflect a government that doesn’t fully understand social networks and goes after the hardware (and those carrying it) instead of the networks themselves.

So Israel just demonstrated the more subtle, yet very effective way of undermining activists using social networks – infiltration, information gathering and acting to cut off the opposition. The Welcome to Palestine campaign got a rude awakening when their efforts to bring pro-Palestinian activists into the Israel was met with boarding denials at foreign airports or detention on arrival for those who managed to get on a Tel-Aviv bound plane.  The “Flytilla” was meant to mark the seventh anniversary of the International Criminal Court’s advisory opinion on the illegality of the fence in the security zone and involved 100′s of activists. But while they were planning so was Israel and they’re gathering of a list of 300 plus names allowed them to target the protesters both within and outside its borders.

Not that the Welcome to Palestine campaign was trying particularly hard to hide their planned action. But even if they were, social networks are by their very nature open and trusting, and identities on the Web are easily fabricated. So while they bring people together, for a savvy government, they can provide easy access to the opposition’s plans.

May 282011

article by Chris Murphy in Information Week details some of the initiatives underway that may transform peoples relationships with their cars. It may not be that far in the future that

  • Your car monitors your blood sugar level and notifies family members if it is out of a preset range
  • You turn to a smartphone app and talk to other owners before you get in touch with a mechanic
  • your car come with an app that helps you find public transit options

These are just three of the examples cited by Murphy as Ford, Toyota, and BMW respectively begin funding projects designed to leverage social networking opportunities in customer relations. Of course, people may not want this kind of interaction – with their cars or with fellow owners – but the companies are feeling the winds of change with the rapid adoption of mobile devices, apps, and social networking platforms.

For Murphy the key will be how open these platforms are in terms of application development (if everything is done in-house, it may result in lackluster features). But he misses a more fundamental challenge: open platforms give users more control and that can quickly backfire. The now classic case is the 2006 Chevy Tahoe ads where viewers could drag and drop images and add text to create new Tahoe commercials. But instead of glowing tributes, Chevy found itself bombarded by warnings on global warming and visions of driver arrogance. Openness comes with a price, particularly if you have something you would rather not see publicized. A few of the better Tahoe ads as a reminder:

May 262011

Little news coming out of Spain regarding the M-15 protests in Puerta del Sol except that some are staying through the coming week and they have volunteered to clean up the graffiti and posters on the local shops. After last Sunday’s election results (the ruling Socialist party suffered heavy loses), the protest appears to have retrenched a bit; traffic lanes have reopened and many of the tents are gone. Online viewers of the live feed of the square (not working this evening) declined from 4,000 – 6,000 viewers to something more like 200 – 400.

few have called the M-15 protests in Puerta del Sol the Tahrir Square of Europe. It isn’t.While social networks can be incredibly effective in organizing people, the underlying dynamic in Spain only loosely parallels the events in the Middle East. One fundamental difference – protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere are risking their lives. That undoubtedly keeps some people behind their doors and off the streets. But if you do protest in a police state, at some point there is no turning back and you will eventually be hunted down. Once you cross that line, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by continuing the protests. The starkest example of this is the current situation in Syria where the death toll is extremely high (estimated more than 800 now) but the protests continue.  Despite parallels in the use of technology and understandable feelings of kinship among the protesters, the psychological distance between the two is nearly as great as the 3,509 km (2,181 miles) that constitutes the physical distance.

My vote for the most creative protest sign from last week (“These are Our Weapons”):

Spanish Protest Madrid

Protest Sign in Puerta del Sol - from Spiegel Online

May 212011

Protests in Spain (the main site has been Puerta del Sol in Madrid but it has spread to 50 other cities) continue amidst negotiations with the police and legal maneuvers. Spanish law prohibits protests the day before an election, but the movement – named the May 15th Movement after the date it began – has held out in defiance. Largely fueled by social media outlets, particularly Twitter and Facebook, participants seem to have taken inspiration from the Egyptian demonstrations that toppled the Mubarak government. Unemployment in Spain right now is running over 21% but is closer to 42% for the 15-24 age group. Since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” protests in Tunisia with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, I’ve been wondering if something like this could spread to Western Europe.

May 202011

A fascinating infographic in TechCrunch illustrating the “Geosocial” universe from JESS3 (a creative agency specializing in data visualizations).

The Geosocial Universe from JESS3
Worth checking out the article for the statistics on use of mobile devices (5.3 billion mobile phones or 77% of the world’s population). Skype and Facebook are the major planets, but Hotmail and Yahoo! have hardly imploded. Qzone will be the least familiar to those in Europe, Middle East and North/South America as it is the major Chinese social networking site. What the graphic doesn’t show are the trend-lines, though you can make some comparisons for yourself from the 2009 version here.