SciTechBlog
August 24, 2009

Gnomedex puts the human face on tech

Posted: 01:53 PM ET

Warm and fuzzy.  That’s how I felt after attending Gnomedex in Seattle for the first time. Those are words you generally wouldn’t associate with a tech conference.  In case you’ve never heard of Gnomedex, it’s an annual gathering  for self-proclaimed geeks, like myself, organized by tech enthusiast Chris Pirillo.

Full disclosure here – I came to know Pirillo when I started working with him on his quirky video segments for CNN.com Live.  We stream them each Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This year’s theme at Gnomedex 9.0 was human circuitry – the intersection of humanity and technology.  Pirillo sought speakers who would share personal experiences that would inspire others.

I was uplifted by the fact that this year’s conference attracted the most number of female attendees for any Gnomedex.  Why?  “Stories,” Pirillo told me, as we were listening to Amber Case, a cyber anthropologist, share strangely alluring tales about human beings and prosthetic culture.  “Putting the word ‘human’ in there was like, ‘Oh, so it’s not a geek’s conference as much as it is about people,’ ” said Pirillo.

Emotional talks from Drew Olanoff and Mark Horvath also elevated the ‘H’ factor at Gnomedex.  Olanoff, recently diagnosed with cancer, started a campaign on Twitter inviting others to blame everything in their lives on his cancer – by using the hashtag #blamedrewscancer.

Olanoff became emotional on stage while describing the radical shift his life took since he was diagnosed in May.  His story touched the audience – as evidenced by the prolific updates on FriendFeed and Twitter.  One person there tweeted, “I #blamedrewscancer for all the tears in the audience. #Gnomedex”  Olanoff wrapped up his session by embracing two attendees who had also been diagnosed with cancer.

Horvath, another inspiring speaker at Gnomedex, uses his vlog Invisiblepeople.tv to raise awareness about the plight of homeless people.  Once homeless himself, Horvath is currently touring 25 cities to put a face on the problem by bringing real stories to life.

Horvath’s words had immediate impact.  The word ‘homeless’ briefly trended on Twitter during his session, and someone in the audience passed around a hat, raising $1800 for a tent city in Seattle called Nickelsville.

Pirillo told me he thought he wouldn’t be able to top Scott Maxwell’s standing ovation from last year’s Gnomedex.  Maxwell’s job is pretty much the envy of all geeks: he drives the Mars Rover.  This year, the audience stood up twice – once for Olanoff and once for Horvath.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume the audience at Gnomedex was more interested in surfing the Web than in the conversation unfolding on stage.

“This is a conference where a lot of people have their laptops open,” said Pirillo.  “We can always tell which speaker has lesser impact when the bandwidth spikes,” he chuckled.

But the online activity is also a sign of a deeper engagement – a real-time feedback loop between speaker and audience.  During sessions, Pirillo monitors his Twitter stream #gnomedex to gauge what’s resonating with the audience and what isn’t.

“That’s where you learn when you’re doing good content or bad content.  If they’re talking about what’s happening you’re OK,” said Pirillo.

Pirillo made me promise to mention Mona Nomura, whom he credits for pulling 98% of the conference together in a mere two months.

“I’m not a female, and I’m not taking away from birth but every year, it’s like giving birth,” said Pirillo about the challenges of putting on Gnomedex each year.

“Now we have nine beautiful children.  Some are a little more beautiful than others, some are a little ugly,” he laughed.  What about this one, I asked.  His reply: “This one was very beautiful.  There’s a couple of pockmarks, but I find perfection in imperfections."

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Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites • technology • Twitter


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July 29, 2009

Woman sued over 'malicious' tweet

Posted: 09:38 AM ET

A 127-character tweet about a moldy apartment in Chicago could end up costing @abonnen $50,000.

On May 12th Amanda Bonnen, who has since deleted her Twitter account, responded to a friend with the tweet, "@JessB123You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

@abonnen only had about 20 followers that directly received the message, but her profile was set to public, and Chicago-based Horizon Group Management discovered the tweet.

Chicago Now reports the company then filed a defamation lawsuit alleging Bonnen, "maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory Tweet on Twitter, thereby allowing the Tweet to be distributed throughout the world."

Horizon is seeking $50,000 in damages.

If @abonnen's statement is determined to be false and tweets are considered a legitimate form of publishing, she could be held liable for damages to Horizon's reputation. But it isn't quite that simple.

Ars Technica explains some of the complexities:

There is much debate as to whether people's Twitter streams are more like blogs—which are increasingly being held to the same legal standards as regular media when it comes to defamation—or a giant chat room, where most people presume "anything goes." It may actually be somewhere in between, but the one problem with trying to hold tweets to a higher journalistic standard is the hard character limitation—it's difficult to back up your comments within 140 characters (or even within several 140-character tweets), plus links to sources or pictures of evidence.

Horizon owner Jeffrey Michael told the Chicago Sun-Times the company never tried to contact @abonnen about the tweet adding, "We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization."

Michael later said his remark was meant to be "tongue-in-cheek," and further explained his company's position:

No mold was ever found but her unit was one of several that experienced an overnight leak during roof repairs...

On June 24th, much to our surprise given her previous silence, Bonnen sued Horizon Realty Group, and we are currently defending this claim which, again, we believe has no merit. In conducting our due diligence into this matter, we identified Bonnen's public Tweet regarding mold and acted to protect our reputation.

Unfortunately for Horizon, the media attention surrounding this Twitter lawsuit will likely damage the company's reputation far beyond the scope of @abonnen's message to her 20 followers.

Do you feel tweets should be held to the same legal standards as other publications regarding defamatory remarks, or does the conversational nature of social networks release them from libel?

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Filed under: Internet • online news • social-networking sites • Twitter


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June 19, 2009

Want a job? Hand over your Facebook password

Posted: 06:11 PM ET

How would you like to apply for a job and have your prospective employer ask for the usernames and passwords for all your social-networking accounts?

That's what's happened to applicants for jobs with the city of Bozeman, Montana, who were surprised to discover they needed more than a work history and references.

"Please list any and all, current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube.com, MySpace, etc.," reads a background-check waiver form that applicants had to sign. (There's no mention of Twitter.) The form then contains three lines where applicants are to list their logins and passwords.

The request raised questions about privacy rights in Montana, whose constitution states: "The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest."

Is discovering a job applicant's cheeky status updates or stupid YouTube videos a "compelling interest" for the city of Bozeman?

Chuck Winn, Bozeman's assistant city manager, thinks so.

"Before we offer people employment in a public trust position, we have a responsibility to do a thorough background check," Winn told CNET on Thursday. "Shame on us if there was information out there available about a person who applied for a job who was a child molester or had some sort of information out there on the Internet that kind of showed those propensities and we didn't look for it, we didn't ask, and we hired that person," Winn said. "In many ways we would have let the public down."

Hmm. Maybe I'm out of touch here, but do people really list their pedophiliac tendencies on Facebook?

According to CNET, Bozeman city offices have been flooded with angry calls and e-mails since this news broke earlier this week. In an unscientific online poll by a Montana TV station, 98 percent of respondents opposed the city's request on privacy grounds.

The furor led city officials to reconsider. After a closed-door meeting Friday, Bozeman officials suspended the practice, according to several Montana media outlets - who first announced the news on Twitter.

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Filed under: social-networking sites


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June 11, 2009

Social media around the world: MySpace out, QQ in?

Posted: 09:33 AM ET

I love this map of social media around the world, posted at ReadWriteWeb this week.

The most interesting tidbit is the fact that QQ - not Facebook or MySpace or Twitter - is the largest online social network in the world. The site has 300 million users and is the biggest network in China.

Also of note: the site says Facebook officially has "colonized Europe," and MySpace has "lost its leadership everywhere (except Guam)." You can find some more background on MySpace's slip from the top of the social-media world with this CNN.com story.

The BBC has some good info on China's requirement that all computers have a screening software. I wonder what impact this will have on online discourse.

Check out some of the sites from around the world and let me know what you think. Any interesting ideas we should adopt in the U.S.?

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Filed under: Facebook • MySpace • social-networking sites


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June 10, 2009

Do you suffer from 'Internet fatigue?'

Posted: 11:55 AM ET

Pretty much every time I write a post about Twitter or Facebook, a good chunk of you lash out in the comments with some healthy criticism. You say there's too much information out there. Or that online social networks are ruining our society. Or you say the constrant stream of online blather is getting on your nerves.

Well, Luddites of the world, this post is for you.

I chatted recently with a researcher from the Pew Internet and American Life Project about people who suffer from 'Internet fatigue.' John Horrigan says there's a whole segment of the Internet-savvy population that lives online but kind of resents how connected they've become.

Take Horrigan's quiz to find out what kind of tech user you are. And check out the full Pew report.

In the podcast below, Horrigan and I talk about how he sometimes wishes his cell phone would stop ringing. And he offers some tips for keeping your online connections at a comfortable level.

I took the quiz and came out as a "digital collaborator," which basically is a person who get some creative satisfaction from making and sharing things online. True enough, since I do work at a Web site, and enjoy sharing photos and building sites in my free time.

I do realize the irony of writing about tech fatigue by ADDING more information to the Internet. Hopefully you'll cut me some slack and let me know what you think in the comments. What kind of tech user are you?

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Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites • technology


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June 9, 2009

Is MySpace uncool?

Posted: 09:42 AM ET

Hey, blog readers. Check out today's CNN.com story on MySpace, in which a bunch of tech writers say it's unlikely the big social network will be able to make a comeback. Its popularity has flatlined, and, if you think about it, Web sites almost never make a comeback once their coolness starts to wane.

But what do you think? Is this it for MySpace? What do you like and dislike about the site?

There's always a chance MySpace could prove its skeptics wrong. Or it could bounce back as something a bit different. Take Friendster for example. The early online social network was hugely popular in the U.S. and then seemed to disappear. Now it's one of the hottest Web sites in Southeast Asia, with its execs working from Australia, not San Francisco.

And one last bit of fuel for the conversation: Check out what seems to be the MySpace page of the site's new chief executive, Owen Van Natta. What do you think?

For even more background, see Van Natta at a recent Wall Street Journal tech conference here. Or, chat about MySpace at CNN's iReport.com.

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Filed under: MySpace • social-networking sites


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May 22, 2009

Are Facebook photos forever? The site responds

Posted: 09:45 AM ET

Here's an update to yesterday's post about photos on social networks and blogs living online after you delete them. [For background: Cambridge did a study that found photos don't go away 30 days after you delete them from several sites, including Facebook, MySpace, hi5 and Bebo.]

I got a response from Facebook last night. Here it is, as e-mailed to CNN:

As stated in the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, the governing document for the site, “when you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).“  We are working with our content delivery network (CDN) partner to significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist.

What about the report (the CDN issue)?

It is possible that someone who previously had access to a photo and saved the direct URL from our content delivery network partner (this is different from the Facebook URL) could still access that photo.  We are working with our content delivery network (CDN) partner to significantly reduce the amount of time that these backup copies persist.

Thanks to those of you who responded to the post with comments. Several of you expressed concerns that photos might live online after you'd like them to be gone. Others said this is common sense by now: everyone should know not to post something on the Internet unless they would like it to live forever.

Here are a few of my favorite responses:

A user named "El Common Sense" wrote: "People don’t think about what they post online and one of these days, it will come up and bite them in the butt. I’m amazed at just how much personal info is shared and then people are afraid of ID theft, terrorists and whatever else?"

Nigel wrote that he'd noticed this problem on Facebook: "I was surprised to hear someone report seeing a posted photograph on Facebook a week or more after I had deleted it."

Jon raised another issue: What if someone else posts a photo of you?

Then there is the problem of OTHER people posting pictures of you online. There’s little you can do about those aside from removing the tag on Facebook or telling the poster to cease and desist. Easy blackmail, anyone?

On that point, here's a post from New York Times that explains how you can keep people from being able to search for photos of you on Facebook. The writer says you can't prevent people from tagging you in photos, though. Do you all think that feature should be added to the site?

[UPDATE at 3:18 p.m. ET: Smart point on untagging, from Noelle in the comments: "A note on the NY Times article. While Facebook does allow anyone to tag you in photos, you can remove the tag, and it can’t be re-tagged after you’ve removed it. Plus, all photos in which you’re tagged show up under your photos, so you can find them easily."]

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Filed under: Facebook • social-networking sites


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May 21, 2009

Study: Photos stay online after you delete them

Posted: 09:20 AM ET

The buzz online this morning is about a Cambridge University project that found photos posted to some social networks, blog and photo-sharing sites stick around after they're deleted by users.

Researchers tested several photo-sharing sites to see if photos still existed on the Internet 30 days after they were supposedly deleted by users. Seven of the 16 sites, including Facebook, failed the test. From a researcher's blog post:

Facebook alone hosts over 40 billion photos, over 200 per user, and receives over 25 million new photos each day. Hosting such a huge number of photos is an interesting engineering challenge. The dominant paradigm which has emerged is to host the main website from one server which handles user log-in and navigation, and host the images on separate special-purpose photo servers, usually on an external content-delivery network.

Sound confusing? Basically that means Facebook and other sites store photos in one place and their main Web page in another place. That makes it difficult to know where your photos actually live. And it apparently means there can be some major lag time between when you delete a photo and when it actually goes away.

The BBC says the problem comes from "shaky" business models for social networks:

What the Cambridge experiment has shown is that networks like Facebook and MySpace have decided that they just can't afford to give users as much privacy as they might like. And that means that entrusting your photos to the cloud can mean relinquishing control of the way you appear online.

A Facebook spokesman reportedly denies the study's findings: “When a user deletes a photograph from Facebook it is removed from our servers immediately."

The BBC repeats a familiar mantra: don't put anything up that you wouldn't want the world to see:

you're bonkers to put anything online that you don't want a future employer, partner or aged relative to see – because, if the experiment is to be believed, that embarrasing shot of you in fancy dress at a stag night will remain online even after you've deleted it.

Check out the list of which sites passed and failed the test, and also follow the conversation on Twitter. It's happening under a search for "Are you sure those."

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Filed under: Facebook • Flickr • social-networking sites


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May 19, 2009

App lets online friends send martinis across the U.S.

Posted: 05:00 PM ET

As social networks continue to search for viable business models, "virtual currencies" are becoming more important.

See today's CNN story for more on the subject. On a slight tangent, I thought I'd toss out a link to a cool site I encountered during my research (If you can call looking for neat Web sites research).

It's called Give Real, and you can use the site's applications in social networks to buy real-world drinks for your friends - no matter if you're at a sports bar in Cleveland and your friend's at a techno club in California.

Functionally, it seems a little clunky. You select a drink, determine its price and write a note for your friend - like a proposed toast or something along those lines. Then you pay for it with a credit card and the drink goes to your friend's e-mail, where they must enter credit card information in order to get a credit that will let the friend redeem the drink wherever he or she would like.

Here's a how-to guide from the site for a bit more of an explanation.

And more from TechCrunch on that point:

Once your friends already have cards in the system the process is much easier, but I question if my friends would readily enter their credit card numbers to redeem their gifts in the first place (then again, people will go through a lot for a free drink).

Still, it seems like it could be a fun tool if, say, your friend is getting married or graduating from school and you can't be there. The idea is also interesting conceptually: many social network apps create currencies so you can buy virtual gifts (pixel T-shirts and the like), but this app lets you give your online friends something tangible. The drinks exist in the real world, not just as pictures online - which, if you're a drinker, is probably important.

What do you think? If you try the site, let me know how it goes in the comments section.

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Filed under: Internet • social-networking sites


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May 7, 2009

Can I borrow some bandwidth?

Posted: 10:43 AM ET

Online video is growing faster than a Chia Pet.

According to a recent Nielsen report, the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003, and time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.

Increased bandwidth, social networks, and sites such as Hulu and CNN.com Live that provide high quality web programming have all contributed to video's explosion onto the Internet. However, before you can say ch-ch-ch-Chia, some Internet Services Providers (ISPs) are threatening to spoil the party.

Time Warner Cable, Charter and Comcast have each tested data caps (or download limits) in certain markets. Fortunately, the caps, which have been called price-gouging by Ars Technica, met with resounding disapproval from consumers. Let's keep it that way.

Unlimited bandwidth is the driving force behind the internet's growth and development. If users begin to closely monitor their downloads to avoid data caps and overages, innovative sites that employ rich media and streaming video will be the first to suffer.

I don't get nostalgic when I recall the days of scrutinizing my AOL time limits, and I'm not looking forward to doing the same with my downloading.

Does your ISP limit your bandwidth? Do you believe the caps are necessary to maintain fairness by limiting excessive downloaders or are they strictly revenue generators for ISPs?

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Filed under: computers • file sharing • Hulu • Internet • online video • social-networking sites


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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