September 8, 2009

Trapped girls update Facebook instead of calling cops

Posted: 10:16 AM ET

The role of online social networks in disaster situations is being called into question after two girls in Australia got lost in a storm drain and, instead of calling the police or their parents, posted a message on Facebook.

Things worked out OK for the girls, ages 10 and 12, since a friend saw the post, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But authorities are worried about the girls' preferred means of emergency communication. They should have called 000, Australia's version of 911, a fire official told the news service:

Glenn Benham from the [Metropolitan Fire Service in Adelaide, Australia] says it was fortunate a young friend was online at the time and was able to call for help for them.

"It is a worry for us because it causes a delay on us being able to rescue the girls," he said.

"If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000, so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway."

The incident, which was reported Monday, is weirdly timed with a new U.S. awareness campaign on the use of social networks in emergency situations. The Safe America Foundation, an Atlanta-based non-profit, reportedly is working with the U.S. government to promote alternative means of communication - Facebook, Twitter, text messages - for use in disasters and emergencies where other lines of communication might be cut.

As Mashable points out, this isn't the first time someone has used a social network to call for help. In May, an Atlanta city councilman was worried his mobile phone battery might die and posted to Twitter instead of calling the cops about a woman he found in distress. Mashable says he posted this message: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson st. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet”.

There also was a U.S. student arrested in Egypt last year who summoned help via Twitter. And, according to VentureBeat and the Industry Standard, there's been talk of an emergency broadcast service using that micro-blogging platform.

What do you think? Are social networks useful tools during an emergency?

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Filed under: Facebook • social-networking sites • Twitter

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August 26, 2009

Twitter parody site requires 1,400 characters

Posted: 10:10 AM ET

Do you need more than 140 characters to express yourself? Are tweets too short to describe that delicious Qdoba burrito you had for lunch? Did the wrap-it-up music cut you off while you were accepting your Oscar?

You may want to consider Woofer. This macro-blogging site offers a Twitter-like interface without any pesky character limits. In fact, your Woof must have at least 1,400 characters before it can be posted.

If you think the 1,400-character minimum is a bit excessive, you are probably right. Woofer admits it is a parody site and not a Twitter competitor:

This is a website for parody purposes only. Twitter neither endorses nor is affiliated with this website or company in any way.

We are huge fans of Twitter, and think it's an amazing concept.

Woofer pulls information from Twitter but does not require a password, so most posts, so far, are celebrity impersonations. Other users are posting copied text to reach the 1,400 mark.

Woofer may not serve any purpose at the moment, but I probably would have felt the same way about Twitter back in 2006. Does this anti-Twitter have a future? Or will this parody be gone tomorrow?

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Filed under: Internet • Twitter

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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 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 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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August 21, 2009

Would you pay to Twitter?

Posted: 03:36 PM ET

One question has been nagging at Twitter for years: How to make money?

A piece of the answer to that question was revealed this week as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told VentureBeat that Twitter plans to start charging for a premium service.

“Twitter will still be free for everybody and we’ll still tell them to go crazy with it,” Stone told the blog. “But we’ve identified a selection of things that businesses say are helping to make them more profit.”

As of now, the popular micro-blogging site doesn't charge for its service. It also doesn't run ads.

Some of the services the company reportedly will charge for:

  • Site analytics, which tell businesses about how people are using their Twitter feeds
  • A "commercial layer" for the social network to be rolled out this year, VB says
  • Certified accounts, so you can know for sure a person or company is who they say they are

There aren't many details about the services available. The interview comes on the heels of the release of a Twitter 101 business guide. And it's another indication Twitter is catering to the business crowd (read: people with money).

But what do you all think? Would you pay for extra Twitter services? Do you use Twitter for business? Feel free to discuss in the comments below.

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August 18, 2009

Can college sports ban social media?

Posted: 02:54 PM ET

Any baseball fan is familiar with MLB's frequent reminders not to rebroadcast a game without "the express written consent of Major League Baseball." But did you ever consider that your Facebook, Twitter or blog posts could be targeted by overzealous media regulations?

Can the SEC prohibit fans from sharing pictures similar to this iPhone shot of a Braves game I posted to my Facebook profile? Should they even bother trying?

According to current policy, Southeastern Conference (SEC) fans cannot "produce or disseminate (or aid in producing or disseminating) any material or information about the event, including, but not limited to, any account, description, picture, video, audio, reproduction or other information."

Adam Ostrow, of, translates that to mean "no Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TwitPic, or any other service that could in any way compete with authorized media coverage of the event."

The SEC media-credential policy also states that violations may result in "ejection from the Event and prosecution for criminal trespass."

Conference spokesman Charles Bloom told the Charlotte Observer there are plans to loosen the restrictions, but the current policy forbids tweeting from the stands.

While speaking with CNN, Attorney Evan Brown questioned the legality of the SEC policy. Brown equates a ban on social media in state-sponsored schools to a violation of the First Amendment and a form of prior restraint.

Media-coverage rights to sporting events have always been expensive and, consequently, heavily policed (this year the U.S. Open banned all cameras and phones) but can social media possibly be restrained?

Could social media ever compete with authorized media coverage in a way that would threaten profits and rationalize SEC's media policy?

Bloggers Adam Ostrow, Evan Brown and Steve Raquel discussed the SEC policy today on Live (Watch Video).


This afternoon the SEC released a revised version of its media policy (pdf). The revision provides exemptions for noncommercial updates and personal messages.

The new policy reads:

No Bearer may produce or disseminate in any form a “real-time” description or transmission of the Event (i) for commercial or business use, or (ii) in any manner that constitutes, or is intended to provide or is promoted or marketed as, a substitute for radio, television or video coverage of such Event. Personal messages and updates of scores or other brief descriptions of the competition throughout the Event are acceptable.

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Filed under: Facebook • Flickr • Internet • iPhone • online news • schools • Twitter

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August 17, 2009

Study: 40 percent of Twitter is babble

Posted: 09:21 AM ET

These findings may disturb some of you hard-core social networkers: A market research firm says 40 percent of tweets are "pointless babble."

Pear Analytics analyzed random tweets over a two-week period and used that data to funnel the posts into six categories. More on the process:

So we took 2,000 tweets from the public timeline (in English and in the US) over a 2-week period from 11:00a to 5:00p (CST) and captured tweets in half-hour increments. Then we categorized them into 6 buckets:

News, Spam, Self-Promotion, Pointless Babble, Conversational and Pass-Along Value.

"Conversational" tweets came in second place and made up nearly 38 percent of the posts analyzed. Researchers say they went into the project thinking that Twitter was mostly used for self-promotion.

The firm concludes that, because of all of the babble, people who still want to use Twitter need some way to filter out irrelevant information. It seems like it's easier to me just to follow people who you trust and who you find interesting.  More from the report:

With the new face of Twitter, it will be interesting to see if they take a heavier role in news, or continue to be a source for people to share their current activities that have little to do with everyone else.  We will be conducting this same study every quarter to identify other trends in usage.

Since Twitter is still loaded with lots of babbling that not many of have time for, you should check out the Twitter filter, Philtro.  These guys can not only help you filter the noise, but will also be allowing you to store the tweets you are most interested in real soon.

Here's another report on the state of Twitter, visualized by Gizmodo. The blog has a nice chart of what Twitter would look like if there were only 100 Twitter users in the world (The blog got its data from an upcoming book, "Visualized, the Information Atlas," by David McCandless). Half are classified as "lazy," meaning they haven't posted in the last week. Only 5 percent of users have more than 100 followers, according to the analysis.

What do you all think? Is Twitter overrun with babble? I've sensed a lot of why-is-CNN-so-obsessed-with-Twitter? heat in the comments lately, so I'd love to know what you all think about this!

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August 14, 2009

Microsoft backs IE 6, and other Friday news

Posted: 11:28 AM ET

Here's a round up of a few tech stories you should know about before heading into the weekend.

Microsoft: A group of Web developers is out to kill Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 Web browser. But, according to the BBC, the software giant is standing behind the product - in part because it has to keep the browser going for corporate customers:

"Friends do not let friends use IE6," Amy Barzdukas, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer, told the network.

"If you are in my social set and I have been to your house for dinner, you are not using IE6," she said. "But it is much more complicated when you move into a business setting."

"It's hard to be cavalier in this economy and say 'oh it's been around for so long they need to upgrade,'" Ms. Barzdukas told journalists in San Francisco.

RockMelt: Tech blogs are abuzz this morning with news of a new browser called RockMelt, which has the support of Netscape founder Marc Andreessen. That gives it a hefty bit of street cred in the tech community. Andreessen tells the New York Times that browsers are somewhat behind the times:

“There are all kinds of things that you would do differently if you are building a browser from scratch,” Mr. Andreessen said.

RockMelt is rumored to work with Facebook, which is something the blog Mashable finds particularly interesting.

eBooks: Sony has announced that its e-readers soon will accept books published in an open format called ePub. GigaOm heralds the move as good for consumers. It stands in contrast to Amazon's apparent desire to keep its e-books on its Kindle reader,although there are worries Sony's format won't be completely open. More from GigaOm:

Amazon’s e-book ambitions go beyond simply selling a lot of Kindle devices. Taking a page from Apple’s iTunes playbook, its goal is to establish Kindle as the dominant e-book publishing and distribution platform. And as Apple has amply demonstrated, when you control the platform, you control the value chain, which means you reap a disproportionate share of the value that’s exchanged.

Twitter: Time to give that left index finger a rest. If you're sick of typing "RT" in front of all those tweets you republish on your feed, then you'll like this news from Twitter's blog: The micro-blogging site is adding a "re-tweet" feature. Expect it to launch in a few weeks.

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Filed under: books • browsers • Microsoft Corp. • Twitter

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August 7, 2009

The Twitter attacks could be our fault

Posted: 02:46 PM ET

One lesson worth taking away from Thursday's social media shut-down is the fact that all of us can be complicit in cyber-attacks if we don't protect our computers.

The attack that shut down or caused glitches in several social media sites was aimed at a particular person. But whomever conducted the attacks used other peoples' computers to do so. These are ordinary people like you and me - and I'll bet many of them don't know they were part of the problem.

Twitter and Facebook say they were hit by a "denial of service" attack, which means a hacker or group of hackers infected a bunch of computers, got control of them, and then used them to overwhelm the sites.

It's hard for big sites like Twitter and Facebook to protect themselves from a denial of service attack.

But there are things you can do to make sure your computer doesn't turn into a hacker's pawn. Here are a few government links with helpful information:

Strengthen your password: Use different passwords for all of the sites you use (you can manage them with this service), and make them complicated so they're hard to crack.

Use anti-virus software: And be sure to keep it up to date.

Reduce spam: Before giving out your e-mail address online, look at the site's privacy policy.

I've gotten a bunch of questions lately about the security of user information on Twitter and Facebook. Both sites have e-mailed me statements saying that users' information was not compromised as part of Thursday's attacks.

But to protect yourself on social networks in general, here's another government site with some background and tips. The gist: don't give out information you wouldn't want everyone to see; and, again, use strong passwords.

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Filed under: Facebook • Twitter

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August 6, 2009

Statement from Twitter on denial of service attack

Posted: 11:09 AM ET

Here's a more detailed update on the Twitter outage. Thanks for those of you who are commenting on the situation. Please keep it up.

Sent to by Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder:

"There's no indication that this attack is related to any previous activities. We are currently the target of a denial of service attack. Attacks such as this are malicious efforts orchestrated to disrupt and make unavailable services such as online banks, credit card payment gateways, and in this case, Twitter for intended customers or users. We are defending against this attack now and will continue to update our status blog as we defend and later investigate."

By "previous activities," Stone is referring to the hacker that stole some of Twitter's internal documents, including financial forecasts, and published them online. The incident caused a stir, as the blog TechCrunch decided to run with the story. More on that situation from here. And more updates on the current Twitter outage are on the way.

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Twitter is down: What do you think?

Posted: 10:29 AM ET

Twitter's Web site is down, and, based on my feed, has been since about 9:30 a.m. ET.

This is causing a bit of freak-out online, but I'm wondering what you make of the situation.

When online social media services like Twitter and Facebook cut out for 30 minutes or an hour, does that disrupt your social life? Does it affect your business?

Do you think the Twitter-is-down hysteria is legitimate, or are people just looking for something to say online? If the panic is warranted, I wonder what that says about our hyper-connected society and our reliance on technology that helps us feel like we're part of the world.

As an aside: Does anyone else miss the Twitter fail whale? The iconic cartoon whale tried to put a positive, we're-in-this-together spin on the rapidly growing site's failures. This morning you won't get the fail whale image if the site doesn't load, though. I get a standard error message. (See this story for more on fail whale fans)

We'll keep monitoring the situation to see when Twitter comes back, and how much chatter this is getting in the blogosphere. In the meantime, please help us out by sharing your thoughts with comments to this post.

Here are a few ways to keep up with the situation yourself: Check the site for a one-word answer. Currently: yes.

Twitter status: Documents Twitter mishaps and problems.

Twitter's blog: Seems to be down now, but Twitter's staff posts here about updates and site issues.

UPDATE: 10:54 a.m. ET: Twitter says it is defending against a denial of service attack. More from the site's blog.

UPDATE 10:41 a.m. ET: In an e-mail to, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said the company is looking into the site failures and will update its status blog with any new information. He did not elaborate on potential causes of the outage.

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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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