Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wikipedia to Create a Two-Tier Class System...

Long a bastion of the "wisdom of the crowds" ethos, Wikipedia has announced that it is reversing course. No longer will anyone be able to edit entries. Instead, all articles about people will have to be approved by "experienced" editors before they are published.

Imposing this new layer of editorial review changes the very nature of the website itself. There are dozens of other online encyclopedias and reference sites like Citizendium that all require similar editorial approval. What made Wikipedia unique was the fact that anyone could write entries. It was a democratized process where everyone had the same capabilities.

Now, with this announcement, Wikipedia is creating a two-tier class system. As the New York Times pointed out, "It will divide Wikipedia’s contributors into two classes — experienced, trusted editors, and everyone else — altering Wikipedia’s implicit notion that everyone has an equal right to edit entries".

Of course, the old system was flawed. Nobody knew if the authoritative entry they were reading was actually written by a 7th-grader, and goodness knows that enough high school and college students were citing Wikipedia in their research papers to drive their professors mad.

But that was also part of Wikipedia's charm.

Members of the WikiMedia Foundation are defending their decision by arguing that the site needs to become more "mature and dependable". Michael Snow has been quoted as saying that, "There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion — whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now."

It's quite obvious that the decision to add a layer of editorial review is designed to give the site more credibility. However, two points must be made: 1) It is going to be pretty easy to game the system and make oneself an "experienced" editor, thereby failing to eliminate the underlying problem of biased activists co-opting the site, and 2) still no teacher or professor in their right mind is going to allow Wikipedia to be used as an authoritative source, thus rendering the site not-credible anyway.

Indeed, this decision "crosses a psychological Rubicon". Its likely to have little practical impact on the content of Wikipedia's pages, yet there is a general sense of disappointment in cyberspace. The "open" ideology has suddenly shifted.

Why do we feel like something significant has been lost?
  

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Give us your traffic and we won’t ruin your wedding album...

The following is a post from a guest blogger profiling his experience launching a web startup, Creepyfaces.com.


Sitting in a cubicle for a few years, like millions of other "young professionals", will drive someone on a lonely journey along the daydreaming spectrum. I’ve had countless procrastinating daydreams of everything imaginable. Having superpowers, encounters with aliens, new recipes for potato salad, karate fights with random co-workers; I’ve had them all. The most common of these fantasies though, is the one which inevitably leads me to endless riches so I can trade my cubicle for endeavors where being miserable at my work is not the only way to pay my rent.

A few months ago, me and my semi-odd friends created a blog/website called Creepyfaces.com. While the primary and initial idea of this site was for fun and our own personal amusement, we’ve had enough feedback to think that we can actually make some money from this. The concept of the site is to post "people who ruin pictures". Seemingly everyone at some point has posed with a group of friends or family members, only to have their picture ruined by some weirdo in the background making a face like their genitals have been covered in gasoline and lit on fire. Since starting the blog just about 2 months ago, we’ve already obtained a regular audience ranging anywhere from 500 – 5,000 uniques a day. We’ve also been listed around the internet such as being on Askmen.com "Site of the Day", Thrillist.com, and various other blog mentions.

So now my restless mind and weirdly fun blog has escalated my fantasies to being the next Bill Gates or whoever that guy is who started Facebook. Now it’s time to make our millions of dollars. Ok, so how exactly do we do that? Ummm. Well, I believe that we are close, real close to completing this mystery. We are missing just one piece of the equation. Here’s what we have so far:

Step 1: Drive traffic to our site
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Being followed around by TMZ paparazzi all day because we’re so rich.

We assume that the first step is to drive traffic up until we are internet sensations. We’ve explored the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Stumble etc. We’ve also signed up for Google Adsense to start making some revenue off of our traffic. Unfortunately we’ve run into a couple of roadblocks on our way to fabulous celebrity and superstardom.

While the social networking sites are a good idea in theory, we don’t believe its helped us at all. Twitter seems to be the least effective, as we only have about 20 Followers. We’ve setup twitterfeed so each post is microblogged on Twitter, but that still doesn’t seem to help. Digg and Stumble and those sites also don’t seem to be very effective. Facebook has been the most successful as we have about 300 or so members on our Creepyface.com group, but that also doesn’t seem to be the answer to our needs. We’ve exchanged links with other blogs who have a similar audience as us, but it’s been hard to tell if that’s made a significant increase either. Google Adsense has been most disappointing out of the bunch though. We simply want to have relevant ads on our site so we can take home our sweet $10.00 paycheck each month. Oddly enough though, it seems that this marvelous Google algorithm can’t seem to find relevant advertisement with keywords on our page such as "Creepypants", "bologna fingers" or "a hairy belly that looks like an Everything Bagel". We are currently only showing public service ads with an eCPM of around $0.03 cents right now.

So where do we go from here? Well, my daydreaming fantasies will tell you that a bunch of naked Swedish supermodels will show up at my door, express there obsession with Creepyfaces.com, and offer me 100 million dollars for it. Then they will bake me magic cookies which will make me grow to 6”5 and I can play quarterback for the NY Jets, while twilighting as a crime fighting ninja at nights. Likely? Probably not. So please send us your creepiest pictures and make me rich.

Sincerely,
Dr. Creepshow
  

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Copyright vs. Copyleft...

Watching Hulu into the late hours of the night, I recently came across a documentary film by Brett Gaylor. "RiP! A Remix Manifesto" examines the issue of copyright reform in the Internet Age.

The film highlights some provocative cases such as the fate of DJs like Girl Talk who remix music and videos. One memorable narrative explores how Walt Disney actually created nearly all of his classic animated movies as derivative works - meaning they were based on pre-existing stories - and yet the Disney corporation has since prevented anybody from doing the same thing that Walt Disney did through claims of intellectual property.

Underscoring everything in the film is the central question, "Who owns our culture?". The debate is one between advocates of the "copyright" (seeking to protect entrenched business interests) versus those of the "copyleft" (who seek to protect the public domain and Fair Use).

While the film's bias towards the copyleft is pretty clear from the outset, it is nevertheless fascinating, and definitely recommended viewing for all members of the YouTube/Facebook/Napster generation.

  

Monday, August 24, 2009

Top Work-At-Home Tech Jobs (and other online tools for employment-seekers)...

We all know about the tough economic times and the nearly double-digit unemployment numbers. While some entrepreneurs have ventured into temporary income streams with recession blogs and other web startups, there are plenty of ways to use the internet to make money.

To be clear, this is definitely NOT one of those spam emails we all receive about making money from home to become a millionaire in two weeks. Rather, offered here are a few legitimate ideas for those seeking to make a little extra money from home.

First of all, here is an interesting (and current) list of the top ten real work-at-home jobs, according to Bankrate.com:

  1. Virtual Assistant
  2. Medical Transcriptionist
  3. Translator
  4. Web Developer/Designer
  5. Call Center Representative
  6. Tech Support Specialist
  7. Travel Agent
  8. Virtual Teacher
  9. Web Writer/Editor
  10. Franchise Owner


Particularly for those individuals with tech skills, there are plenty of opportunities out there.

So where can you find them?

It almost goes without saying that you should basically NEVER reply to unsolicited email offers for work-at-home jobs. Instead, check out a number of legitimate websites that have sprouted up in recent years. Examples include RatRaceRebellion.com, FlexJobs.com, and HomeWithTheKids.com. Many people, of course, turn to Craigslist as well, but so many of their job boards have been infiltrated by spammers recently that I would recommend only using Craigslist as a last resort.

The internet is a great tool for many things, and those job-seekers who use it most effectively will undoubtedly put themselves at a tremendous advantage.
  

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Rise of Digital Refugees...

When Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter all went down earlier this month, the apparent cause was Russian hacktivists who were targeting one mere individual.

His blogging name is Cyxymu and he is a professor within the nation of Georgia. He also happens to be a refugee from the Abkhazia region, a territory on the Black Sea disputed between Russia and Georgia. The New York Times recently interviewed him by telephone and reports that he teaches at Sukhumi State University.

Cyxymu represents a new type of political phenomenon... the digital refugee. As it becomes easier to attack stand-alone blogs and websites, and more sophisticated hacking tools are developed, many bloggers and their sites are targeted and forced to relocate or be silenced.

In this case, Cyxymu was targeted because his blog provided a place for refugees from Abkhazia to "exchange memories of their home" by sharing photos and day-by-day accounts of the 2008 conflict from his readers.

The cyberattacks came in two forms. First, the attackers pulled off what is known in hacking circles as a "joe job", sending out a wave of spam around the Web, making it look like Cyxymu was responsible for millions of spam emails and, as a result, getting blocked by junk filters and search algorithms. Second, a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack was launched, using a botnet to take down Cyxymu's Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as Cyxymu's main site itself.

Thankfully, in the end, Google collaborated with Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal and other affected sites to minimize the impact of the attacks - and they should all be given their due for ensuring that other digital refugees' blogs could stay up or at least easily migrate to other platforms.

As censorship techniques and online attacks become more pervasive, it's clear that fundamental Internet freedoms are at stake. In the case of CYXYMU, entire services were knocked offline in order for one user to be silenced. This goes to show how far suppressive groups will go in order to impede on free speech.


As digital refugees become more common in the years ahead, it's important that the Internet and blogosphere continue to provide a venue for their dissident voices to be heard.
  

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Obama Flickr Photo: Free Speech, Censorship, or Copyright Infringement?

Here's an interesting case of regulating internet content.

A 20-year-old college student named Firas Alkhateeb uploaded this photo to his Flickr account depicting President Obama in face paint designed to make him look like the Joker from the most recent Batman movie.

The photo is obviously politically charged, and, to some, racially derogatory as well. Alkhateeb defended the photo arguing that it is a parody of the iconic "HOPE" posters that became popular during last year's campaign. As this RWW article describes, "Regardless of which side you favor, one thing can be said about this photo: it definitely grabs your attention."

Well, Flickr decided to remove the photo. At first glance, one would assume Flickr's removal is a case of free speech vs. censorship, however what's interesting is that their official justification for doing so was copyright infringement. Basically, Flickr is arguing that because the photo uses Time Magazine's logo, it infringes on their copyright and thus can be removed as part of their Terms of Service agreement.

Political commentary and parody are both covered by the Fair Use doctrine of copyright law, therefore, the content of the photo ought to be considered acceptable on those terms. And as far as copyright is concerned, Time Magazine might not be thrilled to be associated with the image, but a legal claim of infringement would be hard to get credibility in court due to their logo's prominence in public view.

Regardless of what you think of the photo itself, which is certainly inflammatory and instigative at the very least, Flickr's decision to remove it doesn't seem justified based on either the free speech/censorship or copyright infringement arguments.

If they want to come across as not so intellectually dishonest, they'll need to come up with something better.
  

Friday, August 14, 2009

Take Back the Beep Campaign...

Two weeks ago, David Pogue of the New York Times launched the "Take Back the Beep" campaign. It is an effort to flood the four big wireless companies with complaints. "I want them to eliminate (or make optional) those time-wasting, redundant, airtime-eating, 15-second recorded instructions that you hear every time you leave a message for someone (or call to retrieve your own)."

Since then, he claims that over 28,000 blogs have written about the campaign, and that "thousands and thousands" of complaints have poured in.

Will this ultimately be a success? AT&T has apparently already capitulated, and T-Mobile is reportedly on the brink. Meanwhile, Sprint highlighted the fact that they already let users eliminate those instructions, even though it's not well-publicized.

But perhaps the best exchange comes from Pogue's dealings with Verizon...

Verizon's PR contact hasn't responded to my request for a progress report.

He's probably still irritated at me. When ABC News interviewed him about this campaign, he told them that customers can already turn off the instructions. Which isn't true. So that night on Twitter, I said that he was lying.

He called me to let me know that he wasn't lying--he was misquoted. What he said was that you can turn off *voicemail altogether* if you don't like the 15-second instructions.

Well, O.K., but... huh?

Isn't that like saying, "My son bites his nails, so let's chop off his hands"?


My money is definitely on Pogue affecting some change here. If only he, and others with similar editorial powers, would use their influence to bring about change that was slightly more meaningful.

Net Neutrality, anyone?


*** Here are the links for sending in your complaints:

*** Verizon - http://bit.ly/FJncH
*** AT&T - customerissues@attnews.us
*** T-Mobile - http://bit.ly/2rKy0u
  

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Storing Your Data Everywhere...

Upon finishing the draft of my doctoral dissertation, my wife echoed the same advice that everyone I seemingly ever met had shared with me the previous few months... "Don't forget to make a backup copy in case you lose it!".

Once upon a time, this statement made a lot of sense. These days, the problem students and researchers have isn't forgetting to make a backup copy of their work; it's trying to make sense out of all their myriad of backups.

For instance, throughout my dissertation process, I've stored my assorted files at various times on my PC's hard drive, my laptop's hard drive, three different thumb drives, Hotmail and Gmail (emailing the files to myself), my school's network, XDrive.com, and have printed out so many hard copies that they fill an entire filing cabinet in my bedroom.

In the Digital Age, it's impossible to lose anything! In 150 years, my great-great-grandkids will likely be able to do a Google search (or the equivalent) and still find a good amount of my files in the cloud. This is to say nothing of finding my Facebook photos, YouTube videos, or blog posts; which I'm sure will all be around until the end of civilization as we know it.

So please, RELAX everyone! Rest assured, I do indeed have plenty of backup copies, so much so that my biggest problem when leafing through them all is figuring out which one is the most recent, up-to-date version. These days, as you're all aware, our problem isn't data scarcity; it's data gluttony.
  

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Court Deals a Blow to File-Sharing Advocates...

Like the majority of internet users, Joel Tenenbaum, a graduate student at Boston University, downloaded and shared some music files on BitTorrent without paying for them. Like several thousand people, Tenenbaum received a "cease and desist" letter in the mail from the recording industry (RIAA) threatening a lawsuit for violating their copyrights.

Most individuals, upon being sued by the RIAA for hundreds of thousands of dollars, rush to make a settlement with them before going to court - usually in the range of about $4000. However, Tenenbaum was different. Standing up for file-sharers everywhere, he decided to fight and let the case go all the way to court, and was represented by an all-star lineup of Harvard professors and famous Internet intellectuals. The reason... he believed that the lawsuits were erroneous and that the RIAA's tactics, based on fear and intimidation, were legally questionable.

The court did not agree. Dealing a serious blow to file-sharing advocates, the court handed down a $675,000 judgment against Tenenbaum for downloading 30 songs.

But here's why, despite the RIAA wildly celebrating this verdict, the issue doesn't nearly end here. First, file-sharing has continued to rise exponentially since the lawsuits began in 2004, demonstrating that they are merely symbolic actions that don't have any real effect. The RIAA's real intention, however, may be perceived to have been achieved if you consider their main purpose to have always been establishing legal norms, rather than actually curbing the amount of file-sharing that takes place.

Second, the Tenenbaum case was not exactly exemplary of the arguments that copyright reformists make. For starters, Tenenbaum outwardly admitted to downloading and sharing the songs simply because he wanted them. Yes, that is copyright infringement. However, what reformers argue is that the recording industry is trying to do away with the "Fair Use" principle - a legally recognized right of consumers to make copies of copyrighted works in small samples, for educational use, for journalistic reporting, for satire, etc. Tenenbaum admitted that he wasn't interested in any of this. Thus, until another better-suited case comes along, the Fair Use issue remains unresolved.

Third, the tactics of the RIAA continue to draw the ire of individuals and lawmakers alike. There have been public charges made about how the RIAA has lied to Congress about its approach. It has also tried intimidating universities and ISPs into submission via the threat of lawsuits backed by billion-dollar corporations.

But perhaps most notably, the RIAA's takedown notices themselves are based on completely unscientific measures, leading many to be falsely accused. The RIAA sends out these notices threatening lawsuits based on "only the I.P. addresses of participants on peer-to-peer networks, and not what files are actually downloaded or uploaded". As a result, many people who download material that is perfectly legal might get sued regardless. Furthermore, there are very common ways for individuals to manipulate I.P. addresses so that another user appears responsible for the file-sharing. Thus, even if you've never touched a file-sharing program in your life, nor downloaded a single song, the RIAA might still sue you.

And because the lawsuits they bring are for millions of dollars, with an explicit offer to settle for only a few thousand, most people, of course, choose to take the safer and less expensive route, even when they've been falsely accused and have done nothing wrong.

The Tenenbaum case is just the latest incremental step in resolving file-sharing as a legal and political issue, going back all the way to Napster. While file-sharing advocates have been dealt a blow, history has taught us that this is far from over. Copyright reform is still desperately needed, and until that happens it's only a matter of time until the next game-changing headline appears.
  

Friday, August 07, 2009

What We Did Without Twitter and Facebook...

Yesterday, two of the most popular internet behemoths - Twitter and Facebook - went down as the result of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. It's not uncommon by any means, and isn't overly malicious since personal information like credit card or social security numbers aren't being stolen, or anything along those lines. Rather, the websites are simply bombarded with page hits and the servers can't handle the upsurge in traffic.

As Wired describes, the DDoS attacks were "carried out using a zombie army of infected Windows computers known as a botnet, where the controller tells the infected computers what site to bombard with requests".

The only thing new about this was the popularity of the two targeted sites. While WhiteHouse.gov might experience these attacks pretty often, yesterday was the first encounter many ordinary people may have had with the frustration that a DDoS attack brings.

So what did we all do without Twitter and Facebook for the day? Here's a list in the Metro I came across while drinking my morning coffee...

  1. Awkwardly refused the friendship of an acquaintance in person.

  2. Thought outside the box and write a daring 145 characters.

  3. Called CNN's Rick Sanchez constantly to weigh in on health care and Sotomayor.

  4. Discovered a long, hard, and forgotten object in our pants. Turned out it was a pencil.

  5. Googled the term "narcissism".
  

Monday, August 03, 2009

The FCC Questions iPhones' Rejection of Google Voice...

Last week I received an email invitation to start using Google Voice - a new service where Google offers you 1) a personal phone number that rings all of your existing phones when people call, 2) all of your voicemail in one inbox with unlimited online storage and free voicemail transcripts sent to your phone and email, 3) low-priced international calling to over 200 countries and free SMS, and more.

This sounded at least potentially cool, so it was worth a try. The only problem was that almost immediately after Google Voice was released, Apple decided to reject it, banning its use on the iPhone and through its App Store.

The reason for rejecting Google Voice is that these "duplicate features" - meaning, the fact that Google Voice and other rejected apps like Skype allow the iPhone to be used as a (gasp!) cell phone without the user having to subscribe to AT&T - strike at the core of the exclusivity deal between Apple and AT&T.

Now the FCC is getting involved. As Wired reports, the feds are becoming increasingly interested in "mandating openness" for Apple’s iPhone store and similar stores run by Sprint, Verizon and even Google. In response to Google Voice's rejection, the FCC has sent out letters to Apple, AT&T, and others seeking to know more information about their practices in order to rule on their fairness to consumers.

What's really at issue here is whether those exclusivity contracts between handset manufacturers and wireless carriers, such as the one which exists between Apple and AT&T, are anti-competitive and harm consumers. Many consumer advocacy groups have called for the FCC to make wireless carriers obey the same rules that already apply to broadband providers - rules that force ISPs to let users run whatever applications they want.

It would be pretty hard to justify why the same rules shouldn't apply to both landline and wireless service providers. People ought to have the choice of what cell phone they want to buy, and also have a choice between competing service providers. The current system where consumers are perpetually "locked-in" to multi-year contracts every time they want to choose to purchase a different phone is an awful, anti-competitive practice.

Let consumers have choices, and let competitive markets run their course. The FCC ought to ban exclusivity contracts, as they exist in their current form, and untether the handset manufacturing industry from the wireless service carriers.