Saturday, August 23, 2008

Can Comments Be Considered Micro-Blogs?

On my walk from the subway this morning, I noticed this morning's Metro front-page headline, "Bloggers face calls for Palin Restraint". It begins with how Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin revealed that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is five months pregnant, "following a weekend of simmering allegations on the blogosphere that Palin’s nearly 5-month-old son with Down syndrome was really her grandchild".

The article cites how the liberal blog Daily Kos posted circumstantial evidence that V.P. candidate Sarah Palin has really faked her own pregnancy to hide that her daughter was pregnant.

The only problem is that, unless I'm reading a different article, the Daily Kos author makes no such allegations. The "circumstantial evidence" and conspiracy theorists are only to be found in the comments section of the blog.

Which raises an interesting question: Are the people who leave comments on websites actually micro-blogging? If not, how do we classify such commentary and differentiate it from "real" blog authors?

The Daily Kos is a self-proclaimed institution of the liberal blogosphere. This means that 1) there's no pretense of objectivity, and 2) it's going to naturally attract readers from one end of the political spectrum.

But to refer to comments left on a blog post as blogs in and of themselves seems wrought with danger. The Catch-22 is this... If comments are encouraged then any extremist nutjob can undermine the credibility of the entire space; or else, if comments are more intensely moderated, then cyberspace will become a far less interactive environment.

What all this really gets to is defining what a blog is, and how it's distinctive from a simple expression of thought. Of course, the irony is that that definition will only come about through the same type of commentary that it is meant to differentiate itself from.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Obama is Using the Web to Announce his V.P.

It's not exactly a secret, but it's also not getting enough attention. Usually, when a presidential candidate unveils their choice for vice-president, they do so in a joint press conference with throngs of reporters and television cameras. Barack Obama isn't going that route. He plans on making his announcement by... text message.

That's right. Obama is bypassing the media glitz and glamour of a professionally-orchestrated press event in favor of a basic text message to supporters. The question is why? And will it work?

His reason for doing so is simple. With neither candidate declaring their running mate this late into the campaign season, Obama is trying to leverage that edge-of-your-seat anticipation into people actually becoming personally involved in his campaign. You can be in-the-loop and find out the identity of his running mate just as fast as elite reporters - if you simply sign up on the Obama website. As this L.A. Times article describes:

This modern tech announcement gimmick, of course, also has the added benefit of presumably getting thousands of people to offer the campaign their e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers, a priceless, free recruiting and fund-raising tool.

When you sign up to receive the VP notification, you are offered another form to help recruit many friends and family to sign up too. NON-PARTISAN WARNING: You will soon also begin receiving regular pleas for money.

But it doesn't stop there. Besides text messages, the Obama campaign is also utilizing several Web 2.0 services that harness the power of social networks. You can additionally be notified of the V.P. pick by email, Facebook, Twitter, or numerous other web services - all of which require you to subscribe, in one way or another, to an Obama campaign feed.

Is this a smart strategy? Absolutely. As Obama clearly demonstrated in the primaries, online social networks can have a major impact in both fundraising and grassroots organizing. It will make his core supporters feel deeply involved in the campaign, and will help bring in independents as fringe supporters. Plus, you know that that media glitz and glamour of a professionally-orchestrated press event will inevitably happen a few hours later anyway.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

McCain Unveils his Technology Plan...

Months ago, Barack Obama posted on his website a detailed technology plan which he would support as president. Now, finally, John McCain has responded with a technology plan of his own. You can (and should) read them both. Obama's is here; McCain's here.

Since I've already analyzed the Obama white paper, let's turn our attention to McCain's just-released plan.

McCain is clearly focused on avoiding any regulation of the internet, lowering corporate taxes, and providing incentives for Research & Development (R&D). The most notable characteristic of his plan is that it reveals a worldview where private businesses are considered the primary engine of internet growth, while everyone else is viewed simply as "consumers".

And to that end, businesses would get quite a boon. He specifically calls for a permanent tax credit equal to 10 percent of wages spent on R&D, and first-year expensing of new equipment and technology for businesses. He also supports grants for educational instruction in digital and wireless technologies - which makes some academics I know very pleased, - and, going against some core elements of his Republican base, supports the hiring of skilled foreign workers to fill critical shortages.

McCain's plan also focuses on reducing the Digital Divide and providing everyone with high-speed internet access. He has already introduced the "Community Broadband Bill" which would allow local governments to build their own high-speed infrastructure, particularly when private industry fails to do so. He would also establish a "People Connect Program" that rewards companies that offer high-speed access to low income customers by allowing these companies offset their tax liability for the cost of this service.

However, other proposals seem deeply misguided. For example, he "does not believe in prescriptive regulation like 'net-neutrality,'" but rather he believes in "an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices". That sounds an awful lot like an apple-pie statement. Of course he supports an open marketplace and consumer choice. Who doesn't? It's like saying you support better education. But net neutrality is a complex issue that many argue would actually protect consumer choice, rather than harm it. That makes his statement contradict itself. So either he is dumbing down the debate by grossly oversimplifying a highly complex issue, or he has no grasp of that complexity.

The same holds true with his expressed desire to "protect the creative industries from piracy". Again, of course everyone wants to protect artists from outright piracy of their works. However, the issue is about a whole lot more than enforcement and "cracking down". Copyright law itself is badly in need of reform, as all of us, by doing everyday activities on the internet, are considered "pirates" under existing legislation. There is no mention in McCain's plan of how to fix that. Likewise, what does McCain propose doing about encryption technologies like DRM (Digital Rights Management) software that protect copyrighted works by completely disregarding other rights people have, like Fair Use?

And for that matter, where is a single mention of protecting people's privacy rights online?

Taken as a whole, McCain's plan includes some very worthy proposals, and others that are either misleading or misguided. That's not really a surprise. What should be more of a concern are two things: 1) the level of real interest McCain has in internet policy issues (he has seemed very uninterested in the past), and 2) his perception that we are all little more than consumers, and that the internet itself is essentially just a commercial marketplace.

For those not paying attention, it's actually a whole lot more than that :-)

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Turkish Blog Protest...

The government of Turkey plays a strong hand in web censorship, shutting down websites and blogs if any complaint is made to a lower court. As a result, Turkish bloggers are protesting this week by self-censoring themselves, posting a message on their pages that simply states: "The access to this web site is prevented by its owner's free will".

The question is whether voluntary self-censorship is an effective response to government-sponsored censorship?

As Michael Arrington describes, "Nearly 200 Turkish blogs have (temporarily) shut themselves down in this manner. The point is to show Turkish Web surfers what the Internet would look like if the censorship continues unabated. The protest will last until Wednesday."

But since when did self-imposed silence and capitulation ever overturn government censorship policies? Doesn't civil disobedience require the protester to continue their illicit activities despite the will of the authorities? The Turkish bloggers, in this case, are not only doing exactly what the government hopes they will do, but they're running as fast as possible to do it.

Internet uprisings don't exactly have the best history in terms of being effective. However, the approach that protesters take ought to, at the very least, not be counter-productive to their own goals and objectives.

Friday, August 15, 2008

If You Give Your Product Away for Free, Can You Still Sue for Copyright Infringement?

The short answer is a resounding YES.

Yesterday, as this Wired article describes, a U.S. Appellate Court ruled "that even software developers who give away the programming code for their works can sue for copyright infringement if someone misappropriates that material".

This has far-reaching consequences for the Free Software and Open Source movements. The whole idea behind "open source" is that programmers create a piece of software, then release it to the world for free. As the maxim goes, this refers to "free as in free speech, not free beer". They often do this in order to get assistance or technical advice from other programmers. All they typically ask for in exchange is that anybody who modifies the code must re-release their modifications as "open source" as well.

What is at issue is whether, when a programmer releases their code as "open source", they retain any rights over that material afterwards. For instance, if I publish my source code to the world, and then a company modifies that code to sell it for-profit, and they don't re-release their modifications, then can I sue that company for millions?

The courts now officially say, yes I can. In an emphatic statement, the court proclaimed that "the lack of money changing hands in open source licensing should not be presumed to mean that there is no economic consideration."

This ought to be quite a boon for both the Free Software and Open Source movements (which, while often overlapping, are different entities). It vindicates the efforts of all those programmers who focused on actually solving problems, and it fosters the future growth of both movements by establishing strong legal protections for developers and, as a result, protects derivative works as well.

In the end, we all win. Better software will be created, and those responsible for it can't be so easily taken advantage of.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Following the Russia-Georgia Conflict Online...

Russia's invasion of the territory known as South Ossetia, in the nation of Georgia, has led to the usual litany of political condemnations and media bashing on all sides. But aside from what you are probably seeing on television and in the mainstream press, here are a couple of new questions for those seeking a fresh angle...

  1. Is Google, of all things, taking sides?

    As the New York Times reported, "Besides the bloody shooting war going on between Georgia and Russia, there’s another, quieter battle going on in cyberspace. The Georgian government is accusing Russia of disabling Georgian Web sites, including the site for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because of the disruption, the Georgian government began posting the Foreign Ministry’s press dispatches on a public blog-hosting site owned by Google (".

    Surely, Russia views Google, then, as subverting their efforts. While Google is waving the neutral flag of Switzerland, their refusal to take down Georgian government web sites at Russia's request stakes out a clear side in the conflict, whether they like it or not. But in cyberwarfare, who ought to be more scared: Google of Russia? Or Russia of Google?

  2. How is Russian Media Covering the War?

    You've got to love the internet for exposing foreign propaganda for exactly what it is. Pravda, the foremost Russian newspaper, has an article that, among other things, describes how "Georgian troops attempted to storm the city much as Hitler's Panzer divisions blazed through Europe. Also noteworthy is the fact that Georgian tanks and infantry were being aided by Israeli advisors, a true indicator that this conflict was instigated by outside forces."

    It's pretty difficult for even Russian apologists here in the West to defend statements like that. It was one thing to spit propagandist vitriol during the Cold War, but for the general public to be able to easily read such "news" articles online without a filter makes it basically impossible for the Russian government to get away with it unnoticed.

  3. Are Online Discussions Becoming the Best Gauge of Public Opinion?

    If you've spent the last week browsing the web for analysis on the conflict (as some of us with a lot of time on our hands obviously have), what quickly becomes apparent is that online discussion forums give you the best, unfiltered representation of what the public's opinions are at any given moment, to every new development. You may even get a more complete picture of what's occurring than by simply following the major newspapers and broadcast networks. Check out the ongoing discussions on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and even by watching videos on YouTube, and you'll begin to develop an understanding of events and public opinion that no tracking poll could possibly compare to.

All of which kind of makes you wonder about the potential impact that the internet might have had, if it existed, on previous historical events. Just try to imagine the blogosphere running amok during, say, World War II.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Baby Blogging...

Congratulations to my good friends, Jon and Jaimie Sherry, on the birth of their first daughter! In tribute, I've spent all morning searching to find the best of the "baby blogs".

Baby blogs cover a range of topics from offering parental advice, to sharing photos of the kid, to vitriolic rants where the new parents vent their many anxieties and frustrations. To a non-parent, such as myself, these definitely make for the most entertaining reads :-)

Baby Blog Addict acts as a type of search engine for the baby blogosphere. My advice is to read all the "headlines" on their front page just to get blog referrals based on what's most interesting to you, the reader, through the many sample posts.

Reading up on issues like stealing someone's babysitter, remote control parenting, or reflections on potty training offer just the tiniest window into the magical/extremely-frightening world of parenting. It's also enough to make me wonder 1) how different might we all have turned out if our own parents could have used Google and blogs back in the day, and 2) when exactly does a blogging parent cross an ethical line in sharing their child's developmental experiences for the sake of entertaining the reading public?

While we ponder these questions, maybe someone out there could help the Nerfherder Gal and I settle another raging debate... is buying a baby their own domain name a fantastic, or a ridiculous, idea for a birthday gift?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

How to Experience the Olympics Online...

The internet is about to change the way most of us experience the Olympics, just as it has with other major media events over the past decade.

As this ReadWriteWeb article describes, social media marketing is taking over Olympic coverage. Advertisers like McDonalds and Coca-Cola are rolling out interactive online promotional tools like alternate reality games, wikis, and YouTube sites to "subtly push to associate their brand with the Olympics 'spirit'".

There are also efforts being made online to foster direct communication between the athletes and the public. Lenovo has set up blogs for 100 Olympic athletes, and it really is interesting reading. It's the Olympics seen through the eyes of the participants. Share in the giddiness as a field hockey player spots celebrity pro-athletes in a dining hall that's the size of 6 football fields, join in one cyclist's questioning whether it's the pollution, mist or clouds that makes it impossible for him to see further than 400 meters, or sense the joy in one tri-athlete's enthusiastic log of his last few days of training as he and a friend stage a mustache-growing contest leading up to the big day.

Alternatives to how we watch the games themselves are also being rolled out. While, in the United States, NBC has exclusive rights to all televised Olympic coverage, check out this list of video-enabled websites that will be offering various forms of coverage as well. It includes everything from YouTube to the BBC to BitTorrent downloads for your iPod - and a whole lot more.

Plus, this is just the start. The real power of social media won't be fully evident until the games get underway and there are actual events for people to start blogging, digging, and twittering about. Just pity that inevitable gymnastics judge who gives some American athlete a lowball score because, as we are about to see, hell hath no fury greater than the Facebook generation.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The #DontGo Revolution...

With the country in the midst of an energy crisis, the best discussion taking place on the issue can be found on... Twitter?

An amazing sequence of events has been happening over the last 48 hours. It began with a Republican-leaning organization calling itself the "#Don't Go Movement", whose mission is to see Congress stay in Washington, and not go on summer recess, until a solution for our energy crisis is found. Hence the moniker, "Don't go".

But once this group formed, they immediately called on Twitter supporters to include the "#dontgo" hash in all of their posts. Overnight, "#dontgo" became the top "trending topic" on the entire site - meaning more people were microblogging about #dontgo than anything else being talked about on the entire internet, including the Olympics, Paris Hilton, and the new Batman movie. Check out the ongoing Twitter stream here.

This would be quite a story in its own right, but there's more to it. Not to be outdone, Democratic-leaning hacktivists, dismayed at #dontgo's success, have begun an organized effort to pollute the Twitter stream. In other words, critics of the #DontGo Movement are now being encouraged to also include the #dontgo hash in their own posts, that way when people search Twitter, more critical posts will be displayed.

#DontGo has certainly succeeded in its goal to "utilize technology to push the frontier of what constitutes modern politics", though maybe in ways it didn't necessarily foresee. But if you're not that familiar with the potential power of Twitter in fostering online discussions, again, take a look at the #dontgo feed and start learning. Quickly.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Overturning the Problogger Ban...

Here's an example of how Web 2.0 sites can produce real results.

One of the most popular bloggers in cyberspace, Problogger, was recently banned from the social bookmarking site, StumbleUpon. One of his fans on Twitter informed him of his banishment (no one from StumbleUpon notified him directly), and so whenever someone tried to bookmark his site, a Draconian message appeared saying,


You cannot rate or comment on this website. It has been banned from StumbleUpon because the owner has been abusing our service, or has asked that their site not be included in StumbleUpon

Well, exactly 1 hour and 44 minutes later, the ban on Problogger was lifted.

How did that happen? Apparently, several different social media sites are to be credited. Problogger breaks down the process in detail, but essentially it boils down to this: After his followers told him he was being banned, he wrote a quick blog post about it, which was then re-distributed on Twitter, then Plurk, and then Digg. Ordinary people who network on those sites quickly took up the cause, boosting the story's visibility, until finally a PR-conscious community manager at StumbleUpon emailed him to say that his site would no longer be banned.

This is grassroots hacktivism at its finest. Not only did the various cyber-communities overturn a banishment that even an internet heavyweight couldn't manage himself, but they did it through self-organizing, and in under two hours.

Of course it helps that StumbleUpon is a social media site itself, and therefore very attuned to the community that advocated on Problogger's behalf. In fact, it was largely their own user-base requesting to lift the ban. So, let's not get carried away and expect Twitter, Plurk, and Digg to overthrow the censorship policies of China anytime soon.

However, there is one vitally significant development to extract from this case, and it is this: the increasing willingness (and effectiveness) of online communities to collectively mobilize in support of a cause.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Beijing Olympics and Media Censorship...

There has been a row brewing for the past several months between the Beijing Olympics and the international press. It boils down to this: In order to win their Olympic bid, Beijing made a commitment to providing "complete media freedom", which included unfettered internet access for reporters. But as the clock has ticked closer to the start of the games, Beijing has started to reneg on that promise.

It's a well-known matter of policy that the Chinese government censors large swaths of the internet. Sites like Amnesty International and CNN are blocked, as are more innocuous destinations like Wikipedia and YouTube. It is known as The Great Firewall of China, yet I can tell you from first-hand experience that the censorship is far more subtle than you'd imagine. When surfing the Web from an internet cafe, for example, and trying to reach Wikipedia, the user does not receive some frightening message like "this page is blocked and the authorities will be paying you a visit shortly". Rather the site does, in fact, come up about 20% of the time - leading you to believe that it's not censored at all. The other 80% of the time, when the site is inaccessible, no warning message appears - the loading of the site simply times out. As a result, the user typically just gets impatient and goes to a different site.

Sound familiar?

Despite this subtlety, the international press was promised to have such censorship controls removed during their Olympic stay. It was generally recognized as unrealistic to expect the Chinese government to remove those controls completely from all of Beijing. So instead, everyone figured that at least the major hotels and other hubs where foreign media congregated would be granted unrestricted internet freedom.

But that hasn't been the case, and the backlash has apparently led to Beijing backtracking on its policy.

The U-turn came as President Hu Jintao said his country would stand by the pledges it made in bidding for the games, in a rare interview with a select group of foreign reporters. "The Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honour the commitments made to the international community," said Hu.

This comes with a caveat, of course (and a mighty big one, at that). Jintao "also warned critics against politicising the Olympics, saying it would not help to resolve contentious issues."

All of which results in an endless cat-and-mouse game in which Beijing will be trying to censor as many websites as it can get away with, and when the international media calls them out on specific cases, they will temporarily placate those pesky reporters.

But as this drama unfolds, perhaps the most disturbing development doesn't have to do with the authoritarian Chinese government at all. Reports by International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials themselves have revealed that some of their own members have apparently made deals under the table to let China block sensitive websites to the media, despite their repeated promises.

As abhorrent as it is, at least we expect the Chinese government to behave according to form. But for the IOC to strike such deals out of the public's eye in inexcusable.