Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The MotrinMom Boycott...

Mothers across the country are boycotting the over-the-counter painkilling drug, Motrin, and the boycott is spreading like a virus online.

Here is the Motrin ad that is the center of the controversy. Take a look and, as always, judge for yourself. Apparently, many mothers found the suggestion that it was too hard for them to carry their babies offensive, and that the only way they could do it was with the aid of painkillers.

The reaction to the ad, however, is the real story. Almost immediately, the ad was removed and an apology was given on Motrin's official website. But the mothers did not stop there. They used social-networking websites like Facebook, blogs and microblogs, especially Twitter, and even video-sharing sites like YouTube to create all sorts of videos and other content expressing their anger and urging others to join the boycott. Here is an example of one such video response that illustrates just how offended many mothers are by the ad.

So what can be learned from all this? Cyber pundits are agog over the role of the internet in fostering such a reaction. One blogger, Shannon Paul, notes how, on the social web, "the level of acceptable inappropriate behavior is directly proportional to the level of familiarity you have cultivated".

Meanwhile, Neville Hobson observes that "What’s really compelling is the content angry mothers have created themselves, using tools and channels that largely weren’t around four years ago – YouTube, for instance, and definitely Twitter – but today are accessible and easy to use by anyone with an internet connection."

Jeremiah Owyang takes a different approach and draws out lessons from a business/marketing perspective such as that businesses must "always test your campaign with a small segment first", "always have staff on hand to be prepared to respond during the weekend", and remember that "the participants have the power, so participate".

The spread of this story is what's so amazing considering that there are now more women joining the boycott AFTER the ad was removed than there were before. Social media is what allows that to happen. For better or for worse.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lifecaster Commits Suicide Live Online...

This is a horrible story on so many levels. Last week, a 19-year-old Florida teenager took an overdose of drugs and broadcast the suicide on the video website, Justin.tv. Apparently, the teen had announced his pending suicide on a BodyBuilding.com chat forum, which linked to the broadcast, and subsequently posted an online suicide note.

As if the suicide of a teenager wasn't awful enough, there were additional disturbing aspects to this story which followed.

The public reaction was outright despicable. About 185 viewers watched the suicide take place and were seen "egging him on". Later, when police were informed of the suicide by the chatroom's moderator and entered his home, prodding him to check if he was alive, the online witnesses added their own chat commentary "which ranged from OMG to LOL". Furthermore, the comments left on news reports included atrocious statements like, "hahahaha", "Should've blown his brains out. Would've made for better viewing", and "Negro got owned".

It's also troubling how this teenager was a "lifecaster". As people increasingly broadcast their personal lives to the public on blogs, YouTube, Facebook, and other websites, the Web becomes a medium for attention-starved individuals, often teenagers, to one-up each other in their quest for eyeballs, ever escalating the shock value that's needed to grab the public's attention. This teenager was reportedly an active lifecaster, and in this context, his suicide can be seen, unfortunately, as the final chapter of a tragic pattern that he exhibited online for years.

Previously unbeknownst to me, the internet actually has an additional history of online suicide pacts as well.

To their credit, Justin.tv, which actively monitors its site, almost immediately removed the suicide video, and it was the chatroom's moderator who initially called the police. So if we're looking for some good - ANY good - to come out of this story, it is that at least commercial websites are stepping up their role and taking greater responsibilities in not letting everything fly. This gives credence to the argument that it's not the forums that are to blame, but the individuals who use them.

In the end, this is really one of those stories that detracts from one's faith in humanity - and not even the suicide so much as people's reaction to it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Trendspotting: Web 2.0 Celebrities...

Way too early this morning, I indulged my Twitter addiction, yet again, and while still in the wee hours I became Twitter friends with Shaquille O'Neal.

Now, I'm definitely not a celebrity gawker. In fact, half the time when walking around the streets of New York and spotting someone famous, I usually roll my eyes because I don't think very highly of their work, and have to fight a strange anti-social impulse to tell them so at an increased volume. So my "friending" of Shaq caught me off-guard. I did it, not because he was Shaq, but because his Twitter posts were actually pretty entertaining and a good read.

He texts from his cell phone statements like: "Cant sleep, the lakers embarrassed us, im pissed"; "On my way 2 da arena. I feel like the main charachter n da movie 300"; "Why does shane battier always were that golf masters jacket on the bench, lol".

This is the new trend... celebrities leveraging Web 2.0 social-networks in ways that don't just create a presence for themselves online, but actually use them the way the rest of us do... to give status updates, to vent, to rant & rave, to bore the daylights out of people reading their feeds with inane references only a few people will understand or care about, and to, occasionally, provide something thought-provoking or insightful.

To be sure, the idea of celebrities using the web is nothing new. Mark Cuban, Wil Wheaton, Pam Beesley (from "The Office"), and Pamela Anderson (to name only a few) all have blogs with huge followings. And of course, this comes on the heels of Britney Spears joining Twitter, plus most of the political candidates during the campaigns jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon as well.

But as celebrities venture beyond blogs and into MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Del.icio.us, and the rest, it becomes ever more apparent that the same rules apply to them as they do to us. Their cyber identities are defined by what they post, and the more open and transparent they're willing to be - and the less they hold back, take neutral stances, or use the services for blatant self-promotion - the more they're likely to get out of the experience.

Actually, I think I'll go share that thought with my new buddy, Shaq.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The State of the Nation's Cyber Security...

As someone who spends at least some portion of every day researching the ins and outs of cybersecurity policy, I have to admit that I was appalled by reading Noah Shachtman's interview of John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Arquilla basically says that the Obama Administration will have to make changes to our national cybersecurity policy by addressing 1) how to deter cyber attacks using the threat of retaliation, and 2) how to improve cyber defenses.

This is the complex analysis that our so-called experts and national leaders have come up with? How frightening.

Yes, we already know that cybersecurity is a big deal, and of course deterring attacks and improving defenses are necessary steps that must be taken (not to mention, additionally, having the capacity to quickly and effectively respond to any attacks in order to limit the amount of damage wrought). But the real question is how do we do it?

Someone might want to point out to Arquilla that we already have a national policy that covers this ground. The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace was created in 2003 and the Bush Administration has been implementing it ever since (although its relative level of success in achieving objectives can definitely be questioned). In my attempt to be more constructive about the issue, moving forward, the Obama Administration would be wise to consider the following questions...

  1. Have public-private partnerships have been effective enough to warrant keeping them as the centerpiece of our national cybersecurity strategy?

  2. Has the completely voluntary approach to regulation worked, or is more direct government regulation required instead?

  3. Has federal funding of cybersecurity programs been adequate enough to achieve tangible results?

  4. Why has the position of "Cybersecurity Czar" had a revolving door with no one retaining the position for more than a few months, and furthermore, why was the czar post actually left vacant for over a year?

  5. Why was the new National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) created this past January when it seemingly has the same exact responsibilities as another already-existing agency, the National Cyber Security Division (NCSD), all within the Department of Homeland Security?

Let's hope that when our experts and national leaders give interviews such as this one which show a startling lack of depth and understanding of complex issues, they are only talking down to us because they figure we won't understand what's actually happening. As awful as it is for public officials to talk down to us, the alternative - that they don't even have a more thorough understanding of what's happening - is far too scary to imagine.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How One Law Professor Is Fighting the Music Industry's Anti-Piracy Campaign...

Ever since Napster became popular almost 10 years ago, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been bringing lawsuits left and right. First they brought suits against the companies who created the software, like Napster and Kazaa, then, after being rebuffed by the courts, began suing individuals who they accused of piracy.

That practice of suing individuals may be coming to an end. Charles Nesson, a law professor from Harvard, has taken a case where he hopes to directly challenge the RIAA's ability to bring such lawsuits.

As this Wired article describes, Nesson argues that 1) the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 is unconstitutional because it effectively lets a private group - the RIAA - carry out civil enforcement of a criminal law, and 2) that the RIAA "abused the legal process by brandishing the prospects of lengthy and costly lawsuits in an effort to intimidate people into settling cases out of court".

Nesson has said in an interview that his goal is to "turn the courts away from allowing themselves to be used like a low-grade collection agency."

Studies have shown that the vast majority of internet users have, at some point, downloaded copyrighted material. Many believe that the RIAA's strategy was merely to intimidate people with a few cautionary tales of lawsuits in order to deter them from pirating even more music. That intimidation is clearly evident in the following statistic: more than 30,000 complaints have been brought against people accused of sharing songs online, yet only one case has gone to trial; "nearly everyone else settled out of court to avoid damages and limit the attorney fees and legal costs that escalate over time".

Does the argument have a chance at succeeding? It's increasingly likely. There has quietly been a wave building of legal developments against the RIAA's anti-piracy tactics over the past two years. One federal judge has held that the constitutional question is "a serious argument", two highly regarded law review articles have said that it is outright unconstitutional, and there are three actual court rulings that have said that it might be unconstitutional.

So could Professor Nesson's case be the tipping point from which the RIAA's entire house of cards crumbles? Probably not. Even if he wins, the RIAA is sure to simply modify its approach and find some other legal target to go after. Nevertheless, Nesson should be applauded for his efforts. Ethically, the RIAA's tactics are being rebuffed on several fronts, and that is certainly a positive development; but, ultimately, the issue of file-sharing on P2P networks will not be resolved until there is actual legislative reform of copyright law.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Second Life Protesters Set Themselves on Fire...

Never failing to amaze, there is another case of hacktivism occurring in Second Life, and this time the result may be a large number of users leaving the virtual avatar-populated community altogether.

Here's what's happening. The owner of Second Life, Linden Labs, decided two weeks ago to raise prices on "Openspaces". These Openspaces were designated for "light use", meaning that if someone bought the land then they could preserve it so that they had a nice view out of their bedroom window or have extra space for virtual sailing.

But what happened next was, as described by Wagner James Au, "a case study in the challenges inherent in managing user-generated content". Apparently, many Second Life residents ignored the "light use" idea and instead began building massive constructions and businesses on their Openspaces.

You might think to yourself, "So what? It's all virtual real estate anyway". Which is true except that it had a very real-world consequence. The servers that Linden Labs uses to maintain the Openspaces were overloaded by all of the unexpected massive activity; and the maintenance of those servers cost an awful lot of real-world money. Thus, the company decided to raise prices on all Openspaces, whether someone violated the "light use" principle or not.

As a result, "sign-waving avatars were soon gathered outside Linden’s SL office, in protest. Some even set themselves on fire."

Linden Labs has since revised its price hike to only affect those who violate the "light use" policy. However, now that there seems to be a meaningful and open-source alternative to Second Life on the horizon, known as OpenSim, some avatar-crazed fans may decide to leave for good for having finally been pushed over the edge.

(That's in the metaphorical, not virtual, sense. I swear that I get migraines trying to remember that there is a difference between the two when talking about Second Life.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Obama Can Use the Internet to Improve Government...

During the campaign, President-Elect Obama repeatedly promised to create a "Google for Government". What might this mean?

Brian McConnell of GigaOm has come up with a terrific list of suggestions. His basic idea is to allow citizens to create their own personalized web portal for services rendered by the federal government that we each deem the most relevant.

For example, he suggests:

  • Information regarding your IRS account. How helpful would it be if on our individual portals we could easily download copies of our previous tax returns, rep. contact info, links to online filing forms, etc.?

  • Stats about recent projects funded in your vicinity, so you can see how federal funds are being spent in your area.

  • Votes by your elected officials in Congress, compared against other districts, averages, etc.

McConnell's vision "is to build an interface that makes government more transparent and more like a vendor or service provider, rather than a faceless abyss for taxpayer dollars".

This sounds like fabulous PR, but there are a few limitations. First of all, such a program would only apply to services rendered by the federal government; not the state and local levels where issues like education and road infrastructure really get hammered out. Second, raising the visibility of "recent projects funded in your vicinity" would inevitably lead to a rise in earmarks and overall spending (which both parties have been railing against during the past few years of rising budget deficits). Third, privacy and security are of tremendous concern. While having a personalized online dashboard might be very convenient for each individual, the problem with centralizing all of your information like Social Security numbers and tax history in one place is that if your account was ever breached by someone else they could wreak absolute havoc over your life.

That said, it's still the start of a terrific idea. If I may add a few more suggestions to McConnell's list...

  • RSS feeds on news about our representatives in both the House and Senate. For instance, we could be notified when our members submit a new bill, or when and how they have voted on an issue.

  • A customizable calendar of upcoming government-sponsored events like, say, town hall meetings or calls for public comment on policy issues.

  • A repository of any government reports that you choose to "Save".

  • And finally - this is the trickiest one - to create a more universal, Google-like search capability to answer any Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) relating to ANY services offered by the federal government - regardless of branch, cabinet department, or executive agency.

Let's all brainstorm and come up with our wish-list.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Word of Caution on Bill Joy as National CTO...

Throughout the presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeated his promise to create a "National CTO", or Chief Technology Officer, for the country if elected. He does appear intent on keeping that promise, and gossip has been swirling all week over who might fill the position.

The name being thrown around the most is Bill Joy. Wired Magazine once described him as the following:

There are geeks and then there's Bill Joy - 49-year-old software god, hero programmer, cofounder of Sun Microsystems and, until he quit in September [2003], its chief scientist. Beginning in 1976, he spent zillions of hours in front of a keyboard, coding the now-ubiquitous Berkeley strain of the Unix operating system; then he godfathered Sun's Java programming language and helped design servers that were the Internet's heaviest artillery.

Joy's hero-status among programmers is mainly what's propelling him to the front of the CTO list. However, overzealous netizens should perhaps exercise just a bit of caution.

In April 2000, Bill Joy published an article titled, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" - describing how 21st century technologies are "threatening to make humans an endangered species". With a striking note of paranoia about soon-to-come sentient robots, it was, as Wired called it, "a Cassandra cry about the perils of 21st-century technology and a striking display of ambivalence from a premier technologist".

Netizens tend to be more optimistic about the role that technology and the internet will play in our nation's future - in economic, cultural, and also political terms. Bill Joy, through his own pen, has demonstrated that, while being a technological wiz-kid and hero, he might not share that same enthusiasm, strange as it may seem.

What the new National CTO will need to do is take a policy approach to technological development. Figuring out how to graduate more scientists and engineers from our universities, using federal funding efficiently while still pursuing true scientific research, and expanding the H1-B visa program to bring in top foreign talent to meet the growing demand of high-tech positions at American firms are all the types of issues that the CTO ought to address.

This is not to say that Bill Joy would necessarily be a bad fit for the position either. It is just to remind everyone that the skills that will be required for the post are not suited to his previous strengths, and so we might all be better off in the long-run by simply toning down this initial euphoria and enthusiasm for a man whose expertise is clearly more technology-oriented than policy-oriented. In fact, Joy might prove to be a more valuable asset if he were on the team of the future CTO than if he were the CTO himself. Let's keep the playing field open for a while longer and see who else emerges.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Financial Crisis Hits P2P Lending Websites...

We all know about how the financial crisis has led to a credit crunch. More and more people can't get a loan to buy a car, pay for college, or get a mortgage. Well, that scenario has extended from banks and other financial institutions all the way to peer-to-peer lending websites.

Once all the rage, P2P lending was hyped as the next revolution in the world of finance. Need to get a quick infusion of cash to pay for a broken water heater? Just borrow what you need from some regular Joe willing to lend it to you. Want to pay off those high-interest credit cards by taking out a more palatable 7% loan? No problem; plenty of people would love to lend it to you and make that kind of return.

But that silence you hear from the hype machine is now deafening. Symbolic of what's happening in the larger P2P lending world, Prosper.com has entered a "quiet period" and put all new loans on hold. Indefinitely.

From their website:

Prosper has started a process to register, with the appropriate securities authorities, promissory notes that may be offered and sold to lenders through our site in the future.

Until we complete the registration process, we will not accept new lender registrations or allow new commitments from existing lenders. If you're an existing lender, your current lender agreements will be unaffected; your existing loans will continue to be serviced; you'll be able to track and monitor your loans; and you'll be able to withdraw funds from your Prosper account.

If you're a borrower with an existing loan, you will continue with your current borrower agreement and be unaffected by the registration process. If you're a borrower seeking a loan, you will still be able to create a new loan listing, which we will endeavor to fulfill through alternative sources. As the appropriate securities authorities may consider a new loan listing to constitute the offer of a security, we are unable to post new loan listings on our site until our registration statement becomes effective.

A successful registration can take several months, but we assure you we will do our best to move forward as quickly as possible. Until this process is complete, we're required to be in a quiet period and will be unable to respond to press, blogger or other inquiries about Prosper or the registration filing until it becomes effective.

And the hits just keep on coming...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The FCC's Whitespace Decision: A Triumph of Science Over Politics?

While most people were following the presidential election on Tuesday, another potentially momentous event was occurring. The FCC decided in an unanimous 5-0 ruling to "free the airwaves". What they meant is that the "white spaces" spectrum - the unused airwaves between broadcast TV channels - will be opened up for wireless broadband service for the public. Google's founder, Larry page, has called this, "a triumph of science over politics".

Why is this decision so important? Because it could potentially change the internet itself.

Without getting overly technical, the important thing to understand is that whitespace frequencies are unlicensed, which means any company can use the spectrum. As Larry Page has explained, it's like "WiFi on steroids". As a direct result of this ruling, expect to see faster wireless internet connections and a whole slew of new innovative devices as well as software applications to make use of them.

The big winners in this decision are hardware manufacturers like Motorola and Intel who should see entirely new markets opening up. Software companies like Google and Microsoft also win since their software will likely run that new hardware, and their internet services (think Google Maps) will be that much more useful. On the other hand, the big losers of this decision are unquestionably the big telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T. They've spent billions of dollars buying the exclusive rights to the licensed part of the spectrum, and now suddenly have to compete with new entrants to the marketplace who don't have to pay to use the spectrum at all.

Many ordinary consumers will probably find all of this to be rather dull and inconsequential geek-speak. But ultimately, they're the biggest winners of all. What the FCC's decision really does is try to change the internet's basic architecture - wresting control over the wireless infrastructure out of the hands of an elite few telecom corporations and into the hands of a greater number, and potentially more decentralized group, of players.

The wireless internet playing field has just been leveled, and now we can sit back and watch a whole lot of companies battle it out as they develop new innovative products and services all designed to give us a more fulfilling internet experience.

In the ongoing saga of how the internet is evolving, that was a major crossroads we just passed. The consequences will last for decades.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Online Election Day Buzz...

Unless you're living under a rock, you are fully aware that today is Election Day in the United States. Many Nerfherder readers will be spending the majority of their time at work in front of a computer screen anxiously awaiting tonight's results, but fret not. There are loads of ways this year to follow the buzz online.

Here are a few links to help satisfy those hungry minds out there.

  • The Nerfherder's Del.icio.us bookmarks - the authoritative list of links about the presidential election and its relationship to cyberspace discovered since the beginning of the campaign.

  • Election Day Toolkit - a great piece sure to keep you busy for hours, courtesy of ReadWriteWeb.

  • Twitter Buzz - real-time conversations about today's events.

  • Video Your Vote! - Watch and even upload your own videos of people voting. The most fascinating part of this may be how it chronicles "polling place problems".

And one final thought... "Where have you gone, Ron Paul?"