Thursday, January 29, 2009

Meet Me at the NYC Twestival!

Twitter users of the world unite! On February 12th, a global "Twestival" will take place, mobilizing thousands of members of the popular microblogging service in an effort to raise money for charity.

Efforts to collectively organize in cyberspace in support of a cause are nothing new, however this one, bucking the trend, will actually have a real-world presence. While occurring in over 100 different cities around the world, the New York Twestival will take place at "M:2" (530 West 28th St. between 10th and 11th Avenues) from 7:30pm - 10:30pm.

All proceeds from ticket sales are going to "Charity:Water" - a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. Each $20 ticket includes an open bar, live music, and plenty of chances to meet active members of New York City's burgeoning social media crowd, including The Nerfherder himself :-)

NYC Twestival
View more presentations or upload your own. (tags: amazing donation)

Of course, you can participate in a discussion about the event on Twitter itself, both at the official @nyctwestival and also through the discussion thread #nyctwestival (yes, they are different).

Organizers of the Twestival, including my pal Stacy Green, deserve tons of credit and are setting an example for trying to harness the power of the social web for collective action. Here's hoping that, in the future, there will be many more Twestivals, and similar endeavors, to come.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Death of the Child Online Protection Act...

Since the very inception of the web browser in 1994, the United States Congress has taken a decidedly proactive stance on the issue of protecting minors from indecent and sexually explicit material available online. Now, once again, the Supreme Court has stepped in to act as a check on Congress' proactive behavior. As the New York Times reports, the Court has just refused to step in and save the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), turning down an appeal of the federal appellate court's decision without comment.

The Times agrees with the Court's ruling, summing up the terms of the debate as follows...

Everyone can agree on the need to protect children from sexually explicit online material, but this misguided law tried to do it in ways that infringed on too much constitutionally protected free speech.

Congress' first attempt at regulating indecent material online came in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, which sought to regulate content published on websites that allowed unfettered access. The two provisions that were most contentious included one that would prohibit the "knowing transmission" of indecent material to any recipient under the age of eighteen and the other would prohibit the use of any "interactive computer service" to send or display offensive material in a manner available to a minor – effectively imposing limits to what material could be published on unrestricted websites.

The CDA, however, was struck down by the Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU (1997) on First Amendment grounds, ruling that the statute "unduly restricted a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another".

Congress, still seeking to pass some type of protective regulatory legislation, soon drafted a second effort at regulating indecent material. The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was an attempt to respond directly to the Court's decision in Reno, making only minor modifications to the CDA which would sufficiently address its concerns. COPA provided for criminal and civil penalties for anyone who "in interstate or foreign commerce by means of the World Wide Web makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors".

However, COPA has also faced legal hurdles over the past decade based on First Amendment grounds. The District Court, and later affirmed by the Appellate Court, concluded that COPA was a content-based regulation of speech, and therefore subject to strict scrutiny. It now appears that COPA shares a similar fate with the CDA... which is that they're both dead.

Both of these pieces of legislation, the CDA and COPA, were overly broad attempts to prohibit certain forms of content to be published on websites. Moving forward, there are two major problems with regulating online material in this manner...

First, defining what is "harmful to minors" is far too open to interpretation. For example, many people believe that informative websites on abortion or contraceptives are inappropriate for children. But Congress' view that all such sites should be completely banned from the internet, even to adults, punishable by up to six months in prison, is absurd in a democratic society that values free speech.

The second major problem with such regulatory policy is that, even if people were willing to accept some sacrifice of their free speech liberties, the policies' effects would be inconsequential. Neither COPA nor the CDA made even the slightest attempt to address the internet's global dimension. The A.C.L.U. is correct in asserting that COPA would have been ineffective since it fails to regulate foreign websites, "which are the source of much of the indecent material available to American Internet users."

If the government wants to get serious about protecting children from indecent material online, in a way that will be acceptable to the Court, it ought to look at other policies, which have had great success, that have been enacted at both the federal and local levels. For instance, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was passed in 2003 requiring public institutions which received federal funding to install internet filters that would disallow access to websites that contained indecent material. In other words, CIPA focused on the demand-side (the access of the end-user) as opposed to attempting to regulate once again the supply-side (what websites could and could not publish). Designed to utilize Congress’ constitutional "spending power", CIPA required the installment of internet filters for public institutions which wanted to continue receiving federal funds. The Supreme Court has since upheld CIPA against a constitutional challenge in United States v. American Library Association (2003).

Such intelligent, narrowly targeted, and practical measures may not prove completely effective in protecting children online, but the truth is that they're the best options we've got. For the time being, since the Court seems totally unwilling to allow broad swaths of censorship to occur in the name of protecting children, less ambitious remedies will have to do. Ultimately, if you want your kids to be kept safe from viewing certain content you need to install a software filter and, even more importantly, actually have conversations with them.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Latest Presidential Googlebomb...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Hacktivists on both sides of the political aisle have apparently just launched fresh "Googlebombs" directed at the new president.

Googlebombing is not a new phenomenon. It refers to computer hackers using their knowledge of Google's algorithm to manipulate search results. Two years ago, hacktivists threw a Googlebomb that made it so that when somebody searched for the phrase "miserable failure" a biography of President Bush appeared first in the list of search results.

Now, two new Googlebombs have been launched. Supporters of President Obama have made it so that he sits atop the search results for "cheerful achievement". Meanwhile, his opponents have done the same for searches for "failure".

Google's own Public Policy Blog explains that the company has devised an algorithm designed to detect Googlebombs and correct their corresponding effects. However, they only run this algorithm once in a blue moon "because it takes some computing power to process our entire web index and because true Googlebombs are quite rare". The fix is now in place, as President Obama's site is no longer appearing early in the search results for those terms, but apparently Yahoo still hasn't rectified the problem for "miserable failure".

Further compounding the problem, all of the search engines last week appeared to have quite a time lag after the new president took office. Just because of the automated manner by which Google and the others are programmed to operate, Bush was still recognized as president for a significant amount of time after Obama took his oath of office.

Additionally, many of the "miserable failure" links were simply "redirects" - originally aimed at George W. Bush, but, once Obama became president, were simply redirected towards him.

What a mess! Hacktivists may have thrown the original Googlebomb as either a type of prank or as a form of political activism, depending how you choose to perceive it, but what has transpired since has demonstrated the failings and limitations of the search engine world.

Considering that 90% of internet users regularly use search engines (and who the other 10% are that don't is a giant mystery to me), the fact that those major search engines can be so easily manipulated, and that the companies behind them are so limited or lethargic in their responses to that manipulation, should be a major cause of concern to everyone.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Inauguration's Place in Social Media History...

The presidential inauguration this week was historic on many levels, but one which shouldn't be overlooked is its place in social media history. In fact, as the data keeps pouring in, it appears that Inauguration Day was the most heavily active day in social media history.

Mashable has posted the following statistics that relate directly to the inauguration...

  • 600,000 status updates on Facebook, including 4,000 status updates per minute during the broadcast, and 8,500 status updates posted during the first minute of Obama’s speech.

  • Obama’s Facebook Fan Page received in excess of 500,000 wall posts.

  • served more than 21.3 million live video streams (the previous record, by comparison, was 5.3 million which occurred on Election Day).

  • Twitter received 5 times normal tweets-per-second.

  • Technorati reports nearly 18,000 new blogs that mention the historic day in the last week alone.

All of which indicates that this is, quite obviously, just the tip of the iceberg in terms of social media's potential. Over the coming years, as more people connect to social networking websites, and as more features continue to be developed that better harness the medium's power as both a communication tool as well as a crowdsourcing reference for news gathering, is there any doubt that these types of numbers will rise exponentially by, say, the next election?

If you want to "keep your ears to the ground" these days, just stay logged on to your numerous networked devices. That white noise you hear is the sound of the world having one giant discussion.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Israeli Military's YouTube Channel...

Social media is turning out to be a major focus of cyberwarfare.

While I was in Israel the past few weeks during the whole Gaza mess, I used Twitter to post relevant news updates from a first-hand perspective. It was intended to be a low-stakes form of citizen journalism, using social media technology as the primary vehicle.

Apparently, social media isn't just for lowly bloggers and wannabe citizen journalists anymore. As this Wired article describes, despite keeping foreign journalists out of Gaza, the Israeli military created their own must-see YouTube channel.

Shortly before the start of the war, a group of twenty-something IDF soldiers wanted some way to share their story of the conflict online. So they got their bosses' blessing to roll out a YouTube channel. Spy drones' cameras were already recording the war zone from on high, after all. IDF video teams were trained — and ready to embed with the infantry — once the ground invasion began. The footage was meant to be shared with the press, anyway. So why not let everybody see it?

Little did they know that their the site would garner international attention and rack up more than two million views. Spokesmen are now video-blogging in English and in Arabic. And there's talk in the IDF of a crafting a real-life master plan to invade social media.

Whatever you think about the actual content of the videos, it's nevertheless significant to note that YouTube is now officially an integral part of military wartime strategy.

Something to keep in mind is that both sides in a conflict will undoubtedly share social media capabilities, and the ultimate result will be transforming the YouTubes of the world into hotly contested battlegrounds for a type of cyber arms race between formal institutions, national governments, and even their militaries.

We may harken back with nostalgia to the days when YouTube was filled with homemeade videos of poor production-quality created by ordinary people who wanted to bore the rest of us to death, after all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mozilla Sunbird: The Result of a Cathartic Experience...

"You know married life is getting the better of you when... [fill in the blank]."

For The Nerfherder, the blank is "despite years of antisocial behavior and an innate fear of both technological tools and the very ideas of 'planning' and 'structure', you suddenly find yourself in need of a calendar".

Managing an increasingly hectic lifestyle has become unbelievably time-consuming, and for those of us who have, shall we say, a subpar short-term memory, it often leads to a persistent state of anxiety that you're not forgetting vital tasks (and, consequently, you also don't want to get yelled at by those who rely on you).

I've always made fun of people who use day-planners. I thrive in unstructured environments. I resent the very idea of calendars (and even the very concept of linear time, since I'm on a rant anyway). So what gives? I couldn't say with confidence whether it's the result of getting older, being married, or having a "real job" (though that is still very loosely defined, in my case). The truth is I hate the mere possibility, though I've been dragged into accepting it, that I even might need a calendar.

Regardless, yesterday I sucked it up and finally took the leap. Still insistent on not hanging some wretched, overpriced thing filled with awful photos on my apartment wall, which I find horrendously tacky, I spent some time researching possible software tools that might do the trick instead.

What I ultimately settled on as the best of what's out there was Mozilla Sunbird. It's a stand-alone desktop application, meaning that it lives on my computer's hard drive and has a friendly icon pointing to it from my main desktop screen. I specifically sought a stand-alone application, rather than a web service like Google's Calendar, because remote access was less important for my relatively simple needs than reliability and a friendlier interface. I also chose Sunbird over other tools like Lightning because I didn't necessarily want to integrate my calendar with my web browser.

And I have to admit it's actually pretty cool - at least as far as evil tools of 'The Man' go. Sunbird is very intuitive and easy-to-use. It allows you to password-protect and encrypt your calendar, organize your events by category, set alarms, and play with a host of other features too. On the downside, it doesn't print or publish your calendar in a nicely formatted way. So if you want to view it off your desktop, be prepared for some ugliness.

All of that said, I still feel somehow ashamed at being the kind of guy that even needs such a thing, and my panic attack continues. Has my lifestyle really changed that much, or have I always just flaked on plans and shirked my responsibilities because I've actually been in need something like this for years already? What would The Nerfherder of a decade ago think of The Nerfherder of today?

While I re-examine the depths of my soul, at least my reluctance is somewhat overcome by the fact that at least I'm using open-source software that I can geek out to by tinkering with the thousands of lines of programming code beneath it.

Chaos-oriented brains need some place to feel at home, after all :-)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Takes Control of

After yesterday's inaugural address, President Obama's team officially took the reins of the presidential website,

Macon Phillips is the man who holds the newly created post of "New Media Director". Basically, his enviable job is to use Obama's campaign success on Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and translate that into an effective strategic tool for official White House communications. has a history going back to 1994, which makes it a senior citizen of websites. Check out its previous incarnations at The Wayback Machine. It's quite amusing how basic the site used to be, and the way in which it gradually added features - hyperlinks, photos, a search engine, RSS feeds, etc. - mirrors the evolution of the Web itself.

(circa 1996)


(circa 1999)


(circa 2009)


While the world joins in Obama-mania, here's one humble request that adds more interactivity and conversation-based features. Two of the best features on his campaign site was the section where people could leave their ideas as comments and could even vote for which questions they most wanted answered. They should be revived. If Obama's web campaign demonstrated anything, it's that there's nothing wrong with generating discussions on important issues.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Nerfherder Gal Scratches Her Head Over Twitter...

The following post was written by contributing author (and 50% stakeholder in this blog), The Nerfherder Gal. Rob has finally returned, but has chosen to be lazy for at least one more day.

As a computer geek's girlfriend, and now wife, it never ceases to amaze me when the Nerfherder becomes obsessed with a new website or internet application. Take, for example, Twitter. No matter how many times I try to discover the merit of this site, I simply don’t get it! Admittedly I am a complete Facebook addict and love to check my friends' status updates, but I find absolutely no appeal in the constant updates of complete strangers. There must be some explanation as to why people are so interested, so whenever I decide to venture to the site out of complete and utter boredom, I feel as if I'm "just not doing it right". Who are the 106 people who care enough to follow the Nerfherder, and who exactly are the 175 people he finds so interesting? I am currently following 7 people: three personal friends, The Nerfherder, Barack Obama, "Hoboken411", and "NY Times Books", and I only decided to follow "Hoboken411" and "NY Times Books" because I was hoping they would shed some light on the Twitter charm.

I am also dumbfounded by the layout of the site. I grew up in a very computer-friendly home, and while I'm not a computer nerd, I feel like I have a good handle on all things computer- and internet-related... yet I can't for the life of me figure out how to use Twitter! I do agree that at times there are interesting posts and topics, however I don’t personally know how to find them! It all goes back to the "maybe I just don't understand" or "maybe I'm doing something wrong" thoughts rolling around in my brain every time the Nerfherder excitedly muses about the site. While the Nerfherder exudes enthusiasm about microblogs and crowdsourcing, I am just forced to shake my head and wonder.

However, while Twitter may not be for me, The Nerfherder spent the last 10 days in Israel and prior to his departure was very excited by the prospect of being able to "tweet" from overseas. He even emailed the Nerfherder Dad to tell him to follow him while he was away. While biting my nails and watching CNN religiously while he was away, the Nerfherder was "tweeting" about hearing the sounds of bombs, fighter jets flying overhead, and troop convoys. Of course when speaking to him on the phone he neglected to mention these things, but there it was on his Twitter page for his 106 followers to read. And while I rolled my eyes and brushed off his "microblogging," his tweets showed me the gravity that Twitter can have, from his firsthand account of what was happening in a country that is currently under scrutiny from the world's media. So maybe it's time for me to give Twitter another chance.

To follow the Nerfherder on Twitter go to


The Nerfherder Gal.