Retreat To The Corporate Silos

Here is a technology trend I have spotted: it may be old hat to experts and tech journalists, but its news to me.
First, I installed iOS 6 for my iPhone this week. As had been extensively trailed, Apple has switched out the Google Maps app for its own, proprietary mapping service. It is a weaker product.
Then, yesterday, I received an e-mail from IFTTT (If This, Then That, an excellent tool that allows you to automate many tasks between online services, such as cross-posting blogs, auto-tweeting, or logging your social media activity). The e-mail said:

In recent weeks, Twitter announced policy changes that will affect how applications and users like yourself can interact with Twitter’s data. As a result of these changes, on September 27th we will be removing all Twitter Triggers, disabling your ability to push tweets to places like email, Evernote and Facebook.

This is really irritating, as I use IFTTT for many Twitter related tasks.
So, in a single week, I’ve been inconvenienced by the decision of two of the biggest brands in technology to stop co-operating with other services. There is no law that says that they must collaborate, of course, but this is still a dismal state of affairs. I wonder if these announcements might be the beginning of a new era of unco-operation, with more and more products becoming locked, proprietary, and incompatible with one another. I cannot see how this can be good for innovation, small businesses and start-ups in the sector, or the users… Though I do see how it might maximise revenue for the big companies.
The previous high-minded rhetoric that came from these companies makes their current revenue-maximising attitude all the more galling. It has become trite to point out how Apple has changed since it premiered its famous Nineteen Eighty-Four advert at the Superbowl; and Google’s motto was “do no evil”. These latest manœvres, retreating into the corporate silos, are a reminder of the corrupting influence of power and money, and puts one in the mind of the final passages of Animal Farm, when it becomes impossible to tell man from pig, pig from man.
I await deliverance with an iOS 6 Jailbreak.

Betting Against Page 3

Well well, this is interesting. The bookmaker Paddy Power have offered odds on a petition reaching 100,000 signatures. It’s 4/1 in September and 7/4 in October.
It will be interesting to see if this affects the rate at which people sign the petition. If it does, then we will see a new era of campaigning. Just as now, activists spend time trying to get re-tweeted by Stephen Fry, in the future Ladbrokes and Paddy Power may become targets of the same kind of secondary lobbying.
But there is more: there is a kind of open source game theory on offer here. If everyone in the country who agreed to sign the petition, while placing a £10 bet, we would all get paid for our social activism!
At the time of writing, the petition only has 26,000 signatures. So the conservative analyst would not favour September. However, we have seen in the recent past how social media and we interconnectivity it brings can have exponential effects. Remember how Claire Squires posthumously raised almost £1 million for the Samaritans.
I don’t know much about how bookies set their odds on certain outcomes, but participating in this particular ‘market’ seems odd. Unlike a sporting event, an election, or a financial exchange, there is no other person, group or team that can adversely affect the rate at which the figure in question rises. It’s not as if there is a counter petition, and the bookies are taking bets on a race between the two. Opponents of this campaign cannot marshal their own supporters in a comparable way. So the bet is simply about how quickly a political constituency can mobilise itself. I wonder if someone who knows more about this might comment?
I am entirely in favour of the petition, by the way. In my opinion, page 3 demeans and objectifies women. A formal ban on this kind of publication would be anti-free expression, but social pressure on an editor to make a particular decision is entirely right and proper.

xkcd: Native Internet Art

xkcd is an online comic strip that has gained a cult following. Penned by Randall Munroe, it presents naif, stick-like figures doing strange, wonderful and weird things. There is a strong geek element to the cartoons, with physics jokes, science fiction references, and spin-off comic What If? which seeks to answer absurd questions with mathematical precision.
I love the sentiment which imbues the comics. Its wistful, and has an appropriate sense of awe at humanity, the world, and the universe.  However, I can see how others might find it whimsical, precious or twee.
xkcd: Click and drag - opening panels
The latest cartoon in the series, Click and Drag, is really something.  A man clutching a balloon drifts over the landscape.  “From the stories, I expected the world to be sad, and it was. And I expected it to be wonderful.  And it was. I just didn’t expect it to be so big.”
Underneath this is a large panel with a cartoon landscape.  The reader can click and drag to reveal more of the image, and see little vignettes featuring other stick figures, pop-culture references, and rendering of architectural structures and geological features.  Its a huge image in total, approximately 160,000 pixels wide, and so clicking and dragging takes a long time!
Why is this so good?  Commenter Pochacco has a good, simple analysis on the NeoGAF meesage boards:

I have a feeling the author is trying to troll us.
It’s so “big” that you can’t see it all. You will miss some parts and it will haunt you. Just like life.

I suspect this is right.
But there’s more: This is art that is native to the internet, and therefore still relatively rare.  While most art we see online (photography, film, creative writing) can actually be viewed in other media (on a wall, in a book, on TV), this piece of art only works online.  The clicking-and-dragging is inherent to experiencing of the art.  Users on the NeoGAF board are busy trying to download the entire panorama in its entirety, but doing that is a mistake that spoils enjoyment of the cartoon – that you can only see a small part of the image at any one time, and that you may miss something, is precsiely the point.

Unburdened Enjoyment

I was at the Olympic Park earlier this week, and for technical reasons I was unable to share this fact via my social networks.  As Luke says above, this absence of the need to login and share is indeed ‘freedom’, but nevertheless the unease took a few minutes to wear off.
This feeling should not be written off as mere addiction.  The desire to tweet and share and document is not always a sign that we are slaves to technology.  As well as being a means to share, these technologies are also simple aide memoirs, reminding us where we read something, or when we went somewhere and who we spent time with.  The value of such archives depends, to a large extent, on their completeness (this is also true for a lot of digital art like timelapse montages, which are another type of archive).  In my senile years I anticipate being grateful that I compiled a comprehensive diary of my activities.
For me, the main unease generated by my missing smart phone was not that I could no longer (over)share, but that I would not be able to fill the regular moments of downtime that city living always presents.  The time spent waiting for a bus or on a platform is no bother when you have a near-infintie supply of quick and quirky messages to read.  Kipling’s penultimate stanza “If you can fill an unforgiving minute / With sixty second’s worth of distance run” sticks in my head.  Does the tweeting count as a useful way to spend that “unforgiving minute”?

How Effective Are Free Speech Campaigns?

First posted over at the English PEN site.
In her monthly column for MediaShift, Jillian York (Director of International Free Expression at the EFF, and a Global Voices board member) turned her attention to online campaigns for imprisoned bloggers. In particular, how can a campaign be effective in a country like Syria, which has recently become impervious to international pressure?
As part of the piece, Jillian asked several free speech campaigners for their views on the question, and I responded on behalf of English PEN:

When a blogger is imprisoned, it is not just his voice that is silenced. Those who share his point of view are discouraged by his example, and choose to keep quiet. A public solidarity campaign on social media can have the opposite effect, emboldening others to speak out and fill the void left by their imprisoned comrade … so while the text of a message may be “Free Hussein Ghrer,” the subtext is “We Have Not Forgotten Hussein Ghrer,” which is a powerful message to send to the authorities. Sending letters or (as English PEN does) books to these prisoners carries a similar message.

You can read more of my comments, alongside those of several bloggers who are on the frontline of activism, at the MediaShift website. You can leave comments there too.

Here Be Trolls

The Free Word Centre asked me to write about Internet Trolls.
It’s always a little disorientating to hear politicians debating pop culture and the Internet in parliament. The jargon-rich language of the twenty-first century does not yet seem to fit with the panelled acoustics and formalspeak of the Commons or the Lords.It does not help that many politicians have a weak grasp on the concepts that emerge from the new technologies, and even those who do understand them seem uncomfortable with the new idioms.
The recent discussion in the commons about Internet ‘trolling’ is the perfect example of this. MPs took time during the Second Reading of the Defamation Bill to complain at length about the phenomenon, despite libel and trolling being two different things (one is the harming of a reputation, the other is a form of disruption and harassment). For those of us who have campaigned to reform the libel law for the past three years, it was frustrating to have to listen to so much off-topic debate, when crucial amendments are still required. One could even label these tangential points about trolling as a form of trolling itself – a provocative distraction.
Continue reading “Here Be Trolls”

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.
First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
Continue reading “After the Debate”

This House Believes That Social Media Has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism

Egypt, February 2011

On 31st May, I was delighted to be invited to the Oxford Union to debate the proposition This House Believes That Social Media has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism.
I chose to debate against the motion, and spoke last. Also speaking against the motion was Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor at The Daily Telegraph; Mark Kersten of the LSE; and Dr Christopher Carpenter from the University of Western Illinois. Speaking in favour was Senator David Vitter of Louisiana; Mark Pfeifle, National Security Advisor to President George W Bush; and Benjamin Cohen, the Channel 4 News Technology correspondent and founder of Ella Robertson of the Union opened the debate.
An iPhone recording of my speech is here, along with the transcript below. I shall write a follow up post with some nuanced thoughts on the debate, to balance the high flung rhetoric.
And for the record: Our side was successful. The motion was defeated!

Continue reading “This House Believes That Social Media Has Successfully Reinvented Social Activism”

Twitter Censored in Pakistan

Over at the English PEN site, I have rehearsed the issue of social media censorship. Here’s an excerpt:

When such controversies flare, it is also important to remember that the social networks are corporations, intent on making money. This was made very clear to us all this week, when Facebook was listed on the NASDAQ. To justify its $100 billion valuation, the site needs new users, and it will get them from populous countries with technical infrastructure… like China, India and Pakistan. In order to secure access to these users, the company will have to co-operate (some might even say ‘collaborate’) with the governments of those countries. We should expect to see more censorship of the sort Pakistani users saw over the weekend, and also more sophisticated forms of control. People notice a nationwide social media blackout, but they are less likely to perceive a ‘throttling’ of internet access during periods of unrest or dissent. We are also likely to see an automated sieving of messages, where a site will appear to function normally, but certain keywords or phrases (for example, ‘Jasmine Revolution’, ‘Tiananmen Massacre’ or ‘Mohammed Cartoons’) will be filtered. Can we trust the large corporations to resist governments’ demands to filter? What if the sovereign wealth funds in authoritarian regimes buy up Facebook and Twitter shares?

You can read the whole thing on the PEN site. I have blogged previously about the problem of “Corporate Silos” and the need to diversify our social media use, though I am as useless as anyone at actually following through on this.


I’ve been laughing at this online web comedy series, asdfmovie by Thomas Ridgewell.  Here’s episoide 5, which I sumbled upon because its one on the most top rated YouTube uploads today.

It feels like a distillation of comedy down to its purest elements. The punchline is all, illustrated in 2-dimensional simplicity. Its like tweeting on video. Very much of the internet age.