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December 18 2013

Tweets loud and quiet

Writers who cover Twitter find the grandiose irresistible: nearly every article about the service’s IPO this fall mentioned the heroes of the Arab Spring who toppled dictators with 140-character stabs, or the size of Lady Gaga’s readership, which is larger than the population of Argentina.

But the bulk of the service is decidedly smaller-scale–a low murmur with an occasional celebrity shouting on top of it. In comparative terms, almost nobody on Twitter is somebody: the median Twitter account has a single follower. Among the much smaller subset of accounts that have posted in the last 30 days, the median account has just 61 followers. If you’ve got a thousand followers, you’re at the 96th percentile of active Twitter users. (I write “active users” to refer to publicly-viewable accounts that have posted at least once in the last 30 days; Twitter uses a more generous definition of that term, including anyone who has logged into the service.)

You're a bigger deal on Twitter than you thinkYou're a bigger deal on Twitter than you think

This is a histogram of Twitter accounts by number of followers. Only accounts that have posted in the last 30 days are included.

For a few weeks this fall I had my computer probe the Twitterverse, gathering details on a random sampling of about 400,000 Twitter accounts. The profile that emerges suggests that Twitter is more a consumption medium than a conversational one–an only-somewhat-democratized successor to broadcast television, in which a handful of people wield enormous influence and everyone else chatters with a few friends on living-room couches. There are undoubtedly some influential Twitter users who would not be influential without Twitter, but I suspect that most people who have, say, 3,000 followers (the top one percent) were prominent commentators, industry experts, or gregarious accumulators of friends to begin with.

Active Twitter accounts follow a median 117 users, and the vast majority of them–76%–follow more people than follow them. Which brings to mind both discussions about the mathematics of pairing and studies that suggest reciprocated friendship is both rare and valuable. Here’s the histogram from above with the distribution of number of accounts that users follow superimposed.

followers_following_comparison_histogramfollowers_following_comparison_histogram

Not that number of followers is an indicator of quality. Twitter’s users are prone to swarms and fads; they flock to famous people as soon as they appear on Twitter, irrespective of both activity and brow height. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller amassed thousands of followers in his first months on Twitter, despite posting just eight times in 2009 (and then baffling his readers with this tweet upon reappearing on Christmas Eve in 2010). On the other end, just under one in every thousand Twitter accounts has a name that refers to Justin Bieber in some way; an additional one in every thousand refers to Bieber in its account description.

Far more inscrutable than the famous zombies are the anonymous ones, like a Wayne Rooney fan account, a skin-care promotion feed, and a fake Taylor Lautner account that each managed to amass thousands of followers with just a single tweet. (The commercial accounts of this sort are probably the result of promotions–“follow us on Twitter for a discount!”–that got no follow-up, or are the beneficiaries of bot armies hired to make a business look popular.)

Twitter is giant, and it has an outsize influence on popular and not-so-popular culture, but that influence seems due to the fact that it’s popular among influential people and provides energetic reverberation for their thoughts–and lots and lots of people who sit back and listen.

How you stack up

Percentile of active Twitter accounts Number of follwers 10 3 20 9 30 19 40 36 50 61 60 98 70 154 80 246 90 458 95 819 96 978 97 1,211 98 1,675 99 2,991 99.9 24,964

The technical mumbo-jumbo

Twitter assigns each account a numerical ID on creation. These IDs aren’t consecutive, but they do, with just a few exceptions, monotonically increase over time–that is, a newer account will always have a higher ID number than an older account. In mid-September, new accounts were being assigned IDs just under 1.9 billion.

Every few minutes, a Python script that I wrote generated a fresh list of 300 random numbers between zero and 1.9 billion and asked Twitter’s API to return basic information for the corresponding accounts. I logged the results–including empty results when an ID number didn’t correspond to any account–in a MySQL table and let the script run on a cronjob for 32 days. I’ve only included accounts created before September 2013 in my analysis in order to avoid under-sampling accounts that were created during the period of data collection.

Twitter IDs are assigned at an overall density of about 63%–that is, given an integer between zero and the highest number so far assigned, there’s a 63% chance that a Twitter account has been opened with that number at some point. That density isn’t constant over the whole range of ID numbers, though; Twitter appears to have changed its ID-assignment scheme around July 2012. Before then, Twitter assigned IDs at a density of about 86% and afterward at 49%.

With a large survey sample of Twitter accounts, I was able to project the size and characteristics of the Twitter ecosystem as a whole, using R and ggplot2 for my analysis.

This post was modified after publication in order to add the table of follower percentiles above.

May 30 2013

These are the top 20 investors to follow on Twitter? Really?

Business Insider really jumped the shark with their recent post entitled These Are The Top 20 Tech Investors You Should Follow On Twitter. It was clearly linkbait for social media rather than real advice for those looking for investment wisdom.  Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) as the top investor to follow on Twitter?  Really?  When the greatest investor of all time, Warren Buffet (@WarrenBuffet), is also on Twitter?  Sure, Warren is new to Twitter and has only posted one link (to a fascinating article about why women are key to America’s prosperity), but when millions of investors hang on his every word, you’d think he’d get a mention. Ashton is great, but is he a better investor to pay attention to just because he has more “social media pull”?

This kind of story illustrates the vapidity of so much social media reporting.  What does someone’s social media following have to do with whether or not they are worth following for investment advice?

I’d prefer to follow investors who are good investors and who share their investment strategy!  That’s why I’d probably put Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) of Union Square Ventures (who was at an inexplicable number 19 on the Business Insider List) and his partners Brad Burnham (@BradUSV) and Alfred Wenger (@AlbertWenger) at the top.  Not only are they among the most successful tech investors active today (Twitter, Tumblr, Zynga, Foursquare, Etsy, Kickstarter, to name only a few of their investments), but they clearly explain their rationale for investing, their criteria, and their interests.

The other pair of power investors to follow are Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz.  They don’t really tweet, but Marc tweets a feed of his blog posts, which are always worth reading.

Next up, I’d put my colleagues at O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (@OATV), Bryce Roberts (@bryce) and Renee DiResta (@noUpside). While I have a much bigger social media following (I was number 11 on the Business Insider list), I post much more about long-term tech and social trends than about investment. You’ll get much more practical investment advice and insight into our investing philosophy from Bryce and Renee!

Speaking of practical advice, Brad Feld (@bfeld) offers a constant stream of useful advice to startups.  Eric Ries (@EricRies) is not primarily an investor, but he, too, is an amazing source of insight for anyone building a web or social media startup.

And if you are looking for the big disruptors of the venture capital industry, look no further than Paul Graham (@PaulG) of Y Combinator and Babak Nivi and Naval Ravikant of Venturehacks (@VentureHacks) and Angellist (@AngelList).

If there’s an investor to follow for a long-time horizon and a global perspective, it would have to be Esther Dyson (@edyson), an angel investor whose interests and investment choices are always light years ahead of everyone else.

And for the broad sweep of Internet industry statistics, how can you not include Mary Meeker of Kleiner, Perkins. Her annual Internet Trends Report is one of the most hotly awaited reads of the year for any Internet investor.  You won’t find her tweeting, but her slides from D11 were all over Twitter yesterday!

I do love following some of the others who appear on the Business Insider list, like Jason Calacanis (@jason), Mark Cuban (@mcuban), Chris Sacca (@sacca), Evan Williams (@ev), Biz Stone (@biz), and Jack Dorsey (@jack), but I wouldn’t consider any of them but Jason and Mark people who primarily tweet insight for investors.  If you’re going to follow them, you should add Marissa Mayer (@marissamayer) and Sheryl Sandberg (@sherylsandberg) to the list.  Their decisions will probably shape as many venture exits as those of venture capitalists!

And even with this off-the-top-of-my-head list, I really have just focused on Internet investors.  There’s a wealth of investment advice on Twitter, but finding the right people to follow has very little to do with how many Twitter followers they have!

April 24 2013

Social media’s 2.0 moment: Responsiveness beats planning

In 2004, O’Reilly Media delivered a counter-cultural (at the time) message: The dot-com bubble had burst, but the web was here to stay as an economic and social force. The meme they coined was Web 2.0, and their manifesto was captured in a seminal blog post by Tim O’Reilly. Web 2.0 was not meant to indicate a version number, but to point out the deep, persistent patterns of the web that were rewiring business and society.

I led the consulting practice at O’Reilly Media after we coined the term Web 2.0, and I think we now find ourselves at a similar (though softer) inflection point. There are a lot of valid questions regarding the business models in social: Is Facebook not a scalable vehicle for advertising and thus overvalued? Is Groupon bad for merchants and thus doomed to fail? Was social gaming (and Zynga) overhyped?

Taking a cue from Web 2.0, I believe we need to look beyond specific applications of social media — even, God forbid, specific platforms like Facebook — in order to sort out the underlying design patterns that will endure and continue to disrupt marketing and communications.

So what are those design patterns? Here are four:

  1. Responsiveness beats planning
  2. Communities beat audiences
  3. Reputation beats branding
  4. Sociality beats media-mentality

I’ll focus on the first one for now: responsiveness beats planning. The kernel of my argument is that the social web is pressuring organizations to accelerate all forms of communications from “batch” processing to real-time interaction. The result is a fundamentally different approach to how a marketing/communications organization needs to be structured and serviced.

Human beings have spent millennia communicating in real-time. The acceleration of technology is simply an effort to catch up to our zero-latency experience of being. Whenever given a choice, we will opt for a service that delivers response times as fast as our own nervous system. The technology and processes around us are nowhere close to catching up — yet wherever they do, we see incredible value creation. Any information processing technology that moves from batch to real-time experiences a quantum leap in value, especially for those who adopt it first. Consider the arbitrage opportunity in financial systems capable of receiving prices in real-time, real-time trading desks that place advertising based on current inventory and effectiveness, the efficiency of inventory management occurring in real-time across the supply chain and you get the idea. All of the systems that surround and support modern life are accelerating into real-time systems. Social is moving into real-time precisely because that is the speed at which human beings prefer to communicate, and social technologies that have accelerated closer to real-time are now shaping customer expectations.

What are the implications?

With the rise of real-time, responsive communications, marketing and comms are experiencing a massive acceleration in the traditional timeline needed to create branded content. This goes well beyond customer care — it is more like a dynamic content production capability that marketers need in order to sustain brand relationships.

Examples:

  • The Presidential debates: After Barack Obama’s first debate with Mitt Romney, a debate in which all sides realized Obama had turned in an incredibly poor showing, the Obama camp took just three hours to pour over the debate and edit together a commercial highlighting some of Romney’s more damning statements.
  • Oreo’s response to the Superbowl blackout was retweeted 15,000 times and received more than 20,000 likes within 24 hours. The graphic released during the blackout was “designed, captioned and approved within minutes,” thanks to members of 360i — the cookie company’s agency — gathered at a war room during the game.
  • The popularity of apps like SnapChat and Poke are creating time-limited content and offers based on immediacy.

This type of speed and responsiveness has less to do with strategy and planning and everything to do with logistics and coordination.

It calls on marketers to actually understand how organizations are structured, how governance needs to shift to enable more responsive organizations, how we staff our accounts to develop a drumbeat of meaningful content that engages, how we equip our clients to become digital publishers of real-time communications, and how we automate as many parts of the communications "supply chain" as possible.

In the next article, I will explore the design pattern that is rewiring business, "communities beat audiences."

April 09 2013

Privacy vs. speech

A week or so ago this link made its way through my tweet stream: “Privacy and the right to be forgotten.” Honestly I didn’t really even read it. I just retweeted it with a +1 or some other sign of approval because the notion that my flippant throwaway comments on the interwebs would be searchable forever has always left me a bit unsettled. Many times I’ve thought “Thank God the Internet wasn’t around when I was 20, because the things I would have said then online would have been order of magnitudes stupider than the stupidest things I say now.” I haven’t gotten any smarter, but I am a little bit better at filtering, and I rarely drink these days.

But today I read this piece from Stanford Law Review on the subject. And it’s smart. As is this simpler summary on NPR.

In so many domains the Internet creates these dichotomous tensions. There are two things we want and the Internet enables either, or neither, but not both.

I personally don’t think we need this kind of law. However, eventually it will become obvious that the cost of storing every damned thing I’ve ever uttered online exceeds any conceivable or achievable ROI from mining it. Hopefully, as companies realize this, they’ll offer a “feature” to solve this problem by letting me, and people like me, establish preferences for time to live and/or time to keep. For example, I’d be perfectly happy if Twitter enabled a one week time to live on every tweet I posted. They are meant to be ephemeral and it would be more than fine with me if their lifespans matched the level of thought I put into them.

March 07 2013

If followers can sponsor updates on Facebook, social advertising has a new horizon

This week, I found that one of my Facebook updates received significantly more attention that others I’ve posted. On the one hand, it was a share of an important New York Times story focusing on the first time a baby was cured of HIV. But I discovered something that went beyond the story itself: someone who was not my friend had paid to sponsor one of my posts.

Promoted post on Facebook.Promoted post on Facebook.

According to Facebook, the promoted post had 27 times as many views because it was sponsored this way, with 96% of the views coming through the sponsored version.

When I started to investigate what had happened, I learned that I’d missed some relevant news last month. Facebook had announced that users would be able to promote the posts of friends. My situation, however, was clearly different: Christine Harris, the sponsor of my post, is not my friend.

When I followed up with Elisabeth Diana, Facebook’s advertising communications manager, she said this was part of the cross-promote feature that Facebook rolled out. If a reporter posts a public update to his followers on Facebook, Diana explained to me in an email, that update can be promoted and “boosted” to the reporter’s friends.

While I couldn’t find Harris on Facebook, Diana said with “some certainty” that she was my follower, “in order to have seen your content.” Harris definitely isn’t my friend, and while she may well be one of my followers, I have no way to search them to determine whether that’s so.

In these situations, “sponsored” is the label you’ll see on promoted posts, Diana explained. She also confirmed to me that anyone can (or will be able to) sponsor/promote the public post of someone else, “if they are following them or are friends with them.”

If that happens, the sponsored post will then be boosted only to friends of its author, as opposed to an entire network of followers, said Diana. In the United States, she said that will cost about $7. If this is broadly rolled out, it will be interesting to see if PR companies or news outlets quietly opt to boost stories.

The only constant on Facebook is change

What this all seems to herald is a broader move where getting seen on Facebook will depend much more upon your willingness to pay for it. This is, of course, the dynamic that has long existed on radio and television, unless you can earn “free media” coverage by being newsworthy.

Given the recent kerfluffle over the cost of sharing on Facebook and criticism of the Facebook newsfeed, issues around algorithmic transparency only seem to be growing.

While Facebook posted a “fact check” in response to Nick Bilton’s New York Times column, arguing that “overall engagement on posts from people with followers has gone up 34% year over year,” my experience on the platform matches his: even with nearly 100,000 subscribers, my updates aren’t receiving anywhere close to as much engagement as they did before last November.

Given the reactions I’ve seen to his column, I believe that Bilton speaks for many journalists and others who have turned on subscribers, along with quite a few Page owners. What we see on Facebook is now driven not just by what our friends and family share but how we and others respond to it, as interpreted by algorithms, along with our interests, expressed by Likes, and the social networking giant’s need to make money.

I remember quite clearly when this shift began, on November 3, 2012. WolframAlpha analytics told me that an update with a screencap and annotation of Facebook’s prompt to “pay to promote” received the most comments of any picture in 2012.

Pay to Promote on Facebook imagePay to Promote on Facebook image

My feeling last November was that paid promotions would result in my updates becoming deprecated in the newsfeeds of others. Feelings, however, have to be balanced with data. Recent research suggests that, like most users, I have underestimated the audience size for my posts.

A new study (PDF) by the human-computer interaction group at Stanford University’s computer science department and Facebook’s data science team found that a median Facebook user reaches 60% of his or her friends over the course of a month.

Percentage of Facebook friends who saw a postPercentage of Facebook friends who saw a post

I’m not sure if making public updates sponsorable will fundamentally change how we use or experience the world’s biggest social network. Will having followers promote posts degrade your relationships with friends or your interactions with them? Does it create an incentive to be nicer to them? Perhaps the latter, but the rest of it seems uncertain.

What does seem clear is that, over the past five months, Facebook users have been seeing fewer updates from friends and more content targeted to their “Likes.” This now include updates containing links or ads regarding products, services, causes or politicians that their friends “Like” elsewhere online.

Given that Facebook is a public company that provides a free, advertising-supported product and needs to grow its revenues, these changes aren’t surprising. That said, these changes feel like one more step away from the clean, uncluttered network I joined in 2007 to privately share details about my life with friends and family.

If this new pay-to-promote feature catches on with brands and corporations, they will have a quietly effective new means to influence us through our friends. I still find Facebook valuable, but my relationship status with Facebook is now set to “it’s complicated.”

February 22 2013

Four short links: 22 February 2013

  1. Indiepocalypse: Harlem Shake Edition (Andy Baio) — After four weeks topping the Billboard Hot 100, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” was replaced this week by Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” the song that inspired the Internet meme.
  2. SplinterNetan Android app designed to create an unblockable Twitter like network that uses no cellular or Internet communications. All messages are transmitted over Bluetooth between users, creating a true peer-to-peer messaging system. All messages are anonymous to prevent retaliation by government authorities. (via Ushahidi)
  3. Disposable Satellites (Forbes) — tiny, near-disposable satellites for use in getting battlefield surveillance quickly [...] launched from a jet into orbit, and within a few minutes [...] provide soldiers on the ground with a zoomed-in, birds-eye view of the battlefield. Those image would be transmitted to current communications devices, and the company is working to develop a way to transmit them to smartphones, as well.
  4. Native iOS to HTML5 Porting Tool (Intel) — essentially a source-to-source translator that can handle a number of conversions from Objective-C into JavaScript/HTML5 including the translation of APIs calls. A number of open source projects are used as foundation for the conversion including a modified version of Clang front-end, LayerD framework and jQuery Mobile for widgets rendering in the translated source code. A porting aid, not a complete translator but a lot of the dog work is done. Requires one convert to Microsoft tools, however. (via Kevin Marks)

February 18 2013

January 10 2013

Four short links: 10 January 2013

  1. How To Make That One Thing Go Viral (Slideshare) — excellent points about headline writing (takes 25 to find the one that works), shareability (your audience has to click and share, then it’s whether THEIR audience clicks on it), and A/B testing (they talk about what they learned doing it ruthlessly).
  2. A More Complete Picture of the iTunes Economy — $12B/yr gross revenue through it, costs about $3.5B/yr to operate, revenue has grown at a ~35% compounded rate over last four years, non-app media 2/3 sales but growing slower than app sales. Lots of graphs!
  3. Visualizing the iOS App Store — interactive exploration of app store sales data.
  4. BORPHan Operating System designed for FPGA-based reconfigurable computers. It is an extended version of the Linux kernel that handles FPGAs as if they were CPUs. BORPH introduces the concept of a ‘hardware process’, which is a hardware design that runs on an FPGA but behaves just like a normal user program. The BORPH kernel provides standard system services, such as file system access to hardware processes, allowing them to communicate with the rest of the system easily and systematically. The name is an acronym for “Berkeley Operating system for ReProgrammable Hardware”.

Four short links: 10 January 2013

  1. How To Make That One Thing Go Viral (Slideshare) — excellent points about headline writing (takes 25 to find the one that works), shareability (your audience has to click and share, then it’s whether THEIR audience clicks on it), and A/B testing (they talk about what they learned doing it ruthlessly).
  2. A More Complete Picture of the iTunes Economy — $12B/yr gross revenue through it, costs about $3.5B/yr to operate, revenue has grown at a ~35% compounded rate over last four years, non-app media 2/3 sales but growing slower than app sales. Lots of graphs!
  3. Visualizing the iOS App Store — interactive exploration of app store sales data.
  4. BORPHan Operating System designed for FPGA-based reconfigurable computers. It is an extended version of the Linux kernel that handles FPGAs as if they were CPUs. BORPH introduces the concept of a ‘hardware process’, which is a hardware design that runs on an FPGA but behaves just like a normal user program. The BORPH kernel provides standard system services, such as file system access to hardware processes, allowing them to communicate with the rest of the system easily and systematically. The name is an acronym for “Berkeley Operating system for ReProgrammable Hardware”.

January 03 2013

Four short links: 3 January 2013

  1. Community Memory (Wired) — In the early 1970s, Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski and Lee Felsenstein set up a series of these terminals around San Francisco and Berkeley, providing access to an electronic bulletin board housed by a XDS-940 mainframe computer. This started out as a social experiment to see if people would be willing to share via computer — a kind of “information flea market,” a “communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interest,” according to a brochure from the time. What evolved was a proto-Facebook-Twitter-Yelp-Craigslist-esque database filled with searchable roommate-wanted and for-sale items ads, restaurant recommendations, and, well, status updates, complete with graphics and social commentary. But did it have retargeted ads, promoted tweets, and opt-in messages from partners? I THOUGHT NOT. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Latency Numbers Every Programmer Should Know (EECS Berkeley) — exactly that. I was always impressed by Artur Bergman’s familiarity with the speed of packets across switches, RAM cache misses, and HDD mean seek times. Now you can be that impressive person.
  3. Feds Requiring Black Boxes in All Vehicles (Wired) — [Q]uestions remain about the black boxes and data. Among them, how long should a black box retain event data, who owns the data, can a motorist turn off the black box and can the authorities get the data without a warrant. This is starting as regulatory compliance, but should be seized as an opportunity to have a quantified self.
  4. Average Age of StackExchange Users by Tag (Brian Bondy) — no tag is associated with people who have a mean age over 30. Did I miss the plague that wiped out all the programmers over the age of 30? Or does age bring with it supreme knowledge so that old people like me never have to use StackExchange? Yes, that must be it. *cough*

December 31 2012

Saving publishing, one tweet at a time

Traffic comes to online publishers in two ways: search and social. Because of this, writing for the tweet is a new discipline every writer and editor must learn. You’re not ready to publish until you find the well crafted headline that fits in 100 characters or so, and pick an image that looks great shared at thumbnail size on Facebook and LinkedIn.

But what of us, the intelligent reader? Nobody wants to look like a retweet bot for publishers. The retweet allows us no space to say why we ourselves liked an article.

Those of us with time to dedicate are familiar with crafting our own awkward commentaries: “gr8 insight in2 state of mob,” “saw ths tlk last Feb,” “govt fell off fiscal clf”. Most of the time it’s easier just to bookmark, or hit “read later,” and not put in the effort to share.

Rescue is at hand. The writer and programmer Paul Ford has created a bookmarklet, entitled Save Publishing. On activating the bookmarklet while viewing an article you wish to share, it highlights and makes clickable all the tweetable phrases from the page.

Presto! A quick way to share what you like from a piece without having to think too hard: as a bonus, it makes you look intelligent and as if you read the entire article.

"Save Publishing" highlights the tweetable phrases in an article"Save Publishing" highlights the tweetable phrases in an article

“Save Publishing” highlights the tweetable phrases in an article

Why will this simple bookmarklet really save publishing? Not singlehandedly, for sure, but anything that helps readers express what they like and share with each other is a boon to publishers and readers alike. Think of Save Publishing as Kindle’s highlight feature, writ large for the web.

Ford writes that Save Publishing started as a joke, and “now it’s serious and I use it all day.” I’ve certainly enjoyed it, enough to contribute a little code to the project myself. Best of all, it’s saving me from writing tweets for my own pieces!

December 26 2012

Big, open and more networked than ever: 10 trends from 2012

In 2012, technology-accelerated change around the world was driven by the wave of social media, data and mobile devices. In this year in review, we look back at some of the stories that mattered here at Radar and look ahead to what’s in store for 2013.

Below, you’ll find 10 trends that held my interest in 2012. This is by no means a comprehensive account of “everything that mattered in the past year” — try The Economist’s account of the world in 2012 or The Atlantic’s 2012 in review or Popular Science’s “year in ideas” if you’re hungry for that perspective — but I hope you’ll find something new to think about as 2013 draws near.

Social media

Social media wasn’t new in 2012, but it was bigger and more mainstream than ever. There were some firsts, from the first Presidential “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit to the first White House Google Hangout on Google Plus to presidential #debates to the first billion-user social network. The election season had an unprecedented social and digital component, from those hyperwired debates to a presidential campaign built like a startup. Expect even more blogging, tweeting, tumbling, streaming, Liking and pinning in 2013, even if it leaves us searching for context.

Open source in government

Open source software made more inroads in the federal government, from a notable policy at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency to more acceptance in the military.

The White House made its first commits on GitHub, including code for its mobile apps and e-petition platform, where President Obama responded personally to an e-petition for the first time.. The House Oversight Committee’s crowdsourced legislative platform  also went on GitHub. At year’s end, the United States (code) was on GitHub.

Responsive design

According to deputy technical lead Jeremy Vanderlan, the new AIDS.gov, launched in June, was the first full-site implementation of responsive web design for a federal government domain. They weren’t the first to automatically adapt how a website is displayed for the device a visitor is using — you can see next-generation web design at open.nasa.gov or in the way that fcc.gov/live optimizes to provide video to different mobile devices — but this was a genuine milestone for the feds online. By year’s end, Congress had also become responsive, at least with respect to its website, with a new beta at Congress.gov.

Free speech online

Is there free speech on the Internet? As Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman and others have been explaining for years, what we think of as the new “public square online” is complicated by the fact that these platforms for free expression are owned and operated by private companies. MacKinnon explored these issues, “Consent of the Networked,” one of best technology policy books of the year. In 2012, “Twitter censorship” and the Terms of Service for social networking services caused many more people to suggest a digital Bill of Rights, although “Internet freedom” is an idea that varies with the beholder.

Open mapping

On January 9th, I wondered whether 2012 would be “the year of the open map.” I started reporting on digital maps made with powerful new software and open data last winter. The prediction was partially born out, from Foursquare’s adoption to StreetEast moving from Google Maps to new investments in OpenStreetMap. In response to the shift, Google slashed its price for using the Google Maps API by 88%. In an ideal world, the new competition will result in both better maps and more informed citizens.

Data journalism

Data journalism took on new importance for society. We tracked its growing influence, from the Knight News Challenge to new research initiatives to Africa, and are continuing to investigate data journalism with a series of interviews and a forthcoming report.

Privacy and security

Privacy and security continued to dominate technology policy discussions in the United States, although copyright, spectrum, patents and Internet governance had significant prominence. While the Supreme Court decided GPS monitoring constitutes search under the 4th Amendment, expanded rules for data sharing in the U.S. government raised troubling questions.

In another year that will end without updated baseline privacy legislation from Congress, bills did advance in the U.S. Senate to reform electronic privacy and address location-based technology. After calling for such legislation, the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into data brokers.

No “cyber security” bill passed the Senate either, leaving hope that future legislation will balance protections with civil liberties and privacy concerns.

Networked politics

Politics were more wired in Election 2012 than they’d ever been in history, from social media and debates to the growing clout of the Internet. The year started off with the unprecedented wave of networked activism that stopped the progress of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in Congress.

At year’s end, the jury remains out on whether the Internet will act as a platform for collective action to address societal challenges, from addressing gun violence in the U.S. to a changing climate.

Open data

As open data moves from the information age to the action age, there are significant advances around the globe. As more data becomes available, its practical application has only increased in importance.

After success releasing health care data to fuel innovation and startups, US CTO Todd Park sought to scale open data and agile thinking across the federal government.

While it’s important to be aware of the ambiguity of open government and open data, governments are continuing to move forward globally, with the United Kingdom relaunching Data.gov.uk and, at year’s end, India and the European Commission launching open data platforms. Cities around the world also adopted open data, from Buenos Aires to Berlin to Palo Alto.

In the United States, friendly competition to be the nation’s preeminent digital city emerged between San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. Open data releases became a point of pride. Landmark legislation in New York City and Chicago’s executive order on open data made both cities national leaders.

As the year ends, we’re working to make dollars and sense of the open data economy, explicitly making a connection between releases and economic growth. Look for a report on our research in 2013.

Open government

The world’s largest democracy officially launching an open government data platform was historic. That said, it’s worth reiterating a point I’ve made before: Simply opening up data is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society — particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society. Adopting open data and digital government reforms is not quite the same thing as good government. Beware openwashing in government, as well as in other areas.

On that count, at year’s end, The Economist found that global open government efforts are growing in “scope and clout.” The Open Government Partnership grew, with new leadership, added experts and a finalized review mechanism. The year to come will be a test of the international partnership’s political will.

In the United States, an open government reality check at the federal level showed genuine accomplishments, but it leaves many promises only partially fulfilled, with a mixed record on meeting goals that many critics found transparently disappointing. While some of the administration’s transparency failures concern national security — notably, the use of drones overseas — science journalists reported restricted access to administration officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services.

Efforts to check transparency promises also found compliance with the Freedom of Information Act lacking. While a new FOIA portal is promising, only six federal agencies were on it by year’s end. The administration record on prosecuting whistleblowers has also sent a warning to others considering coming forward regarding waste or abuse in the national security.

Despite those challenges, 2012 was a year of continuing progress for open government at the federal level in the United States, with reasons for hope throughout states and cities. Here’s hoping 2013 sees more advances than setbacks in this area.

Coming tomorrow: 14 trends to watch in 2013.

Reposted bycheg00 cheg00

December 19 2012

Why isn’t social media more like real life?

I finally got around to looking at my personal network graph on Linkedin Labs the other day. It was a fun exercise and I got at least one interesting insight from it.

Take a look at these two well defined and distinct clusters in my graph. These are my connections with the startup I worked for (blue) and the company that acquired us in 2008 (orange). It is fascinating to me that all these years later the clusters remain so disconnected. There are shared connections within a common customer base, but very few direct connections across the clusters. I would love to see maps from some of my other colleagues who are still there to see if theirs show the same degree of separation. This was an acquisition that never really seemed to click and whether this is a picture of cause or effect, it maps to my experiences living in it.

That’s an aside though. What this graph really puts in stark relief is what every social network out there is learning about us. And this graph doesn’t really tell the whole story because it doesn’t represent edge weights and types, which they also know. Social networks know who we connect with, who we interact with, and the form and strength of those interactions.

But this post isn’t a privacy rant. I know they know this stuff and so do you. What this image got me thinking about again is why social networks aren’t using this information to create for us a social experience that is more like our real world, and frankly more in tune with our human-ness.

Social media properties plumb this data to know which ads to show us, and sometimes they use it to target messages to us more effectively. Remember those LinkedIn messages we got with the pictures of our friends? We all clicked on them. But they just don’t seem to be making that much effort to make use of what they know to innovate on our behalf, to improve our experience.

For example, Facebook knows all of this too and yet they continue to cling to the curious fiction that our social life is one giant flat maximally-connected equi-weighted graph. A single giant room where we all stand shoulder to shoulder wondering who all of these strangers are. A place that refuses to acknowledge the nuance and complexity of our real world relationships. And Twitter, for all it’s wonderfulness, does the same thing. And Google Plus? Why are you making me curate circles? You know what they are. At least take a guess at making them for me.

They call themselves social networks, but in terms of how they express themselves to us, their users, they seem to be using the word “network” the way broadcast television does. The experience is more analogous to a vast mesh of public access television networks than with the complexity and richness of real world social connections. You say something and it is presented to everyone, no matter which of those clusters they inhabit. So 10% care and the rest of them filter it.

In the natural world of human-to-human conversation, communication travels person to person, modified and attenuated along the way. Or, in some cases, amplified into a cluster-spanning meme. I think it would be fascinating to see social media properties experiment with recreating some of these more complex dynamics. What if I could “talk” to a well-defined cluster in my graph and see the strength of the signal attenuate rapidly as the distance from that core increased? Not to make it invisible, but perhaps make its volume more appropriate to the another cluster’s contextual center of gravity.

Or, in the inverse, knowing things about my graph Twitter could give me a really nice low-pass filter that gave preference to those in my stream that are “close” to me, or share a common edge type, but who might not be tweeting at high frequency.

There are lots of possibilities along these lines. And I know that a big part of what makes these services useful is their simplicity. Fine. But ultimately, I wonder is all of this network science going to benefit me in any direct way as a user of these services, or is the whole field of data science ultimately about reverse engineering me for sake of advertisers?

I wrote a post a while back about our paleolithic roots and the way we consume media. The “diet” part aside, what I’ve been thinking about a lot since is a digital design sense that caters to our neurological reality. Instead of designing for the convenience of the machines and demand that we adapt, design for who we actually are. Buggy. Tribal. Easily distracted. Full of bias. Curious. Whatever. I’m eager to see a more ambitious approach to design that infuses our digital worlds with more of the nuance and subtlety we find in the physical realm, all while preserving the reach that makes our digital world special.

November 07 2012

Four short links: 8 November 2012

  1. Closely — new startup by Perry Evans (founder of MapQuest), giving businesses a simple app to track competitors’ online deals and social media activity. Seems a genius move to me: so many businesses flounder online, “I don’t know what to do!”, so giving them a birds-eye view of their competition turns the problem into “do better than them!”.
  2. The FT in Play (Reuters) — very interesting point in this analysis of the Financial Times being up for sale: [Traditional] journalism doesn’t have economies of scale. The bigger that journalistic organizations become, the less efficient they get. (via Bernard Hickey)
  3. Big Data Behind Obama’s Win (Time) — huge analytics operation, very secretive, providing insights and updates on everything.
  4. How to Predict the FutureThis is the story of a spreadsheet I’ve been keeping for almost twenty years. Thesis: hardware trends more useful for predicting advances than software trends. (via Kenton Kivestu)

October 29 2012

Four short links: 29 October 2012

  1. Inside BJ Fogg’s Behavior Design Bootcamp — see also Day 2 and Day 3.
  2. Recollect — archive your social media existence. Very easy to use and I wish I’d been using it longer. (via Tom Cotes)
  3. Duplicating House Keys on a 3D Printer — never did a title say so precisely what the post was about. (via Jim Stogdill)
  4. Teleduplication via Optical Decoding (PDF) — duplicating a key via a photograph.

October 22 2012

What I learned about #debates, social media and being a pundit on Al Jazeera English

The Stream - Al Jazeera EnglishThe Stream - Al Jazeera EnglishEarlier this month, when I was asked by Al Jazeera English if I’d like to be go on live television to analyze the online side of the presidential debates, I didn’t immediately accept. I’d be facing a live international audience at a moment of intense political interest, without a great wealth of on-air training. That said, I felt honored to be asked by Al Jazeera. I’ve been following the network’s steady evolution over the past two decades, building from early beginnings during the first Gulf War to its current position as one of the best sources of live coverage and hard news from the Middle East. When Tahrir Square was at the height of its foment during the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was livestreaming it online to the rest of the world.

I’ve been showing a slide in a presentation for months now that features Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” as a notable combination of social media, online video and broadcast journalism since its inception.

So, by and large, the choice was clear: say “yes,” and then figure out how to do a good job.

As is ever the case with new assignments, what would follow from that choice wasn’t as easy as it might have seemed. Some of the nuts and bolts of appearing were quite straightforward: Do a long pre-interview with the producer about my work and my perspective on how the Internet and social media were changing the dynamics of a live political event like the debate. (I captured much of that thinking here at Radar, in a post on digital feedback loops and the debate.) Go through makeup each time. Get wired up with a mic and an earpiece that connected me to the control room. Review each show’s outline, script and online engagement channels, from Twitter to YouTube to Google+ to Reddit.

I was also afforded a few luxuries that bordered on the surreal: a driver that picked me up and took me home from the studio. Bottled spring water. A modest honorarium to hang out in a television studio for a couple of hours and talk for a few intense minutes about what moments from the debates resonated online and why. The realization that my perspective could be seen by millions in Al Jazeera English’s international audience. People would be watching. I’d need to deliver something worth their time.

Entering The Stream

Live television doesn’t give anyone much room for error. On this particular show, The Stream, there was no room for a deep dive into analysis. We had time to answer a couple of questions of what happened on social media during the debates. Some spots were 30 seconds. Adding context in that context is a huge challenge. How much do you assume the people viewing know? What moments do you highlight? For this debate show, I had to assume that they watched the two candidates spar — but were they following the firehouse of commentary on Twitter? Even if they did, given how personalized social media has become, it was inevitable that what viewers saw online would be different than what we did in the studio.

When we saw the campaigns focus on Twitter during the debates, I saw that as news, and said as much. While the campaigns were also on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube and blogs, along with the people formerly known as the audience, the forum for real-time social politics in the fall of 2012 remained Twitter, in all its character-limited glory.

Once the debates ended each night, campaigns and voters turned to the new watercoolers of the moment — blogs and article comment sections — to discuss what they’d seen. They went to Facebook and Google+ to share their reactions. To their credit, the Stream producers used Google+ Hangouts to immediately ask undecided voters what they thought and bring in political journalists to share their impressions. It’s a great use of the platform to involve more people in a show using the tools of the moment.

I’ve embedded each of the debate videos below, along with the full length episode of The Stream on data mining in the 2012 election. (I think I delivered, based upon the feedback I’ve received since in person and online, but I’m quite open to feedback if you’d like to comment.)

The Stream: Presidential Debates [10/3/2012]

The Stream: Vice Presidential Debate [10/11/2012]

The Stream: Presidential debates pre-show [10/16/2012]

On memes, social journalism and listening

The first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate spawned online memes. Given the issues before the country and the world, reducing these debates to those rapid expressions and the other moments that catalyzed strong online reactions was inherently self-limiting. The role of The Stream during the debates, however, was to look at these political events through the prism of social media to explain quickly and precisely what popped online. At this point, if you’re following the election, you’ve probably heard of at least two of them: Big Bird and “binders full of women.” (I explain both in the videos embedded above.) We also saw acmes of attention and debate conflict reflected online, from Vice President Biden’s use of “malarkey” to reaction to CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley’s real-time correction of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s challenge to President Obama regarding his use of “act of terror” on the day after the United States Embassy to Libya was attacked.

There are limits to what you can discern through highlighting memes. While it might be easy to dismiss memes as silly or out-of-context moments, I think they serve a symbolic, even totemic role for people who share them online. There’s also a simple historic parallel: animated GIFs are the political cartoons of the present.

Reducing the role of social media in networked political debates to just Twitter, GIFs and status updates, however, would be a mistake. The combination of embeddable online video, blogs and wikis are all part of a blueprint for democratic participation that enables people to explore the issues debated in depth, which is particularly relevant if cable news shows fail to do so.

There’s also a risk of distracting from what we can learn about how the candidates would make policy or leadership decisions. I participated in a Google+ Hangout hosted by Storify last week about social media and elections. The panel of “social journalists” shared their perspectives on how the #debates are being covered in this hyper-connected moment — and whether social media is playing a positive role or not.

Personally, I see the role of social media in the current election as a mixed bag. Networked fact checking is a positive development. The campaigns and media alike can find interesting trends in real-time sentiment analysis, if they dive into the social data. I also see an important role for the broader Internet in providing as much analysis on policy or context as people are willing to search for, on social media or off.

There’s a risk, however, that public opinion or impressions of the debates are being prematurely shaped by the campaigns and their proxies, or that confirmation bias is being reaffirmed through homophilic relationships that are not representative of the electorate as whole.

All that being said, after these three shows, I plan to watch the last presidential debate, on foreign policy, differently. I’m going to pocket my smartphone, sleeve my iPad and keep my laptop closed. Instead of tracking the real-time feedback during the debates and participating in the ebb and flow of the conversation, I’m just going to actively listen and take notes. There are many foreign policy questions that will confront the 45th President of the United States. Tonight, I want to hear the responses of the candidates, unadorned by real-time spin, fact checking, debate bingo or instant reaction.

Afterwards, I’ll go back online to read liveblogs, see where the candidates may have gone awry, and look abroad to see how the world is reacting to a debate on foreign policy that stands to directly affect billions of people who will never vote in a U.S. election. First, however, I’ll form my own impressions, supported by the virtues of solitude, not the clamor of social media.

August 29 2012

President Obama participates in first Presidential AMA on Reddit

Starting around 4:30 PM ET today, President Barack Obama made history by going onto Reddit to answer questions about anything for an hour. Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet, has been hosting “Ask Me Anything” forums — or AMAs – for years, including sessions with prominent legislators like Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), but to host a sitting President of the United States will elevate Reddit’s prominence in the intersection of technology and politics. AllThingsD has the story of Reddit got the President onto the site. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told Peter Kafka that “There are quite a few redditors at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave and at the campaign HQ — given the prominence of reddit, it’s an easy sell.”

President Obama made some news in the process, with respect to the Supreme Court decision that allowed super political action committees, or “Super PACs,” to become part of the campaign finance landscape.

“Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” commented President Obama. “Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

President Obama announced that he’d be participating in the AMA in a tweet and provided photographic evidence that he was actually answering questions in an image posted to Reddit (above) and in a second tweet during the session.

The timing of the AMA was at least a little political, coming after a speech in Virginia and falling upon the third day of the Republic National Convention, but it is unequivocally a first, in terms of a president directly engaging with the vibrant Reddit community. Many people also tweeted that they were having trouble accessing the page during the AMA, as tens of thousands of users tried to access the forum. According to The Verge, President Obama’s AMA was the most popular post in Reddit’s history, with more than 200,000 visitors on the site concurrently. (Presidential Q&As apparently melts servers almost as much as being Biebered.)

Today’s AMA is only the latest example of presidents experimenting with online platforms, from President Clinton and President Bush posting text on WhiteHouse.gov to President Obama joining rebooting that platform on Drupal. More recently, President Obama has participated in a series of online ‘town halls’ using social media, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the first presidential Hangout on Google+.

His use of all them deserves to be analyzed critically, in terms of whether the platforms and events were being used to shine the credential of a tech-savvy chief executive in an election year or to genuinely answer the questions and concerns of the citizens he serves.

In analyzing the success of such experiment in digital democracy, it’s worth looking at whether the questions answered were based upon the ones most citizens wanted to see asked (on Reddit, counted by upvotes) and whether the answers given were rehashed talking points or specific to the intent of the questions asked. On the first part of that rubric, President Obama scored high: he answered each of the top-voted questions in the AMA, along with a few personal ones.

 

On the rest of those counts, you can judge for yourself. The president’s answers are below:

“Hey everybody – this is barack. Just finished a great rally in Charlottesville, and am looking forward to your questions. At the top, I do want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with folks who are dealing with Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf, and to let them know that we are going to be coordinating with state and local officials to make sure that we give families everything they need to recover.”

On Internet freedom: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.”

On space exploration: “Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.”

On helping small businesses and relevant bills: “We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.”

Most difficult decision you had to make this term? ”The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.”

On the influence of money in politics ”Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

On prospects for recent college grads – in this case, a law school grad: I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.”

First thing he’ll do on November 7th: “Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.”

How do you balance family life and hobbies with being POTUS? ”It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!”

On +The White House homebrew recipe ”It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”

A step forward for digital democracy?

The most interesting aspect of that Presidential Hangout was that it introduced the possibility of unscripted moments, where a citizen could ask an unexpected question, and the opportunity for followups, if an answer wasn’t specific enough.

Reddit doesn’t provide quite the same mechanism for accountability at a live Hangout, in terms of putting an elected official on the spot to answer. Unfortunately, the platform of Reddit itself falls short here: there’s no way to force a politician to circle back and give a better answer, in the way, say, Mike Wallace might have on “60 Minutes.”

Alexis Madrigal, one of the sharpest observers of technology and society currently gracing the pages of the Atlantic, is clear about the issues with a Reddit AMA: “it’s a terrible format for extracting information from a politician.”

Much as many would like to believe that the medium determines the message, a modern politician is never unmediated. Not in a pie shop in Pennsylvania, not at a basketball game, not while having dinner, not on the phone with NASA, not on TV, not doing a Reddit AMA. Reddit is not a mic accidentally left on during a private moment. The kind of intimacy and honesty that Redditors crave does not scale up to national politics, where no one ever lets down his or her guard. Instead of using the stiffness and formality of the MSM to drive his message home, Obama simply used the looseness and casual banter of Reddit to drive his message home. Here more than in almost anything else: Tech is not the answer to the problems of modern politics.

Today’s exchange, however, does hint at the tantalizing dynamic that makes it alluring: that the Internet is connecting you and your question to the most powerful man in the world, directly, and that your online community can push for him to answer it.

President Obama ended today’s AMA by thanking everyone on Reddit for participating and wrote that “this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run.”

Well, it’s a start. Thank you for logging on today, Mr. President. Please come back online and answer some more follow up questions.

Reposted byRK RK

July 31 2012

On email privacy, Twitter’s ToS and owning your own platform

The existential challenge for the Internet and society remains is that the technology platforms constitute what many people regard as the new public square are owned by private companies. If you missed the news, Guy Adams, a journalist at the Independent newspaper in England, was suspended by Twitter after he tweeted the corporate email address of a NBC executive, Gary Zenkel. Zenkel is in charge of NBC’s Olympics coverage.

Like many other observers, I assumed that NBC had seen the tweet and filed an objection with Twitter about the email address being tweeted. The email address, after all, was shared with the exhortation to Adams’ followers to write to Zenkel about frustrations with NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, a number of which Jim Stogdill memorably expressed here at Radar and Heidi Moore compared to Wall Street’s hubris.

Today, Guy Adams published two more columns. The first shared his correspondence with Twitter, including a copy of a written statement from an NBC spokesman called Christopher McCloskey that indicated that NBC’s social media department was alerted to Adams’ tweet by Twittersecond column, which followed the @GuyAdams account being reinstated, indicated that NBC had withdrawn their original complaint. Adams tweeted the statement: “we have just received an update from the complainant retracting their original request. Therefore your account has been unsuspended.”

Since the account is back up, is the case over? A tempest in a Twitter teapot? Well, not so much. I see at least three different important issues here related to electronic privacy, Twitter’s terms of service, censorship and how many people think about social media and the Web.

Is a corporate email address private?

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple is at a loss to explain how tweeting this corporate email address qualifies public rises to the level of disclosing private information.

Can a corporate email address based upon a known nomenclature used by tens of thousands of people “private?” A 2010 Supreme Court ruling on privacy established that electronic messages sent on a corporate server are not private, at least from the employer. But a corporate email address itself? Hmm. Yes, the corporate email address Adams tweeted was available online prior to the tweet if you knew how to find it in a Web search. Danny Sullivan, however, made a strong case that the email address wasn’t widely available in Google, although Adams said he was able to find it in under a minute. There’s also an argument that because an address can be guessed, it is public. Jeff Jarvis and other journalists are saying it isn’t, using the logic that because NBC’s email nomenclature is standardized, it can be easily deduced. I “co-signed” Reuters’ Jack Shafer’s tweet making that assertion.

The question to ask privacy experts, then, is whether a corporate email address is “private” or not.

Fred Cate, a law professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, however, commented via email that “a corporate email address can be private, in the sense that a company protects it and has a legitimate interest in it not being disclosed.” Can it lost its private character due to unauthorized disclosure online? “The answer is probably and regrettably ‘it depends,’” he wrote. “It depends on the breadth of the unauthorized dissemination and the sensitivity of the information and the likely harm if more widely disclosed. An email address that has been disclosed in public blogs would seem fairly widely available, the information is hardly sensitive, and any harm can be avoided by changing the address, so the argument for privacy seems pretty weak to me.”

Danielle Citron, professor of law at the University of Maryland, argues that because Zenkel did not publish his corporate email address on NBC’s site, there’s an argument, though a weak one, that its corporate email addresses are private information only disclosed to a select audience.

“Under privacy tort common law, an unpublished home address has been deemed by courts to be private for purposes of public disclosure of private fact tort if the publication appeared online, even though many people know the address offline,” wrote Citon in an email. “This arose in a cyber harassment case involving privacy torts. Privacy is not a binary concept, that is, one can have privacy in public, at least according to Nader v. GM, the NY [Court of Appeals] found that GM’s zealous surveillance of Ralph Nader, including looking over his shoulder while he took out money from the bank, constituted intrusion of his seclusion, even though he was in public. Now, the court did not find surveillance itself a privacy violation. It was the fact that the surveillance yielded information Nader would have thought no one could see, that is, how much he took out of the bank machine.”

Email is, however, a different case that home addresses, as Citron allowed. “Far less people know one’s home address — neighbors and friends — if a home address is unlisted whereas email addresses are shared with countless people and there is no analogous means to keep it unpublished like home and phone addresses,” Citron wrote. “These qualities may indeed make it a tough sell to suggest that the email address is private.”

Perhaps ironically, the NBC executive’s email address has now been published by many major media outlets and blogs, making it one of the most public email addresses on the planet. Hello, Streisand effect.

Did Twitter break its own Terms of Service?

Specifically, was tweeting someone’s publicly available *work* email address (available online) a a violation of the Twitter’s rules. To a large extent, this hinges upon the answer to the first issue, of privacy.

If a given email address is already public — and it’s been available online for over a year, one line of thinking goes that it can’t be private. Twitter’s position is that it considers a corporate email address to be private and that sharing it therefore breaks the ToS. Alex McGillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, clarified the company’s approach to trust and safety in a post on Twitter’s blog:

We’ve seen a lot of commentary about whether we should have considered a corporate email address to be private information. There are many individuals who may use their work email address for a variety of personal reasons — and they may not. Our Trust and Safety team does not have insight into the use of every user’s email address, and we need a policy that we can implement across all of our users in every instance.

“I do not think privacy can be defined for third parties by terms of service,” wrote Cate, via email. “If Twitter wants to say that the company will treat its users’ email addresses as private it’s fine, but I don’t think it can convincingly say that  other email addresses available in public are suddenly private.”

“If the corporate email was published online previously by the company or by himself, it likely would not amount to public disclosure of private fact under tort law and likely would not meet the strict terms of the TOS, which says nonpublic. Twitter’s policy about email address stems from its judgment that people should not use its service to publicize non-public email addresses, even though such an address is not a secret and countless people in communication with the person know it,” wrote Citon. “Unless Twitter says explicitly, ‘we are adopting this rule for privacy reasons,’ there are reasons that have nothing to do with privacy that might animate that decision, such as preventing fraud.”

The bottom line is that Twitter is a private company with a Terms of Service. It’s not a public utility, as Dave Winer highlighted yesterday, following up today with another argument for a distributed, open system for microblogging. Simply put, there *are* principles for use of Twitter’s platform. They’re in the Rules, Terms of Service and strictures around its API, the evolution of which was recently walked through over at the real-time report.

Ultimately, private companies are bound by the regulations of the FTC or FCC or other relevant regulatory bodies, along with their own rules, not the wishes of users. If Twitter’s users don’t like them or lose trust, their option is to stop using the service or complain loudly. I certainly agree with Jillian C. York, who argues at the EFF that the Guy Adams case demonstrates that Twitter needs a more robust appeals process.

There’s also the question about how the ToS is applied to celebrities on Twitter, who are an attraction for millions of users. In the past, Justin Bieber tweeted someone else’s personal phone number. Spike Lee tweeted a home address, causing someone to receive death threats in Florida. Neither was suspended. Neither the celebrities nor offenders referenced, according to personal accounts, were suspended. In one case, @QueenOfSpain had to get a court order to see any action taken on death threats on Twitter. Twitter’s Safety team has absolutely taken actions in some cases but it certainly might look like there’s a different standard here. The question to ask is whether tickets were filed for Lee or Bieber by the person who was personally affected. Without a ticket, there would be no suspension. Twitter has not commented on that count, under their policy of not commenting about individual users.

Own your own platform

In the wake of this move, there should be some careful consideration by journalists who use Twitter about where and how they do it. McGillivray did explain where Twitter went awry, confirming that someone on the media partnership side of the house flagged a tweet to NBC and reaffirming the principle that Twitter does not remove content on demand:

…we want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up. The team working closely with NBC around our Olympics partnership did proactively identify a Tweet that was in violation of the Twitter Rules and encouraged them to file a support ticket with our Trust and Safety team to report the violation, as has now been reported publicly.

Our Trust and Safety team did not know that part of the story and acted on the report as they would any other.

As I stated earlier, we do not proactively report or remove content on behalf of other users no matter who they are. This behavior is not acceptable and undermines the trust our users have in us. We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is — whether a business partner, celebrity or friend. As of earlier today, the account has been unsuspended, and we will actively work to ensure this does not happen again.

As I’ve written elsewhere, looking at Twitter, censorship and Internet freedom, my sense is that, of all of the major social media players, Twitter has been one of the leaders in the technology community for sticking up for its users. It’s taken some notable stands, particularly with respect to the matter of fighting to make Twitter subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department regarding user data public.

“Twitter is so hands off, only stepping in to ban people in really narrow circumstances like impersonation and tweeting personal information like non-public email addresses. It also bans impersonation and harassment understood VERY NARROWLY, as credible threats of imminent physical harm,” wrote Citron.  ”That is Twitter’s choice. By my lights, and from conversations with their safety folks, they are very deferential to speech. Indeed, their whole policy is a “we are a speech platform,” implying that what transpires there is public speech and hence subject to great latitude.” 

Much of the good will Twitter had built up, however, may have evaporated after this week. My perspective is that this episode absolutely drives home (again) the need to own your own platform online, particularly for media entities and government. While there is clearly enormous utility in “going where the people are” online to participate in conversations, share news and listen to learn what’s happening, that activity doesn’t come without strings or terms of service.

To be clear, I don’t plan on leaving Twitter any time soon. I do think that McGillivray’s explanation highlights the need for the company to get its internal house in order, in terms of a church and state relationship between its policy and safety team, which makes suspension decisions, and its media partnerships team, which works with parties that might be aggrieved by what Twitter users are tweeting. If Twitter becomes a media company, a future that this NBC Olympics deal suggests, such distinctions could be just as important for it as the “church and state” relationship between traditional newspaper companies or broadcasters.

While that does mean that a media organization could be censored by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack (a tactic used in Russia) and that it must get a domain name, set up Web hosting and a content management system, the barrier to entry on all three counts has radically fallen.

The open Internet and World Wide Web, fragile and insecure as they may seem at times, remain the surest way to publish what you want and have it remain online, accessible to the networked world. When you own your own platform online, it’s much harder for a third party company nervous about the reaction of advertisers or media partners to take your voice away.

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