Posts tagged ‘social media’

How Information Travels

By , 4 May, 2011, 3 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been reporting round-the-clock on the Pakistani fallout of the bin Laden assassination. In the process, I’ve been able to play a small part in one of the fascinating side-stories of the assassination: the discovery of Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad local who live-tweeted the sounds of the raid (helicopters overhead, then a massive explosion when one copter crashed) without knowing what he was hearing.

The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers has done a great piece on how news of Athar traveled, and my role appears to have been, essentially, that I sit at the intersection of two networks: the network of people who follow news on Pakistan, and the network of American journalists, media critics and wonks. From the first network, I picked up early news of an unidentified helicopter crash in Abbottabad, and passed it on to Chris, who was visiting New York and watching the news alongside me. Chris did some clever sleuthing (more on that in a moment) to learn more, and came across Athar’s tweets. We both tweeted about Athar at around 12:38 AM on Sunday.

As Chris describes in his stellar post on the experience, my tweet happened to get traction (despite my having a relatively small follower base) because it went to my second network: American journalists, media critics and policy wonks who were, at precisely that moment, trying to get more information on the raid President Obama had described an hour before.

Chris’ role was different. He had the instinctive knowledge of technology to think of using Google Realtime to pull up tweets about Abbottabad from before Obama’s announcement, he recognized Athar’s tweets for what they were (a live account of the raid) and in describing them as such, provided the narrative frame that others could latch on to.

Here’s Chris’ account of what made Athar’s tweets so compelling:

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

I agree with this, but I would add something else. At least for me, the power of Athar’s story was as a reminder that ‘war zones’ are also people’s homes. It brought to life the mundane details of daily life, and the poignant struggle of trying to live daily life–in Athar’s case, just to have a quiet work night–in one of the most dangerous and maddening countries on earth. As Athar told me when I interviewed him for Forbes, he moved to Abbottabad a few years ago from Lahore precisely to shield his family from the violence then engulfing the city.

What we saw in his tweets was a man who had run from the madness only to have it running after him. What we witnessed was the moment he realized it had caught up with him. That tension between what people really care about in Pakistan and the violence that prevents them from moving on with their lives, the bitter irony of life there, is something I’ve written on often. Yet no matter how much reporting I do, it doesn’t cease to affect me emotionally. And when, after the news about bin Laden had broken, Athar realized what had happened, and began to receive an avalanche of requests from journalists, he tweeted, “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” For me, that’s an absolute punch to the gut.

Chris’ post makes another really great point about how Athar’s relationship to Twitter and his sudden celebrity progressed during the first 24 hours of the story:

As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

I’ve really nothing to add here, except to say that I think this is very much the ideal of how social media and citizen journalism is meant to work. Not everyone can grow into their new status as a one-person-broadcast-network with such speed and grace, which is why I’m so often skeptical of how it will evolve as a model, but Athar’s transformation is nothing short of a triumph.

Fresh Thoughts on Aid

By , 23 September, 2010, No Comment

I’ve got two posts up today on ‘out of the box’ thoughts about aid. Namely, the push for a more political/human rights approach, the push for a financial transactions tax, and the push for more reliance on public pressure and social media awareness campaigns. Me, I’m in favor of the first two. I’m also pretty seriously impressed by the two pols who made those arguments, Angela Merkel and Bernard Kouchner. Merkel for her ability to take what is actually a left-wing idea and fit it into a center-right argument. Kouchner for his astounding rhetorical gifts–I’ve never seen anyone own a press pool that way. I particular enjoyed when he told one reporter that she was asking a ‘non question.’ You can enjoy his witticisms here.

As for the third, everyone here will already know that I’m a skeptic about digital democracy. So I won’t repeat myself, just refer you to the interview.

Smug Edition

By , 3 June, 2010, 5 Comments

Since I started writing professionally in 2005, I’ve covered a pretty wide terrain: from tech to media to energy to regulation to macroeconomics to international geostrategy. The upside of that is the rich and diverse set of experiences I’ve had. The downside is that I rarely stay on a beat long enough to see a company or person I’ve followed through their career.

This blog is great fun for me because I get to write about all my beats at the same time, to keep my fingers in multiple pies even when, professionally, I’m covering just one or two.

Today, I learned that Lending Club, a peer-to-peer loan site has hit the 10 million dollar mark in loans, secured its Series C round of funding and started to tap top talent from other e-businesses. I haven’t written about social media in a while, but way back in 2007, I wrote about Lending Club for BusinessWeek, where social media was my primary beat. I said then:

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I Told Ya So

By , 31 August, 2009, No Comment

Virginia Heffernan’s column in the New York Times Magazine is one of the highlights of my weekend. It might be because she writes so wittily; it might be because I read the magazine on the treadmill and her column, which appears within the first ten pages, is often the last thing I read before I become too sweaty and tired to think straight.

But I digress.

Her column this week is about the Facebook Exodus, the impending backlash of users fleeing the site because they are frustrated with its increased busy-ness and diminished privacy. On the one hand, I think she nailed the trend. On the other hand, I’m a wee bit bitter since I’ve been saying as much on this blog and elsewhere for awhile, and I’m not alone.

What do you think? Can the Facebook bubble burst?

The FaceFeed Ponzi Scheme

By , 14 August, 2009, 1 Comment

So I’ve been a bit swamped this week with several projects I want to blog about soon. As I result, I missed out on the chance to join the wave of insta-hype surrounding Facebook’s big move to buy FriendFeed. Late to the party as I am, I have a few thoughts.

The conventional wisdom that has formed around the deal is that Facebook is trying to get through FriendFeed some of the ‘live’ features it now lacks and at which insurgent Twitter excels. In particular, as Jason Kincaid points out, FriendFeed shows at the top of a page the most recent items commented on, not just the most recent items posted.

To be honest, I’m not sure this is something I’d want to see on Facebook. Effectively, this would mean turning each comment into its own status update in the News Feed. Given that well over half of the updates in my News Feed are uninteresting or irrelevant (no offense, friends, but the photos of your lunch food are just not ‘news.’), the likelihood that I care what others have to say about them (‘Hey, that’s tasty-looking? Where did you get it?’) are slim-to-none.

The reason it is valuable to Facebook is because it wants to keep enticing corporate and brand users of the site–people who set up a FB to get fans, not friends–and those people are interested in having their updates go viral. Keeping them at the top of fans’ feeds for multiple days, a FriendFeed-style system would certainly help. (In Twitter’s system, every ‘retweet’ or reply to a post is treated as a separate post.)

Even if Twitter is better at this kind of broadcasting than Facebook, neither site has a method in place to monetize the free marketing it’s giving to companies yet. Twitter has no ads; Facebook has tons of them–often really annoying ones promising me services I can’t type on a PG-13 blog– but no profits. There are more users who ignore the ads that ones that click through and advertisers aren’t going to pay much for real estate on a page that delivers poor click-through results.

The promise social networks keep making to the venture capitalist backers is that one day, the profits from advertisers will come, so they should keep investing in growing the user base. The promise social networks make to advertisers, meanwhile, is that one day, an infinitely large user base will make their ad dollars worth it. This deal takes my skepticism to a new level: the VCs have been convinced to let Facebook, a money-loser, spend money to buy FriendFeed, another money-loser, in order to get those future users and future ad dollars that will pay back everyone on the chain.

In other words, social networks promise each audience–VCs and advertisers–future returns based on investment collected from the other group, and pay out returns to neither. Instead, they sustain and rollover those promises over multiple years, increasing the amount of money invested and the number of layers of investment over time. Last I checked, that strategy was called a Ponzi scheme.

Tweeting in Tehran

By , 16 June, 2009, No Comment

The fascinating thing about the media wars is that all sides see reality as supporting their cause. Take the election/protest story coming out of Iran this week. New media activists are overjoyed to see Twitter playing such a key role in mobilizing people and getting words and images from the protests out to the rest of the world. But, as a BBC reporter pointed out to me this week, the protesters are most concerned with making sure their efforts get on big outfits like the Beeb.


Here’s an obvious question no one is asking: how many new media startups actually HAVE staff reporters out there covering this? As far as I can tell, zero. Yet instead of admitting that they don’t have the institutional strength required to operate in places like Tehran, the bloggers are harping on the MSM for THEIR lack of coverage. It’s been thin, admittedly, but so far the outfits doing seriously awesome work on this–the NYTimes and the Atlantic–are seriously mainstream, despite Andrew Sullivan’s attempts to cast himself as an upstart. Sullivan, to his credit, has backed down from his rage.

Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle admits, the further we go into the media apocalypse, the harder it will get for even big institutions to support foreign bureaus. Increasingly, “there are too few journalists in too few places to cover a big story like this.” If we can’t be on the ground to cover stories like this, haven’t we failed at our most essential mission?

GM Gets Burned on YouTube, Again

By , 13 June, 2009, No Comment

As you’ve perhaps seen, if you watch any television, GM is running some ads to acquaint us with the friendly face of its bankruptcy filing. You can watch the whole slew of ads on the campaign’s website. Bloggers have been snarking about this website, but I think it’s pretty sleek and is designed to signal, among other things, that GM understands the new media world and the new media/young consumer. That’s why the campaign is called “Re:Invention” and each page has a title that begins with “Re:” like an email.

A few years ago, GM was internet-incompetent. It knew the web was out there, and important, but it didn’t know how to harness the web’s power for its brand. Like many companies, it tried to access user-generated content by hosting a contest to have users design its next Chevy ad. The ads that came back were spoofs and assaults on the company for its gas-guzzling contributions to global warming. Oops.

There are some similar spoof ads emerging on YouTube! to mock the “Re:Invention” campaign. But as I’ve been researching all year for my Columbia thesis, GM has actually come a long way technologically since 2006: internally, company engineers, designers etc. have learned to use the web to chat to bloggers and car enthusiasts about their work and follow the tech sector’s lead in taking user suggestions about products. They are incorporating viral media, but WAY before the product launch/advertising stage, so most of us don’t know it’s happening. I can’t share details–unless I find a way to turn my thesis into a real life magazine article–so you’ll have to take my word for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m any more optimistic about the bankruptcy itself, or what kind of GM will emerge at summer’s end, but I wanted to correct the record. And also to ask, what do you think of the “Re:Invention” site?

Round in Circles

By , 12 June, 2009, 2 Comments

My first story as a Fortune reporter is up, and predictably, it’s about social networks. In particular it’s about Facebook’s new offer to give users custom urls/usernames the way other networks do. I wrote a little about social media during my time at Forbes, but not nearly as much as I did at BusinessWeek or as an undergraduate newspaper columnist, so this is a bit of a homecoming. Plus ca change…

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Experience Does Matter

By , 23 October, 2008, 1 Comment

The people want change, yes, but not for its own sake. Knowing how to make change rationally? Well, that comes with experience. No, I’m not resurrecting the Democratic primary. I’m talking about Yahoo! and Facebook.

The Facebookers made it big by showing up straight from Harvard with a lot of intuitive genius about marketing, but little-to-no experience with the nitty-gritty of graphic design. When they started out, they had so few features that it didn’t matter where and how they placed them. The page was sleek and clean because it had to be. As they’ve added more and more elements, however, Facebook has grown cluttered and this is not the first time I’ve complained about it.

In an attempt to deal with clutter, Facebook issued a major redesign this summer but it’s not going over well. From their business/product-oriented perspective, the new page makes sense–it effectively merges all the features [new friends acquired, new wall posts, new photos] into one information flow and therefore should make everyone happy. But it doesn’t look very appealing, and doesn’t recognize that most users don’t see all Facebook activity as equal. The Facebookers, it turns out, are very smart marketers and managers, but they’re not great designers because they have zero experience with design.

By contrast, the folks at Yahoo! have been running and designing websites for eons. So when it came time to spruce up the Yahoo! homepage, they knew how to implement a design:

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