Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Facebook killing social activism?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling "The Tipping Point," has written an article in the most recent edition of The New Yorker magazine in which he basically asserts that Facebook and other social networks are a waste of any social activist's time. Social networks encourage "weak-tie" connections between people who know each other only glancingly, he says, while powerful social uprisings like the Civil Rights movement sprout from the strong ties that bind close friends. He notes that it was close friends who sat down at a lunch counter in 1960s Greensboro, N.C., sparking the sit-ins that helped power the Civil Rights movement to the forefront of the nation's consciousness. He suggests an appeal from a Facebook friend you barely know won't convince you to risk your life for a cause, no matter how worthy.

I think he's oversimplified things. (The lack of any mention of the Obama campaign's groundbreaking use of social networks in the 2008 seems a glaring omission, for one thing). True, you won't man the barricades just because a Twitter follower you've never met asks you to. But within most of today's social networks, there are degrees of connectedness. Some folks you barely know. Others are your brothers, your cousins, your college roommates, your co-workers. It's an artificial construct to say online connections are inherently shallow. They do feature more of the who-are-you-again type encounters, but that's not all you find. It's as artificial as trying to suggest the development of the telephone made people less connected.

That said, I do see a good deal of Gold Rush-style hucksterism in social networks. And I do tend to think the discussions on social networks can too easily devolve toward the trivial. With thousands of cute pet pictures and pratfall videos and mundane musings cluttering the view, there's a lot on social networks I could do without. (Full confession: yes, my dog has made his Facebook appearance). But I generally figure the more communication between people, the better off we all are. If Gladwell really wanted a meaty bone to pick, he should have gone after the privacy issues that keep dogging Facebook and other networks. It's quite another thing all together when people you don't want to communicate with can eyeball you without permission.

What do you think? Are social networks tricking people into thinking they're making meaningful social connections when they're really not?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Censorship debate erupts around expletive-studded performance

A word war's breaking out today on Facebook in the wake of artist John W. Love Jr.'s controversial performance during last week's TEDxCharlotte conference. Love, an actor, performance artist and poet, says he was invited to perform an excerpt from his interdisciplinary work, Black Lily Billy, at the conference. The conference is aimed at putting forward cutting edge "big ideas" for Charlotte in the realms of technology, entertainment and design. Love has put up a Facebook note slamming organizer Candice Langston for pulling the plug on the conference's live Internet feed during his performance. (Caution: page contains graphic language). He said she did it because he used "a few" expletives during his performance. He said he'd asked organizers if they understood the nature of his work beforehand, and he'd been assured it was ok. He said the decision to cut the feed "reeks of cowardice," and amounts to "censorship in its ugliest of forms." Langston told me in a phone interview: "I was concerned that there might have been children watching...I'm very, very sorry that John feels we censored him or offended him or oppressed him in some way."

Comments are rapidly pouring into the page as it spreads through Charlotte's Facebook circles. Many support Love. Others are defending Langston, saying she had an obligation to cut off the feed since she didn't warn viewers in advance of the graphic content. I left to write my story on the conference before Love's performance, unfortunately, so I don't have first-hand knowledge of what he did. It's certainly causing a stir!

What do you think? Should the TEDx folks have pulled the plug?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

More problems for Facebook

For the second day in a row, Facebook's not working properly. About a half-hour ago, Facebook sent out this message: "We're currently experiencing some site issues causing Facebook to be slow or unavailable for some people. We are working to resolve this issue as quickly as possible." Yesterday, the social network said the issue was something about a third-party networking provider causing all the trouble. Hmmm....Two days in a row. Hope it's not a sign of bigger problems for the world's favorite digital watering hole.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Facebook suffering technical problems today

If your Facebook page has been running annoyingly slow today -- or even freezing -- you're not the only one. I just shot an e-mail to Facebook's PR department and got back the following response:

"We are experiencing an issue with a third party networking provider that is causing problems for some people trying to connect to Facebook. We are in contact with this provider in order to explore what can be done to resolve the issue. In the meantime, we are working on deploying changes to bypass the affected connections."

No word yet on what third-party provider's the culprit. A (rather snippy) Facebook rep says they don't know how many of the social network's 500-million-plus subscribers are affected. Will pass more information along if or when I get it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Identity thieves target Charlotte woman

My friend and co-worker, Marion Paynter, had the misfortune recently of becoming the target of one of the most vexing crimes of the digital age: identity theft. More specifically, the old I'm-stuck-in-Europe-please-wire-money trick the scammers love. Marion learned back in July that her G-mail account had been hacked, and this message had been sent out to all her contacts:


I'm writing this with tears in my eyes,my family and I came down here to North England, United Kingdom for a short vacation. unfortunately,we were mugged at the park of the hotel where we stayed,all cash and credit card were stolen off us but luckily for us we still have our passports with us.

We've been to the Embassy and the Police here but they're not helping issues at all and our flight leaves in few hours from now but we're having problems settling the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave until we settle the bills. Well I really need your financially assistance..Please, let me know if you can help us out?

Am freaked out at the moment!!

Marion Paynter…

One of her friends responded to the hacker, and he asked her to wire $1,600 to a specific account. But she, like Marion's other friends, didn't fall for it. (Interestingly, she notes, the hacker sent that message from a separate Yahoo account he'd set up in Marion's name). He'd also changed her G-mail account's password, her secret question and her secondary e-mail account she'd used to set up the account. So, she couldn't get into the account, and it took her days of work to get Google to recognize she was indeed Marion Paynter and not a hacker herself.

Almost four weeks after the hacker attacked, Google finally sent her an alert saying "suspicious activity" had been noticed on her account. Google said the attack originated in Nigeria. To this day, she says, she still doesn't know how the hacker got into her account. Her advice: change your password regularly and make sure it's secure. (Click here to get a Google engineer's advice on dealing with this common scam).

What about you? Have you had any close encounters with identity thieves? Any tips to share about how to stay safe?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wireless devices taking over

I still remember how cool I thought I was when I first used my Blackberry's Bluetooth capability to transmit pictures from my phone to the digital photo printer at Target. There's a lot more of that kind of wireless connectivity in our future, at least according to an AT&T rep who stopped by the newsroom today. Cathy Lewandowski came bearing a duffle bag packed with goodies any tech-nerd would love. She had the iPad, a couple of cool smartphones, and an interactive photo frame that allows family and friends to e-mail you pictures that automatically show up in the frame. (It runs on AT&T's 3G network with a subscription starting at $5.99).

But the Vitality GlowCap, a pill bottle cap that connects to the AT&T network, is what really got me to thinking. The fact that a pill bottle cap -- the most mundane everyday object imaginable -- can transmit data makes you realize how ubiquitous wireless technology will be in our near future. This cap is almost like a digital medical scold. When it's time for a pill, it glows. If you don't take the pill, it emits a reminder tone. If you still don't take it, it can initiate a phone call or text message to you. Anytime you open the bottle, data gets recorded and relayed to the Vitality folks. It can even keep track of when your prescription needs refilling. One one level, it's pretty cool. On another, it gets you to thinking of that Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, where technology minds every move you make.

My daughter's reading George Orwell's "1984" for school. She keeps asking me what it means. I keep wondering why she doesn't get it. It now occurs to me why she doesn't: the freakily futuristic (and potentially invasive) advances Orwell dreamed of are now just part of the architecture of every day life. Technological gadgets like the GlowCap are becoming so pervasive today's teenagers don't see them for the minor miracles they are. They're just...there.

Interesting times we live in.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Charlotte cellphone reception lags other cities

If you've found yourself cursing your cellphone (and your carrier) for another dropped call, this next bit of news won't surprise you. According to the just-unveiled 2010 J.D. Power and Associates Wireless Call Quality Performance study, Charlotte has more problems per 100 calls than any of the top 27 U.S. cellphone markets. Charlotte has 19 problems per 100 calls, while at the other end of the spectrum, Tampa, Fla., logged just 5 problems per 100 calls:

What gives? I've got a call in now to a J.D. Power researcher, and hope to round up some details on why we apparently get such crappy reception here in the Queen City. Not surprisingly, some of the wireless companies are already jumping in with their spin. Verizon was happy to point out that it ranks highest in the Southeast in call quality. AT&T earlier today shot me an e-mail touting its nearly $200 million in investments in its N.C. network.

What do you think? Does call reception seem worse here than in other cities?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Five Facebook buttons I wish existed

A while back, a fake Facebook "dislike" button scam tricked people into giving out their personal information. Users have been wanting a "dislike" button for the longest, but the friendly folks at Facebook offer nothing beyond the "like" button for one-click response to other people's posts.

That got me to thinking of other buttons I wish Facebook had:

  1. The Yawn button. Enough already with the "on the way to the post office" posts.
  2. The "Kanye West" button. For that special friend who insists on sharing raw-edged opinions about politics, religion or other touchy subjects in hopes of ticking people off.
  3. The "Tiger Woods" oversharing button. Here's an authentic, I-did-not-make-this-up example: "Thought twice was enough. She's insatiable."
  4. The "get a room" button. A Motel 6 icon for those lucky-but-annoying couples who just insist on cooing and sweet-talking each other on Facebook.
  5. The "And...who are you again?" button. (Like it hasn't happened to you too!)
What buttons do you wish Facebook had?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Average teen texts 50 times a day

If you're the parent of a teenager with a cellphone, this won't come as news to you, but a new study just out says youngsters ages 12-17 send and receive five times as many texts per day as adults. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, teens send and receive about 50 texts per day, compared to about 10 a day for adults.

Also in the report:

  • Texting by adults has increased over the past nine months from 65 percent of adults sending and receiving texts to 72 percent.
  • Five percent of all adult texters send more than 200 text messages per day, or more than 6,000 a month. By comparison, 15 percent of teens use texts more than 200 times a day.
  • The average adult cell phone owner makes and receives about five voice calls per day.
  • Some 65 percent of adults with cellphones say they have slept with the phone on or right next to their bed.
How does your (or your teen's) cellphone usage compare to the averages here? And if you fall into the 200-plus club, what in the world are you texting about so frequently??