The serious social media edition
As of writing the FryUp, the terrible news about Mumbai being turned into a warzone by terrorists is streaming in. Scores of people are dead and wounded in the attacks. Twitter tweets are rolling in with second-by-second updates, people are publishing eyewitness accounts on blogs and there are video clips and digital photos everywhere on the internet. People are tracking the attacks on Google Maps, such as the one above set up by Omar Chatriwala from Al Jazeera’s English news site. Wounded and dead victims are being listed in Google Docs collaborative spreadsheets and there’s little doubt that social media fills a crucial function in helping people to deal with the enormity of catastrophes like the Mumbai attacks. There’s no shortage of information about the horrible events if you’re on the internet, in other words. Mobile phones and devices with Internet connections and cameras make this possible, as people on the ground can share their experiences with the rest of the world in seconds, just like the London Bombings in 2005. Where does this leave Old Media, which is struggling with the concept of social media? While TV was quick to obtain footage from the ground, print and online wire stories look dated almost immediately and don’t convey the horror like personal accounts do. It’s interesting to see how much of the current coverage is based on “user generated content”. It’s been said before that journalism as we knew it is pretty much dead thanks to the internet but the Mumbai terror and how people discussed it on social media really underscores the fact… that journalism has changed. I would say it’s changed for the better, with many more sources and witnesses out there ready to share their experiences — and, thanks to networked technology, the information reaches journalists fast. The biggest problem with the huge amounts of information coming in is how to make sense of it. Which are trusted sources, for instance, that won’t publish false or exaggerated information? You can’t tell that very easily. We really need context for what happened in Mumbai, with seasoned, trusted sources that can help analyse and interpret the events and this is where good journalism comes in. It’s a massive challenge for journalists though, to wade into an enormous flow of information and apply their analytical skills and experience to make sense of what’s going on. You have to be technically adept and permanently plugged in to the internet and somehow or the other be able to think and verify the information coming in, while trying be first out with the news online. Simply reporting by churning out material without thinking doesn’t add anything anymore, and readers will get better information from blogs written by themselves. Amazingly enough, given all the above, there are managers of some news organisations who still think that relying on the phone and wire services, with social media and much of the internet firewalled off by corporate MIS makes for an acceptable work environment for journalists. Clearly, that’s not how a news organisation should work in 2008. It’s great to see publications like the Sydney Morning Herald online blending traditional journalism with social media to provide a full account of events as they unfold, but really, is there any other way of doing it now? — Google Docs spreadsheet of terror attack victims — Arun Shanbhag’s blog on the Mumbai attacks
Robert X Cringely
Schools, fools, and the tools of ignorance
If not for help from a handful of geeks, Connecticut school teacher Julie Amero would be in prison right now for crimes she didn't commit. What's wrong with this picture? Julie Amero is free at last. If this were the 1970s, Bob Dylan might have written a song about her. Today it's geeks who came to her rescue. Amero's "crime": In October 2004, the substitute teacher from Norwich, Connecticutt, was surfing the Net on a computer inside a middle school classroom when porn ads began popping up all over the screen. She didn't turn the computer off, because school officials expressly told her not to. Someone reported the incident, and Amero was charged with four counts of endangering minors. In January 2007, a jury convicted Amero of surfing XXX sites in the classroom. Amero was looking at 40 years in the slammer when geeks around the country — most notably Sunbelt Software CEO Alex Eckelberry — read of her verdict and immediately recognised the telltale signs of a spyware infection. They went to work on Amero's behalf, urging the judge for a retrial (which was granted in June 2007). According to Hartford Courant blogger Rick Green: The state never conducted a forensic examination of the hard drive and instead relied on the expertise of a Norwich detective, with limited computer experience. Experts working for Amero ridiculed the state's evidence, saying it was a classic case of spyware seizing control of the computer. Other experts also said that Amero's response — she failed to turn off the computer — was not unusual in cases like this.... Among other things, the security experts found that the Norwich school system had failed to properly update software that would have blocked the pornography in the first place. Amero isn't totally exonerated. She agreed to plead guilty to "disorderly conduct" (a misdemeanor), pay $100, and have her teaching credentials revoked. The state still refuses to acknowledge it was mistaken. Lord only knows if the school ever cleaned up its computers. Somebody needs to revoke the credentials of Norwich school administrators and prosecutors — or at least make them stay after school and learn something about the machines they put inside their classrooms. The larger, uglier verdict in this case is the terminal cluelessness of everyone involved — from administrators who allowed spyware-infested computers into schools, to the DA's office, to the "expert witness" who wasn't actually an expert, to the first judge who refused to let the defence present forensic evidence on Amero's behalf, to the jury, and finally to Amero herself. All of them get an F in 21st-century survival skills. The worst part: this didn't happen in a third-world hovel or a ghetto slum. It happened inside the educational and legal systems in one of the richest states in our country. And it's likely to happen again. Per the AP report: New London County State's Attorney Michael Regan said Friday that the state was prepared to go to trial again, but agreed to the reduce the felony charges to a single misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct because Amero had health problems. "I have no regrets. Things took a course that was unplanned," Regan said. "For some reason, this case caught the media's attention." Good thing it did. Otherwise, an innocent woman would be rotting in prison.