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November 28, 2008

Mother love

It will be very easy for people to take away the wrong lessons from the story of Lori Drew, who this week was found guilty of several counts of computer fraud in a case of cyberbullying that drove 13-year-old Missouri native Megan Meier to suicide.

The gist: in 2006, 49-year-old Lori Drew, a neighbor of Meier's who believed that Meier had spread gossip about her own 13-year-old daughter, a former friend. With help from her daughter and her 18-year-old assistant, Drew created a MySpace page belonging to a fictitious 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. For some weeks Evans sent Meier flirtatious messages, then abruptly dumped her with a stream of messages and bulletings, ending with the message, "The world would be a better place without you." Meier, who had for five years been taking prescription medication for attention deficit disorder and depression, who was overweight and lacked self-esteem, hanged herself.

The story is a horror movie for parents. This is a teen who was, her mother said in court, almost always supervised in her Internet use. In fact, Meier and Drew's daughter had, some months earlier, created a fake MySpace page to talk to boys online, an escapade that caused Meier's mother to close down her MySpace access for some months. On the day of Meier's suicide, her mother was on her way to the orthodontist with her younger daughter when Meier, distraught, reported the stream of unpleasant messages. Her mother told her to sign off. She didn't; when her mother came home there was a brief altercation; they found her 20 minutes later.

The basic elements of the story are not, of course, new. Identity deception is as old as online services; the best-known early case was that of Joan, a CompuServe forum regular who for more than two years in the early 1990s claimed to be a badly disabled former neuropsychologist whose condition made her reluctant to meet people, especially her many online friends. Joan was in fact a fictional character, the increasingly elaborate creation of a male New York psychiatrist named Alex.

Cyberbullying is, of course, also not new. You can go back to the war between alt.tasteless and rec.pets.cats in 1992, if you like, but organized playground behavior seems to flourish in every online medium. Gail Williams, the conference manager at the WELL, said about ten years ago that a lot of online behavior seems to be people working our their high school angst, and nothing has changed in the interim except that a lot of people online now actually still in high school. And unfortunately for them, the people they're working out their high school angst with are bigger, older, more experienced, and a lot savvier about where to stick in the virtual knife. People can be damned unpleasant sometimes.

But let's look at the morals people are finding. EfluxMedia:
The case of Megan Meier calls for boundaries when it comes to cyberbullying and the use of social networking sites in general, but also calls for reason. Social networking sites and the Internet in general have become more than just virtual realities, they are now part of our everyday lives, and they influence us in ways that we cannot ignore. What we must learn from this is that our actions may have unimaginable consequences on other people, even when it comes to the Internet, so think twice before you act.

Boundaries? Meier was far more rigorously supervised online than the average teen. Who's going to supervise the behavior of a 49-year-old woman to make sure she doesn't cross the line?

More to the point, the court's verdict found that Drew had broken federal laws concerning computer fraud. Is it hacking to set up a pseudonymous MySpace page and send fraudulent postings? The MySpace's 2006 terms and conditions required registration information to be truthful and banned harassment and sexual exploitation. Have MySpace's terms become federal law?

The answer is probably that there was no properly applicable law. We've seen that situation before, too - Robert Schifreen and Steve Gold were prosecuted under the laws against wire fraud. The eventual failure of the case on appeal proved the need for the Computer Misuse Act and comparable laws against hacking elsewhere in the world. Ironically, these laws are now showing their limits, too, as the Drew case proves. We can now, I suppose, expect to see a lot of proposals for laws banning cyberbullying under which people like Drew could be more correctly prosecuted.

But the horror movie is only partly about online; online, in this case MySpace, allowed the hoaxers to post "Josh Evans'" bare-chested photo. The same kind of hoax, with hardly less impact, could have been carried out by letter and poster. Wanda Holloway didn't need online to contract to muder her daughter's more successful cheerleading rival.

Ultimately, the lesson we should be learning is the same one we heard at this year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference: just like rape and incest, you are more at risk for harassment and cyberbullying from people you know. Unfortunately, most such law seems to be written with the idea that it's strangers who are dangerous.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

November 21, 2008

The art of the impossible

So the question of last weekend very quickly became: how do you tell plausible fantasy from wild possibility? It's a good conversation starter.

One friend had a simple assessment: "They are all nuts," he said, after glancing over the weekend's program. The problem is that 150 years ago anyone predicting today's airline economy class would also have sounded nuts.

Last weekend's (un)conference was called Convergence, but the description tried to convey the sense of danger of crossing the streams. The four elements that were supposed to converge: computing, biotech, cognitive technology, and nanotechnology. Or, as the four-colored conference buttons and T-shirts had it, biotech, infotech, cognotech, and nanotech.

Unconferences seem to be the current trend. I'm guessing, based on very little knowledge, that it was started by Tim O'Reilly's FOO camps or possibly the long-running invitation-only Hackers conference. The basic principle is: collect a bunch of smart, interesting, knowledgeable people and they'll construct their own program. After all, isn't the best part of all conferences the hallway chats and networking, rather than the talks? Having been to one now (yes, a very small sample), I think in most cases I'm going to prefer the organized variety: there's a lot to be said for a program committee that reviews the proposals.

The day before, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology ran a much smaller seminar on Global Catastrophic Risks. It made a nice counterweight: the weekend was all about wild visions of the future; the seminar was all about the likelihood of our being wiped out by biological agents, astronomical catastrophe, or, most likely, our own stupidity. Favorite quote of the day, from Anders Sandberg: "Very smart people make very stupid mistakes, and they do it with surprising regularity." Sandberg learned this, he said, at Oxford, where he is a philosopher in the Institute for the Future of Humanity.

Ralph Merkle, co-inventor of public key cryptography, now working on diamond mechanosynthesis, said to start with physics textbooks, most notably the evergreen classic by Halliday and Resnick. You can see his point: if whatever-it-is violates the laws of physics it's not going to happen. That at least separates the kinds of ideas flying around at Convergence and the Singularity Summit from most paranormal claims: people promoting dowsing, astrology, ghosts, or ESP seem to be about as interested in the laws of physics as creationists are in the fossil record.

A sidelight: after years of The Skeptic, I'm tempted to dismiss as fantasy anything where the proponents tell you that it's just your fear that's preventing you from believing their claims. I've had this a lot - ghosts, alien spacecraft, alien abductions, apparently these things are happening all over the place and I'm just too phobic to admit it. Unfortunately, the behavior of adherents to a belief just isn't evidence that it's wrong.

Similarly, an idea isn't wrong just because its requirements are annoying. Do I want to believe that my continued good health depends on emulating Ray Kurzweil and taking 250 pills a day and, a load of injections weekly? Certainly not. But I can't prove it's not helping him. I can, however, joke that it's like those caloric restriction diets - doing it makes your life *seem* longer.

Merkle's other criterion: "Is it internally consistent?" This one's harder to assess, particularly if you aren't a scientific expert yourself.

But there is the technique of playing the man instead of the ball. Merkle, for example, is a cryonicist and is currently working on diamond mechanosynthesis. Put more simply, he's busy designing the tools that will be needed to build things atom by atom when - if - molecular manufacturing becomes a reality. If that sounds nutty, well, Merkle has earned the right to steam ahead unworried because his ideas about cryptography, which have become part of the technology we use every day to protect ecommerce transactions, were widely dismissed at first.

Analyzing language is also open to the scientifically less well-educated: do the proponents of the theory use a lot of non-standard terms that sound impressive but on inspection don't seem to mean anything? It helps if they can spell, but that's not a reliable indicator - snake oil salesmen can be very professional, and some well-educated excellent scientists can't spell worth a damn.

The Risks seminar threw out a useful criterion for assessing scenarios: would it make a good movie? If your threat to civilization can be easily imagined as a line delivered by Bruce Willis, it's probably unlikely. It's not a scientifically defensible principle, of course, but it has a lot to recommend it. In human history, what's killed the most people while we're worrying about dramatic events like climate change and colliding asteroids? Wars and pandemics.

So, where does that leave us? Waiting for deliverables, of course. Even if a goal sounds ludicrous working towards it may still produce useful results. A project like Aubrey de Grey's ideas about "curing aging" by developing techniques for directly repairing damage (or SENS, for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) seems a case in point. And life extension is the best hope for all of these crazy ideas. Because, let's face it: if it doesn't happen in our lifetime, it was impossible.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

November 14, 2008

The USB stick in the men's room

How can we compete with free?

This is the question the entertainment industry has been asking ever since the first MP3 was uploaded. We are supposed to feel sorry for them, pass laws to protect their business model, and arrest the wicked "pirates" who "steal" their work and...well, I suppose "fence" would be the right word for getting it out to others.

Many of us have argued many times that the numbers rightsholders - the software industry, the entertainment industry - comes up with to estimate the direct cost of piracy to their bottom lines are questionable, if not greatly exaggerated. Not all free downloads would have been sales; some customers would not have paid for the work if they couldn't first sample it for free. Agonizingly slowly, the entertainment industry is beginning to behave in the ways we've argued for all along. Digital rights management is vanishing from downloaded music; MGM is putting its movies on YouTube; and TV networks are posting their shows online. Legal streaming and downloading is coming along, and while the torrenting population keeps growing, the legal population will grow faster and eventually outstrip it.

But all these pieces of the acrimonious copyright wars, are merely about distribution. The more profound copyright wars are just starting; and these are between free content and paid content.

In the free content category: Blogs. Advertorial, including infomercials. Services - Web, print, or otherwise - that are automatically generated from existing content such as news wires and other sites. User-generated sites like Flickr and YouTube.

In the paid content category: all the traditional media.

Clearly some people do manage to compete with free: bottled water, Windows, and iTunes all are successful despite the existence of tap water, Linux, and BitTorrent. Others are struggling: Craigslist is killing the classified advertising in many US newspapers, including the New York Times and its subsidiary, the Boston Globe; Flickr is making life hard for photographers; copy-and-paste blogs are hammering newspapers (again).

Free by itself isn't exactly the problem. Take, for example, Flickr and photographers. No matter how good their best photos are, few Flickr posters have what professionals have: the ability to produce, to order, without fail exactly the photographs required by the client. For a live event where time and reliability of the essence, you need a professional.

But the rest of the time... Flickr would be no threat if it hosted only a few hundred images. What's killing photographers is the law of truly large numbers: given hundreds of millions of images the chances that someone will be able to find a free one that is good enough go up. Volume is the killer.

Similarly, the problem for newspapers isn't that any of the millions of blogs out there can do what they do. It's the aggregate impact of all those expert blogs on single topics, coupled with the loss of advertising revenues from copy-and-pasters mashed up with the quaintly long lead times necessary for print.

Still, there were hints at last week's American Film Institute Digifest that music and film companies might be beginning to find an answer. If the first day was all about cross-media promotion, the second was all about using multiple media to make movies and music into the kernel of a broader experience - the kind you can't copy by downloading for free.

Christopher Sandberg, for example, talked about the "participation drama" The Company P built around The Truth About Marika, the story of a young woman searching for a missing friend. Based on a true story, the TV drama formed merely the center of a five-week reality role-playing game that included conspiracy Web sites, staged TV "debates", real-world and in-game clues.

"It's not about new media. It's the level of engagement," he said. "The audience can get as close as they want to the core story."

In a second example, the band Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor kicked off the launch of his Year Zero CD by planting a USB stick bearing the first release of one of the CD's tracks on top of a urinal in a men's room at one of their concerts. A complex alternative reality game later, the most active fans in the community were taken on a bus to a secret show. Three million fans played the game. Plus, the CD itself was cool: heated up, the top changed color and displayed a secret message.

The key question, asked by someone in the audience: did the effort mean the band sold more CDs?

"All projects have specific goals and objectives," said Susan Bonds, head of 42 Entertainment, which ran the project, "and sometimes they're tied to sales." In this case, because the music industry's album sales are dropping and Nine Inch Nails has a particularly technology-savvy fan base, the goal was more "building the people who will show up at your shows and consume your albums and be your audience on the Web and figuring out how to connect to them."

The tiny folk scene has long known that audiences like the perceived added value of buying CDs direct from the musicians. That that doesn't scale to millions - because there's only so much artist to go around. But the arts have always been about selling special experiences first and foremost. Participatory media will reach their own scaling problems - how many alternative reality games does anyone have time for? - but at last they've made a start on finding a positive response to the ease with which digital media can be copied.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her | | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (0)

November 7, 2008

Reality TV

The Xerox machine in the second season of Mad Men has its own Twitter account, as do many of the show's human characters. Other TV characters have MySpace pages and Facebook groups, and of course they're all, legally or illegally, on YouTube.

Here at the American Film Institute's Digifest in Hollywood - really Hollywood, with the stars on the sidewalks and movie theatres everywhere - the talk is all of "cross-platform". This event allows the AFI's Digital Content Lab to show off some of the projects it's fostered over the last year, and the audience is full of filmmakers, writers, executives, and owners of technology companies, all trying to figure out digital television.

One of the more timely projects is a remix of the venerable PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer. A sort of combination of Snopes, Wikipedia, and any of a number of online comment sites, the goal of The Fact Project is to enable collaboration between the show's journalists and the public. Anyone can post a claim or a bit of rhetoric and bring in supporting or refuting evidence; the show's journalistic staff weigh in at the end with a Truthometer rating and the discussion is closed. Part of the point, said the project's head, Lee Banville, is to expose to the public the many small but nasty claims that are made in obscure but strategic places - flyers left on cars in supermarket parking lots, or radio spots that air maybe twice on a tiny local station.

The DCL's counterpart in Australia showed off some other examples. Areo, for example, takes TV sets and footage and turns them into game settings. More interesting is the First Australians project, which in the six-year process of filming a TV documentary series created more than 200 edited mini-documentaries telling each interviewee's story. Or the TV movie Scorched, which even before release created a prequel and sequel by giving a fictional character her own Web site and YouTube channel. The premise of the film itself was simple but arresting. It was based on one fact, that at one point Sydney had no more than 50 weeks of water left, and one what-if - what if there were bush fires? The project eventually included a number of other sites, including a fake government department.

"We go to islands that are already populated," said the director, "and pull them into our world."

HBO's Digital Lab group, on the other hand, has a simpler goal: to find an audience in the digital world it can experiment on. Last month, it launched a Web-only series called Hooking Up. Made for almost no money (and it looks it), the show is a comedy series about the relationship attempts of college kids. To help draw larger audiences, the show cast existing Web and YouTube celebrities such as LonelyGirl15, KevJumba, and sxePhil. The show has pulled in 46,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Finally, a group from ABC is experimenting with ways to draw people to the network's site via what it calls "viewing parties" so people can chat with each other while watching, "live" (so to speak), hit shows like Grey's Anatomy. The interface the ABC party group showed off was interesting. They wanted, they said, to come up with something "as slick as the iPhone and as easy to use as AIM". They eventually came up with a three-dimensional spatial concept in which messages appear in bubbles that age by shrinking in size. Net old-timers might ask churlishly what's so inadequate about the interface of IRC or other types of chat rooms where messages appear as scrolling text, but from ABC's point of view the show is the centrepiece.

At least it will give people watching shows online something to do during the ads. If you're coming from a US connection, the ABC site lets you watch full episodes of many current shows; the site incorporates limited advertising. Perhaps in recognition that people will simply vanish into another browser window, the ads end with a button to click to continue watching the show and the video remains on pause until you click it.

The point of all these initiatives is simple and the same: to return TV to something people must watch in real-time as it's broadcast. Or, if you like, to figure out how to lure today's 20- and 30-somethings into watching television; Newshour's TV audience is predominantly 50- and 60-somethings.

ABC's viewing party idea is an attempt - as the team openly said - to recreate what the network calls "appointment TV". I've argued here before that as people have more and more choices about when and where to watch their favourite scripted show, sports and breaking news will increasingly rule television because they are the only two things that people overwhelmingly want to see in real time. If you're supported by advertising, that matters, but success will depend on people's willingness to stick with their efforts once the novelty is gone. The question to answer isn't so much whether you can compete with free (cue picture of a bottle of water) but whether you can compete with freedom (cue picture of evil file-sharer watching with his friends whenever he wants).

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).