AOL, HuffPo, and the crappification of everything

aol shitAOL’s purchase of Arianna’s International House of Huffcakes earlier this week is sticking in my gullet, and no amount of ratswill coffee will wash it down.  I think it’s because this deal is emblematic of everything that has gone wrong with the Internet over the last three years.

(Then again, maybe I’ve just turned into one of those cranky old farts who hates everything. What do you think?)

It’s not just about AOL – never more than a bad joke in even the best of times – or The Huffington Post. It’s bigger than that. It’s about how the Web, and especially Google, rewards mediocrity. It’s what I like to call The Crappification of Everything ™.

The Web has become like television, where if a show is both good and popular it’s almost a happy accident. Mostly we get reality TV that’s cheap to produce and painful to watch yet still manages to attract lots of eyeballs. World’s Biggest Losers, indeed.

When HuffPo launched in 2005, it was unlike anything most of us had seen before. Even if you hated Arianna’s politics, you had to admit she’d found a niche — an oddball mix of actual writers and celebutantes, blogging about whatever floated their boat that particular day. It was often terrible. But it was also fresh and new.

What is the Huffington Post today? As I noted in my last post, it’s become the Wal-Mart of Web news – you’ll find the pork rinds next to the shotgun pellets and behind the lawn chairs.

What happened? Money happened. Ad dollars started rolling in, but only to a point. Arianna & Co. quickly realized the only way to boost ad revenue was to dramatically increase the volume of posts appearing on the site, and the only way to do that was to hire newbies and have them crank out high-speed rehashes of everything everyone else was reporting, with an emphasis on Google-friendly photo slide shows and celebrity gossip. Sure, the celebutantes and reporters were still there, blogging away for free, but their voices were drowned out by the cacaphony.

Arianna was simply following the old dot com mantra of Get Big Quick. Become the big fish that the little fish are afraid of. And she’s hardly the only one.

When TechCrunch first appeared, it was one dyspeptic ex-lawyer giving his candid opinions on Silicon Valley startups. It was something we hadn’t seen before – an inside look at how deals are evaluated and made – and it attracted a lot of attention and advertising revenue, despite the ego, pomposity and bombast.

But again, how many blog posts can one man write in a day? To boost revenue, TechCrunch staffed up and became a tech news/rumor/inneuendo site. And though it is still the first place VCers go to spill the beans about upcoming deals (most likely to benefit themselves and/or harm others), it too became another place where you could read about what other people were reporting about without having to open a new browser tab.

Again, fill in the blank. Mashable isn’t any better. I can’t think of a blog from the 2005 to 2006 era that got big and yet maintained the quality that made it worth reading back then.

But try telling that to Google. Because these blogs developed a devoted audience early, they became Google gold. Looking for breaking news? Unless it’s from an established source like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, you probably won’t find the site where that story originally appeared. But you will find it in its reconstituted, just-add-water-and-stir form on one of these news aggregator sites. Because they’re the ones with the Google juice. They’re the ones that ride the top of Google News like Kelly Slater on the Banzai Pipeline.  And the bigger they become, the more juice they acquire.

Of course, advertising on the Web is still dirt cheap, relatively speaking. Nobody’s dining at Del Monico’s on what a banner ad brings in. The only make to make this model work was to create editorial sweatshops (or, like L’Arianna, get people to write simply for the “prestige” of appearing on HuffPo). Thus the emergence of word factories like Examiner.com, Demand Media, Associated Content, etc,  churning out just the worst dreck humanly imaginable for pennies a story. They too, soak up a lot of Google juice, just from sheer volume and SEO trickery.

I’m not the only person saying this. Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo and Weblogs Inc (bought by AOL back in 2005), says the same thing, and he should know because at one time he was one of those who was doing it. His money quote: “We are polluting the Internet.”

My prediction: By the end of this year, all of the big traffic blogs will be owned by corporate conglomerates. Like Coke and Pepsi, they won’t be competing on who tastes better or is more nutritious, they’ll be competing on who’s better at marketing crap – or, in this case, tweaking Google.

Google blogger Matt Cutts, who’s become the unofficial voice of the company now that creepy Uncle Eric has departed, wrote last month about trying to muscle out sites “with shallow or low quality content” from Google search results. Good luck with that, Matt. When every site on the Web is a content farm, what will be left to sort out?

Will we be able to stop Internet pollution? And if not, will the last real Web blog please turn in their pajamas? Post your thoughts on this below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.com.

50 billion reasons why Facebook isn’t worth $50 billion

mobsters It seems Facebook, the social network personally endorsed by God, is now worth more than eBay, Yahoo, and Time Warner — all without selling a single share to Joe or Jane Public.

The reason: Wall Street uber-bank Goldman Sachs, which just pumped another $450 million in venture capital into Facebook, leading to a valuation estimated at a cool $50 billion.

You remember Goldman Sachs, right?

The ones who received billions in US taxpayer bailout money and promptly issued billions of dollars in bonuses to employees? 

The ones who admitting to bamboozling investors with worthless subprime mortgage funds in 2007 and ended up paying record fines of $550 million — a fraction of the profits accrued?

The ones in $2000 Armani suits who make the Mafia look like Mouseketeers?

Those guys. They’re the ones Facebook jumped in bed with. So if Goldman Sachs says Facebook’s worth $50 billion, how can we mere mortals dispute that?

Also sleeping with Facebook: Digital Sky Technologies, a Russian investment firm that is largely responsible for foisting Zynga (aka Farmville etc) upon the world. They dropped another $50 mill into Facebook’s pockets, making their total investment in the company around half a billion dollars.

DST is allegedly controlled by a Russian oligarch and Putin pal named Alisher Usmanov, who is described thusly by Gawker:

Usmanov… who reportedly owns 32 percent of DST, comes with the sort of unsavory press clippings worthy of a long-surviving oligarch in anarchic, organized-crime-ridden Russia: He’s been accused by a former British ambassador of being a "gangster and racketeer" and of close ties to mafia drug trafficking and, as we’ve reported previously, controversially tried to censor bloggers who linked to news of the accusations.

How do you feel about sharing all your personal information with Facebook now?

According to the New York Times Dealbook blog, the investment gives GS the inside track on bringing Facebook public, if and when it ever decides to do an IPO. In the meantime, GS is creating a "special purpose" investment vehicle for millionaires who want to get in on the bottom floor before the elevator is officially open to the public.

(Hmm, that sounds eerily familiar. Wasn’t that subprime mortgage vehicle — the one GS sold as a Ferrari but turned out to be a jalopy — also a special purpose investment?)

To wit:

As part of the deal, Goldman is expected to raise as much as $1.5 billion from investors for Facebook at the $50 billion valuation, people involved in the discussions said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the transaction was not supposed to be made public until the fund-raising had been completed.

In a rare move, Goldman is planning to create a “special purpose vehicle” to allow its high-net-worth clients to invest in Facebook, these people said. While the S.E.C. requires companies with more than 499 investors to disclose their financial results to the public, Goldman’s proposed special purpose vehicle may be able get around such a rule because it would be managed by Goldman and considered just one investor, even though it could conceivably be pooling investments from thousands of clients.

It is unclear whether the S.E.C. will look favorably upon the arrangement.

So Goldman Sachs and Facebook are hoping to receive most of the benefits of public stock ownership (buckets of money), with none of those nasty disclosure requirements — like whether the company actually makes money, or if key executives are leaving, directors are dumping their shares, or the company has been sued for anything that could severely impact its bottom line. 

In other words, Facebook wants you to share all of your secrets, but politely declines to share its own. And if you dig too closely into its investors, you may end up accidentally falling out of a window, or possibly an airplane.

Facebook isn’t the only company playing fast and loose with the notion of "public." The SEC is apparently investigating the trading of private shares in hot Net companies like Twitter, Zynga, and LinkedIn. But Facebook is the great blue whale in this fish tank.

I am not a stock broker or a securities lawyer (thank God). But if someone out there in Cringeville can explain to me how this isn’t illegal, I’d love to hear it.

I’m not saying Facebook isn’t the greatest thing since individually wrapped slices of American cheese. But the notion that it’s worth more than companies listed above without ever demonstrating to the world how much dosh those little 125-by-125 ads bring in, well, is pretty cheesy in itself.

And the pedigrees of its two closest friends make me a little green around the gills. Just sayin’.

Do you trust Facebook more or less after you know who they’re in bed with? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.

10 stupid social media predictions for 2011

mark_zuckerberg_big_brother-540x406 As I write this there are but a few hours left of 2010, which I believe will be remembered as the year Facebook became the dominant force on the InterWebs, supplanting even mighty Google in its reach and depth.

What will happen in 2011? Beats me. But that won’t stop me from offering up some predictions. Because it’s cheap, easy, and nobody remembers when you get stuff wrong.

Here are ten things that will almost certainly happen to the world of social media in 2011. Remember, you read them here first (unless they’re totally wrong, in which case you read them on TechCrunch).

1. News Corp will finally find someone willing to take MySpace — sorry, My_____ — off its hands. The asking price: $5.  The buyer? Aol. of course. They will promptly change its name to My_____!

2. My____’s core user group of convenience store employees, adult entertainers, and recent parolees will leave and establish their own social network called MyTrailerPark. It will become wildly popular.

3. Facebook will surpass 700 million members. A Pew Internet and American Life Survey conducted next spring will conclude that Facebook is now more 36 percent popular than sex, and 78 percent more popular than sex with Mark Zuckerberg.

4. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss will finally give up their legal fight to own a chunk of Facebook and instead launch a reality TV show about the the lives of overprivileged chisel-jawed twins who are also Olympic class rowers. Mark Zuckerberg will promptly steal that idea and do a much better job at promoting it.

5. Google will finally launch GoogleMe, its post-Orkut social network. Bloggers will use the phrase "Facebook killer" to describe it 10,827,326 times. Nine months later no one will remember what GoogleMe is.

6. Twitter will announce an IPO in 2011. Would-be stockholders will be allowed to bid for shares via tweets. The share price will reach a high of $173 before a Fail Whale appears and brings the entire NASDAQ exchange to a screeching halt. Twitter will close the year trading for exactly 140 cents a share.

7. The US Congress will finally pass a law regulating the privacy of our personal information. It will be so watered down by lobbyists for online advertisers and the data brokerage industry that we will actually be worse off than we were before.

8. Yahoo! will reorganize itself again, and again, and one more time before the end of 2011, selling off more assets and laying off more employees each time. Eventually, the company parking lot will be empty save for the cars of Carol Bartz and her personal masseuse. You got a #@&!! problem with that?

9. WikiLeaks will launch a social network for people with absolutely no sense of personal boundaries whatsoever. No one will bother to friend Julian Assange.

10. Mashable will publish a list of ten blogs you absolutely must read in order to be truly in the know about social networks. This one won’t be among them.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan still sniggers every time he hears the name "Winklevoss." May you enjoy a safe, happy, and social new year. Read even more of this silliness at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

This post originally appeared on ITworld.

Twelve tech predictions for 2011

fortune-teller-black-and-white As 2010 draws to a close, that can only mean one thing: Bloggers conjuring up predictions lists so they can take a few days off around the holidays. Here in Cringeville things are much the same, but with one key difference: unlike other prognosticators, I’m totally unencumbered by facts. That tends to make my accuracy much higher.

Here’s what’s going to happen next year. You can bank on it.

Apple will unveil new iPads, iPhones, and iWhatevers, instantly making all of our lives more magical and revolutionary. The face of Steve Jobs will be seen on a tortilla; the holy bread product will later be donated to the Computer History Museum in San Jose.

Apple will apply for, and be granted, a patent on tortillas featuring the face of Steve Jobs.

Google will unveil its long-awaited social networking offering, GoogleMe. It will immediately inspire a massive kerfuffle over some stupid breach of user privacy that could have easily been avoided if only Google engineers left the Googleplex every once in a while and went to see a movie or something. The company will quietly shut down its Facebook killer 24 months later, except for the Portugeuse language version, which will inexplicably thrive.

In a speech, Google CEO Eric Schmidt will declare that the new Chrome OS will be able to actually read your mind through your keyboard. He says Google will only use this information to anonymously serve advertising to your cerebral cortex.

Steve Ballmer will declare that the ability to read peoples minds through their keyboards has been present in Microsoft operating systems since Win 98; it turns out people really do want their computers to freeze up repeatedly and run more slowly over time.

The population of Facebook members will surpass India’s by late 2011. It will then apply to the UN for nation state status but will be rejected when a majority of the governing body’s members fail to click "Like" on its application.

Facebook will not announce an IPO (Initial Public Offering). Mark Zuckerberg, however, will enjoy an ISE (Initial Shaving Experience).

Google Android will surpass the RIM Blackberry and Apple iOS to become the most popular smartphone platform on the planet. Google will also announce new tweaks to the base OS that extend an Android device’s battery life to an entire hour.

Question-and-answer-based social network Quora will become the Twitter of 2011. The most popular question asked on Quora will be, What the frak is Quora?

Yahoo will not be acquired by Microsoft. No one besides Carol Bartz will care.

Skype, Pandora, Tumblr, Groupon, Twitter, and Angry Birds will all announce IPOs, signaling the birth of a new irrationally exuberant Internet bubble. Time Warner will again allow itself to be acquired by AOL for a ludicrous sum.

The collective forces of Anonymous & 4chan will stop harrassing enemies of WikiLeaks and go after China in an attempt to tear down the Great Firewall. The Internet as we know it will cease to exist.

What do you think will happen in 2011? Post your predictions below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.

A Nimble way to manage your social contacts

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been suffering a failure to communicate — and it comes from having too many ways to do it. Tweets. Facebook updates. Emails to six different accounts. Skype chats. Google voice. Text messages. Sometimes I even manage to talk to people. But mostly the efforts of the world to reach me pile up unread and unresponded to, because it’s too much damned work to keep up with them all.

Part of that problem is that I need to use different tools (or sites) to get at each type of communication. Thus we come to todays topic in TY4NS: a cool new "social CRM" tool called Nimble.

Started by Jon Ferrara, one of the brains behind GoldMine — the original 1980s power PIM and the forerunner to today’s Customer Relationship Management software suites — Nimble picks up where GoldMine left off those many years ago. Back then, contact management was all about email addresses and phone numbers. Today it’s all about Twitter feeds, Facebook status updates, and LinkedIn resumes (as well as email addresses and phone numbers).

So this is what Nimble does: It gives you one-stop shopping for all your social contact needs — essentially, one Web site to rule them all. 

nimble inbox large

I got an early look at a private beta of Nimble, which is set to launch publicly next month. Right now it offers the ability to get your Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn feeds inside one universal inbox, as well as manage all of those contacts from one location. Later on it will add support for other services such as Skype, Ferrara says.

Better yet, you can take one contact from, say, your Twitter posse, and merge it with their Facebook or LinkedIn persona in one contact record — then view all of their social activities on one screen.

Anything you do in Nimble is automatically transferred to those services. So if you read or delete a Gmail message in Nimble, it’s marked as read or deleted in Gmail. You can update your Facebook and Twitter status directly from Nimble, or retweet nice things other people say about you (assuming they say nice things). You can Like things and comment on Facebook posts.

You can do the same with Google Calendar. Enter an appointment in Nimble, invite some guests from your contacts list; and it’s there in Google when you look for it.

 nimble - calendar week view

However, I did say Nimble was still beta. As I write this, the site isn’t ready for prime time just yet. For example, I had problems importing all of my contacts into Nimble. Linked In and Twitter, no sweat. Facebook and Gmail … sweat. Also: Creating new appointments and exporting them to Google Calendar worked great. Importing existing appointments from Google to Nimble, not so much.

Ferrara says some of this has to do with limits placed on the services’ application programming interfaces; their APIs are deliberately throttled to prevent being overrun by requests. Some of it has to do with the fact that Nimble is still a work in progress.

Ultimately Nimble will be aimed at workgroups, so you can use it to not only manage contacts but also assign tasks and manage them as well. At that point it will likely be a paid service, similar to Salesforce.com. But individuals will always be able to use it for free, says Ferrara.

And then, maybe, I’ll finally get to all those messages that have been piling up on me. Possibly before the end of the next decade.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan is not ignoring you, really — he’s just still going through his unread email from 2007. Catch his brand of juvenile snark at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter:@tynan_on_tech.

This post originally appeared on ITworld.

The 10 dumbest tech moves of 2010

ass_hat-1-211 It’s been quite a year. And in what has become a tradition here in Cringeville, it’s time to honor the most malicious, obnoxious, offensive, or nonsensical behavior in technology. This year’s winners include captains of industry, titans of technology, sultans of sweat, and a number of other people desperately in need of a clue.

Among this year’s award winners: Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, Mark Zuckerberg, Google, and the CIA. Without further ado, I give you the 2010 Moonie Award winners:

1. I pity your grotesque ignorance on the topic but feel strangely compelled to respond anyway award. Goes to none other than Steve Jobs, who became a one-stop-email-response shop for iPhone developers miffed over being dropped from the App Store, customers complaining about iPhone 4 reception problems, would-be journalism students complaining about Apple’s less-than-responsive media team (join the club), journalist-bloggers with an axe to grind, and yes, even readers of this blog. You get the feeling maybe he’s just lonely?

2. We love our customers, but email our CEO and we’ll sue your ass award. Is presented to AT&T and its benevolent dictator Randall Stephenson. After receiving two polite emails from a ticked-off AT&T user (is there any other kind?), Stephenson’s executive team left the user a voice mail containing threats of legal action if the user didn’t back off. Naturally, customer Giorgio Galante posted the voice mail recording to his blog, Engadget published a story about it, and AT&T was once again revealed as complete and utter tools.

3. Best use of a reality distortion field not by Steve Jobs award. This year’s winner has to be Steve Ballmer, who seems to be increasingly operating in a parallel universe inside his own imagination. At various times during 2010 he called the Apple iPad “just another PC,” welcomed Google to “the world of competition,” and said Windows Phone 7 is “early” to the smartphone market. Also, when the big comet comes in 2012 to destroy the earth and spirit away the chosen people, it’s making a special stop at Redmond just to pick him up.

4. We stole your content, now you get to pay us for the privilege award. Goes to Judith Griggs, erstwhile editor of Cooks Source magazine, who managed to tick off the entire Internet at once by making the dubious claim everything published online was in “the public domain,” and then sending a snotty email to a writer who complained, saying that the writer should be paying her for the time she spent “improving” the original piece. Cooks Source magazine is now dead, and Judith is looking for work. I hear Bojangles Fried Chicken is looking for fry cooks.

5. ‘Do it to me one more time, I can never get enough’ award. Is presented to file swappin’ mama Jammie Thomas-Rassett, who keeps fighting the RIAA and losing worse each time. Having walked away from a $54,000 judgement (and a $25,000 settlement offer), Thomas-Rassett is now on the hook for $1.5 million – at least until the next trial concludes.

6. Half an hour later we feel much less self-righteous award. Is honorably presented to Google for its swift aboutface on China this year. It seems Google just can’t stay mad at those crazy commie-capitalists, despite the hack attacks and the censorship. When you control the world’s largest untapped market for digital advertising, even the world’s biggest search engine apparently feels the need to bow.

7. Worst six-word speech uttered in 2010. There were many stupid things said and caught on video this year, but the award goes to ex-BP CEO Tony Hayward’s “I would like my life back.” Hayward did ultimately manage to get his life back (though not his job); the 11 humans and thousands of animals killed by the worst environmental disaster in the history of the planet weren’t so lucky.

8. Don’t look now, but half of your corporate logo is missing award. This year’s hands-down winner is MySpace, which adopted a fill-in-the-blank approach to its new corporate identity, My_____. (My “space” — get it?) Given the once-mighty social network’s complete capitulation to Facebook this year, a blank logo seems wholly appropriate.

9. I really wish we’d brought more paper towels and possibly a squeegee award. Is bestowed upon everybody’s favorite 26-year-old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. Zucky perspired so much during an interview with All Things D’s Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher last June that it became a story unto itself. In addition to surpassing Steve Jobs on the list of American billionaires, little Zucker also supplanted Steve Ballmer for the title of World’s Sweatiest Geek. I understand he’s planning to come out with a new pro-perspirant called Zuck For Men.

10. Best repurposing of an obscene chat acronym by a US Federal agency. Though it’s facing stiff competition from some truly amusing acronyms (ASSBAG, anyone?) the CIA’s newly formed WikiLeaks Task Force – or WTF for short – takes the prize. And I bet you thought spooks had no sense of humor.

Who are your award winners for 2010? Post them below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld, much to their embarassment.

2010: When Google fell to earth

alg_google-flames

Remember when Google could do no wrong? Those days now feel like ancient history.

I think 2010 will be remembered for a handful of really big stories, including the rise of tablets, the dominance of Facebook, and the emergence of a fifth column of Web troublemakers who can no longer be ignored, from Anonymous/4chan to WikiLeaks.

But it will also be remembered as the year Google proved that not only did it have feet of clay, it had also stepped into something really nasty, and more than once.

Consider if you will the following examples:

China.  Remember that principled stand Google took on China back in January? About how it would have to "review the feasibility of [its] business operations in China" after Chinese agents hacked into its accounts, and how it refused to do business with repressive regimes that censor search results? Fast forward to July, when Google announces "We are very pleased that the government has renewed our ICP license and we look forward to continuing to provide web search and local products to our users in China." Turns out that those business operations were more feasible than they originally thought. In fact, Google came up with 1.3 billion reasons why Chinese censorship wasn’t so bad after all.

The Nexus One. Screw the telecoms and intercourse the iPhone. Google was going to both create a groovier and completely open smart phone and kill the telecom’s stranglehold over the handset market by selling the Nexus One direct to consumers. The problem? Google had no clue how to sell directly to consumers. In fact, it turns out they were kind of lousy at it. So within six months Google’s Nexus One store was taking a dirtnap. So far it hasn’t been missed.

WiFi spying. Google would never ever spy on its customers. Certainly the Googlers believed that. Then it turns out that Google Street View vans were slurping up data off open WiFi networks all around the world. Oops. The fallout from that one — class action suits, government penalties, etc — is still coming. The worst part: Google was doing this without even realizing it. What other data is Google hoovering up that it — and on one else — yet realizes?

Google Wave. Announced with great fanfare in May 2009 as the Next Big Thing in unified communications, mixing email with group scheduling, chat, project management, and ballroom dancing. (I made that last one up — did you notice?) Closed with a whimper in August 2010. The problem? Most mere mortals had no clue what Wave was or how to use it. In other words, Google was unable to communicate what its great communications tool was supposed to accomplish.

Google TV. They were finally going to bring the power of the InterWebs to the world’s couch potatos in a way people could actually use. But content providers balked at handing over the goods, and early reviews of the products were less than lavish. Now products have missed the holiday rush and Google is asking display and settop makers not to demo Google TVs at CES in January until the software is more advanced. Can you say Must Flee TV?

Meanwhile, whenever Eric Schmidt opens his mouth to make another pronouncement about what Google knows about us, he frightens the children and makes even their parents want to crawl under their beds. Consider this chilling statement Schmidt made at the last Mobile World Congress in February:

“These networks are now so pervasive that we can literally know everything if we want to. What people are doing, what people care about, information that’s monitored, we can literally know it if we want to, and if people want us to know it."

No wonder then, that the forces opposing Google are massing for a counter attack. Expect the "Google is a monopoly that must be stopped" rhetoric to ramp up significantly in 2011. Especially now that Google is in the process of gaining regulatory approval for its purchase of ITA Software, maker of software used by flight search engines — a move opposed by everyone in the online travel biz who isn’t Google, including Microsoft.

Yes, Microsoft is complaining about the Google monopoly. It has really come to that.

And Google has no one to blame but itself.

What in your humble opinion is the worst Google gaffe? Post it below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.

The 10 biggest mistakes people make on Facebook

facebook fail I know, I know: Some out there will say merely using Facebook is a mistake. This blog post isn’t for you — feel free to move along to the comment forums on OldGuysWhoSmellLikeAsparagus.com. As for the rest of you, take heed.

I’m using Facebook as the primary example here, but the many of the same rules apply to Twitter, Mypace, and the 3,247 other social networks out there. If you can, try to avoid the following social network faux pas:

1. Using your account strictly for promotional purposes. Yeah, we know, people do this on Twitter all the time (and we secretly hate them for it). But if you only use Facebook to drive people to your site/article/cause du jour, you’ll find yourself being quietly unfriended as well as ignored. Make at least half your posts personal and your peeps will find the promos more palatable.

2. Getting too personal. Did we really need to hear the intimate details of your latest Jagermeister jag or see photos of your recent colonscopy? We think not. And neither will your prospective employers (45 percent check out Facebook accounts before hiring, per Career Builder), college admissions officers (10 percent, per Kaplan), or potential mates. Remember these three letters: TMI.

3. Drunken commenting. You’ve had a few pops, so you log onto Facebook and begin leaving comments on people’s photos and posts. They seem absolutely hilarious at the time, but in the cold hangover light of morning you just look like an ass. May I recommend the Social Media Sobriety Test?

4. Falling for the "I’m an old friend you haven’t seen in 20 years and I’m stranded in London could you please wire me money" scam. Amazingly, the London Scam actually works. It happens when the fraudster hijacks your old friend’s account and then uses it to send out desperate (and convincing) pleas for help. A friend of mine was targeted by this scam and almost bit; a woman in Missouri did bite and found her wallet $4000 lighter.

5. Slagging on your boss, co-workers friends, or significant other. Listen, we all got gripes. But in the meatspace they tend to dissipate over time; on Facebook they’re forever, or as close to it as the digital world generally gets. They may fall harmlessly into the digisphere or they may come back to cause you a world of pain — there’s just no way to know.

6. Being duped by malware. These are typically spread via outrageously titled wall posts like "Justin Bieber just got erection in public" or  "Distracting beach babes." Curiosity gets the better of you and you click on the link. Instead of a video of Justin’s engorged manhood or bouncing bikini Betties, you get a bad case of Koobface or some other socially borne malware. Worse, that post now becomes part of your wall, tempting your friends to click. If  it’s too outrageous or salacious to be believed, assume it’s malware and move on.

7.  Logging in from a free public WiFi hotspot. First, there’s the question whether that "Free Public WiFi" network really is a free hotspot generously provided for your use by some benevolent business establishment, or in reality an "evil twin" honeypot that’s out to capture your information. And even if the hotspot is legit, because Facebook uses an insecure sign on protocol, your user name and password could be stolen by anyone sniffing the WiFi network (or by using Firesheep, a program designed to specifically target log-in cookies for popular social networks). Use the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s free HTTPS Everywhere plug in for Firefox to force sites to use encrypted connections.

8. Friending people because their profile pictures are hot. I have never done this. I swear. All those bikini models in my friends list are just there because I’m deeply interested in South Florida culture. What’s the downside? Best case: You get inundated with the most banal updates and/or spammy self promotion you can imagine. Worst case: They turn out to be bait for some scammer trying to socially engineer information out of you.

9. Clicking ads inside Facebook Platform games. Because you really don’t know what information those Facegames are sharing with advertisers, despite what they may claim.

10. Accepting Facebook’s default privacy settings. You can make your public profile almost negligible, thanks to Facebook’s enhanced privacy settings. But Facebook wants and needs you to share your data with the world for its ad model to work, so its default settings are still pretty generous with your information. Take my advice: Go as private as you can and let the others take the heat.

ITworld TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan has broken at least half these rules at one point or another (and there’s still plenty of time for the other half). Catch his brand of juvenile snark at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

This post originally appeared on ITworld, god love em.

Freaks & Geeks: The Social Network

mark-zuckerberg-facebook-naked-cropped-150x150 (1) You may have been too busy having a life this weekend to notice but, the number one movie in the nation right now is the tale of an uber-nerd.

The Social Network, David Fincher’s much-hyped film about the origins of Facebook, hit theaters this weekend to rave reviews (though if you spend most of your waking hours on the InterWebs you might think otherwise). It’s already raked in $23 million at the box office, or about the amount Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth has grown in the last hour.

Full Disclosure: I too saw The Social Network this weekend (it’s my yob, mang) and I liked it. I give it a solid thumbs up for making the process of starting up an Internet leviathan– and getting your assets sued in the process — a lot sexier than it probably really is.

The Social Network is clearly a highly fictionalized treatment of Facebook’s origins, and in a weird way it makes me feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg, something I didn’t think was possible. Yes, he is portrayed as a supreme anus (am I giving too much away here?) but it’s almost like he can’t help it — the same disease that makes him brilliant also makes him socially pathetic.

And, in case you’re wondering — plot spoiler alert — Zuckerberg did create Facebook primarily to meet chicks. Aside from one scene that takes place in the bathroom stall at a frat party, it’s not entirely clear that strategy worked. (Yes, I know in real life he has a fiance, but I’m talking about the movie here.)

Interestingly, what people think of the film depends a lot on how old they are, says the New York Times’ David Carr. He writes:

Many older people will watch the movie… and see a cautionary tale about a callous young man who betrays friends, partners and principles as he hacks his way to lucre and fame. But many in the generation who grew up in a world that Mr. Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands, mostly by placing them on the keyboard and coding something that no one else had.

Count me in among the old coots. And could you please hand me my cane? I have to go to the bathroom (again).

And though Roger Ebert calls it "splendidly well made" and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers names it "movie of the year," it’s not all roses and chocolates from those who carry more sympathy for Facebook and its founder.

Jose Antonio Vargas, who wrote a puff piece about Zuckerberg for The New Yorker last month, slams the movie in The Huffington Post for making Zucky look like a developmentally challenged one-dimensional freak.

…it’s a movie that, at its core, stands on one glaring false premise: Zuckerberg as a flat-eyed, borderline autistic, humorless guy, a consummate outsider who wanted badly to get into one of Harvard’s "final" clubs, his considerable coding skills reduced to social awkwardness… Zuckerberg is presented as an alien from a faraway computer programming space, instead of a leading member of an entrepreneurial generation who’s grown up with the Internet and now tops Vanity Fair‘s ranking of the New Establishment, ahead of Steve Jobs, the Google guys and Rupert Murdoch.

I’m sure the Mark Z. one encounters in real life is more human and likeable than the one portrayed on screen by Jesse Eisenberg. On the other hand, I’ve watched video interviews with the man, and Cary Grant he ain’t. No normal human not wrapped in wool blankets inside a Native American sweat lodge perspires as much as Zucky did on stage at D8 last June.

Even when he’s attempting to convince the world he means well — as in his Washington Post op-ed defending Facebook’s changes to its privacy policies last May, which surely was massaged to a Kobe beef-like tenderness pre-publication by Facebook’s team of PR lackeys — he comes off as snotty and condescending.

BuzzMachine bloviator Jeff Jarvis takes the film as a personal insult against the culture of the InterWebs (then again, that’s pretty much how he takes everything):

The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.

Except that the film doesn’t condemn the Internet or even Facebook — it just makes Zuckerberg (and his digitally-hip wingman/mentor Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake) look like tools. Given what we know about what did happen with the origins of Facebook — the non Hollywood version — I think that’s probably a fair assessment. Nobody gets that rich and powerful by being a nice guy, or a nice geek. 

Are you planning to see The Social Network? And if you already have, what did you think? Post your reviews below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post appeared in slightly different form at InfoWorld.

Are the Feds snooping on your Skype calls?

A-bush-wiretap Tap, tap, tap.

I’m sorry, could you please speak up? the Federal employees playing monkey in the middle on our Skype call couldn’t quite make out what you were saying.

In case you missed the headlines in the New York Times this morning, or all the me-too stories in the blogosphere cranked to varying degrees of hysteria, Uncle Sam is angling to wiretap the Internet — or, at least, expand its ability to get at things like VoIP calls and encrypted emails. Per the Times report:

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

I’ll pause now while you work up a frothy head of righteous indignation. Ready? Alrighty then.

This is nothing new, by the way. The Feds have been trying to find a way to snoop on Internet communications since the Clinton administration. In fact, this story has revived the whole mid-90s debate over the proposed "Clipper chip," a backdoor that would be built into communication devices allowing the FBI and any other spooks with a legal excuse to tap into encrypted conversations. That idea eventually got shot down, as the Feds found other ways to eavedrop on the bad guys.

C|Net’s Declan McCullagh reminds us of some of the Feds’  sneakier workarounds in days gone by: 

Police can obtain a special warrant allowing them to sneak into someone’s house or office, install keystroke-logging software, and record passphrases. The Drug Enforcement Agency adopted this technique in a case where suspects used PGP and the encrypted Web e-mail service Hushmail.com. And the FBI did the same thing in an investigation of an alleged PGP-using mobster named Nicodemo Scarfo.

Another option is to send the suspect spyware, which documents obtained by CNET through the Freedom of Information Act last year showed the FBI has done in cases involving extortionists, database-deleting hackers, child molesters, and hitmen. The FBI’s spyware is called CIPAV, for Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier.

What’s different here is that the Obama administration is pushing this — despite campaign promises to enhance and expand our digital privacy. Among other things, Obama vowed to

"Strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and …harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy….[and support] updating surveillance laws and ensuring that law enforcement investigations and intelligence-gathering relating to U.S. citizens are done only under the rule of law."

The argument for expanded wiretapping is simple: If you and I can Skype each other in private, so can the terrorists and the mob. And, of course, government authorities would only tap into communications with proper court authorization, and would only target potential terrorist/criminals.

We saw how well that worked with the last administration and those warantless wiretaps. (Later, when it turns out that the courts didn’t authorize the taps and the targets weren’t always terror-iminals, Congress will somehow find a way to retro-actively legalize it, regardless of who’s in power.) 

Theoretically, at least, it seems perfectly reasonable to allow law enforcement authorities the same access to Net communications that they’ve had for plain-old-telephone service since J. Edgar Hoover was still wearing pleated skirts and knee socks.

In practical terms, though, this could turn out to be a nightmare from which we never awake. Because, unlike the closed phone system, we’re talking about the open Internet. And though the phone system could be hacked in its day (that is, after all, where hacking originated), it’s a whole ‘nother animal than the InterWebs. Sure, there was some freelance wiretapping going on, but not at the level you’d see today — whether we’re talking organized criminals in Eastern Europe, South American scam artists, or Chinese cyber spies.

If the Feds can sneak in through the back door via these types of communications, so can the bad guys. In fact, the bad guys will probably get there first and have enough time to tidy up the place and bake cookies.

Making our VoIP calls and encrypted communications less secure for the bad guys makes it less secure for the rest of us, too. Is the risk worth it? That’s what you, me and our elected officials need to figure out.

I think, though, that discussing what "digital privacy" truly means is a good thing. It’s a conversation that’s long overdue — and the more geeks we get involved in this discussion, the better it will be. The question is whether we can talk about it free from the partisan rancor that’s poisoned public debate for the last decade.

Should the Feds be free to tap the Net? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.

Snoopy Uncle Sam image found on Visibility 9-11

Facebook phone rumors are real. The Facebook Phone? Not so much.

facebook phone top secret God I love the InterWebs.

Years from now, scholars dissecting the complete disintegration of journalism in the 21st centure will look back at us and say, what the frak?

The example du jour: The Facebook Phone rumors, which were sparked this past weekend by TechCrunch and continue to burn.

If you believe what you read on the Web, Facebook is coming out with a phone. Unless of course it isn’t. If you think about it, a Facebook phone makes absolutely perfect sense — except for when it doesn’t. Facebook denies the whole thing, which means of course it’s lying. And a Facebook-centric phone would be cool, if you temporarily forget that Facebook apps are already on every smart phone known to mankind, and phones built around social networking have been around for over a year.

No, the details of a Facebook-built phone are less interesting to me than how this story perfectly illustrates the 10-step life cycle of a Net-borne rumor, circa 2010.

It goes something like this:

1. Facebook has a phone (TechCrunch). Never mind that the site offers no details, proof, or sources beyond some anonymous biped "who has knowledge of the project." All this meme requires are the words "Facebook phone" and we’re off to the races.

2. Is Facebook building a phone? (Everyone else). Translation: We’re not sure we actually believe this (we are talking about TechCrunch, after all) but if don’t run with this story we’re screwed, so we’re covering our asses by phrasing it as a question replete with heavy doses of skepticism.

3. Fictitious features leaked. The next wave of bloggers provide the details the original report lacked. For example: The Facebook phone will run the Android operating system. Hey, it’s a safe bet. What else would it run — the Apple OS? Symbian? Windows Mobile? The best part: It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong, because who’s gonna go back and check?

4. Early photos of Facebook phone leaked. Regardless of whether the phone exists beyond the fevered imagination of some anonymous source, somebody somewhere will dig up pictures of the alleged handset — or, even better, claim to have obtained one from a shadowy source.

(For example: Those clowns at eSarcasm claim to have unearthed a Facebook phone via circumstance not entirely unlike that of Engadget getting its hands on an early iPhone 4, only substitute a Palo Alto public restroom for a San Jose hofbrau. Given that the ‘face-fone’ bears more than a passing resemblence to a V-Tech Handy Manny toy cell phone, we suspect they’re just taking the piss, as the Brits say.)

5. Why the world needs a Facebook phone. These bloggers missed the whole "Facebook is building a phone" rush because it happened on a weekend while they were off having a life, so they’re trying to make up for it with an analytical story that discusses the many reasons why a Facebook phone would make sense.

6. Why the world doesn’t need a Facebook phone. These guys saw the last run of analytical pieces and wanted to jump in the water before it got too cold. It’s a weak play, but at this point it’s all they got. 

7. Facebook issues denials. Facebook’s PR department finally checks its Google alerts and sees storm clouds rising over the blogosphere, then issues a bland but comprehensive denial which it emails to major news outlets and gradually seeds across the Net, inciting another round of posts.

8. Facebook’s denial is further proof that it is making a phone. Now we’re back to TechCrunch again, defending its original story. If the author is Arrington (and it is), the response will include name calling and personal attacks on Facebook’s PR team.

To be fair to TechCrunch, this cycle played itself out in much the same way around a "Google phone," last winter. And sure enough, the Nexus One appeared shortly thereafter — though it didn’t quite turn out to be the earth-shattering event those blogs predicted. So it’s possible that will happen here as well.

9. Facebook vs the blogosphere.  Here’s the classic he said/she said spitting match between the blogs and the alleged phone maker, which is good for yet another round of posts. Because if Facebook were indeed making a phone, of course they would deny it. And if they weren’t making a phone, they’d also deny it. So when your odds are 50/50, you might as well go with the juicier story. Right?

10. What should a Facebook look like? These bloggers get to ignore the whole question of whether this story is true and dive straight into fantasy, which is always fun because it requires much less research. You pretty much empty your brain into WordPress until you hit the magic 400-word minimum Google News requires and click "Publish." This is blogging at its finest.

And I guess I should add an 11th: Analysis of the whole rumor cycle, which so far includes this blog post.

We’re now living in the golden age of meta journalism, withthis post qualifying as meta-meta journalism. (Hey, I never meta journalist I didn’t like. Ba-dum-bump. Thank you, thank you very much. Please tip your waitresses.)

If Facebook were building its own phone (not that I’m saying it is), would you buy one? Share your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This story originally appeared in slightly different form on InfoWorld.

Facebook socialists are bringing down the InterWebs

obama change socialism The problem with the Internet these days? In a word: socialism.

No not that faux Obama socialism certain people like to rail against (because they’ve got to be PO’d about something). I’m talking about the real scourge of the net: social media.

Now, I use social media and I (mostly) like social media. I use Facebook, Twitter, and Linked in on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes a bit too semi-regular. (When my editor asks why a blog post is late I just tell him I’ve been drinking — I don’t want him to know I’ve really been wasting all my time on Facebook.) I’ve even dabbled a bit on MySpace, Friendfeed, Plurk, Bebo, etc. just to keep my hand in.

But I think I’ve hit social media overload, and I can’t believe I’m the only one. We’ve all gone off on a tweeting-updating-linking-liking bender, and it may be time for an intervention.

Just this week, Time.com published a story about a freak tornado hitting Brooklyn, complete with an amazing photo of the twister swirling perilously close to the Statue of Liberty. Time blogger Steven Jay Snyder found the photo via Twitter and breathlessly posted it to the Time NewsFeed ("What’s vital and viral on the Web, in real time").

Yes, a freak storm really did hit NYC this week. And yes, the photo was real. Unfortunately for Time.com, it was taken on July 7, 1976 — possibly spawned by that massive bicentennial fireworks display. One can safely assume that storm has passed.

How does a respected media site get duped like this? Because the pressure to publish first and ask questions later is overwhelming. The Web rewards speed over accuracy every single time, and Twitter updates are about as fast as it gets on the Net.

This is only going to get worse. Major media companies like Time Warner are carefully studying the effects of social media on which articles people read and the best ways to promote them, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, you’ll need a subscription to read the whole thing — don’t blame me, blame Rupert Murdoch).

Meanwhile, Google is getting ready to launch "Google Me," which will "add a social layer to your activity stream," whatever that means. (You can watch a video of Eric Schmidt talking about it on TechCrunch, but if you can divine more meaning from that exchange than I can, more power to ya.) Before long, everything you see on the InterWebs will be "social."

The idea, of course, is that you’re more likely to read stories your friends have recommended or follow links they’ve posted. And that might be true — if these people really were your friends, and not just random strangers who looked interesting (or hot), and you were tipsy at the time and decided ‘what-the-frak, I’ll send them a friend invitation.’

I admit it. I am a Facebook whore. I’ll follow almost anybody on Twitter as long they can spell reasonably well. I’ve lied on Linked In, making up tenuous connections to "colleagues" whose email addresses I’m too lazy to hunt down, just because I wanted that connection.

And 95 percent of the time, people respond with "yes, I’ll accept that connection, whoever you are." It’s called "promiscuous friending." What can I say? Guilty as charged, your honor.

I know I’m not alone here either. We’re all just lab rats in this big experiment being run by Google, Facebook, Twitter and everyone who wants to be Google, Facebook, or Twitter. And even they don’t know where this will all end up.

I am sure I will get comments from readers who say (as they always do) "I don’t use Facebook Twitter blah blah blah so this doesn’t matter to me." Guess what? It matters. Because even if you’ve never tweeted, Facebooked or Linked, decisions about the information you see on the Web are being made by the people who do.

Here’s what I want to know: When all media is social media, and your "friends" aren’t really your friends, who can you trust?

Do you trust anything you see on the Net? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This originally appeared in a slightly different form on InfoWorld.

Ridiculous Obama poster courtesy of The Debonair Dude’s World. Yes, really.

Craigslist to state AGs: Censor this, assholes

craigs-list-hookers-300x285 (1) Probably the last thing Craig Newmark ever imagined is that the little email list he started back in 1995 would one day be at the center of a controversy over prostitution, the First Amendment, and the future of the InterWebs. But now, 15 years later, Craigslist is in the thick of of a dispute over whether its ad service is aiding and abetting prostitution or an exercise in unbridled free speech.

The battle with Craigslist over its ads has been brewing for some time, thanks in part to highly publicized stories like the "Craigslist Killer" Philip Markoff, who killed one women and robbed two others who advertised massage services on the online classifieds site. (Though one has to wonder if Markoff had found identical ads in a newspaper whether anyone would have thought to call him, say, the Boston Globe Killer.)

But it really kicked into gear last year, when South Carolina state attorney general Henry McMaster made a stink, demanding Craigslist shut down its adult ads in his state. That resulting in an even stinkier response from Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster, which included a temporary restraining order against AG McMaster. They then proceeded to Indian leg wrestle over who owned the rights to the suffix "Master."

In May 2009, Craigslist compromised by kicking its Erotic Services category to the curb and creating a cleaner, more wholesome "Adult Services" category in its place. Craigslist also promised to monitor the ads more closely and to charge $10 per ad to keep out the riff raff and the spammers.

Fast forward to August 2010, when 17 state attorneys general collaborate on an open letter to Craiglist [PDF], asking it to drop its adult ads. The letter is a bit scant on proof of actual wrongdoing but makes up for it with extra helpings of dramatic rhetoric:  

We sincerely hope craigslist will finally hear the voices of the victims, women and children, who plead with you to make this important change. We, too, call on craigslist to listen and respond now by shutting down the Adult Services section of its website. Such action is the right thing to do to protect innocent woman and children.

Craigslist decision to slap a big black "censored" label over its adult services ad section last weekend could have been an attempt to comply with the AG’s demands, but more likely it was Craiglists’ way of saying "You want us to censor adult ads? Fine. Let’s just see what happens, shall we?"

There’s no question Craigslist’s promise to screen adult ads is essentially a joke, or putting that "censored" lavel over the Adult section has done nothing to remove these kinds of ads from the service. A simple search on the terms "escort," "exotic" or "adult" will prove both of those things (though you’ll have to wade through a fair number of ads for Ford Escorts, exotic animals, and adult swim lessons).

If you don’t let these people advertise in Adult, they’ll advertise the same services elsewhere — whether it’s personals, small business, or "skilled trade services." And, as Buckmaster has pointed out in numerous blog posts, they can certainly advertise just as easily outside of Craigslist — like in the local papers of those jurisdictions in the AG’s respective backyards, or on eBay’s classifieds. You don’t hear a lot about state AGs going after them.

There’s also no question that going after Craigslist in an election year is cheap political theater. It’s a heckovalot easier to write a strongly worded letter to Craigslist (followed by a press release) to grab headlines for being tough on prostitution without having to getting your hands dirty (by, say, actually being tough on prostitution).

Craigslist appears to be protected by the safe harbor provisions of the Communications Decency Act, which keeps Web sites free from being legally liable for the material other people post there. Yet state AG’s like Connecticutt’s Richard Blumenthal are calling for Congress to rewrite the CDA to their liking. Per The Hartford Courant:

Blumenthal criticized [the Communications Decency Act], saying it "dates from the earliest days of the Internet," and is now "completely outdated."

"I believe that the very broad immunity claimed by craigslist and other websites should be substantially reduced," Blumenthal said in an interview. "Congress should certainly modify or clarify the standard to cut back on the immunity that they claim is virtually absolute."

Blumenthal said websites such as craigslist should have the same legal status as newspapers that abet criminal activity — not blanket protection.

Imagine an Internet where every site was liable for every comment left by some halfwit. Imagine the damage you could do to a site you didn’t care for, or what could happen to political sites like Daily Kos or RedState. Most sites these days have their hands full just trying to fight comment spam, let alone trying to police content that might "abet criminal activity." If the safe harbor provisions of the CDA came down, they’d likely take vast numbers of Web sites with them.

If the states really were listening to "the voices of the victims, women and children" and wanted to crack down on prostitution, all they’d to do is have the cops call up a few advertisers on Craigslist and make appointments. After the advertisers solicited money for sex, arrest them. Once word got out that the police was cracking down on Craigslist advertisers, they’d stop advertising there. They’d move on to some other venue.

Because that’s all banning adult ads from Craigslist would do. It won’t solve the problem. It will just move it down the road a few blocks. Possibly long enough for the next round of elections to come and go. Otherwise, it changes nothing.

Should Craigslist ban adult ads, or should the state AGs focus on other things, like fighting actual crimes? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This originally appeared in a slightly different form on InfoWorld.

Tynan’s Ten Rules for Highly Inebriated Writers

Inspired by “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers” found on Ragan.com.

Note: These rules apply to people who use writing to pay the rent, not those who are grinding out that coming-of-age novel in their spare time and like to procrastinate by talking about “the creative process.” You know who you are.

Highly inebriated writers…

1. Cash checks promptly. You never know when a publisher will go belly up (and they always pay themselves first). Get the money in your hands before you write another word.

Patron-Gran-Platinum-lg.jpg 2. Drink copiously. Writers are like hydraulic engines — they run on fluids, whether it’s water, coffee, Red Bull, or Gran Patron Platinum. Always keep a full cup of something at hand.

3. Deliver clean copy. Your job is to make your editor’s job easier. Period. Do that consistently and you will never go hungry.

4. Suck up. The benefits of well-executed brownnosing cannot be overstated. Tell your editors what a great job they did on your last piece. Buy your favorites something nice around the holidays (those gift boxes from Harry & David are a good call) or when they’re trying to drain what’s left of their annual budget before the new fiscal year starts. It will come back to you in spades.

5. Write first, ask questions later. Don’t sit there staring atWordProcessor a blank screen pondering the perfect lead. Just write the mofo starting from whatever you know best, and then work your way backwards to the beginning and forwards to the end. You can always fix it later. That’s why God and IBM invented word processors.

6. Embellish when necessary. Make your sources sound smarter, wittier, and more insightful than they actually are, and they will never complain about being misquoted. (See also #3 above.)

7. Recycle. It’s good for the environment and even better for your worklife. Use the same source for three different stories (ideally for three different publishers) and you’ve just tripled your pay rate.

8. Keep track of excuses. Running behind on a deadline? You don’t want to use the ‘death in the family’ line with the same editor more than  once every three years. That’s why I keep a database. tornado

Note: Natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes, however, offer excellent opportunities for begging deadline extensions and may be reused at will, provided Mother Nature cooperates.

9. Stay fluid. Did I mention drinking already? Remember it’s always 5 pm somewhere in the world.

10. Don’t look back. Rereading your old stuff is always problematic. It’s either a) not nearly as good as you remembered, or b) much better than what you’re writing now. Nothing good will come of this. File and forget is the motto you want to adopt. This may also come in handy if anyone ever sues you.

Google’s data pervert wants your children

Imagine wandering through Times Square and seeing a 60-foot-tall animation depicting you (yes, you) as a creepy child-baiting ice cream truck driver. How would you feel? That’s probably how Google’s Eric Schmidt feels today.

A group calling itself Consumer Watchdog, which has decided that Google is Evil Incorporated, has taken the unusual step of buying up space on NYC’s Jumbotron and commissioning a 15-second cartoon that paints Eric Schmidt as a data pederast.

But that’s just the beginning. The Watchdogs have also produced a 90-second version that’s available on Schmidt’s own YouTube (cue ironic theme music here).

Normally I have no problem skewering rich corporate CEOs whose companies operate as if they can barely tolerate being in the same room as their customers. But I’m not sure Google fits into that category, exactly.

Yes, Google has plenty of privacy screwups to be sorry for: the Buzz debacle, in which its Twitter-like update service began by broadcasting which Gmail users were in contact with each other most often (potentially revealing relationships that were intended to be private); the WiFi spying scandal, where Google’s Street View camera vans were found to be slurping up data from unprotected WiFi networks around the world; the company’s insistence on clinging to its users’ search data for years (now reduced to 9 months) without ever asking permission or explaining why.

Google’s apparent capitulation to the telecom industry on Net Neutrality isn’t helping its reputation, either.

But Consumer Watchdog is mostly picking on Schmidt because a) he’s become the most visible symbol of Google, given how much Sergey and Larry lurk in the shadows, and b) he’s made a few public statements lately that could chill a nuclear furnace.

Like this, for example, from a recent Wall Street Journal profile:

"We’re trying to figure out what the future of search is," Mr. Schmidt acknowledges. "I mean that in a positive way. We’re still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type."

"I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions," he elaborates. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."

I believe when Schmidt says these kinds of things he’s performing a public service. I think he sees the good in information sharing (both for consumers and for Google) as well as the potential dangers, and he’s trying to wake people up to that reality. He’s just doing it in a ham-fisted way. The notion of having Google tell you what to do because it knows better is bound to get under anyone’s skin.

I think Google’s primary problem is not evilness, it’s cluelessness. It’s an engineering-driven company that thinks it’s helping people by exposing their information, or that it’s cool to be able to slurp up data as you drive by, so why not? I think the Googlers were genuinely surprised by the reaction to Buzz and genuinely appalled when they confirmed their own WiFi spying. And I think they are slowly wrapping their enormous Googley brains around the concept that just because they can collect all that data doesn’t make it theirs to do with as they wish. (One can hope, anyway.)

But Consumer Watchdog (formerly The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights) has an animus toward Google that feels almost personal in nature. At least once a week I get an email blast from them attacking Google for some crime against humanity that’s long on rhetoric and short on specifics.

As a means of getting attention, I suspect that Times Square billboard succeeded beyond Consumer Watch’s wildest dreams. But as a means of establishing credibility — or focusing attention on what needs to change in order to ensure consumers’ right to personal privacy — it fails miserably.

So, what do you think: Is Google evil, clueless, or some combination of both? Cast your vote below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld

Paul Allen, patent troll?

troll As co-founder of Microsoft, early supporter of commercial space flight, and major world philanthropist, Paul Allen has already left a pretty large footprint on the world. Now it seems he’s determined to leave his muddy tracks over some of the biggest names in tech.

Allen’s company, Interval Licensing Corp, is suing a Who’s Who of the Internet and the business world at large: Aol!, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples, Yahoo, and YouTube. Their alleged crimes: violating up to four of Interval’s patents on common techniques now employed by thousands of Web sites.

The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Valentino-DeVries breaks down these impressive sounding patents one by one.

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,263,507, for "Browser for Use in Navigating a Body of Information, With Particular Application to Browsing Information Represented By Audiovisual Data." Think news aggregator (like Google News or Digg); or really any the thousands of sites that has a box with "related stories" on it (including the one you’re reading right now).
  • U.S. Patent Nos. 6,034,652 & 6,788,314, both titled "Attention Manager for Occupying the Peripheral Attention of a Person in the Vicinity of a Display Device." Think stock ticker, headline feed, Twitter widget — anything that updates continually in the periphery of a site. 
  • U.S. Patent No. 6,757,682, for "Alerting Users to Items of Current Interest." Think RSS feeder, Google alerts, anything that presents content based on keywords you’ve selected or on your past activity, like Amazon or Netflix recommendations.

Do any of these ideas sound like brilliant one-of-a-kind brainstorms to you? Maybe the were back when the patents were originally filed (in 1996 and 2000) but they sure don’t now.

Yet Interval apparently owns these processes, and everyone else (with the notable exceptions of Amazon and Microsoft, whom Allen has yet to pursue) is going to have to pay.

Of course, most of these patents were granted back in the day when the US Patent and Trade Organization was handing out patents for business processes the way a strip mall Santa passes out candy canes to kids. I think the USPTO may have even established a drive-through window ("would you like fries with that generic process patent, ma’m?").

At least Interval filed in the Western District of Washington and not the Eastern District of Texas, where patent trolls sprout up like mushrooms after a long spring rain and no one is turned away without at least a $100 million settlement

The reaction across the blogosphere has been a collective "huh?"

ITworld’s Steven Jay Vaughn-Nichols is scratching his head over why Allen, rich beyond any normal mortal’s dreams, would bother with kind of suit:

"Allen, according to Forbes, was worth 11.5-billion dollars in 2009 thanks to his Microsoft investments. He doesn’t need the money, so why is he acting like a patent troll?

Patent trolls, which do nothing with patents but hold them until someone creates something real and then they try to swoop in to grab profits, have everything to gain and little to lose though by attacking big companies. Alas, this fouled-up result of the U.S. patent system works well for trolls. But, why should Allen do this?"

The Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley thinks Allen, who recently underwent treatments for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is just trying to add to his legacy.

"Usually patent-licensing deals are quieter. Companies often reach settlements before any lawsuits are filed, or they make licensing deals that draw little attention….

Even if Allen loses, the lawsuit told the world that Allen funded early research into the sort of technology used by Apple, Google, Facebook and others….

In other words, the lawsuit has called out otherwise obscure work that Allen bankrolled in the dawn of the Web era."

Forbes’ Quentin Hardy takes a somewhat less charitable view.

"Allen is basically famous for being the guy who convinced Gates to leave Harvard….  Since then he’s done a bunch of other “big picture” things that haven’t made good relative to the vision. His most notable investment may be buying and selling Ticketmaster, an outfit which has managed to make every concertgoer in the United States feel ripped off. He has also built the Experience Music Project and the Sci-Fi Museum, two of the great monuments to an American adolescence….

Which makes me wonder if this isn’t a claim to intellectual legitimacy as much as to payment."

What does Paul Allen want? Money? Recognition? A guest spot on "Dancing With the Stars"? Or maybe just the attention his contemporaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got, but he didn’t. 

In any event, this is the first chapter in what’s likely to be painful, drawn out, hopelessly boring litigation that will end up making a lot of attorneys rich, but do very little for anyone else. I can’t help thinking it will tarnish, not burnish, Allen’s reputation.

Also: Be careful what you click on next. You may be participating in a patent violation.

Should you be able to patent a generic process? Where do you draw the line? Weigh in below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.com.

Troll image courtesy of Nolo’s Patent, Copyright, and Trademark blog (ironically enough).

Beware of Flash (eating) Zombies

shaunofthedea_wideweb__430x280

Don’t look now, but the Flash Zombies are after you.

This week privacy attorney Joseph Malley filed his third lawsuit against major media sites and their ad firms, accusing them of using Flash cookies to illegally collect information about visitors to their Web sites.

Malley’s defendants aren’t exactly Joe Blow — they’re deep-pocketed media companies like ABC, NBC, Disney, and MTV, as well as their repective advertising partners (Quantcast, Clearspring, Specificmedia). All of them use a feature built into Adobe Flash that can set cookies when you load a Flash media file into your browser (which, these days, happens almost any time you view a page with a video ad).

Unlike normal cookies, Flash cookies can "respawn," even after you think you’ve cleared a Web site’s cookies from your machine. That’s why they’re called "zombies" — they come back from the dead to eat brains.

Per Wired.com’s Ryan Singel:

Unlike traditional browser cookies, Flash cookies are relatively unknown to web users, and they are not controlled through the cookie privacy controls in a browser. That means even if a user thinks they have cleared their computer of tracking objects, they most likely have not….

QuantCast was using the same user ID in its HTML and Flash cookies, and when a user got rid of the former, Quantcast would reach into the Flash storage bin, retrieve the user’s old number and reapply it so the customer’s browsing history around the net would not be cut off.

After Berkeley researcher Ashkan Soltani published a report detailing the use of Flash cookies on the world’s biggest Web sites, Quantcast says it discontinued the use of them, though that wasn’t enough to keep it from getting sued.

Unlike normal browser cookies, which max out at 4K, flash cookies can store up to 100K of information. That’s enough for about 30 pages of single- spaced plain text.

Most of the time, Flash cookies contain extremely basic info — like an ID number that tells a Web site you’ve been there before, or your preferred volume settings for a video. Sometimes they can store a lot more, like cached media or information that can be used to track you as you go from site to site across the InterWebs.

And that’s where Malley’s suit comes in. He’s accusing these sites of illegally storing information without informing consumers they were doing so.

What’s wrong with tracking people across the Web? Nothing — if you ask advertisers.

The advertisers say that a) they collect this data anonymously, and b) can use it to deliver more targeted (and thus more "interesting") ads. So if you’re shopping for a car on say Edmunds.com, and you visit another site that uses the same ad network, it can show you ads for cars there too, even if the site has nothing to do with automobiles, because it knows where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Ad companies can also attach other values to your cookie — like, say, you’re interested in sports, or you buy a lot of flowers, or you really like watching videos of cats singing opera.

Of course, to many people, the idea of anything following you across the Web, even anonymously, is just creepy.

Imagine a tiny man in a trenchcoat and a porkpie hat following you as you spend a busy day — going to the bank, getting a haircut, wandering through the mall, stopping by your local for a cold one, etc. The little man doesn’t say a word, but every time you reach someplace new he takes out a stubby little pencil and jots down the address in his notebook.

Of course, he doesn’t know your name, so everything’s OK, right? Later you get coupons for haircuts and beer in the mail.

You can control Flash cookies, kinda/sorta. Adobe provides a Web page that uses a Flash plug in (naturally) where you can turn these cookies on or off, control how much storage they use, and delete specific cookies. Good luck figuring out how to use it.

Just what we needed: Another Internet privacy threat to worry about. I guess this must be the year for them.

Do you worry about Flash cookies? What privacy threats really bother you? Post your hopes and fears below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post appeared originally on InfoWorld.

Shaun of the Dead zombies found on Nerve.com.

CEOs Gone Wild — The HP Way

mark hurd talks about 'lil mark' It’s usually other industries that get all the sex scandals. Politics, sports, entertainment — hardly a week goes by without someone getting their dangle in a mangle. But high tech? Not so much.

Finally, our long painful drought is over.

By now, you’ve probably heard about Mark Hurd and HP. No matter what you think about him, you have to admire his chutzpah. It isn’t everybody who gets to run the world’s largest PC maker for five years, wine and dine a private contractor for two of them on his company’s dime, resign in disgrace, and walk away with $12 million and health benefits.

Is this a great country or what?

As I write this, blogfiends are surely on the hunt for the name (and more important, pictures) of the marketing temptress that brought Hurd down. Because otherwise, all they have to report is what everyone else has reported, to wit:

Hurd did not get shown the door for hot docking with an outside contractor for two years. Nor was he found guilty of sexual harrassment, or of trying to bed every Hooters waitress within a 5000-mile radius, or of hiring "contractors" from Craigslist’s Adult Services section. No, Hurd got the boot because he played defrag my hard drive with some saucy lass and tried to cover it up by filing bogus expense reports.

Per Endgadget’s liveblog of the HP media call:

HP is saying that Mark Hurd had a close personal relationship with a contractor who was hired by the office of the CEO, and there were numerous instances of reimbursement where there was not a legitimate business interest for HP. Mark also submitted inaccurate expense reports to conceal his relationship with the contractor, and that violated HP’s standards of business conduct.

So, to recap: Diddling a private contractor isn’t ideal, but still within the realm of marginally acceptable behavior. Fudging your expense reports? That’s not the HP way. Yer outta here.

(For the record, the attorney for the marketing temptress maintains that Hurd did not have sexual relations with her client. No word yet whether there’s a blue dress with Hurd’s DNA on it hanging in her closet.)

HP did its best to bury this story using the time-honored tradition of releasing it at the very end of the day on a Friday when half the world is drunk or on vacation. And if HP could have held out til the Labor Day weekend I’m sure it would have.

But this is not the traditional media world any more, this is the 24/7 blogging world. So the blogosphere gets to spend all weekend retelling the Hurd story instead of making up rumors about Apple.

It’s too bad about Hurd. It seemed like HP had regained its mojo after the Carly Fiorina follies. Now it’s in the market for a new CEO. I don’t know what high level headhunters it’s been using, but after the Fiorina fiasco and the Hurd hottie meltdown, I think maybe they ought to consider a switch.

Should Hurd have resigned? Which high tech exec will be ensnared in the next sex scandal? Weigh in below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.

That photo? A bunch of places.

Is your iPhone spying on you?

iphone-spyware

And you thought those iPhone 4 signal problems were bad. At last week’s Blackhat conference, a San Francisco firm called Lookout Mobile Security revealed that third-party smart phone apps are stealing user information and (literally) phoning home with it. And by ‘home,’ I mean China.

But unlike those bogus Droid X signal problems, this problem also affects Android handsets. Per ComputerWorld’s Gregg Keizer:

Between one and four million users of Android phones have downloaded wallpaper apps that swipe personal data from the phone and transmit it to a Chinese-owned server, a mobile security firm said today.

According to San Francisco-based Lookout, a large number of free wallpaper apps in the Android Market scrape the phone number; the user-specific subscriber identifier, also know as the IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity); the phone’s SIM card’s serial number; and the currently-entered voicemail number from the phone.

According to Lookout’s App Genome Project, which analyzed more than 300,000 free apps for Android and iPhone handsets, about a third of all apps can access your phone’s contact list and/or location information. Overall, iPhone apps are a slightly bigger risk than Android apps, especially the free ones. (That squinchy sound you’re hearing is thousands of Apple fanboys simultaneously getting their knickers in a twist.)

Hey, there’s a reason why ‘apps’ rhymes with ‘saps’. While you’re busy papering your smart phone with anime pix, bad guys are busy scooping up your personal information with both hands and heaving it over the Great Firewall.

The good news? Whoever was collecting that data over in Guandong Province hadn’t done anything nasty with it — yet. Per the Lookout company blog:

While the data this app is accessing is certainly suspicious coming from a wallpaper app, we want to be clear that there is no evidence of malicious behavior. There have been cases in the past where applications are simply a little overzealous in their data gathering practices, but not because of any ill intent.

The company also demo’d how it was able to hack the Android OS by exploiting a flaw in Linux. Busy little bees, those Lookout guys.

How bad can it get? Last week Citigroup plugged a hole in its iPhone app that inadvertently stored personal bank account information on the phone. Imagine what a clever hacker could do with that. I’m thinking, vacation house in the Caymans.

Tom’s Hardware offers simple instructions on how to check what kinds of info that free Android app is helping itself to. If it makes no sense — like a wallpaper app that wants access to all your contacts — delete that app with extreme prejudice.

The fact is, it’s not just handsets. Security holes are everywhere, from the device in your pocket to Facebook apps and Google’s iGadgets. And as the Citigroup example proves, it’s not just stupid apps from no-name vendors that are at risk. They caught the flaw before it did any damage; next time users might not be so lucky.

Next time you want to install some stupid app that wants the keys to your personal kingdom, think about it first. Is it really worth the risk? I think not.

Do you use free apps on your iPhone or Android handset? And if so, are you sure that’s a good idea? Post your thoughts below or email me: dan@dantynan.com.

This post originally appeared on InfoWorld under an assumed name.

Photo: iPhoneSpyware

Facebook: What’s the real story?

mark-zuckerberg-facebook-naked-cropped-150x150 As I noted earlier this week, Facebook just crested 500 million members, and it’s been pulling out all the stops to draw attention to that fact.

Mark Zuckerberg is making the TV rounds, talking to Diane Sawyer on ABC last night. Rumors swirl that a cartoon version of Zuckerberg may even appear on "The Simpsons" (wearing a hoodie, no doubt — but at least the sweat will be virtual).

[ See also: Should Facebook charge for privacy? ]

The social network is commemorating the milestone by publishing "Facebook Stories," a series of heartfelt vignettes from FB users the world over about how they reconnected with old friends and lovers, reconciled with family members, found their lost cats, etc, via the magic of Facebook — all told in the length of one status update (420 characters or less).

You can search the Stories page by theme (crime fighting, friendships, parenting, pets, etc) or via a slick Bing map interface that displays the location of each Story author. And, of course, you can add your own.  I have to say it’s beautifully done. Even I can’t find anything cynical to say about that, which should tell you something. As for privacy, well, if you choose to share this stuff, it’s your choice, right? That’s what privacy is all about.

But there are some stories Facebook doesn’t want to tell this week. Like whether Mark Zuckerberg really did sign a contract that gives 84 percent of his $25 billion baby to some obscure Web designer named Paul Ceglia. It’s clear Zucky signed something back in April 2003; whether that gives Ceglia the rights to most of Facebook seems rather dubious, but you never know what a court will decide. I’m betting Mr. Ceglia is going to walk away with a large check in his pocket when the dust has settled.

There are other stories. For the first time ever, the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated social media sites, and it published the results this week: Of the four sites surveyed, Wikipedia topped the list, garnering a rating of 77 (our of 100). YouTube was next (73), followed by Facebook (64) and MySpace (63). Per the ACSI’s survey partner, ForeSee Results:

"Facebook is a phenomenal success, so we were not expecting to see it score so poorly with consumers… At the same time, our research shows that privacy concerns, frequent changes to the website, and commercialization and advertising adversely affect the consumer experience. Compare that to Wikipedia, which is a non-profit that has had the same user interface for years, and it’s clear that while innovation is critical, sometimes consumers prefer evolution to revolution."

Yes, people have an irrational love of Wikipedia. But landing just one point above MySpace? That’s gonna leave a mark.

And then there’s this story: As reported by Inside Facebook (and noted here previously), Facebook is actually losing members in the key 18 to 44 demographic. Yes, the same hoodie-wearing Gen X and Gen Y types who help create Facebook and built it into the juggernaut it is today are leaving the site behind.

Finally, the privacy angle. Per Inside Facebook again, one out of four women are uncomfortable with their privacy on Facebook, while four out of ten are neutral. So only about a third of women on Facebook like its privacy policies. And if hot chicks can’t fix Facebook, who can?

What’s your Facebook story? Post it below or email me: dan(at)dantynan(dot)com. I may use it in a future blog post (with your permission, of course).

ITworld TY4NS author Dan Tynan can usually be found tending his snark garden at eSarcasm (Geek Humor Gone Wild). Follow him on Twitter, if you dare: @tynan_on_tech.

This post originally appeared on ITworld.