Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have published a study projecting ‘the future accumulation of profiles belonging to deceased Facebook users’. Carl Öhman and David Watson used the social network’s ‘audience insights’ data, which businesses use to target their adverts, to find out how many ‘monthly active users’ of different ages there are across the world, and combined this with life expectancy data to create their models. If Facebook continues to grow at its current rate, by 2100 it will host the accounts of 4.9 billion dead people.
The first time I wrote an article for a newspaper, the first online comment said: 'If I ever see you in the street, I hope you get shot.' The article was about being abused and harassed in the street, specifically while cycling. I wasn't surprised that the online comments mirrored the behaviour the article addressed. But unlike the men who shouted at me as I waited on my bike in Clapham, the online commenter could be sure I wouldn't spit in his face in response.
Hossein Derakhshan, a leading Iranian blogger, was imprisoned in Tehran in 2008 for spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment, promoting counter-revolutionary groups and insulting Islamic thought and religious figures. He was pardoned and released last November. He recently wrote a piece about the ways the internet changed – for the worse, in his view – during his time inside. 'Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online.' The web is dying, to be replaced by the stream:
The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, a programmer and open source advocate, in August 2007 as a way of flagging up the salient features of a tweet. He took the hash sign, which had meant ‘number’, and made it mean ‘important concept-alert’. The hashtag’s use in tweets has now developed a style and language of its own. They’re everywhere, punctuating Twitter and Instagram jokes, Facebook posts and other forms of communication. I like making stupid hashtag neologisms, but I’m probably not alone in feeling uneasy about the way they boil large bodies of information down to a couple of words. There is, of course, something brutally reductive about them, and the word ‘tag’ has overtones of criminality or pricing: available for search, available for purchase.
Not many adults will know about the Tobuscus riot of September 2012, by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, but it makes for one of the best sequences in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film about teens and the internet, InRealLife. Tobuscus, the hideously hyper, pretty-as-a-pony YouTube performer, tweeted his followers to suggest a ‘meetup’ when he was visiting from LA. About a thousand turned up and lots of them got hysterical. Tobuscus had to escape over iron railings, impaling his hand as he did so. ‘Did you die for our sins, man?’ a follower wrote on Instagram. Police came and broke it up. ‘YouTube is a beast,’ Tobuscus says in Kidron’s movie, mugging and sniggering in a way that makes it difficult to tell if he’s upset or only acting, which is what he’s always like. He films himself so much and so often, he probably doesn’t know for sure himself.
Perhaps the most – if not the only – surprising thing about 'the spy story of the age' is that anyone should be at all surprised that the NSA is doing a lot of snooping on the internet. If the documents that Edward Snowden leaked to the Guardian show the worst that the spooks are up to, it's almost reassuring; there I was thinking that someone had only to say 'gooseberry bush' on his mobile phone and within hours he'd be shot dead at Waterloo Station.
The Post Office rolled out the K6 telephone kiosk in 1935, to celebrate George V’s silver jubilee. One unintended consequence, as the postmaster general, Kingsley Wood, explained to Parliament, was ‘an increasing number of cases where miserable people have indulged in the use of improper or obscene language to our female telephonists’. A switchboard operator might valiantly try to ensure the caller ‘held the line’ long enough for an engineer to trace his location, but the heavy-breathers had unwittingly found a loophole in the law. The GPO tried to bodge a solution from some statutory off-cuts, either arguing that this behaviour constituted ‘fraudulent use of electricity’ or invoking the even more obscure common law offence of ‘obstruction’, but these were cumbersome and ineffective remedies.
On Saturday night the Home Office website went offline for seven hours. The hacker group Anonymous took it down, they said, as a protest against the government’s planned new surveillance legislation. The plan, we learned earlier in the week, was to introduce a bill that would allow the security services continuous access in real time to all UK phone calls, emails and web traffic. It sounded scary, but most people stopped worrying about it after it became clear that nothing concrete would be known about the proposed legislation until the Queen’s Speech in May. There were also vague promises that the law, which would now be published in draft form only and open to consultation, would include the ‘highest possible safeguards’. ‘All we’re doing,’ Nick Clegg said, ‘is updating the rules which... allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to new technology.’ ‘Let’s be absolutely clear,’ David Cameron said. ‘This is not about what the last government proposed and we opposed.’ He was very nearly telling the truth.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica has at last succumbed to the inevitable. It will no longer be published in a print edition but is going online only. David Runciman's 2009 review of The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih begins:
Last year the webcomic xkcd compared the speeds of seismic waves and internet traffic (I was alerted to it by a tweet yesterday): Here's one of the jokes that's doing the rounds about the earthquake in Virginia:
Last month, Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old digital activist, internet analyst and anti-corruption researcher, was criminally indicted by a grand jury in Massachusetts for downloading millions of articles from the research database JSTOR. If convicted he faces a fine of up to a million dollars and a prison sentence of up to 35 years. ‘Stealing is stealing,’ the district attorney said, ‘whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.’
It has become commonplace to describe the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as Facebook or Twitter revolutions; and almost as commonplace to respond that the role of social media in popular insurgencies has been exaggerated. Less attention, however, has been paid to states’ use of these technologies as PR and counterinsurgency tools. Look at Israel, for instance.
Everyone knows that Wikipedia is unreliable, though it's not clear where the evidence for that knowledge comes from – maybe it's on the internet somewhere – and a study in Nature a few years ago found that a random selection of science articles on Wikipedia sent out for peer review were nearly as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But maybe that simply means that the Britannica isn't as reliable as we used to think. So where to turn? Where else but Conservapedia, 'the trustworthy encyclopedia', started in 2006 by Andy Schlafly – according to Wikipedia, he's a ‘lawyer, conservative political activist' and 'teacher of homeschooling classes' – as a corrective to the 'liberal bias' of Wikipedia. Its list of 'popular articles' on the homepage include:
I write likeDan Brown I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing! 'Check what famous writer you write like with this statistical analysis tool, which analyses your word choice and writing style and compares them to those of the famous writers.' This is the - somewhat questionable, writing-wise - promise of I write like..., a handy website that invites casual browsers to paste in 'your latest blog post, journal entry, Reddit comment, chapter of your unfinished book, etc', and then uses its robot brain to break down the material.
On the morning of 20 July a man identifying himself as William Kramer boarded American Airlines flight 720 from Dallas/Fort Worth to New York. He was travelling first class. His one-way ticket cost $1145.60. I know this because he used data stolen from my credit card to pay for it. I had no idea that anything was wrong – my credit card was still in my wallet – until the following morning when I checked my recent transactions online. The American Airlines payment had not yet appeared but three other charges had: for $64 and $75, on consecutive days, from Angelo’s Pizza in New York, and for $663.44 from a firm called Ritz Camera. I cancelled the card and put in a claim against these fraudulent transactions. When I called Ritz Camera, they told me that a camera had been ordered over the internet using my card details and sent by FedEx to my apartment house in New York.
Auctions are often plagued by something called the winner’s curse. The person who ‘wins’ the painting or Floridian land parcel usually pays too much for it. Unless the winner knows something that the other bidders don’t, he's probably overvalued the object: otherwise, why wouldn’t someone else in the room be willing to pay as much? But the online charity auctions run by raffle.it are in a format I hadn't encountered before – they seemed, possibly, curse free. Each of their auctions is like a regular raffle, except you get to choose your own number (only positive integers are allowed). The winner is whoever has the lowest unique number: if Anne has 2, Betty has 3, Cindy has 2 and Diana has 7, then Betty wins. Once you've chosen your number, you're told whether or not someone else has already gone for it.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.
'How To Quit Facebook' is a page in the online self-help manual WikiHow, edited and updated by its users. If you have a Facebook problem – i.e. you don’t know when to stop Facebooking – WikiHow recommends you think of other things you could be doing with the time you spend on Facebook, such as 'pick up a part time job and invest that money in stocks', 'teach a child how to throw a football', 'calculate the center of gravity' (it doesn't say of what) or even 'read a book'. It also suggests you 'call your friends on the phone or do something fun with them in person'. Be warned, however: WikiHow can, apparently, be as addictive as Facebook. There’s a whole page on ‘How to control a WikiHow Addiction’.