Category: Social Networking


If you’ve never heard of them before, don’t fret; the concept is simple. Screencasts are much like screenshots—only better. Screencasting features a video-feed comprised wholly of partly of someone’s computer screen. Often, they’re supplemented with audio narration and sometimes they’re even incorporated into their close cousin, the videocast.

Screencasts are not new technology. They date back to the heady days of 2004, when Twitter was but a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye, and when Livejournal was still the preeminent social networking site.

Since then, however, the screencasts have evolved and been used for everything from tutorials to product demos. The tech has become near ubiquitous—prominent enough for the eponymous Ze Frank to provide his own screencast on how to passive aggressively punctuate emails.

But beyond the obvious, screencasting’s potential ranges farther than just broadcasting how-to’s. The tech also helps germinate dialogue; it provides a way for users to provide suggestions in real time—to layer on feedback to a real-time demonstration of a piece a software. Namely, for those inclined to care about trivial pursuits, a screencast provides a way for gamer and developer to communicate.

Case and point: Cynical Brit. This particular screencaster publishes under the alias TotalBiscuit. His youtube profile hosts numerous screencasts of popular MMORPGs; namely, screencasts of beta gameplay of Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming expansion: World of Warcraft Cataclysm. TotalBiscuits’s screencasts serve the obvious purpose of providing eager gamers with previews of upcoming content and tips on how to pass it. But the videos serve another purpose: they provide play-by-play feedback, including what quests are too long, what’s glitching, and where the plot could be improved.

The only question remains is whether or not Blizzard developers actually watch some of TotalBiscuits’s videos. If they do, kudos. If not, they should. For developers in the beta stages of a game, the sort of detailed criticism provided by TotalHalibut, for example, is golden.

(If you’re looking an article on how to create screencasts, Jon Udell provides one on digitalmedia. The post is dated, written back in 2005, so the tips on software have expired. Nonetheless, the article is still worth reading for those interested in learning the fundamentals of screencast creation and design.)

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Digg is Dead; Long Live Reddit

In 2009, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington predicted Twitter and Facebook would soon overshadow Digg as the go to resource for newsworthy stuff.  But while Digg is dying, Reddit.com continues to grow, says Vadim Lavrusik at Mashable.com. Social news sites persist, offering a streamlined feed for news, gossip, and other critical info (like the dangers of methanol fires).

For example, just say, hypothetically, you’ve an interest in news on global warming. Say you spend much of your free time scouring newsfeeds and your favourite blogs for tid-bits on Copenhagen, the IPCC, Al Gore and what have you. Say you’ve devoted a third of your waking life—forgone shaving, sleeping, and eating—to scrape new climatological content from every obscure e-nook, e-niche, and e-cranny you could locate. As it happens, you didn’t need to. Sites like Digg and Reddit spare you the sweat of having to pick through google searches or Twitter  feeds by aggregating everything your climate kith and kin are interested in into one resource.

Interested in climate change? Heck, interested in anything? Alright, type http://www.Reddit.com into your browser of choice, then your soup de jour into the search box. Next, click “submit query.” Done. No need to investigate google trends; no need to consult Twellow for the right #hashtag. At your fingertips now rests a smorgasbord of related articles, videos, pictures, cartoons, and charts.

Admittedly, some of the entries are obscure; a few border on the crackpotish: e.g., “The Sexy Side of Global Warming.” Most of the links, however, are nutritious and have something of substance to say; and if you don’t like an article, you can always vote it down. (On Reddit.com, click the down arrow left of the headline.) Articles live or die based on their submission scores—something users define together by voting for or against.

Also, Reddit.com offers “sub-Reddits”: subjects grouped by tags and that operate similarly to Twitter hashtags, allowing you to refine your Reddit feed. (Note: /r/ sustainability.) Several sites give you the tools you need to examine and select a sub-Reddit that’s right for you; namely, metareddit.com, subreddits.org, and subredditfinder.com.

So next time you’ve an obsession, save your friends, family, and yourself some grief, and subscribe to a social news site.

Update (November 2):

Today I spent a couple hours scoping out del.icio,us—an actual, bonafied social bookmarking site (as opposed to a social news site like Reddit). On examination, you’ll find Del.icio.us—the supposedly tasty site—has some advantages over Reddit:

First, Del.icio.us is more intuitive. Articles, rather than having sub-Reddits, have tags. Basically, tags are keywords, and a single article can have lots of them. An article on food waste, for instance, carried eight tags: food, storage, waste, garbage, research, environment, climate, and change. (Delicious doesn’t put any limits on tags.)

Another advantage of Del.icio.us: it’s more focused and just seems more mature. Despite its sugary name, delicious.com’s links have less empty calories—less on things like hypothetical roadtrips to mars and Parisian women surviving six storey falls—and more substance. If you’re looking for a credible resource on climate science, for example, a quick “climate change” search pulls up some authoritative resources; namely, realclimate.org.

Thus compared to Reddit , Del.icio.us isn’t as up-to-the-minute, but compensates with more credibility and an easier-to-search format, offering a good second stop for any research project.

In an August Newsweek article, William J. Dobson tried defending Haystack and its creator–Austin Heap–as a new generation of “Hacktivists” eschewing silver bullets for a “go-slow” approach to fighting online censorship. Dobson’s article was the last gasp of Haystack media praise. A month later on September 13, Heap shut down Haystack and its website, the Censorship Research Center, in response to criticism over the program’s safety by Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov, who later likened Haystack’s collapse as the internet’s version of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Haystack’s  rise to fame and sudden fall, and the amount of publicity the program received highlights the limits of micro-blogging and raises questions about the media’s complicity in hyping online social media.

If you haven’t heard of it before, Haystack’s purpose was to provide users anonymity by rerouting traffic through proxies and making use of sites like Twitter and Facebook seem as innocuous as browsing weather reports. The software program was the invention of a 26-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Heap, who created Haystack in response to the 2009 Iranian election protests—one of the two so-called “Twitter Revolutions.” (The other being the 2009 civil unrest in Moldova.)

Heap’s efforts earned him notoriety, including being titled an Innovator of the year by the Guardian, and Heap was quick to capitalize on the attention. In a now infamous August 9, 2009 interview with the BBC, Heap touted his product’s safety:

[Haystack] is completely secure for the user so the government can’t snoop on them. We use many anonymising steps so that identities are masked and it is as safe as possible so people have a safe way to communicate with the world.

But that safety has proven illusory. Now, after Haystack’s source code has finally been released, it’s clear massive holes in Haystack’s programming could’ve allowed Iranian authorities to track down and punish users. In particular, as Simon Phipps of Simon Says has pointed out, routing Haystack’s traffic through a single site was akin to fixing the program with a “big red self-destruct button.”

That Haystack could be so flawed is disturbing; but what’s worse is the media’s  fanning of Haystack’s notoriety without doing a basic fact-check. Jillian C. York had some sharp criticism for the media—and Heap in particular—on her blog:

I also firmly place blame on the media, which elevated the status of a person who, at best was just trying to help, and a tool which very well could have been a great thing, to the level of a kid genius and his silver bullet, without so much as a call to circumvention experts.

…While Heap and his partners were out pushing Haystack to the media, actual Iranian human beings were being used as lab rats, to test a product that could potentially put their very lives in danger.

Hopefully, Haystack will prove a lesson, and the next “big thing” in social media will be greeted with more skepticism. But I have my doubts.

There’s another debate swirling about the internet; this time it’s regarding social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and how important they are to social activism.

The debate’s trigger, in this case, was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in which he argues social networks increase activism only by lowering the threshold for participation.  As opposed to the close friendships formed by the American civil rights movement, the weak ties created by social networking sites are a waste of resources. At best, Gladwell argues, they’re only good for tasks like helping “Wall Streeters” retrieve cell-phones stolen by teenaged girls.

Needless to say, the article proved controversial. Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone responded promptly, calling Gladwell’s article “laughable.” Others, notably in the New York Times, had more productive responses.

If there’s something that can be extracted from Gladwell’s article, it’s that Twitter and Facebook are just tools. Their effectiveness depends on the humans using them, and even good use doesn’t  guarantee success. In Iran, the twitter-casted Green Movement proved unable to overcome the military might and organization of the Revolutionary Guard. Moldova’s 2009 unrest, which included the use of Facebook and other social networking sites to organize, resulted in rioting and reprisals that left the nation fractured. Twittering is no match for the barrel of a gun. Nor is it a guarantee against anarchy.

What Gladwell misses, however, is that strong and weak ties aren’t mutually exclusive; they bolster one another.

As has been mentioned, the rights movement didn’t deconstruct Jim Crow on guts and grit alone. Activists had help from a powerful new technology: the television, which made the brutality and hypocrisy undergirding Jim Crow embarrassingly public. It was television, and the media coverage starting with the 1964 Freedom Summer murders, that helped provide the public support President Lyndon B. Johnson needed to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In many ways, social networking sites have now supplanted TV  as the go to source for subversive information. During the 2009 Iranian protests, networking sites circumvented the press blackout and distributed news that directly challenged the regime’s version of events. It was social networks that spread footage of protesters on the march and of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death—an event that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in a pre-YouTube age.

So perhaps the revolution won’t be hasn’t been tweeted, yet. Nonetheless, sites like Twitter, when used properly, are a powerful resource; they act like signposts, engaging people who might not otherwise care and connecting those who’d normally lack the means to contribute. A multitude of weakly tied individuals, when combined with a concerted, well organized movement, can prove especially potent, as in the case of Barrack Obama’s presidential  campaign.

A social networking site, therefore, has its uses. But it’s a matter of using that resource in conjunction with others that gets results, whether that be for a revolution or just a humble campaign to save the local community garden.

So maybe you’ve a child, a nephew or niece, or a younger sibling who uses Facebook to communicate and wants you in the loop. Or maybe you’ve an acquaintance that won’t stop pestering you to enlist. Either way, you’re mildly curious about joining, but also concerned about what your page will reveal and to whom.

You’re not alone.

Since its inception Facebook has been embroiled in a string of controversies: once in 2006 for implementing a newsfeed feature that broadcasted users’ remote actions (e.g., like unfriending someone); again in 2009 for making friends lists public by default for anyone to read; and again in early 2010 when an online security consultant Ron Bowles collected then distributed data from 100 million Facebook users.

The site’s continued wrangling over its privacy settings has even earned it some particularly sharp criticism from down under.

Thus Facebook has proven a constant source of anxiety over privacy and raised some serious questions over how much access friends, familiy, prospective employers, or even the law should have to our personal lives. Detractors have accused Facebook of subverting democracy; while supporters have claimed Facebook is merely responding to a natural evolution in societal values. Either way, Facebook has become a flashpoint for controversy in a way which other social networking sites just haven’t.

Despite the controversies, however, Facebook has still managed to grow to become the number-one  social networking site, beating out MySpace in 2008. The site now has over 500 million members and is slated to grow even further.

So how does one deal with this social megalith? How do you keep your private information safe?

Thankfully Facebook has responded to public pressure and provided a new “simplified” array of profile settings to help keep the spooks and stalkers out. Those options aren’t always easy to find; Facebook keeps them buried in separate and unintuitive places. But a little digging can excavate them and allow you to opt out.

If you’re still unsatisfied, there’s always the age-old tactic of taking an alias and posting as a Guy Incognito or an Iam Huiam.