Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Too Much Social Media? Maybe...

Breaking news: the White House has not been attacked.

Facebook and Twitter are just two of many social outlets, microblogging and connectivity services that many many people increasingly use these days.  And because they're services, that means they generally aren't directly controlled by the people who use them.  They rely on infrastructure.

Infrastructure is a fancy word meaning "equipment."  It's a little weird to call, for instance, a road "equipment," but really a road is a device built and installed to create a smooth, reliable surface for high-speed travel.  You might not think 60 miles per hour is fast, but compare that to the traditional 1-3 miles per hour of getting someplace on foot.  And modern roads can of course sustain better speeds than that.

Twitter is susceptible to attacks.  Like a building, you have to have a key - a password - to get in, but once you're in the rest of what goes on inside isn't really well controlled.  A clever hacker with time, software and nothing better to do can discover your account name and eventually work out your password.  Put those two together and that hacker can then pretend to be you.

That by itself isn't a big deal.  But when you're an entity that has a bit of a reputation, like the Associate Press, then someone pretending to be you can do some damage.  And that's what's happened now, just a few minutes ago.   And the thousands upon thousands of subscribers who follow the twitfeet from Associate Press got a message that the White House had been attacked.  "Not so fast," says AP.

While newspapers are subject to an ongoing erosion of their market share and relevance in the world's daily news production, they have a few advantages.  First, they're a lot slower.  That's a disadvantage compared to the instant-on news of twitter feeds, but it also would have come to light that the twitter reports were falsified long before the first sheet came off any newspaper press.  Slower is better in many ways.  It permits time for fact checking, for denying false rumors.  For winnowing out the chaff.

They're also a harder target.  Sure, a lot of story filing happens electronically so by that token a newspaper has no more security than Twitter.  But when you're an editor about to commit words to several tons of paper, you tend to pick up the phone when the story looks a little weird.  You call the name called out in the byline and ask that individual, "Did you write this drivel?"

"What drivel?  I'm on vacation in the Bahamas."

"Okay.  Change your passwords.  There's a story under your name about flying cars, I'm deleting it."

"Good plan, since I'm usually an entertainment columnist."

I don't spend much time on facebook.  Maybe a grand total of an hour per month, at the absolute most.  I don't do Twitter at all.  I don't use them because generally what I see bandied back and forth on these sites doesn't really need to be told.  It's just little stuff, random thoughts, minutiae.  Noise.  And in light of what's going on in the news, maybe we should all push back from these social media sites a little bit.  The old infrastructure has its downsides: slower, subject to editorial bias, less democratic...but due to its less democratic nature, it is also a much tougher nut to infiltrate and compromise.  It's worse, but it's also better.  There's a lot less noise.

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