Posts Tagged ‘internet history’

6 questions to prepare you for a social media crisis

04 Apr

On October 27, 1980, the ARPANET — the Internet’s earliest incarnation — had its first epic fail. I’m not talking about your garden-variety system glitch: I’m talking about a spectacular, network-wide outage. The entire network was offline for hours.

Today it’s hard to even comprehend the idea of the entire Internet crashing (and when I try, it makes me feel slightly nauseated). But we face other kinds of online disasters, and when they happen, we need our own strategies for rebooting.

In social media, the disasters people talk about most are fundamentally crises of public relations. These fall into two types: crises that originate in social media, and crises that originate offline. In the era of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, both types of crisis require a rapid, social media response.

Looking at the most recent social media crises is one way to think about the kinds of challenges for which you need to prepare. But social media has a way of ensuring that each crisis is different from the last, so if you’re prepared to handle a YouTube meltdown, you’ll probably get served with a FourSquare nightmare.

That’s why it pays to look for principles of online crisis management that will be relevant in the long run. And by examining the 1980 ARPANET crash, we can do just that: identify the questions the ARPANET team might have asked 31 years ago, and which your team could answer today.

  1. In conventional histories, it’s a well-worn trope to talk about how the Internet was designed to withstand nuclear attack; how its entire design was based on ensuring that even if one part of the network went down, the others would survive. From this flow all sorts of near-religious beliefs about the Internet’s propensity for authentic, peer-to-peer communications and its resistance to central authority. But the ARPANET crash points us to a moment in living memory when the Internet was far from unstoppable. What beliefs about the Internet is your social media strategy based on? How do you know whether those beliefs are well-founded?
  2. It’s striking that 31 years after the ARPANET crash, Google Scholar doesn’t contain a single in-depth academic study focusing specifically on this historic crash (perhaps because by the time journal articles became digital, it had ceased to be a technically relevant case). I obviously can’t speak to the technical interest that the crash might or might not hold for today’s computer scientists, security experts and network administrators, but it’s hard to believe that this incident doesn’t hold social or historical significance. Even if the only thing we can learn from the 1980 crash is the thinking process that led early network administrators to overlook this potential vulnerability, it would seem well worthwhile to examine the social, organizational and cognitive context in which the ARPANET was able to fail. What crucial online mistakes have you left un- or underexamined, and what could you learn from them?
  3. Today, the crash of your individual computer (typically on the 11th page of a 12-page, unsaved document) falls somewhere between annoyance and bummer on the scale of human misery. The short-term crash of your company’s site or internal server usually falls somewhere between inconvenience and embarrassment. The crash or overload of a significant portion of the global internets is somewhere between distracting and worrying (depending on what it portends for network security). But the prospect of a global, system-wide network crash is only at one extreme or the other: laughable (because what could possibly crash the whole Internet?) or heart-stopping (because imagine what could possibly crash the whole Internet). What scope of failure can you tolerate in your social media presence? What level of misery would a failure induce?
  4. A 1981 analysis of the crash noted that the problem might have been prevented, but a prevention system would have required lots of processing power and memory and “[s]ince CPU cycles and memory are both potentially scarce resources, this did not seem to us to be a cost-effective way to deal with problems that arise, say, once per year.” This feels like an amusing explanation today, when processing power and memory are dirt cheap.  What a great reminder that every crisis prevention or problem-solving strategy is based on a set of resource constraints and assumptions. But our strategies often fail to evolve as quickly as the underlying assumptions may change. If you have a strategy for preventing or managing potential online problems — for example, handling critical tweets — what assumptions does your strategy rest on? And how often do you stop to assess whether those assumptions still hold — and if not, to update your strategy?
  5. When the network went down, administrators realized they had a system-wide problem when they got phone calls from ARPANET sites all over the country. In the absence of the network itself, phone was the alternative channel of first resort, and in 1980, the network was small enough that phone-based communication was a viable option for getting an overall picture of the network. In today’s you may have to cope with losing access to key tools for your online response. What is your alternative channel of first resort? How would you communicate during a social media crisis if you couldn’t use social media tools to help?
  6. An error in a single bit brought the ARPANET to a halt. Call this the Death Star principle: if you focus only on preparing for the big problems, a tiny X-wing fighter can sneak in and blow up your entire space station. What tiny problems could occur for your social media activities? Which tiny problems could potentially blow up your whole strategy?

If you can answer these questions, you’ll have established the basic principles for your social media crisis management strategy. What questions would you add to the list?


10 ways spam taught us to focus our attention

02 Apr


You’ve just read the very first spam message. Sent by Carl Gartley on behalf of Gary Thuerk, this message went to several hundred ARPANET members on May 3, 1978. The message violated the until-then standard practice of e-mailing people individually (ah, those were the days!) and annoyed a whole lot of ARPANET users. It also sold some computers. And thus, the era of spam marketing was born.

It’s customary to curse the name of Thuerk, though Thuerk himself uses fatherespam as his LinkedIn profile URL, and prominently cites his role in creating spam as a professional credential. (Guess he decided to embrace it sometime after this interview.) But I think that Gary Thuerk is owed more than a sarcastic thank you.

After all, spam — now estimated at more than 75% of e-mail traffic — has been one of the major drivers of online innovation. To cope with “Pandora’s Inbox”, we’ve had to develop attention and information-management systems that prove crucial for surviving today’s communications-rich environment.

Spam is the vaccine for your attention span. It’s the toxin that has stimulated our immunity system’s defenses. Thanks to spam, we’ve had to find technical, social and personal ways of keeping our eyes on the 22% of e-mail that isn’t pure junk, and to avoid the 78% that is.

Those tools and tactics turn out to serve us very well in the era of social media. Now that people generate content and communications in ways that go well beyond e-mail, we need to focus in ways that go far beyond a spam filter. We can thank Gary Thuerk and the spammers of the universe for helping us develop the following ways to focus our attention:

  1. Email filtering: Email filters, which were first created to deal with spam, have since turned into powerful tools for managing and organizing incoming email. I’m utterly dependent on Gmail filters in ways that go way beyond spam elimination. Without spam I might have to read and file my e-mails by hand (shudder).
  2. Attention filtering: Email filters have inspired analogous tools on other platforms. Twitter lists, the Facebook “hide” option and the entire idea of PATH are all about filtering out extraneous content so we can focus our attention on a more limited circle of relationships or a more limited sphere of information.
  3. Texting and messaging: Spam made us impatient about the process of plowing through our inboxes. Texting, chat and Twitter are all instant communications tools that sidestep the whole inbox nightmare by coming to us in real time. (And better yet, by being incredibly short.) Learning to communicate in very brief increments is one of the legacies of spam, and in a world that connects us to hundreds or thousands of people through a wide range of social networks, we can be grateful that some of those conversations happen briefly.
  4. Pull: Email did a fantastic job of teaching us about the limits of push: content that gets pushed to you. As a result many of us have shifted much of our attention onto pull: content that we pull to us by choosing what to visit or subscribe to. For instance, instead of subscribing to e-newsletters, we might subscribe to blog RSS feeds. While e-newsletters are still alive and well, the shift to pull is an essential tool for people trying to manage a very high volume of information.
  5. FOAF: The friend-of-a-friend principle has driven a wide range of social networks in which your interactions are structured around networks of trusted contacts. Relying on networks of trust is a way of getting past the spam problem, by opening communication channels only along lines that mirror pre-existing social relationships. Just think about LinkedIn, which explicitly limits your ability to contact people based on how closely you are connected. That whole model of using social networks to construct boundaries around who gets our attention is in some part thanks to the problem of ungated attention first demonstrated by spam.
  6. Marketing with value: Spam’s assault on e-mail delivery and opening rates first forced marketers to think about what they could actually offer to make an e-mail worth reading. That consciousness and skill set has served marketers well in the social media era, where the competition for attention is even fiercer. If some online marketing now delivers real value to its targets — think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or Dell’s Ideastorm — that’s because marketers have learned that providing tangible value is one way to earn people’s attention.
  7. Opt in, opt out: To address the spam problem, many countries have laws that require all bulk e-mails to include an opt-out link, and/or to be sent only by people who have explicitly opted into the mailing list. (Of course, these laws are ignored by all kinds of illegitimate operations, which is why spam volumes remain so high.) This has given us the idea that you don’t demand the attention of someone who hasn’t asked for your content, and that losing someone’s attention is a routine and acceptable part of our communications ecosystem. You can see that principle extended into technologies and practices like the ever-evolving policies on what appears in your Facebook news feed, and the ease of unfollowing people on Twitter.
  8. Ignoring communications: Spam taught us that it was OK to ignore a lot of e-mail. We still have a ways to go in overcoming our notion that all e-mail deserves a reply, but to the extent that we’re asserting some sense of agency over how we allocate our attention, it builds on the foundations established by spam. Once you learn how to ignore offers from Nigerian princes, it gets a lot easier to ignore irrelevant office-wide memos.
  9. Getting rich quick: In a world that delivers daily messages about how you can get rich quick, it’s understandable that we’d lose our patience for long, slow empire-building. Maybe it’s overreaching to blame (or credit) spam for a generation of social media sites built on the business model of, “let’s build something that we can get Yahoo! or Google to buy.” But some of the startups that found their quick return through early acquisition have included some great tools for managing our information and communications (hello, delicious and Radian6).
  10. Penis talk: If we weren’t so constantly deluged by spam ads promoting Viagra, Cialis and penis enlargement, we might think that the size and engorgement of one’s genitalia were strictly personal matters. Thanks to spam, we now know how much people like to think and talk about penises, information that has helped to drive some of the Internet’s most successful entertainment sites. Imagine if we’d wasted all that attention on lady parts instead!

10 ways you can help to build the Internet

01 Apr

On November 22, 1977 a van drove onto Interstate 280 and into history. Most histories of the Internet begin with the ARPANET, the US Defense department network that gave birth to today’s Internet. But the true Internet began when that van used TCP to bridge between three networks: ARPANET, a satellite network and a packet radio network. It’s this networking of networks — or internetworking — that first demonstrated the future Internet.

It was only in 1996 that this moment was recognized for its historical significance, and in 2007 it was celebrated with a special event at the Computer History Museum. Reflecting on those early days of the Internet, Vint Cerf — part of the original van crew, and by 2007 the chief Internet evangelist for Google, was quoted in a news story as saying: “A lot of people think the Internet just happened. But it was a lot of hard work.”
Cerf may have been speaking in the past tense, but the work isn’t done: new technologies and standards are developed all the time. And these are still early days: of the 2 billion people online today, only half were online in 2006. You can reckon that we’ve still got lots of growth ahead, not just in how many of us are online but in what we do there and how we do it.

Map shows connections made by SRI packet van experiment

Network map for packet van demonstration

When Cerf and his collaborators took to the Interstate, the hard work of creating the Internet was best left to the programmers. Today, thanks largely to social media, user-generated content and the emergence of the programmable web, you can help to create the Internet without writing a single line of code. You can help create the online world in which you and your children are going to live. You can take on some of that hard work. Here’s how:

  1. Tithe your time online. The Internet is not a religion (usually) but it is a community. The same way that members of a religious community might contribute 10% of their income to the church, members of the Internet community can contribute 10% of their time online to the health of the network itself. If the average American now spends 13 hours a week online, that means dedicating about 80 minutes to the kinds of active contributions described in this list.
  2. Be a good colonist. I wanted to tell you that you’re the Columbus of the Internet, but let’s face it, the Columbus thing didn’t work out too well for a whole lot of people. So do Columbus one better: as you help to discover this new world of the Internet, do it without the evangelizing, land-stealing and disease-spreading. Get to know and appreciate what already exists online and think about how to add to it. Try not to bulldoze anything (or anyone) who is already there.
  3. Make a node. The Internet is not a series of tubes. It’s a series of nodes and connections. You can make one of those nodes by creating your own blog or web site. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be useful or interesting to at least one other person.
  4. Aim for 49%. That’s the maximum amount of your online energy that should go into promoting the Brand of You. (If you think you can keep it to 48%, or maybe even want to be a human being instead of a brand, so much the better.) The other 51% can go to talking about other people and ideas and maybe even to just listening. This is the hard work of building an Internet that is not simply a monument to narcissism.
  5. Make a connection. Remember how the Internet is both nodes and connections? That’s not just a description of the Internet’s underlying architecture: it’s also a description of the way it connects information and people. You can make a connection between two pieces of information by posting a hyperlink: that is the most basic level at which the Internet connects something over here to something over there. Or you can make a connection between two people by introducing them via e-mail, tweet or blog post.
  6. Tell us how you did it. If you’ve ever been delighted to find a tech solution, recipe or business tip online, you know that a big part of the Internet’s value is the help it provides on just about any topic. You can help make our global repository of how-to information as complete as possible, by sharing the step-by-step version of how you’ve done something. It could be how to got your kid to sleep through the night, how to set up an RSS to email newsletter, or how to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Write (or photograph, or video) how you did it, and put it online.
  7. Report a problem. People often say that one of the Internet’s strengths is that it is self-healing. For example, if someone writes something incorrect on a Wikipedia page, somebody else will correct it. But as that example suggests, the Internet isn’t self-healing: it’s healed by the active participation of people who take the time to correct a mistake or solve a problem. And the first step to solving a problem is knowing it’s there. Whether it’s taking a moment to report a Twitter spammer, capturing a screenshot of an error message and sending it to the site in question, or letting someone know that you got a 404 on their blog, reporting a problem can help keep the Internet shipshape. If they don’t know it’s broke, they can’t fix it.
  8. Answer a question. How long to wait before sending a follow-up email when submitting a résumé? How do the Chinese concept of the self differ from the Western view of the self? How can I install Plex on my AppleTV? If the Internet now has 2 billion users, you can figure it’s got at least that many questions. Answer one every week.
  9. Add an issue to your basket. Political scientists like to talk about the “basket of preferences”: the assortment of positions on a range of issues that determine how a given person votes or engages in other kinds of political action. If your basket of preferences currently includes (let’s say) lower taxes, the legalization of gay marriage and stronger controls on carbon emissions, consider adding an Internet-related issue to your basket. It might be online privacy or net neutrality or Internet freedoms in China. Pick an issue and help to shape the policy environment for the Internet by voting or volunteering for politicians who champion that issue, by supporting lobbying efforts, or by engaging in direct action.
  10. Make something. I know, I know: you’re not a programmer. Neither am I. But you can actually help develop some part of the Internet’s technical assets, whether that’s by creating a customized widget or documenting a web application or making (and sharing) a pipe. Try it out and you will feel like a super stud. And you will feel just a little bit more part of the team that is making the Internet.

If you’re the kind of person who has always dreamed about moving into fully finished, fully furnished home, with everything supplied down to the last washcloth and spoon, then by all means sit this one out and let the rest of us do the hard work. But if you’re the kind of person who’s always dreamed about designing and building your own home, then roll up your sleeves: you’re going to be living a big chunk of your life online, and you get to help decide what that living space will look like.

And if you’re the kind of person who has always dreamed of living in a van…well, the Computer History Museum has just the place.