Introducing @whensmybus

3 October 2011

A few weeks ago TfL put all their information from Countdown, the service they use to provide bus arrival times, online. There’s a TfL Countdown website and you can enter a bus stop name, or ID number, and find out the latest buses from the stop.

But, it’s a bit fiddly. The main website doesn’t automatically redirect you to the mobile version if you are on a phone. If you type in a location, (e.g. my local Tube station, “Limehouse Station”), you have to pick a match for the location first (from two identically-named options), then a second screen asking you to find a bus stop, and then you get the relevant times. On a phone, it’s just feels fiddly and frustrating especially when I know my phone has GPS in it and knows my location anyway.

Update/correction There is, as it turns out, the ability to find by geolocation on the mobile site, it’s just on a mobile browser I just get the main website and don’t get redirected to the special mobile site, which means I never knew about it (thanks to Ade in the comments for pointing this out).

If only there was a mobile-friendly, geolocation aware, real-time way of fetching information. Oh wait. There is. It’s called Twitter. Twitter has geolocation allowed on Tweets (if you opt in) and an API to fetch and send messages, so we have a system set up already in place for our needs.

I owe a big debt of gratitude to Adrian Short, who wrote a Ruby script to pull bus times from TfL. TfL have not officially released an API for Countdown just yet, but Adrian found it, and it’s there and accessible – providing the data in JSON format for each stop. That use got me thinking – if that data is available and can be parsed quickly and easily, why not make a Twitter bot for it?

With that, @whensmybus was born, and is now in beta. Try it out now if you like. Make sure your Tweet has geolocation turned on (for which you’ll need a GPS-capable smartphone), and send a message like:

@whensmybus 135

Or whatever bus you are looking for. Within 60 seconds, you’ll get a Tweet back with the times of the next buses for that route, in each direction, from the stops closest to your location.

Why each direction? Specifying a direction is fiddly and ambiguous; bus routes wind and twist, and some of them are even circular, so “northbound” and “southbound” are not easy things to parse. The name of your destination can have ambiguous spellings, and I haven’t yet got round to tying it in with a geocoding service like Google Maps. So, at the moment the bot simply tells you buses in both directions from the stops nearest to you. I might change this in future, once I’ve got my head around geolocation services and fuzzy string matching and all that.

It’s still beta (thanks to an early unveiling by Sian ;) ) and I plan in future to add enhancements such as the ability to use without GPS. I also need to write some proper documentation for it, and stick the source code on Github later tonight once I am home. The source code is now available on github, but do bear in mind the codebase is a bit unstable right now. So, if you are a Londoner, please do use it and tell me what you think, either on the comments below or on Twitter. @ me, don’t @ the bot – it will think it’s a request for a bus service and get confused. :) All suggestions are welcome.

(And now, some tech stuff for the more interested)

The bot is a Python script, run every minute via a cronjob. It’s quite short – 350 lines including comments for the main bit. As well as the live data API, the service also uses two databases officially provided by TfL’s syndication service for free; one is of all the routes, and one for all the bus stop locations. I converted these from CSV format to sqlite so the bot can make SQL queries on the data. TfL use OS Easting and Northing locations for the bus stops, so I have to convert the GPS longitude and latitude; I am indebted to Chris Veness and his lat/lng to OS conversion script, which I translated from JavaScript to Python; I am also now much more educated on subtleties like the difference between OSGB36 and WGS84. Finally, I use the Tweepy library to receive and send the Tweets, which is really rather excellent and saves a lot of faff. Finally, the whole project would not be possible without the ideals of open data and open source software behind it, so if you’ve written even a single line of free software, then thank you as well.


Some thoughts on quitting Facebook

23 September 2011

I did an odd thing last night, for a social media webponce. I disabled my Facebook account, perhaps for good (at least that’s the intention).

Although this was not solely due to what came out of the latest Facebook f8* conference, it probably was some sort of straw that broke a proverbial camel’s back. At f8, Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook Timeline, a way of not just showing what you are up to right now, but your whole life as Facebook saw it, digitised and shown to all. And my reaction was along the lines of:

Fucking hell, I’m going to be spending the rest of my life tagging photographs of myself

I joined Facebook early in 2007 when they let ordinary civilians in, and at first I quite liked it. It was a cute way of tying in and aggregating one’s content, thoughts and photos, and keeping up with people I knew, or used to know. What a nice service. And for free! But over time, the fun faded. Facebook kept on quietly changing privacy settings and made a landgrab for copyright of uploaded photos (later rescinded).

So, I harrumphed, tightened my privacy (a tedious task), removed a lot of personal info and content (photos, imported blog posts) and despite my misgivings, carried on with a stripped-down profile to keep in touch with friends. But as Facebook matured, and my profile accrued information over time, another unwelcome feature came about.

The practice of “Friending” someone just because you met them at a party, or went to school ten years ago with them, or you work with them, seemed a good idea at the time; it’s nice, who doesn’t want more friends? Even if they are just Facebook friends. But these are people I do not see every day, for whatever reason; as sad as that may be, over time those social ties would normally fade. C’est la vie.

But Facebook ossifies these previously ephemeral social ties; they are there forever, reminding us of the past. Whereas before we would be able to let these ties fade passively, with them laid now we have to actively “unfriend” people we no longer associate with. That’s not very nice, is it – after all, isn’t the opposite of a friend an enemy? So out of politeness, we accumulate these ossified ties, even after we change jobs, cities, relationships, as a form of digital clutter.

This was as bad as it got, until now. While social ties lingered, other content on Facebook would gradually drop off your timeline and fade away. Indeed, as online archiving extraordinaire Jason Scott observed in an excoriating critique of Facebook:

So asking me about the archiving-ness or containering or long-term prospect of Facebook for anything, the answer is: none. None. Not a whit or a jot or a tiddle. It is like an ever-burning fire of our memories, gleefully growing as we toss endless amounts of information and self and knowledge into it, only to have it added to columns of advertiser-related facts we do not see and do not control and do not understand.

Be careful what you wish for. Now our Facebook profiles will have everything we ever have, dished up by default (and while Facebook’s UI has got easier to customise recently, I bet the default will still be everything). Now it’s impossible to escape your past. Everything you have ever done that has been digitally logged by you, or your friends, can now be potentially dished up as your very own digital This Is Your Life. There is, on Facebook, a photograph of me in my early twenties, passed out after drinking too much tequila on Mexican Independence Day (any excuse, my younger self would say). That’d be on my Timeline by default, no doubt.

But it’s not because of embarrassing photos that I’m off Facebook (far more cringeworthy ones exist, thankfully on analogue prints). It’s the sense that Facebook is very much about the past. The people you have known. The relationships you were in. The things you have done. And these hang around your neck and tie you down.

Whereas what’s really exciting about the web is the things you are going to do. The new fact you’re going to find out idly browsing Wikipedia. The amazing people you meet thanks to you sharing a joke on Twitter. The inspiring blog post you’ll find via Delicious. The silly lolcat you’ll find on Reddit. Facebook isn’t offering anything what makes the Internet fun, and it’s taken this change to make me realise.

With Timeline, we’re opening ourselves up with an ever-growing obsession with the past. A quote I saw last night was “We’re gonna need architectures for forgetting”. Poetic as that line is, that’s a cure when prevention might be better – for me, in any case.

I must stress that this is not to say Facebook is bad, or Timeline is going to be a failure. Plenty of people are happy to have ossified social ties – if you are in a small, close-knit social network that is relatively static, I can see it why is a boon. Timeline will be fantastic for you, if you have been on Facebook your entire adult life, and all that data is there and well-curated (which it will be, if you have been on Facebook your entire adult life). But it’s not for me; it’s not interesting to me as a user, any more. So I’m out. Bye, Facebook.

* Named for Fate, the all-knowing computer in V for Vendetta, right?
† Although I’m still keeping the Facebook Like button at the bottom, just for kicks and sheer hypocrisy ;)


ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, part 3: a review

Or… considering the documentary-maker as not really a documentary-maker

7 June 2011

The third part of ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE looked like it would take the form of its predecessors; taking contrasting stories, seemingly unconnected events, and trying to draw pencil-lines (or stronger) between them. But in the end, Curtis ran a digging twist to make you realise this episode wasn’t really a documentary at all, but an attempt to produce high art as provocation.

The episode started in the Republic of the Congo (indeed, with some material lifted & extended on from his piece It Felt Like A Kiss), and looked the near-unimaginable scale of slaughter in Congo/Zaire and neighbouring Rwanda, and the role of Western interference in the region: the Belgians’ attempts to install the Tutsis in Rwanda as political ruling class, the CIA’s anointing of Mobutu Sese Seko as leader of Zaire as a bulwark against communism, mining companies’ bloody landgrab for the mineral columbite-tantalite (used in the manufacture of chips in electronic devices such as the Playstation) in the modern Congo, and even the naturalist Dian Fossey‘s ongoing feud with Rwandans as she tried protect gorillas in the rainforest. Little to do with machines, loving or not.

The other story was more conventional Curtis fare: charting the lives of geneticists Bill Hamilton and George Price; Hamilton came up with a theory of gene-centric evolution, which Price took on further, formulating a model of altruism as a means of gene propagation. And why stop at altruism? Take it to its logical conclusion, and all manners of human behaviour can be described as evolutionary techniques and no more, and we end up being, er, gene-propogating machines. This is on much more familiar territory – the scientific establishment reducing humanity to a mere aggregation self-reproducing automata.

But unlike his usual form, Curtis didn’t attempt to draw causal attempts (the kind that usually infuriate) between the two stories. In fact, apart from Hamilton’s death in the Congo, there didn’t seem to be any link at all. Instead as the episode unfolded it focused more and more on the ongoing slaughter in central Africa, spurred on by the West’s demand for Africa’s mineral wealth. When Rwanda massacres happened in the 1990s, the developed world’s militaries stood by, while its NGOs (despite their good intentions) were powerless to stop the fighting spread to refugee camps. Curtis played a series of increasingly distressing images of atrocities with a backdrop of incongruent music.

And you begin to realise Adam Curtis isn’t even trying to make a connection, and this isn’t even a documentary. Curtis is provoking you into feeling uncomfortable, into dwelling on the loss of control, disillusionment even, with modern liberal Western society, using the history of West’s interaction with Africa – colonialism, decolonialism and the bloody end of mass capitalism – as emotional bait. Your grandparents’ generation subjugated them, your parents’ generation unleashed anarchy upon them, and now you’re fuelling the slaughter and chaos they created when you buy your Playstation. This is not a documentary designed to educate, but an art project designed to provoke – riffing off the aforementioned It Felt Like A Kiss rather than The Power of Nightmares.

And when you’re done feeling uncomfortable, Curtis gives the punchline to the film: this is why you feel so attached to bury yourself in the embrace of the machines, because deep down you no longer have faith in humanity to solve its own problems or its own inhumanity.

This is a leap of logic, a provocative one, a sign of desperation, even, but an intriguing change in style as well. Perhaps Curtis thought this the best way to make his point, perhaps he couldn’t think of any others. It’s certainly a departure from his usual form: of a triptych of tightly-wound, interconnected episodes exploring the concept. And to be honest – it didn’t work; it just made the piece look disjointed and the two storylines out of place with each other. It’s not his style – Curtis is not a polemicist – his flat, laconic commentary and his refusal to appear on camera make it impossible for him polemicise – and to use a tactic of deliberate provocation is as mechanistic a view of human beings as the very philosophy he is attacking.

And yet despite the flaws and non-sequiturs of the main story, I can’t find it easy to shake off the moral of the other tale in the episode: the demise of Price and Hamilton. The originators of the selfish gene theory were ultimately wracked by the implications of their own research: George Price’s fixation on biological determinism led to his descent into self-enforced poverty and Christian piety as a means of escaping it, and ultimately suicide when it offered him no salvation. Bill Hamilton swayed the other way, growing mistrustful of modern medicine as it was an obstruction to natural selection, leading to a belief HIV was a byproduct of vaccination programmes in the Congo, where he ended up dying. Beneath the provocation, Curtis’s underlying point, warning even, seems to be: this machinist view will drive you mad too, one day.

Coming up next: a review of episode two. Yes, I know that’s the wrong order. Consider it a homage to the man’s style…


ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, part 1: A review

24 May 2011

Adam Curtis is a filmmaker who intrigues and frustrates. His Century of the Self and Power of Nightmares peeled back the layers on Freud and modern capitalism, and the rise of neoconservatism and fundamentalist Islam, respectively, in a new and interesting light. Curtis may not be right, he may not even be telling the whole story, but he offers an angle, a way of skewering and unruffling our preconceptions. However, with his 2007 The Trap, he started falling off his usual run of form. It offered a frustrating take on the modern take on liberty, from positive to negative, and the perniciousness of game theory, behavioral economic models and performance targets – connections a little too technical and forensic to explain just with mashup of videos and laconic voiceover. A waffly final third culminated in a call to arms for positive liberty, at odds with his usual dispassionate tone of voice.

Four years on, we have his new series, ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE, and the chance to see whether The Trap was an aberration from true form. Like its predecessor, Curtis delves into the technical not just the historical. His basic thesis (I’m summing up) is as follows: the selfish Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand inspired a generation of Silicon Valley geeks to create computer systems with the aim of removing the shackles of government to create a utopia of free individuals; these same system are then used by the creators of the New Economy (led by another Rand acolyte, Alan Greenspan) to create a new economic miracle controlled by the banks, Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve. But instead of creating a utopia they created chaos – the machines they had such faith in failed, and despite producing an economic crisis in Asia in 1997, we kept faith in them to create an even larger worldwide crisis a decade later, from which we can see no way out of.

The problem with this is that it’s seeing too many links where there aren’t any. Not every Silicon Valley company was inspired by Rand (Curtis named one or two examples at best, neither of who leading lights on the scene), and the area’s philosophy owes arguably more to the countercultural movement and political climate of California than Rand’s self-indulgent miserabilism. It’s certainly a long way away from the conservative, East Coast, market fundamentalist philosophy of Greenspan, Robert Rubin and indeed the entire neoconservative/Chicago School generation of politicians, economists and bankers who eventually assumed political control. Cyberlibertarianism envisions a future of individuals networked together, free of hierarchy or even the state; market fundamentalism celebrates harnessing the aggregate of individuals’ behaviour for greater prosperity and stability. In short, one coast’s philosophy created John Perry Barlow, the other Alan Greenspan.

Curtis’s other flaw is to confuse “machines” with what machines actually run. A computer is just a unit for processing numbers in any number of ways. They are just boxes, glorified calculators. It’s the software we run on them that makes them do “evil” and this software is made by human beings. Having spent so long talking about a generation brainwashed by Rand, Curtis now attributes all the evils to the machines. But who programmed them? Who first thought of using them for automated trading, just-in-time manufacturing, supply chain management and all the things that are now taken for granted in the New Economy? For a storyteller who loves to peel apart the unknown and the people behind history, Curtis instead frustratingly wastes his time on peripheral figures such as Ayn Rand (who died a recluse in 1982) and Bill Clinton (distracted by the Lewinsky affair and powerless to stop the SE Asia crisis), rather than the people who built and shaped the information economy.

The result is a mess, with Curtis making oversimplified and hurried connections between various subplots. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story to be told amongst this clutch of different tales. How did a bunch of so-called geeks and slackers, growing from the midst of the counterculture, create a multibillion dollar paragon of capitalism? How did the conservative, sleepy institutions of Wall Street become seduced by the wonders of technology and grow hypertrophically on computer models, automated trading and complex financial instruments? In short, how did Barlow and Greenspan’s generations become allies, intertwined and taking on each other’s aspects and practices? And finally, how have we become so dependent on these systems, making them become so ubiquitous and invisible, that we didn’t notice things were going badly wrong until it was too late?

If you think this sounds familiar, it’s because Curtis used this intertwined-dichotomy style of filmmaking so well with The Power of Nightmares: the story of how the ideological descendants of Leo Strauss and Sayyid Qutb ended up as putative enemies, yet neither could live without the other, and both were grounded in the same similar grievances with individualism and liberalism. It’s odd that Curtis was able to portray the balance of similarities and differences in that film, yet with AWOBMOLG he struggles to make sense of it all, and ends up merely telling the “what” rather than the “how”, giving us numerous red herrings in the process.

It’s easy (but patronising) to say that’s because “technology is hard” and it’s difficult to comprehend it and history together rather than history alone. But Curtis is not a stupid man. It’s perhaps more charitable to say it’s easy that when it comes to relatively-uncharted history of the information age, there is simple so much more information and so many possible narratives, it’s easier to see pattens where there are none than not. But, this was just part one, and maybe parts two and three are better, and a lot more coherent.

In the meantime let this not detract from Curtis’s earlier works – if you haven’t seen them, The Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self are both available from archive.org. His KABUL: CITY NUMBER ONE blog is a collection of blogging and archive clips about the Afghan capital, and well worth reading. And I retain a soft spot for It Felt Like A Kiss, an avant-garde experimental attempt at storytelling based on 20th century history commissioned by the Manchester International Festival. AWOBMOLG was disappointing but don’t let it put you off entirely.


The curious case of Twitpic’s disappearing Terms of Service

11 May 2011

Update: Thanks for all the RTs everyone. For those of you who don’t want to read the whole story, the TLDR version is this: Twitpic changed their ToS to restrict users from selling their uploads to agencies, then retreated very hastily after a Twitter backlash. If you want to know more, read on.

Another week goes by, another scrape on Twitter. This time slightly less interesting than my stumbling on the bin Laden liveblogger, but still intriguing, as I have never before seen a tech company edit its Terms of Service live in front of my eyes, like a Wikipedia entry, in response to a Twitter storm.

Twitpic is one of the leading Twitter image hosting services out there – about four million daily users, the site the famous photo of the plane landing in the Hudson River first appeared on, and the default image service for the Twitter iPhone and desktop clients. It has become big business – it brings in $1.5m in ad revenue a year.

If you run an image hosting service, you have to be careful in how you treat users’ copyright. Your users (usually) own the copyright to the photos they upload, but the service will need some form of non-exclusive royalty-free licence to legally host it on its servers. This licence is included deep in the terms of service. So far, so dull. However on May 4th, Twitpic’s terms of service changed, specifically the copyright section. The copy I have for reference is from Google’s cache and is mirrored here and it’s the first four paragraphs of the copyright section that bear most interest:

By uploading content to Twitpic you give Twitpic permission to use or distribute your content on Twitpic.com or affiliated sites.

You may not grant permission to photographic agencies, photographic libraries, media organizations, news organizations, entertainment organizations, media libraries, or media agencies to retrieve from Twitpic for distribution, license, or any other use, content you have uploaded to Twitpic.

All content uploaded to Twitpic is copyright the respective owners. If you publish content uploaded to Twitpic on the web for personal and noncommercial purposes you are required to link back to the original content page on Twitpic and attribute credit to Twitpic as the source where you have taken the content. For example a Twitter “retweet” is acceptable provided the original content link on Twitpic is what is retweeted. It is not acceptable to copy or save another user’s content from Twitpic and upload to other sites for redistribution and dissemination.

To publish content for any commercial purpose or for distribution beyond the acceptable Twitter “retweet” which links back to the original content page on Twitpic, whether online, in print publication, television, or any other format, you are required to obtain permission from Twitpic in advance of said usage and attribute credit to Twitpic as the source where you have obtained the content. No user may grant a third party permission to copy or save content that has been uploaded to Twitpic.

The first part highlighted is a clause seemingly denying anyone who uploads a picture to Twitpic the media exploitation rights for that picture; it specifically targets those businesses who might want to pay for it. The second is a more vaguely-worded catch-all clause that, in the most draconian interpretation, could deny a user from uploading their own pictures to other hosting services like Flickr.

For comparison, this was the equivalent section from the terms of service in May 2010, which is the most recent copy held on archive.org – sadly I have no more recent copy to compare with:

By uploading your photos to Twitpic you give Twitpic permission to use or distribute your photos on Twitpic.com or affiliated sites

All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners

[Note: I am not a lawyer, and this is just a lay reading of the situation. But it will become clear, I hope, that these passages are at the centre of what went on in this kerfuffle]

Although these changes were made on the 4th, having done a little detective work on Google Realtime, it seems no-one picked up on them for six days. A single Tweet by @JMRooker on the 5th noted they had been updated, but not on what had changed. It wasn’t until this article (in German) appeared in in Der Spiegel‘s tech section that noted the change this afternoon. The first Tweet I have found was by Beate Clever in German at 15:54 UK time; at 16:49 it was Tweeted in English by Oliver Reichenstein.

Although it took six days for the news to get out, once it did it spread very quickly. Oliver’s Tweet was spotted by my We Are Social colleague Hannah, who retweeted it herself at 17:59, and I promptly followed at 18:05. By this point the story had legs – though I was by no means the only person talking about it, my Tweets on the subject got picked up and retweeted by some excellent & influential Twitter people such as Zoe Margolis and Tom Coates.

You could be easily convinced this was just another angry Twitter mob. But those who responded shared some interesting points of view. Was I being unfair on Twitpic? Did the terms only apply to the version they hosted? But if so, what makes that version different from the original copy you took? Did it only proscribe you from sending the Twitpic to a media agency, and if so would emailing a separate copy of the image as an attachment be just fine? Or was it just a protection from unfair infringement by media organisations? With the new terms of service as vaguely worded as they were, it was subject to various interpretations as the buzz spread.

The specific mention of picture agencies coincided with yesterday’s news that Twitpic had signed a deal with the photo agency WENN to represent celebrity pictures posted on the service (what Der Spiegel picked up on). So this was perhaps a foray for Twitpic to become a citizen journalist version of the PA, providing free hosting in exchange for the right to licence the rights to picture agencies. The idea has been mooted before. In theory, the next time a plane lands in the Hudson River, Twitpic’s ToS would allow it to sell the rights to witness photos uploaded to the service, and prevent the photographer from seeking those rights herself, if the company so chose. Whether Twitpic seriously thought of this as a future business model, or was just enabling these terms now in case they would come in handy in the future, we don’t know, and I am not saying one way or the other.

Finally, apart from legalities, is what they’re laying out morally fair? The new ToS brought a fair bit of opprobium (not least from myself). But, do remember, with free image hosting, you aren’t paying, and although they are getting cheaper, bandwidth and scaling up a service do cost. Online display advertising is just one business model and has increasingly tight margins, so Twitpic may be in the early stages of exploring alternatives. As with any service offered online for free – always caveat emptor.

Twitpic managed to backtrack very quickly. At 18:45, the support team hurriedly tweeted back to me (and then others in the story, such as Oliver) the same message, stating:

@qwghlm We’re working on a clearer version of our ToS now to show better that we are not taking your copyrights or selling your photos.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

They were true to their word; suddenly whole chunks of the text started to disappear from the Terms of Service page as it was being edited; I managed to take notice and livetweeted the progress. Round about 19:05 UK time, out went the second paragraph about photographic agencies entirely. At the start appeared an entirely new paragraph affirming copyright holders’ rights to their work. The paragraph on non-commercial reuse was cut, save for the final sentence (“It is not acceptable…”), which was merged with the new first paragraph. By 19:52 the final edit had been made: from the fourth paragraph, the third party sentence was cut out entirely, and the start was reworded to affirm it applied to reproducing other users’ content, and did not cover your own. In the updated Terms of Service, the equivalent text to the above now reads:

All content uploaded to Twitpic is copyright the respective owners. The owners retain full rights to distribute their own work without prior consent from Twitpic. It is not acceptable to copy or save another user’s content from Twitpic and upload to other sites for redistribution and dissemination.

By uploading content to Twitpic you give Twitpic permission to use or distribute your content on Twitpic.com or affiliated sites.

To publish another Twitpic user’s content for any commercial purpose or for distribution beyond the acceptable Twitter “retweet” which links back to the original user’s content page on Twitpic, whether online, in print publication, television, or any other format, you are required to obtain permission from Twitpic in advance of said usage and attribute credit to Twitpic as the source where you have obtained the content.

Those changes might be a bit much to get your head around, so to make it easier to appreciate how big they are, I have created a side-by-side comparison of the two wordings – old is on the left, new on the right – and created a diff of them (the changed bits in blue). Feel free to click through to a full-res version.

Diff of change in Twitpic's terms of service

You can see for yourself that the changes are quite extensive, and the terms are now vastly stronger in their affirmation of uploaders’ rights. A mere clarification this is not, in particular the second sentence of the first paragraph – “The owners retain full rights to distribute their own work without prior consent from Twitpic” – is in marked contrast to the original wording.

Twitpic have published a blog post called “Your content, your copyrights“, which states their reasoning for changing the Terms of Service:

As we’ve grown, Twitpic has been a tool for the spread of breaking news and events. Since then we’ve seen this content being taken without permission and misused. We’ve partnered with organizations to help us combat this and to distribute newsworthy content in the appropriate manner. This has been done to protect your content from organizations who have in the past taken content without permission. As recently as last month, a Twitpic user uploaded newsworthy images of an incident on a plane, and many commercial entities took the image from Twitpic and used it without the user’s permission.

It’s great that a hosting service is explicitly protecting its users from exploitation and unlicenced copyright infringement. But the original draft of these updated terms of service made it clear that it was about more than just preventing unscrupulous news organisations from misusing photos. The now-removed sections were clearly about preventing users from selling their rights to their own uploads to third parties, not protection from theft. And unlike the apologetic blog post on May 10th, these initial changes to the ToS were not publicised to the wider community when they went up on May 4th; as I have detailed above, it took six days before anybody actually noticed – and by the way, all the credit should go to the tech team at Der Spiegel for spotting it. How Twitpic went about this change is not how a tech company should publicise changes to its users; whatever their motives were for updating their ToS or whatever plans they have for their business model, at the very least this was a major failure in communication.

Twitpic do deserve some plaudits for reacting quickly to the situation, answering those of us who questioned it on Twitter, and updating the Terms of Service to something more acceptable in ludicrously quick time and manner. I say more acceptable. They do still retain a licence to distribute your content as long as it is done in connection with their business, and that business model could well change from being an ad-supported image host in future. There’s nothing stopping you from exploiting the rights to your image, but they have those rights too. You may be fine with that, in which case carry on, or you may not feel entirely comfortable, in which case you may still want to choose somewhere else to host your images. I’ll repeat what I said above, when it comes to free stuff, caveat emptor, especially if you reckon you stand a chance of one day being the next person to snap a plane in the Hudson.

Update (18/05): Tom has received a letter confirming Twitpic’s intentions to “exclusively” resell photos through the WENN picture agency. There is still no announcement of this on Twitpic’s own blog or in the terms of service. So, what gives?


Tweeting the killing of bin Laden: how a little geekery and I (maybe) helped break a story

4 May 2011

As the biggest news story of the week, the killing of Osama bin Laden, broke, I was on holiday in New York. As the clock ticked passed midnight local time (EDT) on Sunday night, my girlfriend Maha, sitting next to me on the sofa, passed me her Blackberry and showed me a retweet of curious remark related to the events unfolding. A Pakistani journalist, Mosharraf Zaidi, reminded his followers how he had earlier remarked:

:) RT @silicon_d: Mad props 2 @mosharrafzaidi for sixth sense: “What was a low-flying heli doing flying around Abottabad Cantt at 0130 hrs?”less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

The television news we were watching had nothing new to show by now, and was resorting to reruns of President Obama’s address earlier. So, with my curiosity piqued, I started looking up to see if there had been any coverage of helicopters in Abbottabad earlier that day. Googling around normally found the odd news report about a possible training accident, but very little of substance or interest. So I turned to searching Twitter, specifically with Google Realtime, which allows you to exclude Tweets from before or after a certain time of day. This was important, as once President Obama had disclosed the location, Twitter exploded with mentions of it and it became impossible for ordinary Twitter search to cope.

With anything after 11pm Eastern Time excluded, I was able to find Tweets by a guy called Sohaib Athar, or @ReallyVirtual. Once I clicked through to his timeline, I found out he had actually liveblogged the entire raid, unaware that it was America seeking its public enemy number one. At 12.38am, I tweeted, and Maha tweeted too:

Wow. Turns out at least one person, @ReallyVirtual, inadvertently liveblogged the raid in Abbottabad earlier today http://bit.ly/lU5b4sless than a minute ago via Nambu Favorite Retweet Reply


.@reallyvirtual appears to have liveblogged the raid w/o knowing it. go read.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

And then at 12.41, three minutes later, Sohaib tweeted the defining moment of the story:

Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

(Tip: Twitter annoyingly displays Tweets’ times in a “x minutes/hours/days ago” format, but if ever you want to check the exact timing of a Tweet, hover your mouse over the that bit and a tooltip will give you the exact date & time, in your timezone)

By the next morning, Sohaib was one of the most famous Twitterers around, being interviewed on television and getting mentioned in most mainstream media outlets. His follower count shot up from 750 to just over 100,000 as of today.

Steve Myers of the Poynter Institute got interested in how the story spread and did some investigating (including talking to me and Maha), producing a phenomenal forensic blog post – and from his investigation it appears that mine & Maha’s Tweets were one of the first ones to mention him and may have broken the story.

Caveat: I say may – correlation does not imply causation. I looked on Google Realtime for earlier Tweets from anyone linking to his account pointing and highlighting his liveblogging, and could not find any, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Nor am I trying to take too much credit for breaking the story – had I not tweeted about him, someone else would have found him sooner or later – the tools were there, and reasonably well known in the trade (and if you work in the media and don’t know them, then for God’s sake learn them).

Steve’s piece is a great bit of detective work and social network theory in one, and I’d like to pick up on a few points he made. Firstly, he states “the number of followers doesn’t matter as much as who those followers are” – this is a really interesting one and worth elaborating. I have about 3,300 followers on Twitter, but most of those are UK-based and would have been fast asleep. Maha has 1,300 followers, but she is a journalist based in the US, specialising in amongst other things, Pakistan. Her following, while smaller, is full of journalists, policy people and those with an interest in Pakistan and the wider region; these would be the exact kind of people to pick up on the significance straight away.

The numbers then don’t always count. But what definitely does count is the story. Steve picks up on the role I played bridging different social networks (in a paragraph that makes me feel odd, being referred to by my surname…):

Applegate was a bridge too, in a slightly different way. He added essential information that resonated with people and spurred them to pass it on.

I didn’t regard myself as a bridge at the time. I just thought, and tweeted: “Wow”. But then as it unfolded more it became clear that the unwitting Tweeting was a central factor in the story. Abbottabad is a relatively quiet town, populated by retired generals and known for its schools and universities (not to mention their military academy). Sohaib himself had moved there to get away from the much more dangerous and turbulent Lahore to find quieter climes – his Twitter bio states he is “an IT consultant taking a break from the rat-race by hiding in the mountains with his laptops.”

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

Finally, the whole episode shows how transformative Twitter can be. As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.

This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

Update (05/05): Maha has also blogged about the events, if you’re interested.


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