Times Responds to Roger Cohen's Mistake

I sent New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan an email yesterday describing how Roger Cohen borrowed quotes in his recent column on oversharing. She got back to me today letting me know that this editor's note was added to the column:

In this column, the author suggested that he was moved to talk about over-sharing and anxiety online after he came across two comments on Twitter. In fact, both comments were taken from a Web site, overshare.com, that the writer consulted as part of his research. One of the comments, from Claire, was from a Twitter feed; the other, from Deanna, was from Facebook. They were both written in 2010. The writer should not have implied he stumbled across them while reading recent Twitter feeds.

This situation feels like a triumphant scream is required.

By the power of Grayskull, I have the power!

Times Columnist Roger Cohen Borrows Quotes

Oversharers.Com screen capture

The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen engages in some ethically questionable journalism in his column Thursday about people sharing too much on Facebook and Twitter.

In his commentary, Cohen shares this lament:

Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column ... but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:

"Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross."

Good to know, Claire.

I was just recovering from that when I found Deanna tweeting that she had "picked up pet food" and was heading to "the dreaded consult on colon stuff. The joys of turning 50." As for Kate she let the world know the status of her labor: "Contractions 3 minutes apart and dilated at 2 cm."

Social media does not mean that you have to be that social.

Cohen makes it sound as if these are people he interacts with on Twitter and Facebook, but it's far more likely that he found them on Oversharers.Com, a site that's the top Google search result for the term "oversharing." The quotes from Claire and Deanna are the first and third entries on the second page of the site's archive. The zit tweet was something Claire shared with her followers in February 2010. Deanna's "colon stuff" status update, which Cohen incorrectly calls a tweet, was posted to her Facebook friends no later than July 2010, if the date on Oversharers.Com post is correct.

He never credits Oversharers.Com as the source of these quotes. There was no "tipping point" that roused his inner curmudgeon about people sharing too much. He was fishing for examples to write a column around. More seriously from a journalistic standpoint, Cohen has no way of knowing if the Deanna quote is real. It's just a screen capture on a humor site with no link or full name of the author on Facebook. Someone could have made it up.

Regarding Cohen's premise that we're living in a too-much-information age, that's hard to argue.

But there's something obnoxiously elitist about a New York Times columnist ridiculing ordinary people for sharing observations about their lives on social networks to an audience of people who've specifically asked to receive them. Two years ago, Cohen used his column to share the text of a suicide note written by his mother:

That jolted me -- and sent me back to my mother's suicide note of July 25, 1978: "It's as though I've turned to stone. I can't relate, I can't communicate and I can no longer bear the pain and gloom I cause to those I love most. ... At present I am filled only with self-hate. I do love my family and dear friends but I can't go on and on like this."

My mother survived, just. But the bi-polar state that led her to try to take her life that day never entirely relaxed its grip.

What would Cohen have thought if he found something like that on a Facebook wall?

Update: The Times has acknowledged that Cohen made improper use of those quotes.

Andrew Breitbart Was Right About Weiner

Congressman Anthony Weiner

Today, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) admitted that he sent a picture of his bulging crotch over Twitter to a female college student in Seattle and accidentally made it public. Obviously, my earlier post was completely wrong. This is my correction.

At the outset, I'd like to make it clear that I have made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about the most, and I'm deeply sorry. I'm deeply ashamed of my terrible judgment and actions. I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, a newspaper journalist who hates reporting errors like Charlie Sheen hates interventions.

When I started looking into this scandal, I found numerous reasons to doubt the veracity of Dan Wolfe (PatriotUSA76), the Twitter user who claimed to have found the photo posted by Weiner before it disappeared. Wolfe's Twitter account -- before he deleted it -- demonstrated deep obsession and irrational hatred for the congressman and his wife Huma Abedin over a period of six months. Based on my understanding of how Twitter works, I did not believe the story he told about finding it.

When Breitbart's site reported the original story, he had not checked out Wolfe at all, as he admitted to Tommy Christopher of Mediaite in a phone interview:

Once we published our story about Dan Wolfe, Andrew called me again, and it was clear from the conversation that he had genuine concerns about Wolfe as a source, and that he had been unaware of his prior activity on Twitter.

Because Wolfe's background was so dubious, Breitbart associate Lee Stranahan has been investigating Wolfe for days. He found numerous reasons to doubt him. On Saturday, Stranahan wrote:

Is Patriot a man or a woman? A group of people? ... Nobody I've encountered except "Patriot" knows. That is a fact. Nobody knows. There's a reason for that.

The facts gathered so far tell me one thing I'm sure about: Patriot is a liar and a manipulator. I'm 100% sure on that.

None of this means that Rep. Weiner isn't hiding something.

Like he did in the Shirley Sherrod incident, Breitbart did not begin to check out his source until after running his original story and talking it up on every cable news channel that would have him. This is not how journalism is supposed to work. But as I read all the coverage of this scandal the past weekend from news sites on the left, right and middle, it seems to be the emerging standard. First get it out. Then check it out.

Though he demanded (and got) an apology today from Weiner, Breitbart has never apologized for his July 2010 story that called Sherrod a racist based on maliciously edited video he received from a highly questionable source.

I think he should have apologized for that, as I am now apologizing to him for calling his Weiner piece "a bogus story being pimped by the biggest charlatan on the right." The conclusions I reached were proven untrue.

I am sorry for my enormous boner.

Weiner Story Another Breitbart Scam

Correction: Weiner story not another Breitbart scam.

On Saturday evening, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart published a story suggesting that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) sent a photo on Twitter of his underwear-clad penis to a female college student in Seattle.

This story, like others pushed by Breitbart in service of his right-wing agenda, appears to be factually questionable.

Weiner had more than 40,000 Twitter followers at the time the alleged tweet was sent, but only one of those users either responded to it or shared it: Patriotusa76. That account belongs to Dan Wolfe, a self-described "conservative Reagan Republican" whose Twitter history reveals that he's obsessed with Weiner. Wolfe created the account Jan. 6 and has posted hundreds of messages about the congressman and his wife Huma Abedin. His first 19 messages were all about the Weiners, as were around 175 of his first 400 Twitter messages.

Wolfe's primary use of Twitter has been to post extremely crude criticism of the Weiners and correspond with a small group of other right-wing users who share his sentiments. Among his messages, more than 200 of which were addressed to Weiner at his @RepWeiner account so he'd see them, were claims that Weiner is gay, that his wife is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's lesbian lover, that she's a Muslim who sympathizes with Al Qaeda terrorists and that she's so ugly she should wear a burqa. Here's a typical message he posted about them:

@goatsred LOL! Now there's an image not far from the reality! He's out looking for wiener while his "wife" is with her husband, Hildabeast

One of the technical aspects of how Twitter works is that you can't make a message disappear simply by deleting it quickly after you send it. Twitter messages are received and stored instantaneously by numerous Twitter clients and websites around the Internet. A user such as Weiner, even if he had deleted a message sent accidentally only seconds after it was transmitted, would not be able to stop copies of it from being saved. Tens of thousands of users receive his Twitter messages.

Yet in this situation, no one other than Wolfe responded on Twitter to the supposed crotch tweet. It was not present on Weiner's Twitter account when Breitbart's story was published. The only person who can vouch for it ever being posted at all is the rabid antagonist of the congressman.

The photo referenced in the alleged tweet was hosted on YFrog, an image-hosting service where people can post photos to be shared on Twitter. The photo did exist on Weiner's account for a brief time until it was deleted, presumably by him or someone on his staff.

YFrog has a huge security vulnerability that makes it possible to post photos to someone else's account without their password. If you know the person's email address on YFrog, you can send a photo to that email address and it will show up on that site under their account. Godfrey Dowson of the Cannonfire blog tried this out, sharing his YFrog email address gdowson153.gudom@yfrog.com and encouraging readers to send a photo to it. One of them did, and it appeared on Dowson's account.

Considering this vulnerability, I think the most likely scenario for what took place is that someone posted the crotch photo on the congressman's YFrog account without his permission using the security vulnerability and it never appeared on Twitter. Wolfe shared this link as if it had been posted on Twitter, either because he was involved or because he monitors Weiner's YFrog page closely.

To believe Andrew Breitbart, Weiner sent a picture of his crotch over Twitter to thousands of people, but only one responded to it -- a person who has devoted his entire online life to hating that congressman and his wife. The media has once again fallen for a bogus story being pimped by the biggest charlatan on the right.


Modern Journalism is a Serious Pickle

The recent firings of Dave Weigel by the Washington Post and Octavia Nasr by CNN show that mainstream journalists, who are expected to display some personality and attitude on social media to better connect to the audience, will be fired the minute they make an important group mad. I don't envy the job of a reporter at a major media outlet pressed into blogging or tweeting for the company.

Conservative journalist James Poulos sums up the predicament well:

Writers now have competing pressures -- to be witty, quick, ironic, noticeable, flip, to dispatch every clay pigeon tossed up by a culture pandemic with pigeons; but also to self-edit, to self-moderate, to be reticent at the right time, to pussyfoot expertly, to pick battles, to avoid perils, to besmirch rarely, to duck blame, to satisfy spectral overseers. This is a serious pickle, is it not? And yet it now appears to be the cost of doing business. Possibly, this is the internet imitating life.

I found this great quote in a funny fake media orientation video.

Meet Sarah Killen, Conan O'Brien's Favorite Twit

Sarah Killen

Since joining Twitter on Feb. 24, Conan O'Brien has amassed more than 534,000 followers and posted 10 tweets. Contractually exiled from late night television until September, O'Brien has embraced the new medium, sharing inane personal details of his life, airing petty grievances and even posting a Twitpic of how many people it takes for him to compose each tweet.

Friday afternoon, O'Brien announced that he has taken his first follower:

I've decided to follow someone at random. She likes peanut butter and gummy dinosaurs. Sarah Killen, your life is about to change.

Killen, a Fowlerville, Michigan, resident who has the username LovelyButton, has already acquired 10,200 followers and become one of Twitter's trending topics.

Furthering the insanity, her recent tweet calling Fowlerville resident Russell Bigos "an idiot" is making him a figure of scorn and sympathy. Killen's fiance John Slowik Jr. posted on Facebook Jan. 12 that he was "about to woop bigos in nba2k10," so this could be a videogame basketball rivalry gone terribly wrong. We'll have to wait for the media to dig for answers.

MTV did a video interview with Killen Friday night. She told MTV she was asked in advance by an O'Brien rep if it would be OK to pick her. Since her selection, she's received a free Apple iMac from HornBlasters and offered other freebies for her impending wedding.

Killen posted a link on Twitter to her Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure donation page, where she's raised $1,100 towards her $5,000 goal in nine hours.

By the way, I've also decided to follow someone at random. He likes Jewish action figures and the metric system. Jonathan Bourne, your life is about to change.

Update: Sarah Killen is friends on Facebook with Aaron Bleyaert, the former Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien blogger, so it's possible that the selection wasn't entirely random. This scandal could go all the way up to the top! What did Coco know and when did he know it?

Anil Dash is Wrong About Treehouse Clubs

In a post about how the Twitter API is becoming a de facto standard, Anil Dash derides the impulse of groups to work together to create web standards:

The natural inclination right now for geeks of a certain type is to start dreaming up new standards bodies, or how they can participate in the Open Web Foundation to make a Super Awesome Twitter API Evolution Committee. Here's my recommendation: Don't. Don't do any of that ----, and don't run off to make membership badges for the Treehouse Club quite yet. Instead, just iterate and ship. ...

The good news is, consensus around evolution of the Twitter API can happen simply by saying to each other, "If two application developers who share no common investors or board members can reach agreement around an extension to the API, and between them they have a significant enough number of users to be relevant, then we should all just adopt their work."

This is important because it reframes the conversation from being about technical merits, and all the boys who like to play with APIs always think they know what's "better". I'm sure if I wanted to waste an afternoon, I could tell you a dozen ways in which the Twitter API could be "improved". But guess what? That ---- does not matter. Adoption matters, and I'm heartened by the fact that people seem to be getting that.

As he suggested in our prior discussion of RSSCloud, which currently is being revised unilaterally by one person with no public process to ensure its soundness, Dash believes there's value in "simple, human-readable but potentially ambiguous specs."

I used to think that too, but after spending so many years involved with RSS, I have a better understanding of the costs that developers incur because of half-assed specs. During the 18 months in which the RSS Advisory Board drafted the RSS Best Practices Profile, we accumulated more information on how RSS has been implemented than anybody else on the planet. It's never a good thing for a specification to be "potentially ambiguous." If two developers disagree on what a spec means, their software will not interoperate. And once their software ships, they'll be mad as hell if the specification is revised to make their interpretation the incorrect one.

This leaves you with a situation where you know that a spec is confusing people, and you know that developers are implementing it in incompatible ways, but the most you can do is offer advice like this:

Support for the enclosure element in RSS software varies significantly because of disagreement over whether the specification permits more than one enclosure per item. Although the author intended to permit no more than one enclosure in each item, this limit is not explicit in the specification.

Blogware, Movable Type and WordPress enable publishers to include multiple enclosures in each item of their RSS documents. This works successfully in some aggregators, including BottomFeeder, FeederReader, NewsGator and Safari.

Other software does not support multiple enclosures, including Bloglines, FeedDemon, Google Reader and Microsoft Internet Explorer 7. The first enclosure is downloaded automatically, an aspect of enclosure support relied on in podcasting, and the additional enclosures are either ignored or must be requested manually.

For best support in the widest number of aggregators, an item SHOULD NOT contain more than one enclosure.

So when somebody asks me if an RSS item can contain more than one enclosure, I give that long-winded answer. When I'm asked the same question about Atom, the answer is this:


Guess which one was created by a Treehouse Club?

Dash's vision of a Twitter API that evolves every time two developers agree on a new feature would rapidly devolve into an unworkable mess.

Everybody's an Expert on Iran

Dave Winer on Twitter Sunday:

BTW, it's lame to change your location to Tehran and your timezone to GMT +3.30. Instead, our friends at twitter.com should detect and block about 13 hours ago from web

It should be against the terms of service to use the Twitter API to persecute and kill users. Yes? about 12 hours ago from web

There's a lot of cringe-inducing commentary coming from American bloggers and twitterers about the situation in Iran. Although most of it is well-intentioned, the massive outbreak of overnight expertise reminds me of warbloggers lining up Muslim countries for the U.S. to bomb in the days after 9/11.

Who knew there were thousands of people who could speak with authority on the complex internal politics of an anti-American Islamic theocracy halfway around the globe? Take that, Juan Cole! You may have a master's degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, but I reloaded Andrew Sullivan's blog 150 times on Saturday alone. And I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.

The situation in Iran also has sparked numerous calls for symbolic gestures like turning your web site green or switching your Twitter timezone to GMT +3:30 and your location to Tehran, thus making it harder for Iranian authorities to find and crack down on real Iranian protesters using the service.

I love Winer's suggestion that the Twitter API be amended to forbid its use to "persecute and kill users."

If the Iranian regime decides to hunt down its own citizens for participating in Twitter during the election unrest, I'm not convinced that it could be stopped by a terms of service agreement.

Disclosing Paid Placements on a Blog

Mel Cooley: "I didn't come here to be insulted!"

Buddy Sorrell: "Oh, where do you usually go to be insulted?"

Last month I called out Dave Winer for selling a paid placement in Radio UserLand that was never disclosed to his users. This sparked a tempest in a TechMeme in which Mike Arrington dropped the hammer on Winer, declaring that his credibility was permanently shot by the secret deal. I am now obligated, under enemy of my enemy is my friend rules, to extend to Arrington my warm hand of friendship. If we ever share a room at an overbooked Web 3.0 conference and the power goes out during a blizzard caused by climate change and the conservation of body heat becomes a necessity, I am not entirely hostile to spooning.

But I digress.

Winer has posted a public apology for not disclosing the paid placement:

About a month ago, Mike Arrington ran an article at TechCrunch about a deal we did at UserLand in 2002 with Adam Curry, to include his RSS feed in the set of default feeds for Radio 8.0.

Mike, who used to be my friend and my lawyer, and who believe it or not I still feel affection for, said about me: "Credibility = Shot. Permanently."

When I read that I felt like Mike was aiming an ethical bullet at my head. Luckily I was wearing my bullet-proof helmet that day. ;->

I wanted to let the accusations settle in before responding in detail. This really was between me and the users of my product, and possibly people who read my blog. After giving it some thought, I believe we should have disclosed that Adam paid us for inclusion in the OPML file, and we didn't. I apologize for that.

I explained further in a post on FriendFeed, earlier today.

The apology's the proper thing to do, so I'm passing it along. I find it curious that among all the responses on Scripting News and FriendFeed, there isn't a single person who thinks Winer has anything to be sorry for, while on TechCrunch the general consensus is that Winer's back-room shenanigans with a veejay bring shame upon his family for several generations.

If my blog ever became a place where I was universally admired, that would suck all the fun right out of it. Unlike Mel Cooley, I do come here to be insulted.

Bit.ly Builds Business on Libya Domain

Bit.ly logoThe URL shortening service Bit.ly just secured $2 million in financing from investors including O'Reilly's AlphaTech Ventures. Though URL shorteners have been around for years, Bit.ly believes there's money in offering Twitter-friendly short links along with web analytics to track how the links are used. The company reports that its links were clicked 20 million times last month.

So far, the news coverage I've read about Bit.ly has neglected an unusual aspect of the startup: It's one of the only prominent online ventures using a domain name in the .LY namespace, which is controlled by Libya.

There are two issues that arise from this relationship.

First, of course, is the appearance of an American company doing business with Libya, a country that the U.S. considered a state sponsor of terror from 1979 through 2006. On Dec. 21, 1988, Libyan intelligence agents planted a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 that blew up 31,000 feet over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people onboard.

Bit.ly's only doing a trivial amount of business with Libya -- the domains sell for $75 per year from the registrar Libyan Spider Network -- but its use of .LY domain is helping to popularize and legitimize the top-level domain for general use on the Internet. It's only a matter of time before a reporter decides to ask the families of Lockerbie victims what they think of the arrangement. I can't imagine that story going well for the company.

Even without that PR hit, there's another potential concern for Bit.ly and any other venture that builds its business on an .LY domain. These domains are governed by Libyan law, as it states on the Libyan Spider Network site:

Any .LY domain names may be registered, except domains containing obscene and indecent names/phrases, including words of a sexual nature; furthermore domain names may not contain words/phrases or abbreviations insulting religion or politics, or be related to gambling and lottery industry or be contrary to Libyan law or Islamic morality.

So the names must conform to Islamic morality, and it's possible that the use of the domains could fall under the same rules. What are the odds that some of those 20 million clicks on a Bit.ly-shortened URL end up at sites that would be considered blasphemous or otherwise offensive in an Islamic nation? Bit.ly conveniently provides search pages for such topics as Islam, sharia, gambling and sex, any of which contain links that could spark another controversy.

Bit.ly's building a business atop a domain that could be taken away at any time, and the company's only recourse would be to seek redress in the Libyan court system. Take a look at Section 11 of the regulations for .LY owners:

The Arabic language is the language of interpretation, correspondence and the construction of the Regulation or anything related to it. ... In case of conflict between the Arabic and the English versions the Arabic version shall prevail.

I hope Bit.ly's attorneys are brushing up on their Arabic.

The Size of Your Twitter Makes Me Feel Inadequate

Dave Winer self-portrait, released under Creative CommonsDave Winer is criticizing Twitter over the suggested users feature, which was added recently to help Twitter newbies get more out of the service. In the past when you joined Twitter, if you didn't know anybody else using the service you'd end up with nothing to do, an experience akin to being the only person in an AOL chatroom, giving yourself A/S/L checks and telling yourself you just got home from cheerleader practice and it's time to get out of these sweaty clothes.

So Twitter now tries to buddy up new members with some big-name users like Michael Arrington, Ryan Seacrest and MC Hammer. These recommended buds end up with hundreds of thousands of people following them on Twitter. This has angered some people with tens of thousands of followers by making them feel small, though they pretend that's not the reason. Winer writes:

I pour a lot of effort into Twitter, and while I wasn't in the top tier of users, I was solidly in the second tier. I wasn't doing the things you have to do to get the most followers, or I didn't have a powerful media presence like Leo or Shaq to get me up there. ... It's now approaching 20,000, which I am proud of, but it's not very much compared to the numbers of some people who did nothing other than be friends of [Twitter founder] Evan Williams to get hundreds of thousands of followers. ...

Think about it this way -- do you know who wrote Apache or PHP? Do any of them have the power to deliver so much flow to an installation of their software? Imho, that's exactly the relationship Twitter should have with its users. Or the phone company and users of phones -- they shouldn't jump into a conversation and say (for example) "We know someone really cool you would probably like to talk to. We're connecting you to them now."

Seven years ago, Winer was running UserLand, which had just come out with Radio UserLand, software for publishing blogs and reading RSS feeds. Radio UserLand was a pretty big phenomenon at the time that had an appeal not unlike Twitter today. Users formed relationships by subscribing to each other's blogs, getting updates in real-time through the RSS Cloud API and republishing interesting items they found on their buds' blogs. (Kids today call this retweeting.)

Radio UserLand's RSS reader came with a default list of subscriptions, and the bloggers on the list got thousands of readers.

I wasn't on that list. I poured a lot of effort into Radio, and while I wasn't in the top tier of bloggers I was solidly second-tier. Former MTV veejay Adam Curry was on the list, and in July 2003 he revealed why -- he secretly paid Winer $10,000:

Time to come clean on an investment I made a year and a half ago. At the time, UserLand software had released a Mac OSX version of Radio and I was totally digging the built in news aggregator. I came up with a cunning plan: I asked Userland if I could purchase a pre-installed feed on their aggregator, which supports RSS xml feeds. I paid $10,000 for a one year license. To date I've been delighted with my purchase and although I haven't checked recently, I'm pretty sure Userland still has me in the defaults. ...

The $10k didn't 'just' give me an automatic base within the userland community, it got pasted on web pages all over the world and I've built up an audience that consists of 50% aggergator users.

So when Winer was in the same position as Twitter, his software included a paid placement, something he never disclosed to his users.

I try not to reach back into the Winer wayback machine too often, because I'd prefer that people forget how I used to pumice out his corns as we sat on the beach and discussed which of his inventions I liked the bestest. But his secret deal with Curry is worth remembering as he crusades against Twitter:

[Twitter board member Bijan Sabet] says that Twitter is the little guy, but to me they look big -- huge -- when they have the power to move people up the ladder so quickly, and introduce doubt about their relationship with individual users. When being in favor with Ev means so much. That's screwing the whole thing up.

Credits: Rogers Cadenhead has 156 followers on Twitter. Dave Winer's self-portrait is republished under a Creative Commons license.

Displaying Twitter Updates on a Web Page

I recently began using Twitter, a microblogging service for posting short, chat-like blog entries and reading what other users of the service are doing. The site has severe reliability problems, but it's still an entertaining way to get real-time updates from bloggers I read along with others I know who've been sucked into Twitter's maw.

I wrote some code to display my most recent Twitter update on my weblog, Workbench, in a sidebar at upper right. This afternoon, I've released the Twitter-RSS-to-HTML PHP script under an open source license. The script requires MagpieRSS for PHP, an open source PHP library that can parse RSS and Atom feeds.

MagpieRSS caches feed data, so at times when Twitter is glacially slow or can't be accessed, this script won't hurt the performance of your server.

The first release of the script only works with a Twitter user's RSS feed, which can be found in the "RSS" link at the bottom of a user's Twitter page. The only tough part about writing the script was creating regular expressions to turn URLs into hyperlinks and "@" references into links to Twitter user pages:

// turn URLs into hyperlinks
$tweet = preg_replace("/(http:\/\/)(.*?)\/([\w\.\/\&\=\?\-\,\:\;\#\_\~\%\+]*)/", "<a href=\"\\0\">Link</a>", $tweet);
// link to users in replies
$tweet = preg_replace("(@([a-zA-Z0-9]+))", "<a href=\"http://www.twitter.com/\\1\">\\0</a>", $tweet);

If you're reading this and wondering why anyone should bother with Twitter, I recommend reading the updates by Jay Rosen, a former university journalism chair who uses the service to share a running dialogue on the media. He punches above his weight in this 140-character-or-less medium.