Les anglonautes

About | Search | Vocapedia | Learning | Podcasts | Videos | History | Arts | Science | Translate

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2008 > USA > Internet, media (IV)




L : Alexandra Geosits visits her grandparents, 1,000 miles away.

R : Joseph and Elizabeth Geosits,

talk to their two and a half year old grandaughter Alexandra

via Skype on their computers.

The Geosits live in Florida

and their grandaughter is in Deer Park, Long Island.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Grandma’s on the Computer Screen

















Grandma’s on the Computer Screen


November 27, 2008
The New York Times


DEER PARK, N.Y. — Her grandfather wanted to play tea party, but Alexandra Geosits, 2½, insisted she had only apple juice. She held out a plastic cup, giggling as she waited to see if he would accept the substitute.

That they were a thousand miles apart, their weekly visit unfolding over computer screens in their respective homes, did not faze either one. Like many other grandchildren and grandparents who live far apart, Alex and Joe Geosits (pronounced GAY-sits), 69, have become fluent in the ways of the Web cam.

“Delicious,” Mr. Geosits exclaimed from Florida, pretending to take a sip from the cup, which remained clasped here in Alex’s small hand.

Video calling, long anticipated by science fiction, is filtering into everyday use. And two demographic groups not particularly known for being high-tech are among the earliest adopters.

In a way that even e-mailed photos never could, the Web cam promises to transcend both distance and the inability of toddlers to hold up their end of a phone conversation.

Some grandparent enthusiasts say this latest form of virtual communication makes the actual separation harder. Others are so sustained by Web cam visits with services like Skype and iChat that they visit less in person. And no one quite knows what it means to a generation of 2-year-olds to have slightly pixelated versions of their grandparents as regular fixtures in their lives.

But at a time when millions of people around the world are beginning to beam themselves across the ether, the Web cam adventures of the nursery school set and their grandparents offer a glimpse at what can be gained — and what may be lost — by almost-being there.

“We would be strangers to them if we didn’t have the Web cam,” said Susan Pierce, 61, of Shreveport, La., who will be a virtual attendee at Thanksgiving dinner with her grandchildren in Jersey City this year.

Over the last year, Ms. Pierce and her husband watched Dylan, 17 months, learn to walk and talk over the Web cam, and witnessed his 4-year-old sister Kelsie’s drawings of people evolve from indeterminate blobs to figures with arms and fingers and toes.

But the powerful illusion of physical proximity also sharpens their ache for the real thing. “You just wish you could reach out and cuddle them,” said Ms. Pierce, a nursing professor. “Seeing them makes you miss them more.”

Nearly half of American grandparents live more than 200 miles from at least one of their grandchildren, according to AARP. Prof. Merril Silverstein, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, has found that about two-thirds of grandchildren see one set of grandparents only a few times a year, if that.

But many grandparents find that the Web cam eases the transition during in-person visits, when grandchildren may refuse to sit on their laps or may reject their hugs because they do not recognize them. As one Web cam evangelist wrote on her blog, www.nanascorner.com: “You’ll be able to pick up where you left off without those warming up to you, awkward moments.”

On Ms. Pierce’s most recent visit to New Jersey last month, for instance, Dylan called out the nickname he uses for her over the Web cam, “Buffy!” and jumped into her arms. “It melted my heart,” Ms. Pierce said.

Urged on by strong word of mouth from fellow grandparents, they are often the ones to buy Web cams for their grandchildren (or, technically, their own adult children, who then have to plug them in). But the youngsters, who spend much of their time playing games of pretend, may shuttle more easily between the virtual and the real.

When Gail Hecox of Park City, Utah, shows her 2-year-old granddaughter Lily her cats over the Web cam, the child often pats the space on the ottoman next to the laptop and says “meow, meow,” as though “it should be able to walk through the screen,” Ms. Hecox said.

Many grandchildren play as their grandparents watch from afar, and when Coulter Medeiros, almost 3, of Cincinnati, wants to summon his grandmother in Massachusetts, he simply points to his parents’ computer and says, “Nana on there.”

Substitutions of retrograde technology are frowned on. If Nana is at work, without the Web cam-equipped computer she bought to visit with him, Coulter’s mother, Elizabeth, sometimes puts her on speakerphone. “No Nana phone,” Coulter says. “Nana on computer.”

The adult children in a family have their own reasons for encouraging the Web cam enthusiasm of the younger and older generations. When Martha Rodenborn discovered that Elena, now 4, would sit happily in front of the computer in their Upper West Side apartment while her grandmother read her piles of picture books from Ohio, the Web cam quickly became a vehicle for remote baby-sitting.

“It was a lifesaver,” said Ms. Rodenborn, who graduated from Columbia Law School last spring.

Because the Web cam connection is free, parents often keep it on as long as a grandparent is willing to make funny faces and animal sounds.

But for adult children pressed into service as real-time documentarians, the experience can also be taxing.

After Alex Geosits’s virtual apple juice party with her grandparents on a recent Sunday, her father chased her upstairs, laptop in hand, as she went to get a favorite doll. Then he followed her around the living room as she played hide-and-seek and showed her bellybutton. Finally, it was her snack time, and he could relax.

The recent inclusion of Web cams in most laptops helps account for the 20 percent growth in video calling over the last year, said Rebecca Swensen, an analyst at the technology research firm IDC.

Internet companies are also promoting “video chat” as an enhancement to standard instant-messaging and Internet phone services. Google, for instance, which makes money from the advertisements in its popular Gmail Web-based e-mail software, introduced video capability for Gmail this month.

About 20 million people around the world have made a video call for personal communication in the last month, Ms. Swensen said. American soldiers in Iraq beam themselves home over Web cams; parents on business trips (including President-elect Barack Obama) bid goodnight to their children, face-to-onscreen-face.

But grandparents and grandchildren are already working on ways to nudge the medium a little closer to actual teleportation.

When Deborah Lafferty, 55, and her granddaughter Natalie, 2, want to hug, for instance, Natalie comes to the screen in Seattle and squeezes her own face, just as her grandmother does to her when she visits from England. Ms. Lafferty, in turn, squeezes her face. “Grammy loves you so much,” she says, echoing the phrase she uses in person.

Grandparents also use their own children as surrogates to close the tactile gap. Barbara Turner once sang her fussing newborn grandson to sleep from Ottawa, watching as her son rocked him in Indiana. She said she could almost feel the baby snuggling against her shoulder.

But last week Ms. Turner and her husband rushed to Indiana to be on hand for the birth of her second grandchild. “Some things you just can’t do over the Web cam,” she said. “You make the trip.”

Still, some veterans of the technology fear that the video cam has started to substitute, rather than supplement, actual time together. Jennifer Ray, 24, of San Antonio, and her brother persuaded their parents to get a new computer so they could all video chat with their respective toddlers on split screens from different states. Now the siblings commiserate about their mother’s unwillingness to travel.

“She still comes,” said Ms. Ray of her mother, Diane Heyman, who lives in Arizona. “But not nearly as often.”

Ms. Heyman, 49, admitted: “It’s probably true. You feel like you’re actually seeing them and interacting with them, so it eases that longing.”

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worries that ever-more-real virtual encounters (holograms may be next) could make us forget what we are missing in the case of a grandchild: the smell of a grandmother’s cooking, the warmth of an embrace. In interviews, older grandchildren who video chat with grandparents say they visit them less, feeling that they have already “seen” them.

“It’s important that we not start to equate what the technology can deliver with what we can deliver to each other without the technology,” Ms. Turkle said.

But the Web cam generation may already be recalibrating how much value to place on the sharing of real space with another person. Is it better for a grandchild to video chat twice a week and visit twice a year, or to visit four times a year? Perhaps, having built intimate relationships with them early on through the Web cam, they will choose both.

For now, when Jacob Mosier’s mother, Ginny, of Las Vegas, tells him they are going to visit Mamaw and Grumpa, in Scottsdale, Ariz., the 2-year-old runs to the computer and waits happily for it to boot up.

    Grandma’s on the Computer Screen, NYT, 27.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/27/us/27minicam.html






Verdict in MySpace Suicide Case


November 27, 2008
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — A federal jury here issued what legal experts said was the country’s first cyberbullying verdict Wednesday, convicting a Missouri woman of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for her involvement in creating a phony account on MySpace to trick a teenager, who later committed suicide.

The jury deadlocked on a fourth count of conspiracy against the woman, Lori Drew, 49, and the judge, George H. Wu of Federal District Court, declared a mistrial on that charge.

Although it was unclear how severely Ms. Drew would be punished — the jury reduced the charges to misdemeanors from felonies, and no sentencing date was set — the conviction was highly significant, computer fraud experts said, because it was the first time that a federal statute designed to combat computer crimes was used to prosecute what were essentially abuses of a user agreement on a social networking site.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Ms. Drew could face up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines, though she has no previous criminal record. Her lawyer has asked for a new trial.

In a highly unusual move, Thomas P. O’Brien, the United States attorney in Los Angeles, prosecuted the case himself with two subordinates after law enforcement officials in Missouri determined Ms. Drew had broken no local laws.

Mr. O’Brien, who asserted jurisdiction on the ground that MySpace is based in Los Angeles, where its servers are housed, said the verdict sent an “overwhelming message” to users of the Internet.

“If you are going to attempt to annoy or go after a little girl and you’re going to use the Internet to do so,” he said, “this office and others across the country will hold you responsible.”

During the five-day trial, prosecutors portrayed Ms. Drew as working in concert with her daughter, Sarah, who was then 13, and Ashley Grills, a family friend and employee of Ms. Drew’s magazine coupon business in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.

Testimony showed that they created a teenage boy, “Josh Evans,” as an identity on MySpace to communicate with Sarah’s nemesis, Megan Meier, who was 13 and had a history of depression and suicidal impulses.

After weeks of online courtship with “Josh,” Megan was distressed one afternoon in October 2006, according to testimony at the trial, when she received an e-mail message from him that said, “The world would be a better place without you.”

Ms. Grills, who is now 20, testified under an immunity agreement that shortly after that message was sent, Megan wrote back, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” Megan hanged herself that same afternoon in her bedroom.

Although the jury appeared to reject the government’s contention that Ms. Drew had intended to harm Megan — a notion underlying the felony charges — the convictions signaled the 12 members’ belief that she had nonetheless violated federal laws that prohibit gaining access to a computer without authorization.

Specifically, the jury found Ms. Drew guilty of accessing a computer without authorization on three occasions, a reference to the fraudulent postings on MySpace in the name of Josh Evans.

Legal and computer fraud experts said the application of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, passed in 1986 and amended several times, appeared to be expanding with technology and the growth of social networking on the Internet. More typically, prosecutions under the act have involved people who hack into computer systems.

“Keep in mind that social networking sites like MySpace did not exist until recently,” said Nick Akerman, a New York lawyer who has written and lectured extensively on the act. “This case will be simply another important step in the expanded use of this statute to protect the public from computer crime.”

Other computer fraud experts said they found the verdict chilling.

“As a result of the prosecutor’s highly aggressive, if not unlawful, legal theory,” said Matthew L. Levine, a former federal prosecutor who is a defense lawyer in New York, “it is now a crime to ‘obtain information’ from a Web site in violation of its terms of service. This cannot be what Congress meant when it enacted the law, but now you have it.”

Ms. Drew, who showed little emotion during the trial, sat stone-faced as the clerk read the jury’s verdict and left the courtroom quickly, her face red and twisted with rage.

Her lawyer, H. Dean Steward, said outside the courthouse that he believed the trial was grandstanding by Mr. O’Brien in an effort to keep his job, with the coming change in the White House.

“I don’t have any satisfaction at all,” Mr. Steward said of the verdict.

Judge Wu scheduled a hearing on the request for a new trial for late December.

Since the story surrounding the suicide became public last year, Mr. O’Brien has discussed with his staff how his feelings as a parent motivated him to bring the charges against Ms. Drew. He alluded to those feelings on Wednesday at a news conference.

“This was obviously a case that means a lot to me,” he said.

The case has been a collection of anomalies. Judge Wu appeared ambivalent regarding some key issues at the trial, like whether any testimony about Megan’s suicide would be allowed (he did allow it) and how to rule on a defense motion to throw out the charges (he had not ruled as of Wednesday).

Judge Wu was appointed to the federal bench less than two years ago, and it is difficult to establish his sentencing record. But Mr. Akerman, the computer fraud expert, said jail time was common even for first-time offenders in computer fraud cases.

“If I were her,” he said of Ms. Drew, “I would not be celebrating over the Thanksgiving weekend.”

Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, said in a news conference after the verdict that she hoped Ms. Drew would serve jail time, and that she felt satisfied.

“This day is not any harder than the day when I found Megan,” Ms. Meier said. “This has never been about vengeance. This is about justice. For me it’s absolutely worth it every single day sitting in that court hoping there was justice.”

    Verdict in MySpace Suicide Case, NYT, 27.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/27/us/27myspace.html






In Lean Times,

Online Coupons Are Catching On


November 27, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — On the Internet, nothing travels faster than a tip on how to score a bargain. Especially in an economic downturn.

With online retail sales falling this month for the first time, Internet merchants are offering steep discounts to anyone willing to punch in a secret coupon code or visit a rebate site for a “referral” before loading up their virtual cart.

Shoppers obsessed with finding these bargains share the latest intelligence on dozens of sites with quirky names like RetailMeNot.com, FatWallet.com and the Budget Fashionista. And more consumers than ever are scanning the listings before making a purchase at their favorite Web site.

Some online shoppers are so good at this game that they almost never buy anything at full price, making them the digital era’s version of bargain hunters who used to spend hours clipping coupons to shrink their grocery bills.

Tavon Ferguson, a 25-year-old graduate student in Atlanta, became obsessed with finding online deals last spring, while planning her July wedding. She scoured the Web for coupons and got free save-the-date cards, $8 bracelets for her bridesmaids and free shipping on flash-frozen steaks for the rehearsal dinner.

“I was able to do my wedding at a price that nobody would even guess” — $6,000, all included — “because everything down from invitations to the photo album, I got for ridiculously low prices with online coupon codes,” Mrs. Ferguson said.

Her favorite sites include RetailMeNot.com, which has one of the most comprehensive lists; CouponMom.com, which includes coupons for physical stores; and CouponCode.com, which is organized by category.

Mrs. Ferguson may be more fanatical than most people, but surfing for online coupons is growing in popularity. In October, 27 million people visited a coupon site, according to comScore Media Metrix, up 33 percent from a year earlier.

“Coupons had never been a big factor online the way they are offline. This is something new,” said Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. “It’s taken pricing power away from the retailers and given it to the consumers, because the consumer is totally up to speed on what the prices are.” Retailers have mixed feelings about this shift.

Generally, companies prefer limited discounts, e-mailed to a select group of customers or sent inside packages with a purchase. When the coupons get wider exposure, retailers lose control, potentially costing them more money than they expected.

Two years ago, Sierra Trading Post, a site that sells overstock outdoor gear, sent a coupon code with 1,000 of its 50 million catalogs, expecting to generate $2,000 in sales. Instead, it led to $300,000 in sales after a customer posted it online.

“We certainly appreciated the sales, but sales with that code were at a very low margin,” said David Giacomini, director of catalog operations for the company. Sierra Trading now sends some coupons directly to Web sites and limits catalog codes to three uses.

Some retailers try to battle the coupon sites. Harry & David, a seller of fruit baskets, threatened legal action against RetailMeNot.com this spring for publishing its discounts, prompting the coupon site to steer visitors to other gift-basket companies. William Ihle, a spokesman for Harry & David, said that all of its deals were available on its own site and the coupon sites “disingenuously mislead the consumer” by posting expired or unverified discounts.

Other retailers use the coupon sites as marketing tools. For example, when Scott Kluth founded CouponCabin in 2003, he had discounts for only 180 stores, and many of them did not like it. Today, 1,300 merchants, including Dell, Target, Home Depot and Victoria’s Secret, send him discount codes — totaling about a thousand a week.

“They have seen the power of a coupon, in this economy especially, and they’re absolutely embracing us,” Mr. Kluth said.

Most of the sites list coupon codes submitted by readers and retailers. Shoppers can comment on whether the coupon worked and share tips in user forums. Some sites e-mail coupon lists to subscribers. RetailMeNot.com goes further with an add-on to the Firefox browser that alerts users when an e-commerce site they are visiting has a discount.

EbatesMany of the coupon sites are run by Web entrepreneurs who see a business opportunity in collecting online discount codes at one site. They earn a commission from the retailer when a customer makes a purchase. Sites like FatWallet.com and Ebates offer shoppers cash back on purchases if they sign in and then click through to the retailer.

But other discount aggregator sites were started by passionate shoppers eager to share their bargain-hunting wisdom. Kathryn Finney began Budget Fashionista in 2003, when she finished graduate school and found herself broke and newly interested in bargains. Now, “it’s in my blood,” she said. “I cannot physically pay full price.”

Ms. Finney’s site was originally aimed at friends and family, but it quickly developed a following that has spiked 60 percent since August to 550,000 visitors a month. “We’re gaining a whole new level of fans, who maybe weren’t budget shoppers last year,” Ms. Finney said. Her site now makes money through advertising and referral fees.

Among her coupon-scouting tips: search the name of an online store and the word “coupon” and compare the promotions, because bigger sites are often able to negotiate better offers; if you find a coupon for an offline store, call the Web site and ask it to match the price; and insist upon free shipping, even if it means calling the manager and asking for a coupon code.

Deborah Dockendorf, a power Web shopper in Chicago, has another piece of advice: if you cannot immediately find a coupon code for a specific store, just wait. “It might be two weeks, but you will have a code for it,” she said.

Even though Ms. Dockendorf lives near the department stores of Michigan Avenue and the boutiques of Oak Street, she says she does 98 percent of her shopping online — always with a discount. She recently bought six pairs of $45 Wolford opaque stockings from Saks Fifth Avenue with a 40 percent discount and free shipping. She also snagged a $400 feather bed at half off from Pacific Coast Feather Company.

“I used to feel a little embarrassed about using them, like I was one of those coupon queens at the grocery store,” she said. “But now there is not a day that goes by when a friend doesn’t e-mail me for codes, and if I don’t have one, I can find one for them soon.”

    In Lean Times, Online Coupons Are Catching On, NYT, 27.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/27/technology/internet/27coupon.html






Online Retailers Ramp Up

Deals to Capture Dollars


November 27, 2008
Filed at 1:59 p.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- Online retailers are ramping up heavy-duty deals to turn skittish shoppers into buyers during the crucial Thanksgiving weekend and ''Cyber Monday'' -- but even so, online sales are expected to be fairly flat after years of strong growth.

Free shipping is virtually a given, and many are offering financing options such as no payments for 90 days and deals like $10 off purchases of $50 or more, along with traditional discounts on products.

''Last year, people were spending a lot more money on gifts and products,'' says Jeff Wisot, vice president of marketing for online retailer Buy.com. ''With the economic challenges arising this year, people are definitely spending less.''

''Cyber Monday,'' a term coined by the trade group National Retail Federation in 2005 to describe the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, is the unofficial kickoff for the busy online retail season.

However, this year, consumer spending has dropped dramatically -- down 1 percent in October, the largest amount since the 2001 terrorist attacks -- as consumers grapple with a shaky economy, mounting job losses and a prolonged housing slump.

During the holidays, the trade group expects overall holiday spending will total about $470.4 billion, a 2.2 percent rise from a year ago and the slowest growth since 2002, and online retail is being hit along with brick-and-mortar stores. ComScore, a digital technology monitoring company, said Tuesday it expects online retail spending for November and December to be flat compared with the same two months in 2007. Last year's growth rate was 19 percent.

The expected slowdown in online growth is ''dramatically different than what we've seen,'' says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. ''Consumers are not in a rush to shop.''

In an effort to entice them, online retailers are offering a bounty of deals.

Wisot of Buy.com says his site is offering free shipping on most items, instant rebates and deals on TVs, GPS devices and other items.

Online jeweler BlueNile.com sent out a targeted e-mail promotion offering $100 off a $500 engagement ring, valid until Tuesday. And through Bill Me Later, an online payment site eBay.com is acquiring, BlueNile.com is offering 0 percent financing on purchases of $500 or more for six months. Bill Me Later has similar promotions for other online retailers.

Meanwhile, Amazon.com will take up to 65 percent off watches and offer one-day deals such as knife set that is usually $157 on sale for $49.99.

''We're bringing prices down as low as we can get them,'' Berman says. ''These are great deals.''

Online auction site eBay.com is holding what it calls the largest sale in its history, with $1 holiday doorbuster items hidden on the site that consumers hunt for, including a 65-inch Panasonic plasma HDTV and a 2009 Chevy Corvette. EBay also will offer items typically in demand for the holidays for bids starting at $1.

Toys ''R'' Us is offering more online promotions on Cyber Monday than last year, including 70 percent off Star Wars figures, $50 off the normally $59.99 Guitar Hero wired guitar controller from Activision and other deals.

And PayPal, another online payment site that eBay owns, is partnering with several retailers on deals. At Toys ''R'' Us, customers get $10 off purchases of $50 or more. Elsewhere, customers using PayPal can receive cash-back incentives ranging from 5 percent to 30 percent off at retailers including American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Overstock.com and Blockbuster.

Whether all the deals, rebates and discounting offers will help remains to be seen, says Dr. Michael Belch, a professor of marketing at San Diego State University.

''There's little doubt the consumer is still going to be very price sensitive,'' he says. ''They're going to be looking for values.''

    Online Retailers Ramp Up Deals to Capture Dollars, NYT, 27.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Holiday-Shopping-Online-Sales.html






Web Suicide Viewed Live

and Reaction Spur a Debate


November 25, 2008
The New York Times


For a 19-year-old community college student in Pembroke Pines, Fla., the message boards on BodyBuilding.com were a place to post messages, at least 2,300 of them, including more than one about his suicidal impulses. In a post last year, he wrote that online forums had “become like a family to me.”

“I know its kinda sad,” the student, Abraham Biggs, wrote in parenthesis, adding that he posted about his “troubles and doubts” online because he did not want to talk to anyone about them in person.

Last Wednesday, when Mr. Biggs posted a suicide note and listed the drug cocktail he intended to consume, the Web site hardly acted like a family. On BodyBuilding.com, which includes discussions of numerous topics besides bodybuilding, and on a live video Web site, Justin.tv, Mr. Biggs was “egged on” by strangers who, investigators say, encouraged him to swallow the antidepressant pills that eventually killed him.

Mr. Biggs’s case is the most recent example of a suicide that played out on the Internet. Live video of the death was shown online to scores of people, leading some viewers to cringe while others laughed. The case, which has prompted an outpouring of sympathy and second-guessing online, demonstrates the double-edged nature of online communities that millions of people flock to every day.

Online communities “are like the crowd outside the building with the guy on the ledge,” Jeffrey Cole, a professor who studies technology’s effects on society at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes there is someone who gets involved and tries to talk him down. Often the crowd chants, ‘Jump, jump.’ They can enable suicide or help prevent it.”

On blogs and forums last week, some people wondered whether Mr. Biggs had hoped that by broadcasting his suicide, he would attract attention and cause someone to intervene. Viewers eventually called the police, but only after he had lapsed into unconsciousness. The video streaming Web site, Justin.tv, said Monday that it hoped its members would be “more vigilant” in the future.

It was not the first time someone had used the Web in this way. In Arizona in 2003, a man overdosed on drugs while writing about his actions in a chat room. In Britain last year, a man hanged himself while chatting online and webcasting. In both cases, other users reportedly encouraged the individual.

Sometimes other users show support in troubling ways. In a number of well-publicized cases in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, people have formed suicide pacts on the Internet and met in person to carry out their plans.

“If somebody threatens suicide or attempts suicide, it’s never a joke,” said Joshua Perper, the chief medical examiner for Broward County, where Mr. Biggs lived. “It always requires attention. It’s basically a cry for help.”

Much of the evidence of Mr. Biggs’s suicide and the reactions of users was removed from BodyBuilding.com and Justin.tv after his death was confirmed. But according to a chronology posted by a fellow user, Mr. Biggs listed the pills he had obtained and posted a suicide note that he had copied from another Web site. He directed people to his page on Justin.tv, where anyone can plug in a webcam and stream live video onto the Internet. In a chat room adjacent to the live video, the “joking and trash talking” continued after Mr. Biggs consumed the pills and lay on his bed, according to the user, who said he tried to reach the local police from his home in India.

Several other concerned users called the police when it appeared that Mr. Biggs had stopped breathing. As officers entered the room, according to a screen capture of the incident that circulated online, 181 people were watching the video. In the chat room, users typed the acronyms for “oh my God” and “laugh out loud” before the police covered the webcam.

After his death was confirmed, words of sympathy were interspersed with complaints about Mr. Biggs’s behavior on the free-wheeling “Miscellaneous” section of BodyBuilding.com, where he frequently posted. Some users claimed that Mr. Biggs had threatened to commit suicide repeatedly in the past.

Mr. Biggs’s family has said he suffered from bipolar disorder and was being treated for depression. Telephone messages left at the home of Mr. Biggs’s father, Abraham Biggs Sr., were not returned Sunday. But in an interview with The Associated Press, the father said he was appalled by the lack of responsiveness on the part of the users and the operators.

“As a human being, you don’t watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch,” he said, before suggesting that “some kind of regulation is necessary.”

The case remains under investigation by the Pembroke Pines Police Department.

Justin.tv said in a statement, “As a result of this event we are confident that all online community members will be ever more vigilant in monitoring and protecting their fellow users in the future.”

While sites like Justin.tv will remove content they find objectionable after the fact, the content of video sites and chat rooms are largely at the control of the users.

M. David Rudd, chairman of the psychology department at Texas Tech University, said the Internet did not fully live up to its potential to help with suicide prevention. “Most of what’s available via the Internet only serves to make the problem worse,” Mr. Rudd said, whether it is information about how to commit suicide or immature comments from chat room users.

Mr. Cole of the University of Southern California described the death of Alethea Gates, a teenager in New Zealand, who killed herself after using Google to read about different methods of suicide. Rather than blaming the Internet, her parents said they wished that the Google search had turned up links to suicide prevention Web sites. In effect, they wished the Web had shouted “step back from the ledge” instead of “jump.” (Many Google searches that include the word suicide include sponsored links to prevention Web sites.)

Mr. Rudd said he believed that Mr. Biggs was not seeking an audience online.

“What he was really doing was expressing his ambivalence about dying and, in an awkward manner, asking for help,” he said.

But the virtual nature of the community — distant, largely unaccountable and often seeking entertainment — was equally ambivalent. Hours after Mr. Biggs died, some of the forum users still sounded highly skeptical of the case. Others asked to see the video.

“The anonymous nature of these communities only emboldens the meanness or callousness of the people on these sites,” Mr. Cole said. “Rarely does it bring out greater compassion or consideration.”

    Web Suicide Viewed Live and Reaction Spur a Debate, NYT, 25.11.2008,






Super Micro Computer:

A One-Man, or at Least One-Family,



November 24, 2008
The New York Times


SAN JOSE, Calif. — At Super Micro Computer, cartons of parts are often stacked in the parking lot, exposed to the elements. The 15-year-old computer maker has grown to 850 employees but still tracks orders the old-fashioned way, relying on sales representatives to monitor each step from assembly to shipping.

On Saturdays, a family-style lunch is served to workers as a token of thanks for workdays that can stretch to 15 hours.

And Charles Liang, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, obsesses over every detail of the business, from approving the custom orders that are the company’s specialty to dictating the environmentally themed, green neckties that executives wear to customer meetings.

Despite its peculiarities, Super Micro is a thriving, publicly traded business that sells about $600 million a year of servers to the likes of eBay and Yahoo. More often than not, the company beats rivals to market by three to six months, offering the fastest, most compact, energy-efficient computers to demanding corporate and institutional customers. It has managed to post annual sales growth exceeding 20 percent in recent years, and its stock has outperformed competitors like Rackable Systems and Sun Microsystems.

Super Micro reflects the passion and quirks of Mr. Liang, an immigrant from Taiwan, who is considered so vital to the operation that the company warns investors in regulatory filings that his loss could derail the company’s business, culture and strategic direction.

“He is the person who approves and looks at everything the company is doing — every new product, marketing effort, sales effort, anything you want to do or promote,” said Scott Barlow, who was manager of American sales at Super Micro before leaving to join Salesforce.com. “He is kind of a one-man show.”

Current and former employees describe Mr. Liang with reverence that borders on the cultish. “It’s almost as if Charles wills things to happen,” said Don Clegg, a vice president. “If he says a product will be on schedule, it will be on schedule. This is not driven on fear. It’s driven on belief.”

At the heart of everything Super Micro are two principles: give customers what they want, and do it as fast as humanly possible.

Whereas rivals long ago sent key design work to Asia to take advantage of cheaper, plentiful labor, Super Micro still relies on hundreds of expensive engineers working at its San Jose headquarters. These workers are charged with grabbing the latest and greatest components from suppliers and coming up with new designs months ahead of lumbering heavyweights like Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

“As an individual, Charles is very aggressive and motivated,” said Patrick P. Gelsinger, Intel’s senior vice president in charge of server chips. “Every once in a while, he appears on the verge of reckless, but if you’re going up against the big guys, you have to be willing to take risks.”

The company has become the lead manufacturer that Intel uses for showcasing new products, and rivals often relabel and ship systems built by Super Micro until they can come up with their own designs that accommodate the latest chips. “They are ready to move and move quick,” Mr. Gelsinger said.

Super Micro’s quick turnaround times and sophisticated products have allowed it to grab some loyal and large customers, like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which purchases tens of thousands of servers each year.

“We’re usually trying to buy the latest and greatest stuff, and they typically have new technology first,” said Mark Seager, head of advanced computing at the lab. “This helps us maximize the bang for our buck.”

In order to produce gear at such a quick clip, Super Micro asks a lot of its workers. It’s quite common for employees to arrive just after 7 in morning and stay until 10 p.m., coming in on weekends as well. Mr. Liang himself regularly works seven days a week, saying “every hour is a happy hour, or least every day is a happy day.”

Mr. Liang has run the firm alongside his wife and company treasurer, Chiu-Chu Liu, known as Sara, since it started as a five-person operation in 1993.

The insular, family-run approach is typical of traditional Chinese business culture, said AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied immigrant-run businesses in Silicon Valley. “It echoes back to a very traditional Chinese business model, where you have the family-run farm,” she said. “It’s all about trust and how you save money.”

One of Super Micro’s main Taiwanese manufacturing partners, Ablecom, is run by Mr. Liang’s brother, Steve Liang. Charles Liang and his wife own close to 31 percent of Ablecom, while Steve Liang and other members of the family own close to 50 percent.

Regulatory filings show that “a substantial majority” of Ablecom’s sales come from Super Micro. And while Super Micro pays most suppliers within 81 days, it will sometimes take up to 118 days to pay Ablecom, which houses components and regularly renegotiates prices with Super Micro.

“There are some funky, inter-family ownership questions that I would prefer didn’t exist,” said Alex Kurtz, a securities analyst with Merriman Curhan Ford, though he praised the company for disclosing a fair amount about the relationship.

Super Micro has some other rough edges, too. The lack of order-tracking software forces sales representatives to spend valuable time making sure systems are built and shipped, and they often squabble over who owns particular accounts.

The company’s poor controls also contributed to its violation of a United States embargo against the sale of computer systems to Iran. In 2006, Super Micro pleaded guilty to a felony charge and paid a $150,000 fine.

“We were a new company and didn’t know every regulation,” Mr. Liang said. “Now, we are well trained and watch over this 24 hours a day.” Mr. Liang added that Super Micro was improving its order-tracking system and might consider purchasing process management software.

Despite the global economic slump, Super Micro could enjoy a sales spurt over the next few months as Intel and Advanced Micro Devices release new server processors and the company races to design machines that use them to full advantage, according to analysts.

And those green ties? At Mr. Liang’s request, sales representatives wear them to meetings as a symbol of the company’s energy-conserving hardware. Text on the ties boasts that Super Micro’s products are “earth friendly” and lead to nothing less than “better life.”

    Super Micro Computer: A One-Man, or at Least One-Family, Powerhouse, NYT, 24.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/24/technology/business-computing/24micro.html






Web Retailers

Are Waging Seasonal Price Wars


November 20, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — As deserted malls and department stores struggle to court cash-short consumers with steep discounts this holiday season, a similar and even more ferocious price war is being waged online.

Internet retailers, trying to navigate what is shaping up to be the first truly dreary holiday shopping season ever on the Web, are engaging in price-cutting and discounting so aggressive that it threatens their profit margins and, in some cases, their very survival.

For example, Sony introduced its HDR-SR11 high-definition digital video recorder in April with a suggested retail price of $1,200. This week, Dell.com was selling it for $899, and the electronics retailer Abe’s of Maine had it on its site for $750 — and both were throwing in free shipping.

At Lori’s Designer Shoes, a Web site that sells women’s accessories, a brown leather Hype tote bag started at $338, fell to $246 and is now available with a 20 percent discount coupon for $196.80. Lori Andre, the owner, said she generally tried to avoid online promotions “because then you train the customer and they’ll expect that, and you’re not going to make any money.” But last week, traffic hit a wall and sales on the site fell by nearly a quarter. “We’ve been in business for 25 years, and never seen the bottom drop out like this,” she said.

Traditional retailers are facing the same problem, of course, and discounts are proliferating from suburban malls to Fifth Avenue. But the price-cutting is fiercest on the Web, where customers can easily shop for the best price with a quick search on Google or on specialized shopping engines like Shopping.com. Online, the competition is only a click away. For many Web sites, the discounts and price cuts are the only way to hold on to customers as online buying unexpectedly plummets. The research firm comScore reported Tuesday that sales growth on e-commerce sites slowed to a meager 1 percent in October compared with the previous year — the lowest rate ever for online retail and well down from the industry’s typical 20 percent gains.

Sales of music, movies, books, computer software, flowers and gifts have been hit the hardest, with double-digit declines, comScore said. “A lot of these retailers aren’t running on big margins to begin with, so it’s pretty challenging,” said Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. “But it’s a Catch-22 situation: They have to run these deals because that’s what consumers are looking for this season.”

To preserve the sanctity of their brands and some level of pricing control, some Web companies are promoting discount sites separately from their main brands. Zappos.com, a shoe retailer based in Henderson, Nev., never runs promotions on its site. Instead, it quietly moves shoes that do not sell in six months to 6pm.com, a clearance site it acquired last year, but runs separately. This month, the company is buying more search ads for 6pm.com, where a pair of colorful slip-on Keds sneakers is on sale for $12.73 — 74 percent off the original price on Zappos.com.

Even when these extreme discounts mean selling shoes for less than Zappos.com paid for them, it is better to recoup some cash than none, said Tony Hsieh, the company’s chief executive.

The discounting is not just drastic, but is also occurring unusually early in the season. Kmart, a division of Sears Holding, initiated Black Friday prices on electronics — 40 to 50 percent off — on Nov. 2, nearly four weeks before the real Black Friday, the busy shopping day just after Thanksgiving that usually marks the beginning of the holiday buying season.

Kmart’s discounts are available both online and in stores, but the retailer is throwing in free shipping on Web purchases of $49 or more this week, a measure it has never taken before.

E-commerce experts said they expected the cutthroat price competition to be fatal to some struggling retailers. “Folks that have been on the ropes or near the ropes during the good times are going to go under. There is no question about it,” said George Michie, co-founder of the Rimm-Kaufman Group, a search marketing company.

Many boutique stores opened e-commerce sites because they were simple to build and inexpensive to run, yet those same advantages also forced them to compete with thousands of other sites selling similar products, each offering steeper discounts.

Plasticland, now an online boutique selling clothes, home décor and jewelry, started in 2002 as a single store in San Diego. The owners, lured by the global audience of the Web, moved it online in 2005. They were caught off guard this spring, when sales started to plummet.

The company, now based in Plano, Tex., switched to lower-priced merchandise and began moving unsold goods onto its clearance pages a month earlier than usual. A necklace with a red apple pendant now sells there for $32.50, down from $65, and a serving platter for $37.80, down from $54.

“Our profit per piece obviously drops, which means that we have to ship a lot more merchandise to make the same amount of money,” said Rebecca Nyhus, the store’s co-owner. “Lowering price points has helped us weather the downturn, but it has really bogged us down because shipping is so time-consuming” and expensive.

Like many other small e-tailers caught in the holiday margin squeeze, Plasticland was forced to raise its minimum order for free shipping to $100, from $50 to try to recoup some of the lost profits.

Free shipping is becoming a painful imperative for all e-commerce sites. Three-quarters of online shoppers said in a comScore survey that they would shop elsewhere if a site did not offer free shipping, and nearly all sites offered it for at least some purchases.

E-commerce giants like Amazon.com, which offers free shipping on orders over $25 and eliminates even that minimum for customers who pay a flat annual fee, can easily absorb shipping costs. But small online vendors struggle. Powell’s Books, a bookstore in Portland, Ore. with a site that competes for customers with Amazon.com, offers free shipping on orders over $50.

“In our business model, we could not afford to give free shipping on every package. It just would not work,” said Dave Weich, director of marketing at Powell’s.

To exacerbate matters, a major expense for online retailers seems to be rising: the cost to advertise products on the search engine Google, the source of considerable traffic and visibility for most e-commerce sites.

Over the last year and a half, prices for text ads related to women’s fashion have quadrupled, say apparel retailers. In the popular gifts category, the price to advertise alongside results for common search queries like “gift baskets” jumped 50 percent from the 2006 holidays to 2007 and is expected to climb again this year.

For Delightful Deliveries, a 10-year-old company that was selling gift baskets online, that extra expense — plus the challenge of competing on price against its own wholesalers, which also sell on the Internet — proved too much. The eight-employee company, based in Port Washington, N.Y., closed in September.

Eric Lituchy, the founder of Delightful Deliveries, is now watching the Internet price war from the sidelines. “I think everyone is praying that this economy does not get any worse and that people find reasons for optimism and spend some money at Christmastime,” he said.

    Web Retailers Are Waging Seasonal Price Wars, NYT, 20.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/technology/internet/20slashing.html?hp






Burned Once,

Intel Prepares New Chip

Fortified by Constant Tests


November 17, 2008
The New York Times


HILLSBORO, Ore. — Rows and rows of computers in Intel’s labs here relentlessly torture-tested the company’s new microprocessor for months on end.

But on a recent tour of the labs, John Barton, an Intel vice president in charge of product testing, acknowledged that he was still feeling anxious about the possibility of a last-minute, show-stopping flaw.

After all, even the slightest design error in the chip could end up being a billion-dollar mistake.

“I’m not sleeping well yet,” Mr. Barton said.

Intel’s Core i7 microprocessor, code-named Nehalem, which goes on sale Monday, has already received glowing technical reviews. But it is impossible for Mr. Barton to predict exactly how the chip will function in thousands of computers running tens of thousands of programs.

The design and testing of an advanced microprocessor chip is among the most complex of all human endeavors. To ensure that its products are as error-free as possible, Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., now spends a half-billion dollars annually in its factories around the world, testing the chips for more than a year before selling them.

There is good reason for the caution. In 1994, the giant chip maker was humbled by a tiny error in the floating point calculation unit of its Pentium chips. The flaw, which led to an embarrassing recall, prompted a wrenching cultural shift at the company, which had minimized the testing requirements of the Pentium.

A series of bugs last year in the Barcelona microprocessor from Intel’s main competitor, Advanced Micro Devices, was equally devastating.

A.M.D., based in Sunnyvale, Calif., had been making steady progress, offering new processor technologies long before Intel and handily winning the power-efficiency war. But the quality problems that slammed A.M.D. cost the company revenue for several quarters and landed it in a hole from which it has yet to dig out.

If Nehalem is a hit for Intel, it will represent vindication for Andrew Grove, the company’s former chief, who acknowledged that he had been blindsided by the Pentium problems and then set out to reform the company.

The Pentium bug badly damaged Intel’s brand with consumers. The company quickly became a laughingstock as jokes made the rounds of the Internet: Q: Know how the Republicans can cut taxes and pay the deficit at the same time? A: Their spreadsheet runs on a Pentium computer.

After initially appearing to stonewall, Intel reversed course and issued an apology while setting aside $420 million to pay for the recall.

The company put Mr. Grove’s celebrated remark about the situation on key chains: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.”

Those words weigh heavily on the shoulders of Mr. Barton and his colleagues — as does the pressure from Intel’s customers around the world whose very survival is based on the ability to create new products with the company’s chips at their heart. Nehalem is initially aimed at desktop computers, but the company hopes it will eventually be found in everything from powerful servers to laptops.

“Our business model is now predicated on saying to the consumer, ‘You will get a new set of functionality by a particular date,’ ” Mr. Barton said. “We did get a new dimension of business pressure that says we can’t take our merry time turning it out whenever we feel like it.”

The pressure for a successful product is especially intense now as the overall technology industry faces a serious slump. Intel’s chief executive, Paul S. Otellini, said last month that the company was getting “mixed signals” from customers about future spending. Intel’s stock fell 7.7 percent on Friday to $13.32, a six-year low, in a broad market drop.

With Nehalem, Intel’s designers took the company’s previous generation of chips and added a host of features, each of which adds complexity and raises the possibility of unpredictable interactions.

“Now we are hitting systemic complexity,” said Aart de Geus, chief executive of Synopsys, a Silicon Valley developer of chip design tools. “Things that came from different angles that used to be independent have become interdependent.”

Trying to define the complexity that Mr. Barton and his team face is itself a challenge. Even in the late 1970s, chips were being designed that were as complicated as the street map of a large city.

Mr. Barton’s love affair with the world of electronics began as a child, when he took apart a walkie-talkie his father had given him and counted its transistors: a total of seven. The change in his lifetime, he said, has been “mind-boggling.”

Going from the Intel 8088 — the processor used in the IBM PC 27 years ago — to the Nehalem involves a jump from 29,000 transistors to 731 million, on a silicon chip roughly the same size.

Mr. Barton equates the two by comparing a city the size of Ithaca, N.Y., to the continent of Europe. “Ithaca is quite complex in its own right if you think of all that goes on,” he said. “If we scale up the population to 730 million, we come to Europe as about the right size. Now take Europe and shrink it until it all fits in about the same land mass as Ithaca.”

Even given a lifetime, it would be impossible to test more than the smallest fraction of the total possible “states” that the Nehalem chip can be programmed in, which are easily more plentiful than all the atoms in the universe.

Modern designers combat complexity by turning to modular design techniques, making it possible to simplify drastically what needs to be tested.

“Instead of testing for every possible case, you break up the problem into smaller pieces,” said G. Dan Hutcheson, chief executive of VLSI Research, a semiconductor consulting firm.

After the Pentium flaw, Intel also fundamentally rethought the way it designed its processors, trying to increase the chance that its chips would be error-free even before testing. During the late 1990s it turned to a group of mathematical theoreticians in the computer science field who had developed advanced techniques for evaluating hardware and software, known as formal methods.

“For several years Intel hired everyone in the world in formal methods,” said Pat Lincoln, director of SRI International’s Computer Science Laboratory.

The Intel designers have also done something else to help defend against the errors that will inevitably sneak into the chip. Nehalem contains a significant amount of software that can be changed even after the microprocessor leaves the factory. That gives the designers a huge safety net.

It is one that Mr. Barton and his team are hoping they will not have to use.

    Burned Once, Intel Prepares New Chip Fortified by Constant Tests, NYT, 17.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/17/technology/companies/17chip.html






Virtual World Celebrates Obama's Win


November 5, 2008
Filed at 2:20 p.m. ET
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- From YouTube to Flickr, from Facebook to Twitter, images and sentiments from celebrations across the nation flooded into the Internet's media-sharing sites, just moments after Barack Obama clinched the presidential election.

Some were simple photos of TV screens claiming the Democrat's win. Others were unfiltered images of jubilant celebrations captured immediately after polls closed Tuesday on the West Coast, when Obama was declared the president-elect.

And while crowds gathered at public rallies and millions of others simply glued themselves to television news coverage, many spent election night online -- and they had plenty of company. Students at Navarro College posted a video of themselves reacting -- screaming, jumping up and down, more screaming -- to Obama's win. Another YouTuber uploaded his toast to Obama: He gulped a 2-liter bottle of soda.

Others used the moment to joke. One wig-clad man posted a YouTube video reminiscent of Chris Crocker's infamous Britney Spears rant, instead shouting ''Leave McCain alone!'' in front of a sheet. Some shared impromptu songs about the election's outcome. One man at a piano sang: ''You all wanted change/And that's what you're gonna get/But the change that you will see/You will most likely regret.''

Elsewhere, dozens of Obama supporters clapped, danced and cheered inside the behemoth virtual world Second Life immediately after the Democratic nominee seized the electoral votes. Many avatars were left out of the virtual celebration in Obama's unofficial Second Life headquarters because the digital enclave had reached maximum capacity Tuesday.

''The long nightmare is OVER!'' an avatar named Jordanna Beaumont exclaimed.

The Straight Talk Cafe, a Second Life space supporting John McCain, was nearly a ghost town after McCain conceded the race. Volunteers for both campaigns had unofficially stumped for months inside the virtual world for the presidential and vice presidential candidates -- collecting donations, registering voters, building monuments and handing out virtual hats and T-shirts.

Throughout the election, the nonpartisan site TwitterVoteReport.com aggregated micro-blog Twitter.com posts -- called tweets -- to monitor polling places and estimate voting wait times across the country. Into the evening, many people tweeted 140-characters-or-less dispatches from rallies, election parties and their living rooms using their cell phones and the Web.

''There were news people from all over the world at the Biltmore tonight,'' posted luv2shoppe in Phoenix, where McCain's camp was watching the returns. ''It was quite an experience, even if the results were disappointing.''

''Four blocks from Grant Park in Chicago,'' posted jordanlevy. ''It's crazy down here.''

Even Obama himself, whose campaign embraced the power of online networking going back to his primary race against Hillary Clinton, nodded to his tech-savvy supporters in the very moments before he took the stage in Chicago for his acceptance speech: Supporters who had signed up on his campaign Web site received an e-mail thanking them.

Those who were logged on at that moment got this message: ''I'm about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first. We just made history. And I don't want you to forget how we did it. You made history every single day during this campaign -- every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends and neighbors about why you believe it's time for change.''

Bloggers who had been posting about the election results in real time kept their comments brief after Obama's win. Liberal blogger Sara K. Smith at Wonkette.com, who kept a snarky eye on the proceedings, instructed readers to ''raise a glass to your Republican friends because it was not so long ago that you (liberals) were precisely in their position, and remember how much it sucked.''

Conservative bloggers also kept their reactions concise and polite. Carol Platt Liebau at Townhall.com posted: ''We are Americans first, and therefore I wish the Obamas health and happiness. It's even possible to wish them success -- so long as it is in keeping with the best traditions of American liberty, virtue and prosperity.''

Not everyone was as cordial. At some point Tuesday night on John McCain's Wikipedia page, a racial slur was joined with an expletive and splashed across the screen in giant red letters. The word was quickly removed from the page and no longer appeared Wednesday morning.

And while Sarah Palin may not have won the vice presidential spot, she was popular as a doll. Out of the four one-of-kind Cabbage Patch Dolls crafted to look like the presidential and vice presidential candidates, her doll nabbed a $19,000 bid when the online auction closed Tuesday. The lil' Obama, McCain and Biden impersonators only earned offers of $8,400, $6,000 and $3,500, respectively.

    Virtual World Celebrates Obama's Win, R, 5.11.2008,






Virtual World Keeps Tabs on Presidential Election


November 5, 2008
Filed at 2:13 a.m. ET
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- While crowds gathered at public rallies and millions of others glued themselves to cable news, many spent election night online -- and they had plenty of company this time around.

Across the Internet, users were discussing, celebrating and bemoaning Barack Obama's unfolding election victory inside virtual worlds, on social networking sites and liveblogs and in online games. Others used techno-savvy Web sites to share their individual voting experiences throughout the day.

A motley crew of election voyeurs gathered to watch voting results pour in from across the country on a giant map inside Second Life, the online virtual world developed by San Francisco-based Linden Lab where pixelated avatars fly around and interact with each other. For months, volunteers have been unofficially campaigning inside the behemoth virtual world.

Before the election was called as polls closed on the West Coast, all they could do Tuesday was occupy one another with chatter as they stood around and waited.

Several avatars gathered election night on Capitol Hill Island, a virtual enclave that slightly resembles the real Capitol Hill, to chat about the results and keep watch on a giant results map in front of them. A woman with black wings stood across from someone wearing a suit of armor and a jetpack. In front of them was a lanky guy resembling Barack Obama in a Superman costume.

''Do we have the word on Ohio yet?'' asked an avatar named Princess Ivory.

The giant map was being updated by the avatar Kiwini Oe. The man controlling Oe in real life is Steve Nelson, the chief strategy officer for Clear Ink, a digital marketing firm based in Berkeley, Calif. Oe, who created the giant map in Second Life, was updating it with information from network news coverage.

He said he wasn't afraid to miscall a state in the virtual world.

''I can always uncall it,'' said Oe.

One indication that online was a popular place to be throughout the election: Some users reported problems accessing popular Web sites like Yahoo, which covered its home page with live election coverage, including an interactive Political Dashboard. In the last election, Yahoo News had 80 million page views on Election Day and 142 million the day after, according to Nielsen Online.

At the nonpartisan TwitterVoteReport.com, specially tagged Twitter.com micro-blogs about voting were being aggregated and pinpointed on an ever-changing online map. The 140-characters-or-less posts, called tweets, were also being used to estimate voting wait times Tuesday. However, as the results began pouring in, many tweets instead turned to celebrating Obama winning states.

''East Coast landslide for Obama!'' posted Ellen Kanner in Hanover, N.H. ''Woohoo.''

Several bloggers posted about the results in real time. Sara K. Smith at Wonkette.com kept a snarky eye on the proceedings and attracted over a hundred commenters, but at one point contended folks probably weren't following along because they were already celebrating Obama's win while she was still ''sitting at home drinking'' and filling her belly ''with stale popcorn and waiting, waiting to go out.''

The mood was worse for conservative bloggers as Democrats gained a stronger footing in the Senate. After Elizabeth Dole lost her seat in North Carolina, blogger Michelle Malkin posted: ''I can tell you this much: The Senate Republicans need a wake-up call. We need fresh, conservative leadership.'' At one point, RightWingNews.com liveblogger John Hawkins seemingly lost all hope.

''Oooof. Minnesota and Ohio for Obama,'' Hawkins posted at 9. ''Game over.''

The popular social networking site Facebook invited users Tuesday to click an 'I Voted' button on their profiles. Over 4 million Facebook users and counting said they had voted. On MySpace, the mud was flying in the comments section of the site's official Election Day profile. Several MySpace users simply posted who they had voted for in the election. Others had harsher words.

''I'll keep my God, my freedom, my guns and my money,'' wrote one MySpacer. ''You can keep the change.''

''Vote Obama no mo drama,'' posted another. ''Go Obama. Go Obama. Go Obama.''

Not all the online pursuits were as serious.

In Electronic Arts' species-creation simulator ''Spore,'' the game's developer created downloadable spaceships in the candidates' likeness. The John McCain and Sarah Palin ships were classified as an ''endangered species,'' while the Obama and Joe Biden vessels were deemed a ''flourishing species'' based on player votes Tuesday on the Sporepedia, the game's database of user creations.

Meanwhile, in the PlayStation 3 platformer game ''LittleBigPlanet,'' several gamers had uploaded election-themed user-generated levels, including one titled ''CNN Election Center'' that featured dangerous obstacles amid photos of CNN news anchors. At the end of the level, players could cast a faux vote for either Obama or McCain, which both culminated in a splash of confetti and points. Over at eBay.com, the auction on four one-of-kind Cabbage Patch Dolls crafted to look like the presidential and vice presidential candidates ended Tuesday. The Palin doll nabbed the most cash with a $19,000 bid while the Biden doll only brought in $3,500. The lil' Obama and McCain impersonators earned offers of $8,400 and $6,000, respectively.


On the Net:








    Virtual World Keeps Tabs on Presidential Election, NYT, 5.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/arts/AP-Election-Online-Communities.html






Google's Growth

Makes Privacy Advocates Wary


November 3, 2008
Filed at 11:03 a.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- Perhaps the biggest threat to Google Inc.'s increasing dominance of Internet search and advertising is the rising fear, justified or not, that Google's broadening reach is giving it unchecked power.

This scrutiny goes deeper than the skeptical eye that lawmakers and the Justice Department have given to Google's proposed ad partnership with Yahoo Inc. Many objections to that deal are financial, and surround whether Google and Yahoo could unfairly drive up online ad prices.

A bigger long-term concern for Google could be criticisms over something less tangible -- privacy. Increasingly, as Google burrows deeper into everyday computing, its product announcements are prompting questions about its ability to gather more potentially sensitive personal information from users.

Why does Google log the details of search queries for so long? What does it do with the information? Does it combine data from the search engine with information it collects through other avenues -- such as its recently released Web browser, Chrome?

Data gathered through most of the company's services ''disappears into a black hole once it hits the Googleplex,'' said Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International, referring to Google's headquarters. ''It's impossible to track that information.''

Google -- whose corporate motto is ''Don't Be Evil'' -- generally sees such concerns as misinformed. For instance, the company says it stores the queries made through its popular search engine primarily so it can improve the service.

But whether the criticisms are valid or not, they are likely indicative of the battles Google will face as it, like Microsoft Corp. in the 1990s, moves from world-wowing startup to the heart of the technology establishment.

The September release of Chrome illuminated the budding conflicts.

To Google, the new browser is a platform on which future Web-based software applications might run most efficiently. It also is a sign that Google understands its growing power, since launching a browser is a direct challenge to Microsoft.

In other circles, Chrome provoked suspicion. One group, Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog, argues that the browser crosses a new line.

In a mid-October letter to Google directors, Consumer Watchdog said it had ''serious privacy concerns'' about the browser and the transfer of users' data through Google's services without giving people what it sees as ''appropriate transparency and control.''

One of Consumer Watchdog's complaints surrounds Chrome's navigation bar, which can be used to enter a Web site address or a search query. The group points out that as users type in the navigation bar, Chrome relays their keystrokes to Google even before they click ''Enter'' to finalize the command.

''The company is literally having this unnoticed conversation with itself about you and your information,'' Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said.

This ''conversation'' stems from the ''Google Suggest'' feature, which is built into the browser and other Google products, including its basic Internet search engine.

''Google Suggest'' sends Google searches as you type, in hopes of anticipating your desires. So if you're keying in ''Electoral College 2008 election,'' Google will offer multiple search queries along the way. First you'd be given results related to the term ''electoral,'' then ones on the Electoral College in general, and finally you'd get links pertaining to Tuesday's presidential vote.

This is what worries Consumer Watchdog: Say you key in something that could be embarrassing or deeply personal, but reconsider before you press ''Enter.'' The autosuggest feature still sends this phrase to Google's servers, tied to your computer's numeric Internet Protocol (IP) address.

Brian Rakowski, the product manager for Chrome, said Consumer Watchdog's fears stemmed from confusion about the role a Google Web browser plays.

''There was some concern that, given a very naive way of how browsers work, you may think, `Now I'm using a Google browser -- Google must know everything on their servers about me,''' he said.

Rakowski said queries sent to Google through the autosuggest feature do include data like a user's IP address and the time at which the queries were made. But Google logs just 2 percent of the information brought in through ''Google Suggest,'' in order to improve the feature, Rakowski said, and anonymizes this data within 24 hours. The anonymization is accomplished by stripping off the last four digits of the IP address associated with the query.

''You're flying blind without that information, so we have to collect a little bit,'' he said. ''But we're really (collecting) the bare minimum we can to provide that service.''

The autosuggest function can be shut off in the browser or when using Google's search engine through its home page, but it is not immediately evident how to do so.

One way is through Chrome's ''incognito'' tab, which turns off the autosuggest feature and lets users surf the Web without revealing their activities to people who have access to the same computer. However, Consumer Watchdog objects to the design of ''incognito.'' The group claims the feature makes users feel that their Web surfing is totally private, while in fact Google is still sending some information back and forth between users' PCs and the company's servers.

Google takes issue with that complaint, too. The ''incognito'' function lets users surf without leaving a trail of pages visited or ''cookie'' data-tracking files behind, but can't entirely cloak someone's Internet activity from the outside world.

''We try to be very upfront with users when they enter this mode about what it provides and what it doesn't provide,'' Rakowski said.

Although Chrome is new, Consumer Watchdog is not waiting to see whether it gets too little use to worry about. In October, Court's group wrote U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to caution him about Google's plans to sell ads for Yahoo, saying that its fears about Google's market power have been exacerbated by Chrome's release.

''It's about having a monopoly over our personal information, which, if it falls into the wrong hands, could be used in a very dangerous way against us,'' Court said.

Google's senior product counsel, Michael Yang, said the company is not using any data from Chrome to make improvements to its ad services.

But that doesn't mollify privacy critics, who fear Google might start doing that someday to best capitalize on its vast audience. Some 650 million people use Google's search engine and panoply of Web services.

''The way Google has fashioned Chrome, it's a digital Trojan horse to collect even more masses of consumer data for Google's digital advertising business,'' said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer rights organization.

For now, at least, Google is planning to adopt just one change suggested by Consumer Watchdog. When users spell a Web site's address incorrectly, Chrome sends a request to Google to help determine the actual site the user is trying to visit. This happens even when users are surfing ''incognito,'' and Rakowski said it was an oversight.

''It's something we're prioritizing now that we want to fix,'' he said.

This is not to say that Google is avoiding other privacy-related changes. In July, the company began linking to its privacy policy on its home page. It also recently began its anonymization of the data it stores through the ''Google Suggest'' feature.

But one other privacy-related move might say more about how Google is perceived than anything.

In September, to placate European Union data protection officials, Google said it would maintain its search logs -- which track search queries and the IP addresses they came from -- for nine months instead of 18, as it had been doing. After that time, Google will alter IP addresses to mask their source. (That probably won't provide true anonymity, since an aggregated list of search queries over time will likely reveal clues about who made them.)

Google hoped the move would win it favor. After all, Microsoft waits 18 months before it anonymizes its search engine logs, and Yahoo does so after 13.

Even so, the EU's justice and home affairs commissioner said Google should shorten its logs further, to six months. Davies, of Privacy International, says the change from 18 to nine months was ''not meaningful.''

Court says that with all its products, Google has more opportunities than its peers to capture personal information without users realizing it.

''Google's founders may say, `We're going to protect that information,' but no other company,'' he said, ''is positioned to exploit that information in the way Google is.''

    Google's Growth Makes Privacy Advocates Wary, NYT, 3.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-TEC-Google-Privacy.html






Is surfing the Internet

altering your brain?


Mon Oct 27, 2008
7:17am EDT
By Belinda Goldsmith


CANBERRA (Reuters) - The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing this is an evolutionary change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.

Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.

But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.

Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.

"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills and also face-to-face skills," Small told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"They will know when the best response to an email or Instant Message is to talk rather than sit and continue to email."

In his newly released fourth book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," Small looks at how technology has altered the way young minds develop, function and interpret information.

Small, the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA, said the brain was very sensitive to the changes in the environment such as those brought by technology.

He said a study of 24 adults as they used the Web found that experienced Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.

"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others," said Small.

"We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."

Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems.

He said the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks.

"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.

"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control of it."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

    Is surfing the Internet altering your brain?, R, 27.10.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSTRE49Q2YW20081027






Jack Narz, 85,

Genial Host of Television Game Shows,



October 17, 2008
The New York Times


Jack Narz, a mellow-voiced television host who, though blameless, became ensnared in the quiz-show rigging scandal of the late 1950s but who made a comeback with a five-year run in front of the big puzzle board on “Concentration,” died Wednesday near his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 85.

The cause was complications of two strokes, said his friend Steve Beverly, a professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a game-show scholar.

The slim, jet-black-haired Mr. Narz was host of a syndicated version of “Concentration” from 1973 to 1978; the original version was broadcast on NBC.

Peering at that puzzle board, contestants would call two numbers; if the tiles bearing those numbers matched after being turned, part of the puzzle behind them would become visible, and the contestants would be eligible for prizes if they solved it. Gradually, the board would reveal graphic, rebus-like clues to, for example, a song title.

Mr. Narz would intone, “Can you tell us what the puzzle says?”

Nearly 200 “Concentration” shows were produced each year, all taped within nine weeks, seven a day on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “Jack would say, ‘After 21 shows in three days, I was ready for the golf course,’ ” Mr. Beverly recalled.

Not that he didn’t appreciate his success. Mr. Narz had been an announcer on prime-time variety shows when he was chosen to host “Dotto” in January 1958. It was a combination of a quiz and a connect-the-dots puzzle. Contestants answered questions to earn dots; the dots would connect to reveal a celebrity’s face, which contestants would try to identify.

“Dotto” came to a dramatic end after only eight months. Early in the summer of 1958, a standby contestant found a notebook containing answers on the desk of that day’s winner. He showed the notebook to CBS executives; an internal investigation was started. By mid-August, the network concluded that “Dotto” had been rigged and pulled it off the air. The night-time version on NBC, also starring Mr. Narz, was also pulled.

“That really launched the quiz-show scandals and the subsequent federal grand jury investigation,” Professor Beverly said.

Eventually, about 30 shows were investigated and about 200 contestants and producers were called before the grand jury. Most of the big-money quiz shows — “The $64,000 Question,” “The $64,000 Challenge,” “Twenty-One,” “Tic Tac Dough” and “Dotto” — were canceled. A federal law made the rigging of quiz shows a felony.

Mr. Narz was subpoenaed and required to take a polygraph test; it indicated that he knew nothing about the fraud.

“Jack told me that it was the most frightening time of his career,” Professor Beverly said, “because, as he said, ‘It didn’t take a genius to know that this was going to be a major black mark for television.’ He wondered whether he would ever work in television again.”

After an 18-month layoff, he was rehired, the start of 20 years as host on seven other game shows: “Top Dollar,” “Video Village,” “Seven Keys,” “I’ll Bet,” “Beat the Clock,” “Now You See It” and, finally, “Concentration.”

John William Narz Jr. was born in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 13, 1922, one of three children of John and Ado Narz. Game shows became a sort of family business. In 1956, his brother Jim took the professional name Tom Kennedy; he went on to fame as the host of “Password Plus.” Jack Narz’s future brother-in-law was Bill Cullen, the original host of “The Price Is Right.”

Besides his brother, Mr. Narz is survived by his second wife, the former Delores Vaichsner; his sister, Mary Scully; three sons, John, Michael and David; a daughter, Karen Feretti; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His first marriage, to Mary Lou Roemheld, ended in divorce.

Mr. Narz, a fighter pilot in World War II, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for missions in the China-Burma theater. Afterward he went to broadcasting school in Los Angeles and was hired as an announcer at KXO, a Los Angeles radio station. He broke into television doing commercials as “Jack Narz, the man from Barr’s,” a men’s store.

His career never stopped paying off. In 1951, Mr. Narz narrated the opening episode of “Superman.” At the end of the show, with his voice crescendoing, he said, “Join us every week for the adventures of Superman!” He was paid $150.

Almost every year thereafter he received a residual royalty check of $1.98.

    Jack Narz, 85, Genial Host of Television Game Shows, Dies, NYT, 17.10.2008,






Amid the Gloom, an E-Commerce War


October 12, 2008
The New York Times


WHEN the e-commerce giant eBay emerged from the last recession seven years ago with an aura of invincibility, its chief executive, Meg Whitman, boasted that “eBay is to some extent recession-proof.”

As the online auctioneer’s revenues and stock price kept climbing, one of its primary rivals, Amazon.com, just limped along.

How times have changed.

Ms. Whitman, now co-chair of Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, retired from eBay earlier this year as the company struggled with stagnation. Amazon, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the most vibrant and reliable retailers in the country.

And in an unmistakable sign that Internet companies are indeed exposed to the gathering economic storm stemming from the credit crisis, Ms. Whitman’s successor, John J. Donahoe, laid off 10 percent of eBay’s 16,000 employees last Monday.

Mr. Donahoe noted that eBay was already feeling the effects of the downturn. “This looks like it is going to be a more typical economic cycle that impacts consumer spending,” he said. “We are not immune.”

That the economic crisis is washing up on Silicon Valley’s shores shouldn’t, perhaps, come as a surprise. Most tech companies are defenseless against waning advertising, business spending and consumer interest in big-ticket items like computers. Over the last three months, investors have punished tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple, extracting a fifth to a half of their market value.

E-commerce, though, was once thought to be a refuge from economic storms. People who stay away from the mall might actually be more tempted to shop online and hunt for deals, or so the thinking went.

But analysts are now revisiting that assumption. Many consumers, citing an uncertain economy, say they will clutch their wallets tightly this holiday season regardless of where they shop: 48 percent surveyed recently by eBillme, an online payment service, said they planned to delay purchases.

Traditional, brick-and-mortar stores had wrenching, double-digit declines in September sales and are bracing for a bleak holiday season. No one is certain to what degree online retailers will feel that same pain, because digital vendors have never endured a deep, protracted economic slump before.

“We still feel pretty good about this year, but I worry about next year and beyond,” said Brian J. Pitz, an analyst at Banc of America Securities. “Are people going to spend when they can’t get home equity lines of credit, a student loan or a car loan?”

For eBay and Amazon, the twin giants of e-commerce, the financial meltdown has arrived at a particularly crucial time. After years of claiming that their businesses were complementary, not competitive, the companies are now on a collision course.

Amazon has accelerated its courtship of small online vendors, allowing them to sell on its site — becoming more like eBay. And eBay, desperate to revive itself, has decided to emphasize traditional, fixed-price sales of both new and old merchandise — becoming more like Amazon.

AT stake is more than e-commerce bragging rights. On the Internet, size matters. Larger companies can collect more information about consumers, negotiate better deals with partners and use that leverage to expand their dominance (for example, Google versus Yahoo in search).

“This is a pivotal holiday season for eBay,” said Jeffrey Lindsay, a senior analyst at Bernstein Research who has covered the Internet for a decade. “What people fear is that Amazon is basically building a bigger sales base than eBay and will use that knowledge to sell people more and more of the things they want to buy online.”

Indeed, the balance of power in e-commerce seems to be shifting faster than anyone expected. Just three years ago, eBay had 30 percent more traffic than Amazon. Today, its total of 84.5 million active users is barely ahead of the 81 million active customer accounts that Amazon reported in June.

Amazon has exceeded eBay in other measures as well.

EBay’s market capitalization was three times Amazon’s in 2005, back when Wall Street loved the fact that it carried no inventory and generated huge profits. This year, eBay’s stock has lost over half its value and, in July, Amazon’s valuation surpassed eBay’s for the first time.

In a series of interviews, Mr. Donahoe acknowledged that eBay, based in San Jose, Calif., didn’t adapt fast enough to shifting e-commerce winds. He now embraces a “turnaround mind-set” and is refocusing its Web marketplace toward shoppers who don’t want to waste time in online auctions.

“There are times when I wish we can close this store and just open a new store, but we can’t,” he said. “We need to make bolder, more aggressive changes to the eBay ecosystem even if they are unpopular.”

Up in Seattle, meanwhile, Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, says that after years of failed experimentation, third-party vendors — the foundation on which eBay was built — now account for about 29 percent of sales on Amazon. The company has endured and outlasted critics who long complained about its high fixed costs.

Last year, it impressed investors with accelerating growth, and its stock price revisited the highs of the dot-com boom, before waning euphoria and market pessimism erased more than half of those gains this year. Mr. Bezos credits Amazon’s tolerance for risky, expensive bets like the Kindle electronic reading device.

“Our willingness to be misunderstood, our long-term orientation and our willingness to repeatedly fail are the three parts of our culture that make doing this kind of thing possible,” he said.

EBay’s recent problems have made Mr. Bezos and his team look like shrewd and patient stewards of the Amazon franchise. And Amazon’s second wind is making eBay look as if it has missed one of the greatest opportunities in the Internet’s short history.

“EBay could have closed the door to Amazon back when Amazon was mostly just a platform to sell books and music,” said Scott Devitt, an analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, the investment bank. “But what eBay did in those days was to take a very hands-off approach and let the marketplace control itself. And that ended up being the downfall of the business relative to others that have succeeded.”

OVER the summer of 2004, at the annual executive retreat that eBay insiders call “Telluride,” a product strategy team argued that eBay needed to break into the promising world of digital media. Pointing to the popularity of services like Napster and the new iTunes music store from Apple, the group predicted that media like books, music and movies would inevitably be distributed digitally, over the Web.

EBay, they argued, needed to ride that wave.

That insight — which did catch on at Amazon and is now responsible for high-profile efforts like the Kindle and Amazon’s MP3 store and video-on-demand service — went nowhere at eBay.

“Nobody really shut it down. The process shut it down,” says a former eBay executive who was on the product strategy team but requested anonymity to avoid alienating former colleagues. “The company was obsessed with making quarterly numbers.”

Whether passing on digital media was a mistake at eBay is still an open question. But the anecdote illustrates larger problems. More than a dozen current and former eBay executives, from all levels of management, say eBay routinely failed to reorient its core business.

They say eBay avoided fiddling with its auction model because it was wary of disrupting a long-profitable equilibrium between buyers and sellers.

EBay has known for years that some Web buyers were looking for a different experience. Surveys suggested that auction participants were alienated by untrustworthy sellers and hidden shipping fees, and increasingly preferred the certainty of instantly buying items at a fixed price.

Although eBay executives recognized and routinely acknowledged the problem, they never took bold, direct steps to address it.

In 2005, the company acquired Shopping.com, a comparative shopping site that catalogs products for sale elsewhere on the Web. But for years eBay did not promote the company’s listings, primarily because its vocal community of sellers — the ones paying fees to eBay — protested whenever eBay sent buyers to other retailers.

Josh Koppelman, who founded the e-commerce site Half.com and sold it to eBay in 2001, says that there was an understandable cultural reluctance inside eBay to alienate sellers. “We got paid a fee to provide a service to a community,” he said. “Hurting members of that community was difficult.”

Instead of imposing critical fixes to its slowing model, eBay searched for high-growth businesses elsewhere, acquiring Skype, the online calling service; StubHub, the ticketing site; and a series of classified-advertising Web sites.

The company did create a whole new site, called eBay Express, where it tried to satisfy buyer interest in a simpler shopping experience. EBay Express automatically amassed all the fixed-price, non-auction listings on eBay properties and presented them in an organized way with only one payment system, PayPal — also owned by eBay.

But in the two-year life of eBay Express, eBay never directed any meaningful traffic to it, fearing that it would interfere with the more profitable and popular auction-oriented site. The company shuttered eBay Express this year and has said it will move some of its innovative features to eBay.com.

Contributing to intransigence, according to several former executives, were deep divisions and constant hand-wringing among its managers over the most fundamental question: What is eBay?

One camp believed that eBay was a discount palace and that it had to continually offer deals to buyers in whatever shopping format they wanted.

But another group, resistant to change even as late as last year when eBay was clearly losing ground, believed that the brand was tied up in the excitement of auctions. Emphasizing traditional shopping destroyed what made eBay special, they argued.

“Today online shopping is mainstream, but it’s also becoming boring,” Bill Cobb, then the president of eBay North America, wrote in a June 2007 blog entry that typified this thinking. “We’re investing in the quintessential eBay experience of buying and selling — person to person — in an auction format.”

Ms. Whitman seemed to moderate this constant debate while never actually settling it. At times, she also seemed unwilling to leave auctions behind.

In an interview last week, while on a break from traveling with the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Ms. Whitman said it was hard for her to reflect on these kinds of divisions within the company, or on missed opportunities.

“There was no shortage of realistic looks in the mirror, where we asked ourselves if we were doing the best job that we could do,” she said.

She also addressed another notion raised by former eBayers, who say executives were dismissive of Amazon but focused obsessively on Google, the search leader whose tentative moves into e-commerce were viewed inside eBay as acts of aggression.

“Google is a disruptive competitor. It’s not a marketplace and it’s not a retailer but has a different way of marrying buyers and sellers,” she said. “I don’t think you can overstate any competitive threats.”

But paranoia about Google, these former executives say, fueled strategic missteps like the Skype acquisition, which Google had also pursued. Ms. Whitman and other eBay managers spent considerable energy trying to integrate Skype, and last year eBay wrote down $1.4 billion of the $3.1 billion acquisition.

As eBay obsessed about Google, the online retailer from Seattle was encroaching on its turf.

CONVERSATIONS with Jeff Bezos of Amazon inevitably provoke two kinds of outbursts. One is that famous, barking laugh that punctuates even seemingly mundane sentences. The other is his paean to the wisdom of long-term thinking.

“We are willing to plant seeds that take five to seven years to grow into reasonable things,” he said in an interview. “You can’t do big, clean-sheet invention unless you are willing to invest for long periods of time.”

Mr. Bezos has delivered these kinds of odes to patience and risk tolerance for nearly a decade. The company’s appetite for enduring short-term pain for long-term gain is clearest when comparing it with its rival, eBay.

While eBay was buying into classified advertising, online payments and Internet telephony, Amazon spent hundreds of millions of dollars building its brand as a trusted retailer — hiring customer service representatives and returning money to customers when transactions went awry.

As eBay took a pass on digital media, Amazon dove in and frustrated investors for years with margins that were diminished by a bulky R.& D. budget — but produced promising businesses like the MP3 store.

Compensation at the two companies also reflects core differences. Amazon evaluates its executives annually and gives performance-based stock grants. Until this year, when Mr. Donahoe became chief executive, eBay gave cash and stock bonuses based on quarterly performance, rewarding managers for meeting Wall Street’s short-term expectations.

Similarly, Amazon’s push to recruit the small sellers who orbited eBay was marked, at first, by patience and often-embarrassing experimentation.

In 1999, five years after Mr. Bezos first plunged his stake into the ground as an online bookseller, Amazon invaded eBay’s territory, introducing Amazon Auctions and a way for retailers to set up stores on the site, called zShops. The efforts tanked.

The problem then “was that nobody came,” Mr. Bezos said. “Actually, sellers came, but the customers didn’t care and didn’t shop there.”

Amazon tried to promote this siloed merchandise on its site by linking to it on its more popular product pages. These so-called “smart links” were hotly controversial inside Amazon and became the subject of a rivalry between its retail and technology groups.

Fearful that sending visitors to other pages would cut into their sales, retailing executives at Amazon took to removing them from the page at every opportunity, according to one senior Amazon executive who was there at the time.

SEVERAL years ago, the company introduced Amazon Marketplace, laying the groundwork for its current path by listing new and used items from third-party sellers alongside its own merchandise.

If Amazon didn’t stock a particular item, or if independent sellers could offer better prices, they would become the featured retailer on the page.

Amazon settled internal tensions by giving its retail managers credit for any products sold on their pages, even by third-party sellers. But Mr. Bezos says the arrangement still produces anxiety.

“Put yourself in place of our retail buyers,” he said. “You just purchased 10,000 units of a particular digital camera and you are told, if any third party anywhere in the world can offer a better price, we are going to give them the buy box and you are going to get stuck with the inventory. That causes some angst.”

Over the last five years, Amazon has lowered hurdles for independent vendors to sell on its site and recruited new groups of merchants as it has expanded into other countries and product categories — automotive parts in 2006 and office supplies this year, for example.

Amazon executives say they don’t specifically pursue top eBay sellers, but some merchants suggest otherwise.

David Duong, founder of Shoe Metro, a Web retailer based in San Diego, says Amazon representatives called him shortly after Amazon.com introduced a shoe category in 2005 and asked him to begin selling on the site.

“I guess they found us on eBay,” he said. “We were actually going to talk to them, but they beat us to the punch.”

Lately, small merchants and their trade organizations say, the outreach has become even more direct. The Professional EBay Sellers Alliance said that Amazon recently offered to waive some fees for the 800 members of the group, an organization of eBay power sellers, to woo them to its platform.

Because Amazon also sells many of the same products as its merchants, executives at eBay predict that competitive tensions will emerge as the Amazon Marketplace grows. Maybe so. It’s happened before.

Amazon once ran the Web operations of large traditional retailers like Borders, Circuit City and Toys “R” Us. One by one, those retailers concluded that outsourcing such a crucial feature of 21st-century retailing to a competitor was a bad idea.

But some of its newer deals with sellers indicate that Amazon is finding ways around those tensions, at least with small merchants.

Andrew and Deb Mowery of Fort Collins, Colo., who started selling home, garden and pet supplies on eBay in 1999, now make 60 percent of their sales on Amazon and about 20 percent on eBay. In addition to listing items for sale on the Amazon Marketplace, they are also a wholesale supplier to Amazon, providing it with products like heated pet beds.

Mr. Mowery is essentially competing with himself, but the arrangement works. “If they run out, I’ve got their back,” he said. “If I run out, they’ve got my back.”

Amazon wants to forge these kinds of close ties with other small sellers. A program called Fulfillment by Amazon, introduced in 2006, allows retailers to store their inventory in Amazon’s warehouses. When someone buys an item from that seller, Amazon ships it out of its warehouse in an Amazon box.

Integrating small merchants into its operations also allows Amazon to learn more about whom it can trust to sell on its site. Compared with eBay, the company says it exerts a far greater measure of control over its marketplace, calling certain vendors “featured sellers” and vetting others in product categories that are sensitive to fraud.

“At the end of the day, we believe it’s good for all of our sellers to make sure we are protecting the consumer experience first,” Mr. Bezos said. “Our first and foremost goal is to earn trust with consumers. If there are no consumers buying, nothing else matters.”

DESPITE Amazon’s success in courting independent sellers, its selection is still just a fraction of what eBay offers, and in some cases its prices are higher.

For example, there are hundreds of new, used and refurbished Trek racing bikes on eBay; as of last week, Amazon had three for sale. Acquisitive parents can buy a $90 Deux Par Deux baby sweater dress on eBay for under $30. But only a few of this French designer’s items are listed on Amazon, and for close to full price.

And that Lehman Brothers 150th-anniversary collectible tote bag, which every irony-obsessed stock market fan wants under the Christmas tree? It is available for purchase only on eBay, in auctions.

This is where Mr. Donahoe talks about a vision to fix eBay, and to create a Web discount store that offers a wide variety of new and old merchandise in auction and fixed-price formats. To get there, he must administer the sweeping, painful fixes that eBay has previously shunned.

“It was increasingly clear to me in 2007 that what felt like bold changes, and to the community felt like bold changes, were not bold enough,” he said.

His attempted fixes have started internally. In addition to making executive bonuses annual instead of quarterly, to keep employees from leaving and reward longer-term thinking, he moved the company’s focus to buyers instead of sellers.

He canceled the annual eBay Live conference next year with merchants — this year, it turned into an unwieldy complaint session — and began making eBay executives read weekly surveys that ask shoppers whether they would recommend eBay to a friend.

THE eBay facade is also undergoing its most significant renovation in its 14-year history as Mr. Donahoe tries to adjust eBay fees to tempt sellers to list more of their products at fixed prices.

EBay has also added a new 30-day listing at a fixed price that is more economical to many sellers than auctions. It has also disabled the feedback mechanism that allowed sellers to rank buyers and introduced a new “best match” search engine that promotes trusted sellers and good deals.

In another controversial change, eBay has struck special deals with large merchants like Buy.com, which pays no listing fees and offers more than half a million products on eBay.com.

The point of the arrangement is to ensure that eBay stays fully stocked in basics like batteries and printer cartridges. Other eBay sellers are enraged, though, arguing that the deal violates the sacred eBay tenet of the “level playing field.”

These sellers have vented their frustrations online about eBay’s changes. It’s hard to gauge whether the vitriol represents the majority view, but some less vocal, larger sellers on eBay say they have actually benefited.

“EBay has told all bad sellers to shape up,” said Jordan Insley, an electronics merchant who lives near Seattle. “I’ve seen a lot of sellers that used to sell a lot of product fall off the charts.”

Although he worries that buyer traffic on eBay is slowing, Mr. Insley says he will sell $13 million in gadgets this year on eBay alone. “I think eBay is moving in the right direction. We are sticking around.”

Still, Mr. Donahoe can’t count on that sentiment to carry the day. Few of his changes are expected to deliver any immediate results, other than alienating certain sellers.

Yet for eBay, the changes may be a matter of survival. The company need only look across Silicon Valley at Yahoo to see what can happen to wounded Internet companies with depressed stock prices.

In the meantime, he faces tough choices. He is weighing a possible sale of Skype by next year, and analysts think he will almost certainly make that move, since the company now acknowledges that Skype has little synergy with eBay’s other businesses.

That would free eBay to focus on its core marketplace, on getting through the torrential economic downpour, and on combating a challenger that is making greater incursions every day.

“I respect Jeff Bezos a lot as a leader and Amazon and what they’ve done,” Mr. Donahoe said. “But it is still early days in this industry. E-commerce is 7 percent of retail. I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going to end there. We think there is plenty of room for both Amazon and eBay to be successful.”

    Amid the Gloom, an E-Commerce War, NYT, 12.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/business/12giants.html






EBay Cuts 10% of Work Force


October 7, 2008
The New York Times


The Internet company, eBay, announced Monday that it was laying off 10 percent of its work force, or about 1,000 permanent employees and several hundred temporary workers.

The announcement was largely unrelated to the potential economic impact of a slowdown in ecommerce. Rather, it represented an attempt by eBay to improve the performance of its core marketplace division, which has experienced declining, single-digit growth in the last few years while the rest of e-commerce grows at a double-digit clip. The company said it would take a pretax restructuring charge of $70 million to $80 million, largely in the fourth quarter.

“While never an easy decision to make, these reductions will help improve our operations and strengthen our ability to continue investing in growth,” John J. Donahoe, eBay’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The company also announced on Monday that it was acquiring Bill Me Later, an online payments firm based in Timonium, Md., for $945 million in cash and stock. eBay will combine the company, which enables payments online for companies like Wal-Mart Stores and Continental Airlines, with its rapidly growing PayPal division.

“We are making aggressive moves to strengthen our leadership positions in e-commerce and payments to competitively position our company for long-term growth,” Mr. Donahoe said. “Bill Me Later is a perfect complement to our portfolio, a company that belongs with PayPal. Together, PayPal and Bill Me Later will make online payments safer, easier and more convenient than ever.”

The company also announced that it was acquiring the popular Danish classified advertising sites DBA.dk and BilBasen for $390 million. EBay has been building a portfolio of European classified Web sites and already owns properties like Kijiji, Gumtree, Marktplaats, LoQuo and mobile.de in Germany. EBay also owns a minority stake in the American online classifieds leader Craigslist, but its interest in buying the firm outright lead the companies to sue each other earlier this year.

EBay’s interest in creating a global network of classified advertising business is partly designed to create a complementary alternative to its sagging traditional auctions business. Classified advertising sites are cheaper to build, have few of the shipping hassles as global e-commerce sites, and do not have the kind of volatile seller community that have reacted so vociferously to recent changes in the core eBay marketplace. They also take relatively few employees to operate.

The company said Monday that it expected to hit the low end of its third quarterly earnings guidance. Earnings are scheduled to be released Oct. 15.

    EBay Cuts 10% of Work Force, NYT, 7.10.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/07/technology/07ebay.html?hp






Google Introduces

an iPhone Rival Open to Whims


September 24, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — Google and T-Mobile unveiled their answer to the iPhone on Tuesday, pulling the wraps off a slick mobile device that combines a touch screen and a keyboard and is aimed at putting the Internet in the pockets of millions of cellphone users.

The T-Mobile G1, which will be available in the United States on Oct. 22, is the first mobile phone to be powered by Google’s Android operating system. It represents a milestone in Google’s efforts to extend its dominance of the PC-based Internet to mobile phones and further loosen the control that wireless carriers have over what consumers can do with their phones.

Analysts said that the G1 did not represent the kind of revolutionary change in design and function that Apple introduced last year with the iPhone. But the G1 is likely to further accelerate two trends that will have a lasting impact on the wireless industry: the growing use of the Internet on the go, and the ability of consumers to customize their phones with their favorite functions.

“I am not sure people are going to be lining up at stores for this device,” said Rajeev Chand, an analyst with Rutberg & Company. “The iPhone was a game changer from a consumer perspective. The Google phone may be more of game changer from an industry perspective.”

The G1, which is made by the Taiwanese electronics maker HTC, has a large color touch screen that slides out to expose a full keyboard. It also has a 3-megapixel camera, G.P.S. navigation, Wi-Fi access and an Internet browser. It will sell for $179, or $20 less than the iPhone, with a two-year voice and data plan.

“This is as good a computer as you had a few years ago,” said Google’s co-founder Larry Page, who along with co-founder Sergey Brin arrived on Rollerblades at the New York stage where Google and T-Mobile held a news conference to unveil the G1.

Although several applications, including Google’s search, maps, Gmail and YouTube, come installed on the phone, the G1 is also meant to encourage third-party developers to create programs to run on it. Like Apple, Google will include an applications store, called the Android Marketplace, where the owners of the G1 and future Android-powered phones will be able to download those programs.

Google said that developers would have virtually unfettered access to the marketplace, leaving it up to consumers — not Google or T-Mobile — to decide what they want to run on their phones.

While the G1 is expected to compete with high-end smartphones like the iPhone and the BlackBerry line of devices made by Research in Motion, Google’s aims are far different from those of its rivals.

Google makes the Android software available for free to carriers and handset makers who want to use it to power their own devices. Google hopes that many will choose to do so, populating the market with mobile phones that have easy access to Google’s services. Just as it does on the PC-based Internet, Google hopes to earn money from advertising.

“For Google, Android is a cash drain,” said James Faucette, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities. “They are going to lose money on Android as an operating system. They hope to make it up from the services that they are delivering through their infrastructure and servers.”

While Google is betting on the success of Android, it also stands to benefit from the success of other smartphones, as their owners tend to surf and search the Internet much more actively than users of less advanced phones. Indeed, Google said earlier this year that its mobile service received a disproportionate amount of traffic from iPhone users.

“We want people out there to use the Internet on their phones a lot,” Mr. Brin said in an interview. “It actually doesn’t matter if it is Android, the iPhone or something else.”

T-Mobile, is counting on the G1 to increase its sale of data plans and said it believed the devices would appeal to consumers and business users.

“I think frankly this device will have mass appeal,” said Cole Brodman, chief technology and innovation officer of T-Mobile USA, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom.

Android is unlikely to take the smartphone market by storm overnight. Despite its success, the iPhone accounted for just 2.8 percent of smartphones sold worldwide in the second quarter, according to Gartner, a market analysis firm. Windows Mobile, a seven-year-old Microsoft operating system that runs on phones sold by more than 160 carriers, has just 12 percent of the market.

“Nobody meets, falls in love and celebrates their 50th anniversary all at once,” said Scott Rockfeld, group product manager at Microsoft. “Success in this industry depends in solid relationships over time.”

Saul Hansell contributed reporting from New York.

    Google Introduces an iPhone Rival Open to Whims, NYT, 24.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/24/technology/internet/24phone.html






YouTube bans terrorism training videos


12 September 2008
USA Today


WASHINGTON (AP) — The popular video-sharing site YouTube has moved to purge terrorists training films and other videos that extremist groups might use to attract new members, an imperfect process that will rely on users to report objectionable videos.

It's sort of like the post Sept. 11 advice — if you see something, say something. It's nearly impossible to vet every video when 13 hours of new video are uploaded every few minutes.

A quick search on Google-owned YouTube on Friday, one day after the new policies were posted, turned up several videos on how to make bombs using, for instance, such household items as toilet bowl cleaner and tin foil.

In addition to barring terror training videos, the new YouTube community guidelines include bans on videos that incite others to commit violent acts, videos on activities such as how to make bombs and footage of sniper attacks. Previously, it had policies in place against showing people "getting hurt, attacked or humiliated," banning even clips OK for TV news shows.

YouTube has not identified specific videos on its site that led to the change, nor said exactly how it will choose those that are purged. YouTube does not deny that extremist groups could have used the site.

The Internet has become a powerful tool for terrorism recruitment. What was once conducted at secret training camps in Afghanistan is now available to anyone, anywhere because of the Web. Chat rooms are potent recruitment tools, but counterterrorism officials have found terrorist-sponsored videos are also key parts of al-Qaeda's propaganda machine.

YouTube, large as it is, represents a fraction of the video content available on the Web. Videos can also be transmitted by e-mail or other means without ever appearing in a public forum like YouTube.

Google did not include its popular e-mail service, gmail, under the new YouTube guidelines, nor address whether it would ever try to limit Google searches for the same kind of material on other sites.

Even so, backers of the latest change hope it will blunt al-Qaeda's strong media online campaign.

"It's good news if there are less of these on the Web," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said. "But many of these jihadist videos appear on different websites around the world, and any time there is investigative or intelligence value we actively pursue it."

Researchers have found terror-training videos posted online in both English and Arabic. Videos of varying sophistication appear to show how to slit someone's throat or make suicide vests, said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University. Others are violent anti-American speeches or montages of militants appearing to attack U.S. forces.

Hoffman said he does not know which of the worst videos appeared on YouTube.

"It's going to do nothing to take these videos off the Internet," said John Morris, an Internet free speech expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Morris noted the availability of other terror-tinged videos on other sites. "This change isn't going to make this any different."

A year ago, a Homeland Security Department intelligence assessment said "the availability of easily accessible messages with targeted language may speed the radicalization process ... for those already susceptible to violent extremism."

But experts in the field debate whether shutting down extremist sites is effective. Keeping them online allows analysts and investigators to monitor what is being said and in some cases who is saying it.

"The reality is by shutting it down, it is more or less a game of whack-a-mole — it pops up somewhere else," said Frank Cilluffo, homeland security director at George Washington University. However, he said, forcing extremists to find other ways to post videos could give officials a better opportunity to monitor them.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked Google to ban videos from al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups. Lieberman said the private sector has a role in protecting the United States from terrorism.

By banning these videos on YouTube, "Google will make a singularly important contribution to this important national effort," Lieberman wrote to Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt in May.

Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said Lieberman hopes other host sites will institute similar policies. "This is an ongoing debate," she said.

YouTube spokesman Chris Dale would not respond to questions about Lieberman's appeal but instead said YouTube regularly updates its policies regarding content. Without announcement, YouTube included a link to the new restrictions at the bottom of administrative notices on its home page.

    YouTube bans terrorism training videos, UT, 12.9.2008,






Google to Digitize Newspaper Archives


September 9, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — Google has begun scanning microfilm from some newspapers’ historic archives to make them searchable online, first through Google News and eventually on the papers’ own Web sites, the company said Monday.

The new program expands a two-year-old service that allows Google News users to search the archives of some major newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time, that were already available in digital form. Readers will be able to search the archives using keywords and view articles as they appeared originally in the print pages of newspapers.

Under the expanded program, Google will shoulder the cost of digitizing newspaper archives, much as the company does with its book-scanning project. Google angered some book publishers because it had failed to seek permission to scan books that were protected by copyrights. It will obtain permission from newspaper publishers before scanning their archives.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., will place advertisements alongside search results, and share the revenue from those ads with newspaper publishers.

Initially, the archives will be available through Google News, but the company plans to give newspapers a way to make their archives available on their own sites.

“This is really good for newspapers because we are going to be bringing online an old generation of contributions from journalists, as well as widening the reader base of news archives,” said Marissa Mayer, vice president for search products and user experience at Google.

But many newspaper publishers view search engines like Google as threats to their own business. Many of them also see their archives as a potential source of revenue, and it is not clear whether they will willingly hand them over to Google.

“The concern is that Google, in making all of the past newspaper content available, can greatly commoditize that content, just like news portals have commoditized current news content,” said Ken Doctor, an analyst with Outsell, a research company.

Google said it was working with more than 100 newspapers and with partners like Heritage Microfilm and ProQuest, which aggregate historical newspaper archives in microfilm. It has already scanned millions of articles.

Other companies are already working with newspapers to digitize archives and some sell those archives to schools, libraries and other institutions, helping newspapers earn money from their historical content.

The National Digital Newspaper Program, a joint program of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, is creating a digital archive of historically significant newspapers published in the United States from 1836 to 1922. It will be freely accessible on the Internet.

Newspapers that are participating in the Google program say it is attractive.

“We wouldn’t be talking about digitization if Google had not entered this arena,” said Tim Rozgonyi, research editor at The St. Petersburg Times. “We looked into it years back, and it appeared to be exceedingly costly.”

Mr. Rozgonyi said that the newspaper might be able to generate additional revenue from the digital archives by producing historical booklets or commemorative front pages. But he said that increasing sales was not the primary objective of the digitization program.

“Getting the digitized content available is a wonderful thing for people of this area,” he said. “They’ll be able to go to our site or Google’s and tap into 100 years of history.”

Pierre Little, publisher of The Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, which has been published since 1764 and calls itself “North America’s Oldest Newspaper,” said many readers visit the newspaper’s Web site to look for obituaries and conduct research on their ancestors.

“We could envision that thousands of families would be attracted to our archives to search for people who came over to the New World,” Mr. Little said. “We hope that will be a financial windfall for us.”

Brad Stone contributed reporting.

    Google to Digitize Newspaper Archives, NYT, 9.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/09/technology/09google.html






Google At Age 10


September 4, 2008, 7:36 pm
The New York Times
By Miguel Helft


Google applied for incorporation as a business 10 years ago Thursday, according to a timeline supplied by the company. The application was accepted on Sept. 7, which is Sunday.

In that decade, the search engine company has quickly emerged as the most successful business on the Web, and many expect it to dominate the next era of computing as thoroughly as Microsoft dominated the era of personal computers.

Here’s a quick snapshot of Google by the numbers along with some comparisons to Microsoft. The sources of the data are the companies, Yahoo Finance and comScore.

Google’s age: 10
Microsoft’s age: 33

Google’s revenue in the last 4 quarters: $19.6 billion
Microsoft’s revenue in the last 4 quarters: $60.4 billion

Microsoft’s revenue at age 10: $140 million
($279 million in today’s dollars)

Google’s revenue per hour in the last 4 quarters: $2.2 million
Microsoft’s revenue per hour in the last 4 quarters: $6.9 million

Google net income in the last 4 quarters: $4.85 billion
Microsoft’s net income in the last 4 quarters: $17.6 billion

Google employees, as of June 30th: 19,604
Microsoft employees, as of May 31st: 89,809

Google’s revenue per employee: $1 million
Microsoft revenue per employee: $672,000

Market value of Google: $142 billion
Market value of Microsoft: $241 billion

Number of tech companies with a market value larger than Google’s: 3 (Microsoft, IBM and Apple, in that order)

Worldwide searches on Google in July: 48.7 billion
Worldwide searches on Microsoft in July: 2.3 billion

Worldwide searches per hour on Google in July: 65 million
Worldwide searches per hour on Microsoft in July: 3.1 million

    Google At Age 10, NYT, 4.9.2008, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/04/google-at-age-10/






Search Giant

Wants a Share of Browser Market


September 3, 2008
The New York Times


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google’s new browser, Chrome, is named for something it mostly lacks.

Among software developers, chrome refers to the menus, buttons and boxes that surround the main window of a program. The Google browser, which was unveiled Tuesday, dispenses with most of these in favor of a stripped-down look that is in keeping with the spare aesthetic of the company’s search site.

The clever name sets a more understated tone than those of the browsers Chrome will compete with: Explorer, Safari and Firefox. But in a roundabout way it also hints that the most ambitious elements of the browser are invisible.

Chrome sharpens Google’s already intense competition with Microsoft, the maker of Internet Explorer, by far the most popular browser on the Web. Google hopes that Chrome will loosen Microsoft’s grip on the browser market, which it fears Microsoft could leverage to promote its struggling search and advertising business at the expense of Google’s.

But Google also said Chrome was created in large part to allow users to interact with increasingly powerful programs that run in a browser window, like Gmail, Google Docs and applications created by other companies. The company claims Chrome is the first browser built from scratch with such applications in mind.

“I think it is a very basic, fast engine to run Web apps,” Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder and its president of technology, said during a news conference at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View.

The browser’s design underscores Google’s vision that in the next few years the digital lives of computer users will change significantly. Rather than rely on programs that run on personal computers, people will increasingly use software that is delivered over the Web from powerful data centers. They will store their data on remote servers and be able to access it wherever they are. This approach would make operating systems like Microsoft’s Windows much less important.

Microsoft also believes the Web will grow in importance, but it sees the PC remaining at the center of many computing tasks.

By adding speed and new functions to the inner workings of the browser, Chrome will encourage software makers to create increasingly sophisticated programs that can run on the Web, Mr. Brin said.

“A lot of things are difficult to do on the Web,” he said. Chrome will allow developers to overcome those difficulties, he said, and “you will be able to do more and more online.”

Microsoft quickly dismissed Google’s claims that Chrome was better suited for applications.

“It is not the first or best browser for Web applications,” said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer at Microsoft. “It is the first from Google.”

Mr. Hachamovitch added: “I think that the functionality available in Internet Explorer 8, for what people do every day again and again, is better.”

To advance its vision of Web computing at the expense of Microsoft’s, Google has been courting third-party software makers for more than a year. As part of its efforts, Google has created enhancements to Web browsing technology that it has made available to others in an open-source format, meaning it can be freely shared and modified.

For instance, last year it unveiled Google Gears, a set of tools meant to allow Web applications like Gmail to continue working even when users are not connected to the Internet — a hurdle that remains one of the major shortcomings of many online applications.

Analysts said the development of Chrome appears to reflect a decision on Google’s part that it needs to take a more direct and active role in furthering Web browsing technology.

“Google needed to make a move to make sure it controls its own destiny,” said Peter O’Kelly, an independent analyst.

Chrome forgoes many of the menus and bars that are common in most browsers, and it combines into one the two separate boxes where users normally type Web addresses and search keywords. As users type, Chrome figures out whether a term represents a search term or a Web site address.

Individual tabs in the browser are designed to work independently, so if a Web page crashes one of them, the rest of the program continues to run.

Google also claims that Chrome is far faster at loading Web pages and running applications, features that it said would persuade programmers that they could rely on browsers to run increasingly complex software.

Google said others are free to use and modify its enhancements in their own browsers. And while the company made it clear that it hoped to chip away at Microsoft’s dominance in the Web browser market, it said it would benefit if all major Internet browsers became better able to run Web applications.

Chrome’s success is by no means guaranteed. Many of Google’s products and services, like Google Finance and Google Video, have received a lot of attention and hype at the time they were introduced, but managed to achieve only modest success. And Chrome’s gains, at least initially, may not come at the expense of Internet Explorer, but rather of Firefox, the open-source browser managed by the Mozilla Corporation.

While Internet Explorer comes preinstalled on Windows computers, Firefox, like Chrome, requires people to download it. As such, these two browsers may appeal to a similar set of users who actively seek alternatives to the programs that come with their PCs.

But John Lilly, the chief executive of Mozilla, said Chrome would help further define Firefox as the only independent browser dedicated to creating a better Web experience, not furthering the agenda of a single company. The publicity around Chrome may also encourage people to consider alternatives to their built-in browsers.

Just last week, Google and Mozilla extended for three years an agreement under which Google pays Mozilla to be the default search engine on Firefox. Mr. Lilly said he knew about Chrome when he renewed the agreement with Google. He also said that the extent to which Google would contribute to the open-source community was not yet clear.

“We have yet to see what open-source means to Google,” he said.

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer holds 73 percent of the browser market, according to Net Applications, a research firm. Firefox’s market share has climbed to 19 percent, while Apple’s Safari has 6 percent.

Google refused to discuss its expectations for Chrome’s adoption by users. It said that it was likely to sign deals with others to further its distribution.

Mitchell Kapor, a computing pioneer and technology investor who is on the board of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, which owns the Mozilla Corporation, said Chrome lacked some features that users had come to expect.

“It’s a mistake to believe that their entrance will dramatically alter market share in the short term,” Mr. Kapor said. But he noted that “having a platform that is better suited to run Web applications is an enormous asset.”

Steve Lohr and Brad Stone contributed reporting.

    Search Giant Wants a Share of Browser Market, NYT, 3.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/03/technology/03browser.html?hp






Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass the U.S.


August 30, 2008
The New York Times


SAN FRANCISCO — The era of the American Internet is ending.

Invented by American computer scientists during the 1970s, the Internet has been embraced around the globe. During the network’s first three decades, most Internet traffic flowed through the United States. In many cases, data sent between two locations within a given country also passed through the United States.

Engineers who help run the Internet said that it would have been impossible for the United States to maintain its hegemony over the long run because of the very nature of the Internet; it has no central point of control.

And now, the balance of power is shifting. Data is increasingly flowing around the United States, which may have intelligence — and conceivably military — consequences.

American intelligence officials have warned about this shift. “Because of the nature of global telecommunications, we are playing with a tremendous home-field advantage, and we need to exploit that edge,” Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006. “We also need to protect that edge, and we need to protect those who provide it to us.”

Indeed, Internet industry executives and government officials have acknowledged that Internet traffic passing through the switching equipment of companies based in the United States has proved a distinct advantage for American intelligence agencies. In December 2005, The New York Times reported that the National Security Agency had established a program with the cooperation of American telecommunications firms that included the interception of foreign Internet communications.

Some Internet technologists and privacy advocates say those actions and other government policies may be hastening the shift in Canadian and European traffic away from the United States.

“Since passage of the Patriot Act, many companies based outside of the United States have been reluctant to store client information in the U.S.,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “There is an ongoing concern that U.S. intelligence agencies will gather this information without legal process. There is particular sensitivity about access to financial information as well as communications and Internet traffic that goes through U.S. switches.”

But economics also plays a role. Almost all nations see data networks as essential to economic development. “It’s no different than any other infrastructure that a country needs,” said K C Claffy, a research scientist at the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis in San Diego. “You wouldn’t want someone owning your roads either.”

Indeed, more countries are becoming aware of how their dependence on other countries for their Internet traffic makes them vulnerable. Because of tariffs, pricing anomalies and even corporate cultures, Internet providers will often not exchange data with their local competitors. They prefer instead to send and receive traffic with larger international Internet service providers.

This leads to odd routing arrangements, referred to as tromboning, in which traffic between two cites in one country will flow through other nations. In January, when a cable was cut in the Mediterranean, Egyptian Internet traffic was nearly paralyzed because it was not being shared by local I.S.P.’s but instead was routed through European operators.

The issue was driven home this month when hackers attacked and immobilized several Georgian government Web sites during the country’s fighting with Russia. Most of Georgia’s access to the global network flowed through Russia and Turkey. A third route through an undersea cable linking Georgia to Bulgaria is scheduled for completion in September.

Ms. Claffy said that the shift away from the United States was not limited to developing countries. The Japanese “are on a rampage to build out across India and China so they have alternative routes and so they don’t have to route through the U.S.”

Andrew M. Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota who tracks the growth of the global Internet, added, “We discovered the Internet, but we couldn’t keep it a secret.” While the United States carried 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic a decade ago, he estimates that portion has fallen to about 25 percent.

Internet technologists say that the global data network that was once a competitive advantage for the United States is now increasingly outside the control of American companies. They decided not to invest in lower-cost optical fiber lines, which have rapidly become a commodity business.

That lack of investment mirrors a pattern that has taken place elsewhere in the high-technology industry, from semiconductors to personal computers.

The risk, Internet technologists say, is that upstarts like China and India are making larger investments in next-generation Internet technology that is likely to be crucial in determining the future of the network, with investment, innovation and profits going first to overseas companies.

“Whether it’s a good or a bad thing depends on where you stand,” said Vint Cerf, a computer scientist who is Google’s Internet evangelist and who, with Robert Kahn, devised the original Internet routing protocols in the early 1970s. “Suppose the Internet was entirely confined to the U.S., which it once was? That wasn’t helpful.”

International networks that carry data into and out of the United States are still being expanded at a sharp rate, but the Internet infrastructure in many other regions of the world is growing even more quickly.

While there has been some concern over a looming Internet traffic jam because of the rise in Internet use worldwide, the congestion is generally not on the Internet’s main trunk lines, but on neighborhood switches, routers and the wires into a house.

As Internet traffic moves offshore, it may complicate the task of American intelligence gathering agencies, but would not make Internet surveillance impossible.

“We’re probably in one of those situations where things get a little bit harder,” said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who said the United States had invested far too little in collecting intelligence via the Internet. “We’ve given terrorists a free ride in cyberspace,” he said.

Others say the eclipse of the United States as the central point in cyberspace is one of many indicators that the world is becoming a more level playing field both economically and politically.

“This is one of many dimensions on which we’ll have to adjust to a reduction in American ability to dictate terms of core interests of ours,” said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “We are, by comparison, militarily weaker, economically poorer and technologically less unique than we were then. We are still a very big player, but not in control.”

China, for instance, surpassed the United States in the number of Internet users in June. Over all, Asia now has 578.5 million, or 39.5 percent, of the world’s Internet users, although only 15.3 percent of the Asian population is connected to the Internet, according to Internet World Stats, a market research organization.

By contrast, there were about 237 million Internet users in North America and the growth has nearly peaked; penetration of the Internet in the region has reached about 71 percent.

The increasing role of new competitors has shown up in data collected annually by Renesys, a firm in Manchester, N.H., that monitors the connections between Internet providers. The Renesys rankings of Internet connections, an indirect measure of growth, show that the big winners in the last three years have been the Italian Internet provider Tiscali, China Telecom and the Japanese telecommunications operator KDDI.

Firms that have slipped in the rankings have all been American: Verizon, Savvis, AT&T, Qwest, Cogent and AboveNet.

“The U.S. telecommunications firms haven’t invested,” said Earl Zmijewski, vice president and general manager for Internet data services at Renesys. “The rest of the world has caught up. I don’t see the AT&T’s and Sprints making the investments because they see Internet service as a commodity.”

    Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass the U.S., NYT, 30.8.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/30/business/30pipes.html






Magazine Preview



August 3, 2008
The New York Times


This article will appear in this Sunday's Times Magazine.

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn., took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell’s school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances. One wrote that Mitchell was “an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back. . . . ” Someone e-mailed a clipping of Mitchell’s newspaper obituary to MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. From MyDeathSpace, Mitchell’s page came to the attention of an Internet message board known as /b/ and the “trolls,” as they have come to be called, who dwell there.

/b/ is the designated “random” board of 4chan.org, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as “anonymous.” In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse — nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan’s other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as “/b/tards.”

Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.

Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.

In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-naïve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”

Today the Internet is much more than esoteric discussion forums. It is a mass medium for defining who we are to ourselves and to others. Teenagers groom their MySpace profiles as intensely as their hair; escapists clock 50-hour weeks in virtual worlds, accumulating gold for their online avatars. Anyone seeking work or love can expect to be Googled. As our emotional investment in the Internet has grown, the stakes for trolling — for provoking strangers online — have risen. Trolling has evolved from ironic solo skit to vicious group hunt.

“Lulz” is how trolls keep score. A corruption of “LOL” or “laugh out loud,” “lulz” means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. “Lulz is watching someone lose their mind at their computer 2,000 miles away while you chat with friends and laugh,” said one ex-troll who, like many people I contacted, refused to disclose his legal identity.

Another troll explained the lulz as a quasi-thermodynamic exchange between the sensitive and the cruel: “You look for someone who is full of it, a real blowhard. Then you exploit their insecurities to get an insane amount of drama, laughs and lulz. Rules would be simple: 1. Do whatever it takes to get lulz. 2. Make sure the lulz is widely distributed. This will allow for more lulz to be made. 3. The game is never over until all the lulz have been had.”

/b/ is not all bad. 4chan has tried (with limited success) to police itself, using moderators to purge child porn and eliminate calls to disrupt other sites. Among /b/’s more interesting spawn is Anonymous, a group of masked pranksters who organized protests at Church of Scientology branches around the world.

But the logic of lulz extends far beyond /b/ to the anonymous message boards that seem to be springing up everywhere. Two female Yale Law School students have filed a suit against pseudonymous users who posted violent fantasies about them on AutoAdmit, a college-admissions message board. In China, anonymous nationalists are posting death threats against pro-Tibet activists, along with their names and home addresses. Technology, apparently, does more than harness the wisdom of the crowd. It can intensify its hatred as well.

Jason Fortuny might be the closest thing this movement of anonymous provocateurs has to a spokesman. Thirty-two years old, he works “typical Clark Kent I.T.” freelance jobs — Web design, programming — but his passion is trolling, “pushing peoples’ buttons.” Fortuny frames his acts of trolling as “experiments,” sociological inquiries into human behavior. In the fall of 2006, he posted a hoax ad on Craigslist, posing as a woman seeking a “str8 brutal dom muscular male.” More than 100 men responded. Fortuny posted their names, pictures, e-mail and phone numbers to his blog, dubbing the exposé “the Craigslist Experiment.” This made Fortuny the most prominent Internet villain in America until November 2007, when his fame was eclipsed by the Megan Meier MySpace suicide. Meier, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, hanged herself with a belt after receiving cruel messages from a boy she’d been flirting with on MySpace. The boy was not a real boy, investigators say, but the fictional creation of Lori Drew, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Drew later said she hoped to find out whether Megan was gossiping about her daughter. The story — respectable suburban wife uses Internet to torment teenage girl — was a media sensation.

Fortuny’s Craigslist Experiment deprived its subjects of more than just privacy. Two of them, he says, lost their jobs, and at least one, for a time, lost his girlfriend. Another has filed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Fortuny in an Illinois court. After receiving death threats, Fortuny meticulously scrubbed his real address and phone number from the Internet. “Anyone who knows who and where you are is a security hole,” he told me. “I own a gun. I have an escape route. If someone comes, I’m ready.”

While reporting this article, I did everything I could to verify the trolls’ stories and identities, but I could never be certain. After all, I was examining a subculture that is built on deception and delights in playing with the media. If I had doubts about whether Fortuny was who he said he was, he had the same doubts about me. I first contacted Fortuny by e-mail, and he called me a few days later. “I checked you out,” he said warily. “You seem legitimate.” We met in person on a bright spring day at his apartment, on a forested slope in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. He wore a T-shirt and sweat pants, looking like an amiable freelancer on a Friday afternoon. He is thin, with birdlike features and the etiolated complexion of one who works in front of a screen. He’d been chatting with an online associate about driving me blindfolded from the airport, he said. “We decided it would be too much work.”

A flat-screen HDTV dominated Fortuny’s living room, across from a futon prepped with neatly folded blankets. This was where I would sleep for the next few nights. As Fortuny picked up his cat and settled into an Eames-style chair, I asked whether trolling hurt people. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, God, please forgive me!’ so someone can feel better,” Fortuny said, his calm voice momentarily rising. The cat lay purring in his lap. “Am I the bad guy? Am I the big horrible person who shattered someone’s life with some information? No! This is life. Welcome to life. Everyone goes through it. I’ve been through horrible stuff, too.”

“Like what?” I asked. Sexual abuse, Fortuny said. When Jason was 5, he said, he was molested by his grandfather and three other relatives. Jason’s mother later told me, too, that he was molested by his grandfather. The last she heard from Jason was a letter telling her to kill herself. “Jason is a young man in a great deal of emotional pain,” she said, crying as she spoke. “Don’t be too harsh. He’s still my son.”

In the days after the Megan Meier story became public, Lori Drew and her family found themselves in the trolls’ crosshairs. Their personal information — e-mail addresses, satellite images of their home, phone numbers — spread across the Internet. One of the numbers led to a voice-mail greeting with the gleeful words “I did it for the lulz.” Anonymous malefactors made death threats and hurled a brick through the kitchen window. Then came the Megan Had It Coming blog. Supposedly written by one of Megan’s classmates, the blog called Megan a “drama queen,” so unstable that Drew could not be blamed for her death. “Killing yourself over a MySpace boy? Come on!!! I mean yeah your fat so you have to take what you can get but still nobody should kill themselves over it.” In the third post the author revealed herself as Lori Drew.

This post received more than 3,600 comments. Fox and CNN debated its authenticity. But the Drew identity was another mask. In fact, Megan Had It Coming was another Jason Fortuny experiment. He, not Lori Drew, Fortuny told me, was the blog’s author. After watching him log onto the site and add a post, I believed him. The blog was intended, he says, to question the public’s hunger for remorse and to challenge the enforceability of cyberharassment laws like the one passed by Megan’s town after her death. Fortuny concluded that they were unenforceable. The county sheriff’s department announced it was investigating the identity of the fake Lori Drew, but it never found Fortuny, who is not especially worried about coming out now. “What’s he going to sue me for?” he asked. “Leading on confused people? Why don’t people fact-check who this stuff is coming from? Why do they assume it’s true?”

Fortuny calls himself “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet,” and the scene at dinner later on the first day we spent together was exceedingly normal, with Fortuny, his roommate Charles and his longtime friend Zach trading stories at a sushi restaurant nearby over sake and happy-hour gyoza. Fortuny flirted with our waitress, showing her a cellphone picture of his cat. “He commands you to kill!” he cackled. “Do you know how many I’ve killed at his command?” Everyone laughed.

Fortuny spent most of the weekend in his bedroom juggling several windows on his monitor. One displayed a chat room run by Encyclopedia Dramatica, an online compendium of troll humor and troll lore. It was buzzing with news of an attack against the Epilepsy Foundation’s Web site. Trolls had flooded the site’s forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure.

WEEV: the whole posting flashing images to epileptics thing? over the line.

HEPKITTEN: can someone plz tell me how doing something the admins intentionally left enabled is hacking?

WEEV: it’s hacking peoples unpatched brains. we have to draw a moral line somewhere.

Fortuny disagreed. In his mind, subjecting epileptic users to flashing lights was justified. “Hacks like this tell you to watch out by hitting you with a baseball bat,” he told me. “Demonstrating these kinds of exploits is usually the only way to get them fixed.”

“So the message is ‘buy a helmet,’ and the medium is a bat to the head?” I asked.

“No, it’s like a pitcher telling a batter to put on his helmet by beaning him from the mound. If you have this disease and you’re on the Internet, you need to take precautions.” A few days later, he wrote and posted a guide to safe Web surfing for epileptics.

On Sunday, Fortuny showed me an office building that once housed Google programmers, and a low-slung modernist structure where programmers wrote Halo 3, the best-selling video game. We ate muffins at Terra Bite, a coffee shop founded by a Google employee where customers pay whatever price they feel like. Kirkland seemed to pulse with the easy money and optimism of the Internet, unaware of the machinations of the troll on the hill.

We walked on, to Starbucks. At the next table, middle-schoolers with punk-rock haircuts feasted noisily on energy drinks and whipped cream. Fortuny sipped a white-chocolate mocha. He proceeded to demonstrate his personal cure for trolling, the Theory of the Green Hair.

“You have green hair,” he told me. “Did you know that?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?”

“I look in the mirror. I see my hair is black.”

“That’s uh, interesting. I guess you understand that you have green hair about as well as you understand that you’re a terrible reporter.”

“What do you mean? What did I do?”

“That’s a very interesting reaction,” Fortuny said. “Why didn’t you get so defensive when I said you had green hair?” If I were certain that I wasn’t a terrible reporter, he explained, I would have laughed the suggestion off just as easily. The willingness of trolling “victims” to be hurt by words, he argued, makes them complicit, and trolling will end as soon as we all get over it.

On Monday we drove to the mall. I asked Fortuny how he could troll me if he so chose. He took out his cellphone. On the screen was a picture of my debit card with the numbers clearly legible. I had left it in plain view beside my laptop. “I took this while you were out,” he said. He pressed a button. The picture disappeared. “See? I just deleted it.”

The Craigslist Experiment, Fortuny reiterated, brought him troll fame by accident. He was pleased with how the Megan Had It Coming blog succeeded by design. As he described the intricacies of his plan — adding sympathetic touches to the fake classmate, making fake Lori Drew a fierce defender of her own daughter, calibrating every detail to the emotional register of his audience — he sounded not so much a sociologist as a playwright workshopping a set of characters.

“You seem to know exactly how much you can get away with, and you troll right up to that line,” I said. “Is there anything that can be done on the Internet that shouldn’t be done?”

Fortuny was silent. In four days of conversation, this was the first time he did not have an answer ready.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I have to think about it.”

Sherrod DeGrippo, a 28-year-old Atlanta native who goes by the name Girlvinyl, runs Encyclopedia Dramatica, the online troll archive. In 2006, DeGrippo received an e-mail message from a well-known band of trolls, demanding that she edit the entry about them on the Encyclopedia Dramatica site. She refused. Within hours, the aggrieved trolls hit the phones, bombarding her apartment with taxis, pizzas, escorts and threats of rape and violent death. DeGrippo, alone and terrified, sought counsel from a powerful friend. She called Weev.

Weev, the troll who thought hacking the epilepsy site was immoral, is legendary among trolls. He is said to have jammed the cellphones of daughters of C.E.O.’s and demanded ransom from their fathers; he is also said to have trashed his enemies’ credit ratings. Better documented are his repeated assaults on LiveJournal, an online diary site where he himself maintains a personal blog. Working with a group of fellow hackers and trolls, he once obtained access to thousands of user accounts.

I first met Weev in an online chat room that I visited while staying at Fortuny’s house. “I hack, I ruin, I make piles of money,” he boasted. “I make people afraid for their lives.” On the phone that night, Weev displayed a misanthropy far harsher than Fortuny’s. “Trolling is basically Internet eugenics,” he said, his voice pitching up like a jet engine on the runway. “I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth. They need to be destroyed. Blogging gives the illusion of participation to a bunch of retards. . . . We need to put these people in the oven!”

I listened for a few more minutes as Weev held forth on the Federal Reserve and about Jews. Unlike Fortuny, he made no attempt to reconcile his trolling with conventional social norms. Two days later, I flew to Los Angeles and met Weev at a train station in Fullerton, a sleepy bungalow town folded into the vast Orange County grid. He is in his early 20s with full lips, darting eyes and a nest of hair falling back from his temples. He has a way of leaning in as he makes a point, inviting you to share what might or might not be a joke.

As we walked through Fullerton’s downtown, Weev told me about his day — he’d lost $10,000 on the commodities market, he claimed — and summarized his philosophy of “global ruin.” “We are headed for a Malthusian crisis,” he said, with professorial confidence. “Plankton levels are dropping. Bees are dying. There are tortilla riots in Mexico, the highest wheat prices in 30-odd years.” He paused. “The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?” He seemed excited to have said this aloud.

Ideas like these bring trouble. Almost a year ago, while in the midst of an LSD-and-methamphetamine bender, a longer-haired, wilder-eyed Weev gave a talk called “Internet Crime” at a San Diego hacker convention. He expounded on diverse topics like hacking the Firefox browser, online trade in illegal weaponry and assassination markets — untraceable online betting pools that pay whoever predicts the exact date of a political leader’s demise. The talk led to two uncomfortable interviews with federal agents and the decision to shed his legal identity altogether. Weev now espouses “the ruin lifestyle” — moving from condo to condo, living out of three bags, no name, no possessions, all assets held offshore. As a member of a group of hackers called “the organization,” which, he says, bring in upward of $10 million annually, he says he can wreak ruin from anywhere.

We arrived at a strip mall. Out of the darkness, the coffinlike snout of a new Rolls Royce Phantom materialized. A flying lady winked on the hood. “Your bag, sir?” said the driver, a blond kid in a suit and tie.

“This is my car,” Weev said. “Get in.”

And it was, for that night and the next, at least. The car’s plush chamber accentuated the boyishness of Weev, who wore sneakers and jeans and hung from a leather strap like a subway rider. In the front seat sat Claudia, a pretty college-age girl.

I asked about the status of Weev’s campaign against humanity. Things seemed rather stable, I said, even with all this talk of trolling and hacking.

“We’re waiting,” Weev said. “We need someone to show us the way. The messiah.”

“How do you know it’s not you?” I asked.

“If it were me, I would know,” he said. “I would receive a sign.”

Zeno of Elea, Socrates and Jesus, Weev said, are his all-time favorite trolls. He also identifies with Coyote and Loki, the trickster gods, and especially with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. “Loki was a hacker. The other gods feared him, but they needed his tools.”

“I was just thinking of Kali!” Claudia said with a giggle.

Over a candlelit dinner of tuna sashimi, Weev asked if I would attribute his comments to Memphis Two, the handle he used to troll Kathy Sierra, a blogger. Inspired by her touchy response to online commenters, Weev said he “dropped docs” on Sierra, posting a fabricated narrative of her career alongside her real Social Security number and address. This was part of a larger trolling campaign against Sierra, one that culminated in death threats. Weev says he has access to hundreds of thousands of Social Security numbers. About a month later, he sent me mine.

Weev, Claudia and I hung out in Fullerton for two more nights, always meeting and saying goodbye at the train station. I met their friend Kate, who has been repeatedly banned from playing XBox Live for racist slurs, which she also enjoys screaming at white pedestrians. Kate checked my head for lice and kept calling me “Jew.” Relations have since warmed. She now e-mails me puppy pictures and wants the names of fun places for her coming visit to New York. On the last night, Weev offered to take me to his apartment if I wore a blindfold and left my cellphone behind. I was in, but Claudia vetoed the idea. I think it was her apartment.

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”? Is the effort to control what’s said always a form of censorship, or might certain rules be compatible with our notions of free speech?

One promising answer comes from the computer scientist Jon Postel, now known as “god of the Internet” for the influence he exercised over the emerging network. In 1981, he formulated what’s known as Postel’s Law: “Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others.” Originally intended to foster “interoperability,” the ability of multiple computer systems to understand one another, Postel’s Law is now recognized as having wider applications. To build a robust global network with no central authority, engineers were encouraged to write code that could “speak” as clearly as possible yet “listen” to the widest possible range of other speakers, including those who do not conform perfectly to the rules of the road. The human equivalent of this robustness is a combination of eloquence and tolerance — the spirit of good conversation. Trolls embody the opposite principle. They are liberal in what they do and conservative in what they construe as acceptable behavior from others. You, the troll says, are not worthy of my understanding; I, therefore, will do everything I can to confound you.

Why inflict anguish on a helpless stranger? It’s tempting to blame technology, which increases the range of our communications while dehumanizing the recipients. Cases like An Hero and Megan Meier presumably wouldn’t happen if the perpetrators had to deliver their messages in person. But while technology reduces the social barriers that keep us from bedeviling strangers, it does not explain the initial trolling impulse. This seems to spring from something ugly — a destructive human urge that many feel but few act upon, the ambient misanthropy that’s a frequent ingredient of art, politics and, most of all, jokes. There’s a lot of hate out there, and a lot to hate as well.

So far, despite all this discord, the Internet’s system of civil machines has proved more resilient than anyone imagined. As early as 1994, the head of the Internet Society warned that spam “will destroy the network.” The news media continually present the online world as a Wild West infested with villainous hackers, spammers and pedophiles. And yet the Internet is doing very well for a frontier town on the brink of anarchy. Its traffic is expected to quadruple by 2012. To say that trolls pose a threat to the Internet at this point is like saying that crows pose a threat to farming.

That the Internet is now capacious enough to host an entire subculture of users who enjoy undermining its founding values is yet another symptom of its phenomenal success. It may not be a bad thing that the least-mature users have built remote ghettos of anonymity where the malice is usually intramural. But how do we deal with cases like An Hero, epilepsy hacks and the possibility of real harm being inflicted on strangers?

Several state legislators have recently proposed cyberbullying measures. At the federal level, Representative Linda Sánchez, a Democrat from California, has introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would make it a federal crime to send any communications with intent to cause “substantial emotional distress.” In June, Lori Drew pleaded not guilty to charges that she violated federal fraud laws by creating a false identity “to torment, harass, humiliate and embarrass” another user, and by violating MySpace’s terms of service. But hardly anyone bothers to read terms of service, and millions create false identities. “While Drew’s conduct is immoral, it is a very big stretch to call it illegal,” wrote the online-privacy expert Prof. Daniel J. Solove on the blog Concurring Opinions.

Many trolling practices, like prank-calling the Hendersons and intimidating Kathy Sierra, violate existing laws against harassment and threats. The difficulty is tracking down the perpetrators. In order to prosecute, investigators must subpoena sites and Internet service providers to learn the original author’s IP address, and from there, his legal identity. Local police departments generally don’t have the means to follow this digital trail, and federal investigators have their hands full with spam, terrorism, fraud and child pornography. But even if we had the resources to aggressively prosecute trolls, would we want to? Are we ready for an Internet where law enforcement keeps watch over every vituperative blog and backbiting comments section, ready to spring at the first hint of violence? Probably not. All vigorous debates shade into trolling at the perimeter; it is next to impossible to excise the trolling without snuffing out the debate.

If we can’t prosecute the trolling out of online anonymity, might there be some way to mitigate it with technology? One solution that has proved effective is “disemvoweling” — having message-board administrators remove the vowels from trollish comments, which gives trolls the visibility they crave while muddying their message. A broader answer is persistent pseudonymity, a system of nicknames that stay the same across multiple sites. This could reduce anonymity’s excesses while preserving its benefits for whistle-blowers and overseas dissenters. Ultimately, as Fortuny suggests, trolling will stop only when its audience stops taking trolls seriously. “People know to be deeply skeptical of what they read on the front of a supermarket tabloid,” says Dan Gillmor, who directs the Center for Citizen Media. “It should be even more so with anonymous comments. They shouldn’t start off with a credibility rating of, say, 0. It should be more like negative-30.”

Of course, none of these methods will be fail-safe as long as individuals like Fortuny construe human welfare the way they do. As we discussed the epilepsy hack, I asked Fortuny whether a person is obliged to give food to a starving stranger. No, Fortuny argued; no one is entitled to our sympathy or empathy. We can choose to give or withhold them as we see fit. “I can’t push you into the fire,” he explained, “but I can look at you while you’re burning in the fire and not be required to help.” Weeks later, after talking to his friend Zach, Fortuny began considering the deeper emotional forces that drove him to troll. The theory of the green hair, he said, “allows me to find people who do stupid things and turn them around. Zach asked if I thought I could turn my parents around. I almost broke down. The idea of them learning from their mistakes and becoming people that I could actually be proud of . . . it was overwhelming.” He continued: “It’s not that I do this because I hate them. I do this because I’m trying to save them.”

Weeks before my visit with Fortuny, I had lunch with “moot,” the young man who founded 4chan. After running the site under his pseudonym for five years, he recently revealed his legal name to be Christopher Poole. At lunch, Poole was quick to distance himself from the excesses of /b/. “Ultimately the power lies in the community to dictate its own standards,” he said. “All we do is provide a general framework.” He was optimistic about Robot9000, a new 4chan board with a combination of human and machine moderation. Users who make “unoriginal” or “low content” posts are banned from Robot9000 for periods that lengthen with each offense.

The posts on Robot9000 one morning were indeed far more substantive than /b/. With the cyborg moderation system silencing the trolls, 4chan had begun to display signs of linearity, coherence, a sense of collective enterprise. It was, in other words, robust. The anonymous hordes swapped lists of albums and novels; some had pretty good taste. Somebody tried to start a chess game: “I’ll start, e2 to e4,” which quickly devolved into riffage with moves like “Return to Sender,” “From Here to Infinity,” “Death to America” and a predictably indecent checkmate maneuver.

Shortly after 8 a.m., someone asked this:

“What makes a bad person? Or a good person? How do you know if you’re a bad person?”

Which prompted this:

“A good person is someone who follows the rules. A bad person is someone who doesn’t.”

And this:

“you’re breaking my rules, you bad person”

There were echoes of antiquity:

“good: pleasure; bad: pain”

“There is no morality. Only the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

And flirtations with postmodernity:

“good and bad are subjective”

“we’re going to turn into wormchow before the rest of the universe even notices.”

Books were prescribed:

“read Kant, JS Mill, Bentham, Singer, etc. Noobs.”

And then finally this:

“I’d say empathy is probably a factor.”

Mattathias Schwartz last wrote for the magazine about online poker.

He is a staff writer at Good magazine and lives in New York.

    Malwebolence, NYT, 3.8.2008,





home Up