Controversy over YouTube videos

Last nights Panaroma on the BBC posed the question “should child ‘fight videos’ on the net be policed?”. The programme highlighted a growing trend for young people posting videos featuring violence and bullying on the site. Much of the content was horrific and disturbing and it is right we are asking questions about if this is appropriate content for the internet but should we be looking to companies/websites to police everything?

I’m not convinced.

User generated content sites are great because ‘we’ choose what we want to see. If collectively we all like something it gets a better ranking so more people can see it. It’s a great viral tool too so it’s easy to spread the word if something is ‘cool’. On the same token if we are offended or disgusted by something ‘we’ can ask for it be to removed. Simple.

Except it isn’t simple.

Like anything else these sites are open to abuse and in my view posting videos of children being bullied and beaten is clearly wrong. However I don’t necessarily think we should go all out and ask for sites to moderate everything… ‘we’ the users should be doing that. The problem here is so many young people like these videos, they are incredibly popular so the tools in place to remove these aren’t being used because young people enjoy them. Therein lies the problem.

The issue here is a ‘moral’ one. Why do young people film these things? Why do they want to see them?

It is a sad reflection on our society that this kind of violence is seen as entertainment to so many. The internet doesn’t make people behave in this way, it merely gives them a forum to share things. Rather than looking at sites to ‘censor’ this content surely we should be looking at ways to educate young people that filming a fight or bullying is morally wrong. Or be able to prosecute/discipline people who are involved.

The web doesn’t make society the way it is. It is merely a window into society. Without wanting to sound melodramatic it’s society we need to police (educate!) not the internet. Censoring the content won’t prevent it from happening.

It’s a serious business

Technology, and especially the Web, is a fast moving environment and it’s sometimes hard to know where to keep up to date with the latest news. Two sites I subscribe to are TechCrunch and GigaOM which both feature news and analysis about Web 2.0 products, services and companies. They cover similar material, often batting to be the first to break a story but it’s worth reading both to see the differing opinions.

Now for some audience participation! What tech news sites do you read? Do you go for tried and trusted traditional sources like Computing and Computer Weekly or go for blogs with a slightly less heavy style? Answers on a comment and feel free to post your opinions on TechCrunch and GigaOM too!

Bob Cringely from the Pulpit

So I’m off on holiday for a few weeks, but as promised I’ll be reviewing some of the feeds I subscribe to starting off with one of the most interesting people in technology journalism – Robert X. Cringely.

The history of Bob Cringely is bizarre – he’s a character from US trade rag InfoWorld and written by a series of authors. One of these – Mark Stephens – took the character off paper and onto the screen in the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds. It tells the story of the rise of the PC including very interesting interviews with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. There was a falling out at some point which resulted in Stephens being able to keep using the character for certain purposes so he’s still able to keep writing on the PBS website for a column titled The Pulpit.

Project BlackboxCringely has been blogging for a decade in the form of a weekly column and they’re well worth a read. He might not always be right (like the recent article claiming that the iPhone had hidden 3G capabilities, published after it had been stripped down to prove it didn’t!) but more often he writes insightful, well informed articles. For example, back in November 2005, Cringely wrote about Google’s plan to use shipping containers as data centres – almost a year before Sun announced Project Blackbox. He does this time and time again.

The most interesting articles each year are his annual predictions in January. With an average accuracy of 75% they can be a good indicator of the year ahead. We’re into July so they’ve already started coming true:

Some smart or lucky company will buy FeedBurner, which ought to be the YouTube or Skype equivalent for 2007. Yahoo really needs it and ought to buy, but being without a brain or a required sense of urgency Yahoo may miss the opportunity. Google ought to buy it but may not because Google has a similar service in beta that probably won’t succeed. But SOME company will buy FeedBurner and start printing money as a result.

Well done Google and well done Bob!

Hope you’re able to check out Robert X. Cringely’s columns – it’s always good when they drop into my feed reader on Friday morning. Enjoy the summer and look out for another feed review soon!

I Am Not A Blogger

I just followed a link in a comment from Phil Wilson to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz’s blog. The first entry caught my interest:

But I’d love it if we one day eliminated the term “blogging” from the web lexicon (and that we stopped pursuing “CEO’s who blog.”). CEO’s who have cell phones aren’t “cell-phoners,” those who have email accounts arent “emailers,” those who give interviews on television aren’t “TV’ers” – they’re all leaders using technology to communicate.

I wonder if some people get too caught up (or put off) by the blogging and don’t concentrate enough on the message. Blogging is just about communication. It’s not the only way to communicate, but equally it’s not invalid simply because it’s different to a message sent by email or published in a newsletter or given as a presentation.

So I’ll carry on communicating as a web developer, not as a blogger, and not only on blogs. You might even see me in the real world from time to time!

The Facebook debate goes on…

Everywhere I turn people seem to be talking about Facebook (I know I’m very guilty of it). From a University perspective it’s creating a lot of debate – How much should we encourage it’s use? Should we be plugging into it? Can we reprimand our students if we find information we don’t like on it? And then there is the view ‘well it’s just a fad so why bother worrying about it’.

Just as we’re getting comfortable with the concept of Facebook and making decisions about how much we wish to engage with it… they change something else and we have a whole host of ‘new’ things to talk about.

Today the headline is Social site Facebook buys Parakey! Basically Facebook have bought an internet startup called Parakey which is causing TechCrunch to ask Could Facebook Become The Next Microsoft?.

So could it? Is that where it’s heading?

I’m not convinced it’ll be the next microsoft but in terms of huge growth – yes I can see it happening. The great thing about Facebook and it’s developer platform is that ‘we’ the users create most of it’s usefulness. We’re adding, linking, building applications and we’re making it more useful for ourselves. We have few constraints. If it doesn’t do something you want it to do then you can build your own application and plug it in.

It looks like Facebook’s aim and direction are clear. So how will we respond? Well I for one still maintain they are the site to watch… and watch I will.

Edge Hill innovators!

Mike and I have just returned from the Institutional Web Management Workshop in York during which he picked up second prize in an Innovation Competition! Congratulations Mike!

The Innovation Competition is a new feature of the workshop and I personally thought it was excellent. It gave us all a chance to see what ‘cool’ ideas other Universities could come up with and it gave the developers a chance to get ‘techy’.

Mike submitted three entries all of which can be seen on the UK Web Focus Blog run by Brian Kelly. Congratulations to Sebastian Rahtz who won first place for ‘Alternative course discovery using calendars and maps‘ and to Adrian, Claire, Joel, Brian, … for the most creative approach to the competition – Life On Sram!

Amazon Web Services

Building Highly Scalable Web Applications

I was very interested to see Jeff Barr from Amazon on the list of speakers. It’s good to see the corporate world represented and I’ve been very interested in some of the stuff coming out of Amazon.

Jeff’s presentation was about how you can use a variety of Amazon’s services to produce websites that scale storage and processing power quickly and easily. I don’t know of any universities that host their websites externally – I suspect very few do, most having the resources to host internally. I think that’s probably right most of the time – off the shelf hosting doesn’t provide the flexibility you need to produce modern web services and co location is expensive compared to hosting internally. But that’s not to say we should just ignore third party services and I can see a few areas where they could be useful.

So onto the services that Amazon can provide! They make use of spare capacity in Amazon’s massive server farms which they sell on. S3 is a system for storing data. Services can push up data where it’s stored redundantly and can be retrieved via a number of methods. Charges are applied based on amount of data stored each month plus data transfer in and out of Amazon’s servers. One possible use for a service like this is an image gallery – storing high quality original images which could be 10MB each yet are downloaded very little. While disk space is quite cheap, it’s definitely an area that can benefit from economies of scale so it’s worth doing the sums to determine the best place to store several hundred gigabytes.

What S3 does for storage, Amazon EC2 does for processing power. Based on Xen, each virtual machine is equivalent to a 1.7GHz machine with 1.7GB RAM and 160GB disk. It’s billed by the hour so allows very quick deployment of servers. I wonder if there are some services that we provide which are only used occasionally yet take up space in racks 24/7 – could these be virtualized to EC2?

The Paris Hilton effect…

My abstract for my “Let the students do the talking…” talk at this years IWMW took me all of ten minutes way back in February and on Monday I realised why. Standing in front of my peers in York I realised I truly believe in and am passionate about what I say. Listening to Paul Boag’s presentation on “Social Participation for Student Recruitment” yesterday further re-enforced my view that we need to be in these arenas and ‘go with this flow’.

I started my presentation by stating that when I questionned “will we still need a corporate website?” in my abstract for the session I hadn’t given serious thought to the audience (of HE Web Managers!) I would be presenting to and I genuinely meant it. When I started talking it felt a little like do or die… I’d either get nods of agreement or a lot of criticism.

Thankfully on the whole (up to now at least!) it’s been the former.

So what have I been saying?

Well to sum it up I guess I’m saying lets encourage our students to talk about us (our University), lets not worry so much about what they say and lets concentrate on the experience we’re providing for them.

Let us also evaluate how necessary some of our services are for students.

We make many assumptions as a University – we assume we need to hand hold our students and we assume we need to provide them with a range of services. Do we? Is everything we provide adding real value? Or can they get better elsewhere?

I have a view, and this may be controversial, that only half of a students experience at University is about the teaching and learning. Yes it’s why they are there but it’s not always why they got there and it’s not always why they leave. So let’s not ignore the “social” and/or informal side of things… lets encourage and develop it.

We know more and more people are online and more frequently too. We can see the age at which children are developing web skills and identities is becoming younger and younger and we can see the rise in social networking and participation so we need to be watching and learning from these trends.

During my talk I highlighted some of the approaches we’ve developed at Edge Hill and I shared our experiences with them and have been encouraged by the amount of positive comments I’ve received in relation to them.

But are we doing anything special?

Well actually I don’t think we are. We’re simply learning from our students and listening to them. In many ways our Web Service is like the “perpetual beta” because we’re working away but also keeping an one eye on the web from the sidelines… ready to change and adapt as the online world does. And one thing is for sure – change it will.

IWMW 2007: Day 1

I had good intentions to blog my experiences of IWMW but it’s been a busy couple of days so I’m going to attempt to review the first day before I forget too much of it.

From individuals to networks and sustainable communities?

Steven Warburton – the token academic – talked about communities, digital literacy, digital identities and many other things that often get forgotten in the rush to do cool stuff or the technical details.

Let the Students do the Talking…

Next up was our very own Alison Wildish. I think I’ve heard her talk about these issues a few times before (like every other day!) but it was very interesting to see the reaction from other people and feedback generally seems to be good. All the videos are available streaming online so there’s no excuse for not taking a look.

Parallel Session: The Eternal Beta

Phil Wilson from the University of Bath talked through the idea of the Eternal Beta – that services should be released even if they’re not perfect and using development methods that encourage rapid iterations to software. We seem to have followed a lot fo what they’re doing – using subversion for source control, wikis and ticketing systems for example – and I’m keen to make the next step in some of the agile / XP techniques.

In particular it was interesting that they’re using Pair Programming on a regular basis and for all new projects. The idea is that two programmers work together – one types and the other watches for bugs, suggests code and so on. While on the face of it this might seem like an inefficient use of manpower, it actually leads to better quality code with fewer bugs and gives more developers a good understanding of projects. Bath’s development team consists of seven people so it will be interesting to see how it works for three.

Discussion Group: A Greener Web

The discussion group wasn’t really directly related to the web so struggled a little to have a clear direction. There was talk about recycling, power usage the pros and cons of working from home. Paul Cheeseman has been talking about some issues on the Core Services blog, and our recent trialling of virtualization has potential for reducing power consumption so it was good to see we’re making the right noises at Edge Hill University.

That will do for now – Alison has her own round-up of events written ready to publish in the morning so it will be interesting to see how our views of sessions compare!