Cyber Culture: We know where you live - so stop telling everyone
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Thursday 23 August 2012
For those of us who find some delight and diversion in the curious world of social media, the impulse to share has become pretty strong. Our thoughts, our observations, the sights and sounds we experience – they're all subconsciously assessed for their worth, and if they make the grade we blast them out there. But, perhaps inevitably, our critical faculties begin to lose their edge and we start posting any old rubbish on a whim. This week, I absent-mindedly shared a photograph on Twitter that contained my address just in shot; I quickly deleted it.
But that's what many people are unwittingly doing every day, a situation highlighted by weknowyourhouse.com. Billed as a "social-media experiment", it performs automated Twitter searches for people who have announced to the world that they're at home, while also having geolocation enabled on their Twitter client. The website displays the tweet, the address (with some crucial parts asterisked out), a Google Street Map showing the immediate vicinity, a list of recently logged crimes in the area, and a selection of photos from Instagram that have been taken nearby.
This is one of a number of recent services that have been designed both to shock us and remind us that we're sleepwalking into using geolocation in ways we never intended. None of them is illegal. Girls Around Me, a distasteful app that shows pictures of girls who have just "checked in" in nearby locations, and Creepy, an application that mines location data from Flickr and Twitter accounts and plots it on a map, both came in for heavy criticism – but also shrugs of acknowledgement that it takes this kind of stunt to force us to wake up. The website Please Rob Me was built around a simple idea: whenever you state publicly that you're out and about, you're also telling people that you're not at home – a home that might be empty and vulnerable. The people behind that website were keen to stress that they're weren't anti-geolocation; their gripe was "the way in which people are stimulated to participate in sharing this information".
So why, when these location features are generally turned off by default, do we choose to turn them on in the first place? Twitter's support site states that turning on geolocation "enables [delivery of] trends or stories that are personalised for your location", but its usefulness in that respect is debatable. But any diversion that's fun and free to use generally has some kind of privacy trade-off – this eternal pull and push between the companies that profit from personal information and individuals who are unsure whether to surrender it. Discovering one of your own tweets embellished by a picture of your front door may, however, be something that prompts you to slide the location switch to "off". Permanently.
Can streaming's revenue, er, stream ever make up for physical sales?
These days, the music industry has to get its good news where it can; any upward-inclining graphs tend to be pounced upon and devoured hungrily in the forlorn hope that they might signal a return to the days of heady excess and effortless profitability. One research firm has announced that revenues through streaming services (the likes of Spotify, We7 etc) will increase by 40 per cent to $1.1bn this year. But how good is this news, really?
It's part of a slow shift away from our fondness for physical media, with sales of digital media set to outstrip the former worldwide by 2015. But of all the reports of revenue increases that could have landed on the industry's doormat, this is probably the least welcome. Yes, customers are keen, but streaming as a model is still fraught with uncertainty: Spotify is failing to turn a profit despite its four million paying customers; other services such as Pandora find themselves failing to secure the music licences they're after; and despite announcements of big royalty payouts there's a constant, low-pitched moan from musicians complaining that little of it is trickling down to them. For everyone involved in making music, streaming has become the unpalatable but unavoidable alternative to illegal file-sharing, and over the next five years it's set to become the dominant method of consuming music. But few people in the supply chain will be joyously punching the air.
It's easier than ever to hang with the band. But do we want to?
Google recently enhanced its Hangouts service to become "Hangouts on Air", giving you the chance to bring your live-video antics to a global audience. Now it's rolling out an additional tweak in the hope of seducing bands who might want to play concerts live across the web. "Studio Mode" is just a switch you can flick within the service to improve the sound; the digital compression which can blight the audio quality within video streams is relaxed, allowing your band's music to be heard in all its glory, fluffed chords and misremembered lyrics intact.
Having watched a couple of performances captured using Studio Mode (in which the sound was excellent), I was more struck by the way the performances were – perhaps inevitably – devoid of atmosphere. Social media create these parallel worlds, which often feel like simulacra of real life, but pushing a webcam performance through a router and into a living room makes for a faintly uninvolving experience. Concerts are about volumes greater than your laptop speaker can provide, about the audiences seeing the whites of the eyes of the musicians and vice versa, about shared experiences with those around you. This is more like being the lone spectator of a self-conscious studio performance by a nervous musician, terrified you're going to press ctrl+Q at any moment; the equivalent of draining your glass, fetching your coat and catching the bus home.
The Olympics and art mark the renaissance of the GIF picture file
One Olympic winner who failed to receive a medal was the animated GIF image format. Looped sequences of London 2012 action became common currency on the web, whether it was McKayla Maroney's near-perfect vault, the Queen picking her fingernails, or Aly Raisman's parents going bananas in the stands. It's part of a triumphant resurgence for the 25-year-old format, once derided for facilitating endless billowing American flags and leaping flames. It remains a brilliantly simple way to create basic animations – and, as evidenced by the amazing work done by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg at cinemagraphs.com, it's got applications beyond light-hearted frivolity that veer into the realms of high art.
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