Cyber Culture: What happens to the long-lost social networks?

  • @rhodri

An email slipped into millions of inboxes last week carrying the news that Google Wave, an ambitiously complex social network whose intricacies baffled most of those who tried it, was finally going to be put out of its misery on 30 April, less than three years after its birth. At about the same time a voice boomed from beyond the grave. It belonged to Friends Reunited, a pioneering social network that now provokes the same nostalgia we reserve for Opal Fruits or Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV. The plan for the old-schoolmates hangout is to lure us back by positioning the site as a memory stash; a place where we can wallow in nostalgia, upload old photos and browse through archive shots from the Press Association. Here were two different answers to the same question: what do you do with a social network when we no longer care about it? Kill it? Or try to claw us back? It's a question that dozens of services are facing.

Few are ever killed off entirely. Yahoo! liquidated a few failed attempts and briefly fêted Twitter competitor Pownce didn't last long. But most struggle on, bravely.

Myspace, once bought by News Corporation for $580m in 2005, was recently sold in its downsized form to the curious partnership of Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for $35m. It's now promoted as a music and entertainment hub – a rebrand which led to a small upswing in users. Friendster, a distant memory for many of us, made a similar move last year, setting itself up as a gaming hub following a hike in popularity in Asia.

The problem facing these sites is, of course, Facebook. It's gargantuan, seemingly unassailable. Yes, it's a hideous mess; a nightmare to navigate and ridden with privacy issues, but it's grown with us, we're used to it and dragging us away from it is problematic. James Whittaker, a former engineering director for Google+ (another social network that's failed to live up to expectations) recalled something his teenage daughter had said after she'd failed to show any interest in daddy's Google+: "Social is people and the people are on Facebook."

Following the crowd is often a misguided choice, as city-centre bars on a Friday night demonstrate. But it's a human response; you can't blame us. Or blame us for choosing not to return to places we abandoned long ago as being desperately uncool.

Grease is the word – and why your lock screen could be at risk

Anyone who's as welded to their smartphone as I am probably can't be bothered safeguarding their information with a screen lock or a passcode – perhaps a four-digit number, or a zig-zag pattern of your choice on Android phones. After all, it's a pain to have to get past such a thing several dozen times a day. But the issue of how much protection these codes actually offer has just been raised by an online video demonstrating a software product called XRY. (This was put online and subsequently removed, perhaps nervously, by the company that makes the product, Micro Systemation.) This software can get past these locks in a matter of seconds by exploiting security loopholes in the device – hacking, in other words – and police forces and the military apparently pay top dollar to have this software at their disposal. Our passcodes can be cracked by a far more low-tech method, however. It doesn't work 100 per cent of the time, but it is free and was documented in a paper written a couple of years ago by boffins at the University of Pennsylvania. They found that unsightly finger smudges on the screen can easily give away your code; taking a photograph of the screen and turning up its contrast displays a grease trail that can be used to decipher 90 per cent of pattern locks. The solution to this is either use a cloth to rub the screen in a paranoid frenzy, or just make the codes more complex. If you're swiping a pattern, create one that's six or seven swipes long. If it's a passcode, don't choose one of the 10 most popular (1234, anyone?) that are used by 15 per cent of us. In fact, if it's an option on your phone, just choose a password instead – and make it a long one. This is all well-meaning advice, of course, but the longer our passcode is, the more likely it is that we'll frustratedly abandon using one at all.

Fifty-seven billion channels and nothing on – the YouTube paradox

In the last few weeks YouTube has passed the astonishing landmark of processing one hour of uploaded video material every second of the day. This made me ponder the huge amount of disk space needed to store this stuff, the difficulty that YouTube (or any service provider) must have in policing uploaded content and the proportion of that content that might be copyrighted.

But this video boom is really all about our own mundane, everyday clips. One blog commenter estimated that at the current YouTube upload rate, every film and TV series ever made would be online in just four weeks; I've no idea how accurate that is, but our own videos undoubtedly dwarf the professionally made stuff in quantity – and, just occasionally, quality too. I soothed myself to sleep the other night watching a glorious 18-minute video on YouTube of someone folding towels. As I gazed at it, eyes half shut, I thought to myself: "Well, you wouldn't get the BBC commissioning this. Definitely scope for a channel called Boring TV."

A big fight over a tiny SIM

In 1997 I got my first mobile phone, a sizeable chunk of black plastic that could have easily doubled as a weapon if I'd found myself in a tricky situation. Inserting the credit card-sized SIM enabled me to perform cutting-edge tasks such as placing and receiving phone calls. But as mobile devices packed more power, SIM cards got smaller; firstly the fingertip-sized SIM that most of us are familiar with, and more recently the micro-SIM that fits the newer iPhone and iPad models.

People grumbled when this new SIM was introduced and there's no doubt that having two SIM sizes knocking about is a pain for anyone wanting to swap between devices. But there's one good argument for the downsize. With space at a premium inside svelte new technology, lumps of redundant SIM plastic take up valuable space that's better allocated to something more useful.

SIMs are set to get even smaller in the coming months, but there's an almighty corporate battle being fought over exactly how tiny. Apple has proposed its own design, the "nano-SIM", as the new standard to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), making clear that it would be licensed royalty free if accepted. Nokia, however, has issued furious statements damning the design as inferior to its own proposal. Apparently this nano-SIM requires a tray to sit in and its dimensions mean that it could accidentally be jammed into a SIM slot it wasn't designed for.

Nokia has now stated that if ETSI approve Apple's design, it will refuse to license any SIM-related patents that Apple would need to manufacture the thing. Deadlock. The vote to decide the victor – due to take place last week – has now been postponed for a month. The winner, in the interim, has been announced as the legal profession.