Weekend news round-up: Facebook’s creepy experiment, Google’s World Cup war room

30 Jun 2014

In our round-up of the weekend’s top tech news, Facebook’s weird and creepy study of 700,000 users in the interest of data science, a movie about ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ Aaron Schwartz hits screens in the US, and Google creates a war room to monitor the World Cup.

Facebook’s creepy human experiment

The whole web has been talking about a weird study that Facebook is alleged to have conducted on 700,000 users of the social media site to test their moods and feelings.

The Atlantic reported: “For one week in January 2012, data scientists skewed what almost 700,000 Facebook users saw when they logged into its service. Some people were shown content with a preponderance of happy and positive words; some were shown content analyzed as sadder than average. And when the week was over, these manipulated users were more likely to post either especially positive or negative words themselves.

“This tinkering was just revealed as part of a new study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Many previous studies have used Facebook data to examine “emotional contagion,” as this one did. This study is different because, while other studies have observed Facebook user data, this one set out to manipulate it. 

“The experiment is almost certainly legal. In the company’s current terms of service, Facebook users relinquish the use of their data for ‘data analysis, testing, [and] research.’”

‘OK, Google’ to dominate internet of things vernacular

Droid Life reported that with the rollout of Google Search 3.5.14 Google will be allowing users to enable the ‘OK, Google’ hotword to be said from anywhere on the phone to prompt a voice search. The implication of this is ‘OK, Google’ could become a standard hotword across a multitude of devices into the future.

“To turn on the new hotword detection, head into Google Now, then scroll to the very bottom, tap Menu>Settings>Voice>’Ok Google’ Detection, and then toggle on the options you desire.

“The app doesn’t just bring new hotword glory, though, it also introduces Audio History. As the name suggests, Google is using your voice searches to create a history that it can use to make your searches more accurate. It learns the sound of your voice, how you pronounce words, etc.”

If you’re leaving San Francisco

Two of the New York Times’ most prominent tech bloggers Nick Bilton and Mike Isaac are leaving San Francisco, one heading for LA and the other to New York and in an online exchange painted an interesting picture of Silicon Valley’s sprawl into one of America’s most iconic cities.

It goes like this:

“So, over the past 10 years, what was the strangest tech-related thing you experienced?

“Mike: Hmm. I think when I first started to cover tech, it was mind-blowing to experience an Apple or a Google developer conference.

“You have these throngs of unshowered, stereotypically nerdy people lined up outside Moscone Center in the heart of San Francisco. Then all of a sudden, the clock strikes 10 a.m., and they “stampede into the auditorium, all vying for the best seat to see guys like Sundar Pichai and Larry Page talk about APIs or something like that. It’s nuts.

“Nick: Oh, yes. ‘The Running of the Nerds,’ as we call it. I agree, to me that is still incredibly bizarre. I think the strangest thing I witnessed was the way technology pervades every part of the city. I recently went to meet a friend who is a venture capitalist for a coffee at Sightglass, the local coffee shop, and he came barreling out of the cafe before I even had a chance to walk inside.

“‘What’s up?’ I asked him, as he told me, sternly, we weren’t having coffee there.

“’I was just standing in line behind two entrepreneurs that couldn’t be more than 19 years old and they were giving each other advice on how to fire people and run a company,’ he said in a defeated tone.”

The internet’s own boy

At movie theatres across the US at the weekend a movie documenting the life of tech entrepreneur and coding genius Aaron Schwartz entitled ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ began screening.

Schwartz took his own life last year after the legal pressure of a court case became too much for him.

As TechCrunch summed it up: “Aaron Swartz was a young, bright genius who believed in the open Internet. A self-made millionaire by the age of 19, he co-founded Reddit, was part of the creation of RSS and became a political organizer and Internet hacktivist who was instrumental in the fight against SOPA.

“The Internet’s Own Boy, a film first released at Sundance and now opening to the public today, follows the story of his life and his tragic suicide in 2013 at the age of 26.

“Swartz had been in a two-year legal battle for using MIT’s network to systematically download 4.8 million academic journal articles from JSTOR. He was facing $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. As Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow put it, Swartz was being prosecuted for ‘taking too many books out of the library.’”

Google’s World Cup war room

Google’s astute focus on all things World Cup has been very evident this time round. So much so that it is no surprise that the internet giant committed resources to creating a sort of war room to crunch the numbers.

Re/Code reported: “Google has set up a war room of sorts, with a team of data analysts, writers and designers collaborating on various infographics and factoids based on the more than 1.1 billion World Cup queries being typed into its search engine.

“Such number crunching revealed that following the match between Uruguay and Italy, more than 20 times as many people were searching for ‘Suarez bite’ than for all the other typical kinds of bites combined (tick, flea, dog, mosquito, etc.).

“Producing this information on the fly is a shift for Google. The search team often releases data after the fact, but it’s the first time it has endeavored to do so in near-real-time and at this scale.”

Social networking image via Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years