Weekend news roundup

26 Sep 2011

The implications of Facebook’s new Timeline dominated the weekend’s tech coverage, with suggestions perhaps it could now become its own country. Meanwhile, papers also focused on the rise and rise of hacktivism and the challenges Meg Whitman faces at HP.

Facebook’s new power is kinda scary

No doubt Facebook’s new Social Graph reveal at F8 last week has caught everyone’s attention. In its walk through of the new Timeline feature, USA Today hinted at the social networking site’s growing power.

Facebook has long known a lot about us. Each status update we enter, each friend we connect with, each place we check into helps Facebook learn more about us.

Facebook has now taken all that data (you didn’t think it would forget all that, did you?) and presented it in Timeline, which allows users to scroll back through time.

Users can see what their status updates were, dating back to the day they joined the social network.

As users scroll down the page and back in time, Facebook tries to surface only the updates that will still be relevant years later. Using clues like keywords (big job news) or the number of likes or comments a post received, Facebook can attempt to know which updates will still mean something to us years later.

It can be a bit unnerving (I said what?), but also very sentimental. I can quickly see when I first met friends with whom I’m now very close. I can see wall posts from friends after nights out in college and posts I made earlier in my career about the stories I was writing or who I had met that day.

This is where Facebook starts to scare people.

Should Facebook be nationalised?

Is Facebook a monopoly?, asked The Observer. Facebook is much more than an internet brand that’s managing to ride the fad wave. It’s becoming a monopoly. I know this because it’s been mentioned in The Archers. A trade name in Ambridge! The place where old-school BBC rules about “sticky-backed plastic” and “a proprietary brand of spreadable yeast extract” still obtain to a ludicrous extent. No iPods, Walkmans, BlackBerrys or Kindles are ever mentioned but, in the last few weeks, the programme has started to call Facebook and Twitter by name. RIP Bebo. You only ever existed to demonstrate that “other social networking sites are available”. Now there might as well not be. Everyone else is on Facebook and, if you update your status in the forest and there’s no one there to read it …

I’m sure Facebook would claim it’s not a monopoly – strictly speaking it isn’t – but it clearly wants to be and, if there are whole sections of society who feel obliged to sign up in order to be able to communicate with one another, then its dreams are coming true. Next there’ll be electric sheep. Facebook isn’t aspiring to be Cable & Wireless or AT&T, major players within a medium; it wants to be the whole telephone network.

Has Facebook hit a speed bump in Ireland?

A story in the Sunday Independent suggests Facebook’s growth may be slowing in Ireland. The site’s own figures revealed that in July and August, an average of 1,840 Irish people a day were signing up, but the latest figures show a fall to just 1,165 new users a day signing up over the past four weeks.

These figures from Google Trends – which tracks website unique visitor numbers — also indicate an estimated 33pc decline in visitors to the site, which is valued at about $78bn (€58bn) and in which Bono’s firm Elevation Partners has a 1.5pc stake worth more than $1bn.

At the end of March, there were about 1.2m daily Irish visits, but that has since plummeted to about 800,000.

“Facebook is almost at saturation point in Ireland. A possible explanation for the fall in daily visitors could be that more people are accessing the site through smartphones,” explained Damien Mulley, a social media expert.

In recent weeks, new research indicated that 44pc of Ireland’s population is on Facebook, with 2,014,000 Facebook accounts active in Ireland.

Why we should fear hactivists

The Financial Times had an interesting story on the rise and rise of hactivism. The state of technology security overall is so weak that intelligence officials see hacking as one of the largest threats to western powers. While their top concern is nation-backed attacks, the lines between protesters, criminals and spies can be hard to discern. Gonlag is one of thousands who have joined an unprecedented wave of what has been dubbed “hacktivism”, referring to the combination of computer hacking with political activism. The largest and best known of these groups is Anonymous, a virtual mob that makes it easy for people with little technological aptitude to participate in protests, many of them illegal.

The increasingly likely threat of apprehension isn’t enough to dissuade many Anonymous supporters from what they compare with “sit-ins” – conscious acts of trespassing that inconvenience their targets while bringing the underlying issues to wider attention. Yet though such dedication persists even after dozens of recent arrests in the UK, US, Italy and elsewhere, there are signs that Anonymous is being torn apart from the inside. Internal feuds thus might finish the job that law enforcement – infuriated by attacks on the CIA, FBI and US defence contractors – has barely begun.

The most important split is between the leadership and the rank and file.

Whitman’s challenges at HP

The game of Risk that involves being a CEO at HP was analysed in the San Jose Mercury News. No one’s counting Hewlett-Packard out. But by any measure, new CEO Meg Whitman faces a mountain of problems as she takes the reins of the world’s biggest-selling tech company.

With $126bn in revenue last year, more than 320,000 employees and a global operation that ships the equivalent of two personal computers every second, HP is still a force to be reckoned with in the tech industry. But the Palo Alto, California, giant is reeling from recent turmoil in the corner office, a disappointing financial performance and a poorly executed effort to revamp the company’s strategy for a new era in tech.

Whitman, the former eBay chief who was named CEO of HP on Thursday, faces two immediate challenges: In her own words, “there is no higher priority” than getting HP on sound financial footing, after a series of downward revisions to its sales forecasts caused a steep slide in HP’s stock. In addition, analysts say she needs to resolve the question of whether HP will stay in the PC business after last month’s announcement that HP might spin off or sell its $40bn personal computer division.

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