Categotry Archives: spam

Facebook Isn’t Dead, And Ethan Rotman Should Not Be Coroner

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Last month, Ethan Rotman delivered the Saturday keynote for NAI’s Region 9 workshop in Chico, California. Ethan is the principal of iSpeakeasy, a communication consulting firm. He spoke about the need to embrace innovation in Interpretation, and how if we are to succeed and remain relevant, we need to understand and take advantage of innovation and new technology, to meet our audiences where they live in a communications sense. During this really great and fascinating talk, Ethan casually mentioned “besides, Facebook is dead…” and then continued on.

I really like Ethan, and in fact, I treated him to lunch the day before, partly so I could pick his brain for free or at least for only the cost of a BBQ chicken. Ethan is whip smart, he’s quick, capable, and I suppose he makes a decent living by helping to teach both interpreters and non-interpreters how to communicate well. He’s also very confident and has the certainty of knowing things, when I would probably not be nearly as certain. Doubt is a very important part of my life and my worldview. For instance, although I firmly believe that the Cubs will win their division, grab the NL pennant and go on to a well-deserved World Series sweep in four games, I’m plagued with doubt. This is also true with Ethan’s pronouncement of death on the world’s dominant social media platform.

We’ve alluded to constant change being a given in social media and technology here on Media Platypus many times, and even for old-timey technology such as Facebook, a lot of things have changed in its ten-year history. Targeted ads, selective posts, a seemingly slow but inevitable march toward ‘pay for prominence’ in posts, apparent disregard for user privacy, the stupid layout changes, all of these things seem to tick people off. A Princeton study claims that Facebook will lose 80% of its users in the next four years. They compared the growth curve of Facebook with that of an infectious disease, and that based on their methodology, Facebook peaked in December 2012 and has been declining ever since. This makes logical sense– after you’ve captured nearly everyone in a very short time, your growth potential is severely limited. So, maybe Ethan’s more of an epidemiologist than a coroner. Hmm.

The Deadspin blog is a lot more certain and bombastic. In their piece, Facebook is Dead, Drew Magary is just as certain as Ethan, but I discount a lot of this because Deadspin is one of those smarmy trends-blogs where writers seem to confuse being clever with being insightful. Saying “I don’t use Facebook anymore because anyone with a brain knows that Facebook is terrible” really doesn’t help me understand anything except why I don’t read Deadspin very often.

A much better article is available at booooooom.com (sure hope I spelled it correctly,) The End of Facebook, that discusses FB’s most nefarious problem, the truly weird relationship between ‘likes’ and actual engagement. It’s been pretty well established that for many pages, many of the ‘likes’ are phony, particularly for paid promotion. This is why on some of my agency pages we often see that we have 35 likes when only 26 people have seen a post. Over time, whether you know it or not, your posts are going to fewer and fewer of your friends, on purpose. I won’t take your time here to try and explain it, but take a look at the videos on the blog page. If Facebook is dying, this seems like a type of suicide. It’s also a poor model of communication.

I’m trying to insist that Facebook isn’t dead, because I think that it’s reached the functional equivalent of a public utility—an awful lot of us use FB not only to keep up with our friends and let them know what we’re up to, but also to learn about news and current events, make shopping and lifestyle decisions, and plant our own feet in a virtual public square. Still, I’ve got that nagging doubt that Ethan is blissfully deficient of. If I want and need Facebook to help me understand the world around me, yet it’s filtering what I see based on what I already like, am I putting myself in an echo chamber?

I have several friends who have consciously stopped using Facebook, mostly because it takes up too much of their time. I’ve had relatively long periods when I’ve consciously stopped posting just to see if the world ended (hint: it does not,) but still, FB overall is a convenient place for me to see a bunch of stuff, most of which is unimportant. As I’ve mentioned before, I really don’t care what you’ve had for dinner, and I generally don’t care how your doctor’s appointment went unless you coughed on me last night. I really do care what those rascally politicians are lying to me about, I’m very interested in a clever and droll turn of phrase (which, oddly enough reminds me of the wag who dogged the tale,) I love seeing really great examples of the wonders of science, and I greatly appreciate seeing a lot of life’s minor miracles and truly generous things done by everyday people. I’m also incredibly interested in the season’s first sighting of a red flicker at Sutter Buttes, or a short video of spring melt in Yosemite Falls, and finding out a wonderfully superlative yet unknown historic tidbit at an historic site. For me, Facebook and other social media help make my life more complete because of these things.

A list of things that people want Facebook to do, and not do

A griping Facebook meme found on the KMPH 26 Facebook page.

Ethan concentrated his talk on innovation and embracing change. Facebook is definitely NOT innovative these days, and it lost it’s edge years ago. We know this because we see t-shirts with the thumbs-up logo on them and sitcoms often have Facebook jokes. Plus, our moms have accounts, and every doggone business you’ve ever seen has a Facebook page, most of which are useless. It’s this ubiquitous nature of Facebook that I think means it’s still relevant to us in the communications business. It’s a lot easier for me to send someone a Facebook message than to open my email program, sort through all of the spam and then find my friend I need to contact, and I’m pretty sure that he or she will see FB before they’ll see my email.

If I’m doing these things, it’s likely that many of my park visitors are doing the same thing too. This is the public utility function of Facebook. Like it or not, FB is still the most obvious place to engage and reach out to our visitors for the time being, and that’s why it’s still important, as least for me and my employer. There are many other amazing platforms that do amazing things—Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Kik. Google + (yes Paul!) and on and on. All of them have advantages, plus all of them have the same obsolescence factor going on. To remain relevant, to remain interesting, and to retain users, social media platforms need to continuously innovate and change, but the very change that’s required to attract users and “enhance” our experience is also alienating to many users. Chicken, meet egg.

Each one of these tools can and will become obsolete. Ethan is right—we need to understand, search out and embrace innovation, and at least some of this is technology related. We still need to be intelligent and skeptical and back out once in awhile just to see if we’re still in the forest or just looking at a lone tree.

Oh, and just in case you’ve heard the hype about YouTube being the second most-used search engine in the world, try not to suffer through this:

http://youtu.be/thAeC7xmC_A

Spam Spam Spam Spam!

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photograph of a can of SPAM

Spam! Photo by Dave Crosby and retrieved from Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

This is a tale about spam.

Not the overly salty, state meat of Hawai’i spam, but comment spam. Not the creation of Hormel, used to feed our hungry, greatest generation troops, marketed as “tasty pork shoulder and ham” on the old Burns & Allen Radio Show, but the spam that we all see, the spam that is unfortunately part of everyone’s digital life. So what else is there to say?

Well, first, a few metrics about why Spam is important to know something about. In a quick search, I’ve found these stats, which, sadly, are not all that surprising:

  1. 14.5 billion spam messages are generated each day.
  2. Researchers estimate that spam makes up somewhere between 45 and 73% of all emails.
  3. The United States is the largest generator (and receiver) of spam messages.
  4. Spam costs businesses over $20 billion dollars annually.
  5. 90% of all spam is in English, but relax. In 2012, it was 96%.

One of the frustrating things about writing a blog is that it’s quite difficult to measure the effects of what I write. We count on comments for feedback. It’s one thing to look at the statistics of hits, but the feedback lets us know what you’re thinking about what we’re thinking.

Unfortunately, most of the comments we receive here at Media Platypus are spam. Obvious, crude, idiotic spam, but at least they’re different than the ones that hit my inbox. These are bot-generated attempts to submit comments that they hope will be posted, assuming that our readers are dumb enough to click on their links. Fortunately, WordPress, our host, is pretty good about identifying spam, and we moderate all of the comments. Here are a couple of interesting examples, with the links redacted:

  • michael kors handbags…Simple scratches and dents to the bodywork are easy to repair using a soft mallet for panel beating and abrasive paper, spray paint and filler for paintwork repairs….
  • Alexander Wang online…I enjoy you because of your own labor on this web site. My aunt really loves participating in research and it’s obvious why. Most of us hear all relating to the dynamic tactic you offer very helpful guides by means of the web site and even recommend p…
  • Louis Vuitton Outlet…How perhaps you have create a blog appear this sick!? Email me should you get the ability and share your perception. Id be appreciative!…

You get the idea. When I have time to read them, they kind of crack me up, because I just can’t understand how they think they could fool anyone. And it’s a good thing that I’m patient with them because there seems to have been a delay in my latest financial plan, which involves receiving a rather large payment from a very highly placed officer in a Nigerian bank, but I digress.

After a couple of weeks of seeing this nonsense, you think you’ve seen what spam looks like and you think you have it nailed, but a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to learn about a whole new and somewhat more sophisticated attempt to spam us at my workplace. This one is pretty cool, and whoever is running it has actually gone to a bit of work. For this part of the story, I’ve included several links that are safe and won’t harm your computer, but I recommend that you don’t click on links within the sites I refer to. Spam and malware is an insidious and thoroughly evil thing, and there’s no sense in taunting or playing with evil things, okay?

Many people know that I work at the California State Railroad Museum, which is the largest institution of its type in North America, and one of the largest in the world. We are pretty well known and pretty popular, and we regularly hear and get questions from across the country and around the world. One day, we received this email to our info account:

This is an enquiry e-mail via http://www.csrmf.org/ from:
Jessica King <jessicak@laramiepubliclibrary.net>

Hi California State Railroad Museum!

My name is Jessica and I am writing to you on behalf of the Laramie Public Library. I’d like to thank you for offering some great info on your page – http://www.csrmf.org/visitor-information/links – I have been referring to it as I gather new materials on trains and railroads, and many of the resources on your page have been a huge help!

I’d also like to let you know about this great guide on model trains that one of our local railroad enthusiasts, Derek, came across while helping me:
Model Trains and More Freight Hobbies!
http://redacted link

It’d be great if you could include this page on your website! Derek (a high school sophomore) and I have found it to be very informative and we think the people who visit your site will find it to be quite interesting, too!

Thanks for your time, and please shoot me an e-mail if you decide to add this to your site. Derek would be thrilled to see that he’s helping to share information on a topic he is so passionate about!

Jessica King
jessicak@laramiepubliclibrary.net

We get a lot of things in this general vein, but something just didn’t ring quite true. With a lot of the unsolicited emails we get, I often will just google the address or at least open it in a browser. If nothing else, it helps me understand who I might be corresponding with, so I can better answer their questions. On this one though, there were some red flags:

  • the .net domain for a public library seemed weird. I expected a .gov or perhaps .wy.us .
  • “Jessica” seems to be speaking on behalf of “Derek,” who is allegedly a High School sophomore. She seems to have no title (librarian, researcher, volunteer, etc.,) and she’s endorsing something from a High Schooler. I’m kinda thinking that even if Derek isn’t allowed to use email, she might have had him write his own query even if she sent it from her own account.
  • If “Derek” is doing research, and contacts the largest railroad research library in the country, why isn’t he asking us a question?

So off I went to look at the “library” site,  laramiepubliclibrary.net, which seemed not overtly spammy or phony, but there were a couple of things that stuck out:

  1. there’s no indication where the physical facility is, what their hours are, etc. Hmmmm.
  2. The website appears very clean and template based, but seems a bit odd that it doesn’t seem to reflect anything that would seem Wyoming related to me. After all, libraries should and usually are reflections of the community.

So then I Googled “Laramie Public Library” (https://www.google.com/search?q=laramie+public+library&aq=f&oq=laramie+public+library&aqs=chrome.0.57j60l3j0l2.12595j0&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8#safe=off&hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=what+is+laramie+public+library&oq=what+is+laramie+public+library&gs_l=serp.3..33i29i30l4.20409.32228.1.33652.34.32.2.0.0.0.193.2316.29j3.32.0…0.0…1c.1.12.psy-ab.P-K7Mcn_ZWc&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.45960087,d.cGE&fp=59522ab026b941d4&biw=1092&bih=837 )

I note that laramiepubliclibrary.net does indeed come up in the search results, but the real Library in Laramie, Wyoming is the Albany County Public Library. There is also a Laramie County Library System (www.lclsonline.org/) with libraries in Cheyenne, Pine Bluffs and Burns Wyoming. None of these seem to be connected with laramiepubliclibrary.net , and outside of a website with, admittedly, several layers of pages that look good, but ultimately are just generic nonsense, there’s nothing there.

Then I went to the page that “Jessica” and “Derek” endorsed, which is a rather shallow essay about something related to model railroads, then I went to the site’s home page. It’s for a company that deals with shipping logistics.

The site itself is an ersatz blog. I don’t know the details of this stuff, but there are web consultants who encourage companies to set up blog sites rather than a traditional web presence, with the theory being that their customers may return for repeat visits if there is new content, and that a blog may appear more personal than a regular website, plus it’s cheaper than a real website. I’ve seen several of these. Some of the blog entries tend to go into weird subjects not even remotely related to the company’s business, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there are people who write essays on all sorts of subjects that are sold or provided to these sites as part of a site management strategy.

So to test this, I searched Google using phrases from the essay about model trains. Many times you can match entire paragraphs of generic content with other online sources– it’s one of the quick and dirty ways to find plagarism. I didn’t match the essay, but I found a site that seems to have dozens or hundreds of nonsense phrases and sentences. If you’re interested, you can go to: http://static.212.35.9.5.clients.your-server.de/dmi3/temp/4x4_english.txt . It’s a just a text file. My fave is

  • In April 2001, a boy wandered away from his family and was discovered dead, with indications of a dingo attack.

This gets back to some of the comments we receive here at Media Platypus. They likely don’t originate from whoever put this particular site together, but it’s the same sort of stuff, and it’s a huge global business. If you glance through the file, the variety and sheer insanity of the variety of phrases is incredible. I also climbed up the file tree in this site, and there are other pages, even a list of names (which I assume are generated names for spam emails and such) as well as some of those pages I occasionally see when doing a broad search for a subject, that are weird lists of shopping sources for something. Here’s an example: http://static.212.35.9.5.clients.your-server.de/links1.html

What does it all mean?

In our case, it means that this spammer seemed to have gone to a lot of trouble to try and get us to link to some inane essay for no discernable reason. I simply don’t understand what benefit the logistics company might get from this. It seems like a lot of work for nothing.

Secondly, this seems to speak of a bit of human interaction in making spam more sophisticated. Someone had to create this site. It uses a professional template, and unlike a lot of foreign sites, there seems to be good grammar and spelling, so it’s not as obvious as many things we know absolutely to be spam.

Was all of this created specifically to spam the California State Railroad Museum? Nah. I suspect that “Jessica” sends lots of emails on behalf of “Derek” to enthusiastically promote “his” discovery of information about trains, carpeting, heirloom tomatoes, ball bearings, analgesics, roofing materials and perhaps kiwi smoothies.

Frankly, I’m kind of impressed with this level of sophistication, and as a communicator, any method of communicating interests me, but it’s also something to keep in mind to keep our social media and online presence relevant and safe for our audience to visit. It’s just another thing to know.

p.s. I’ve just got to admit that I’m sort of looking forward to seeing what kind of spam comments will be generated  and sent as comments to this post. There seems to be a kind of “circle of life” quality to the possiblity. In the meantime, here are a couple of goodies:

Worst spam comment found on a Google search: http://thinkclickandgrowrich.com/550/wordpress-comment-spam-from-joel-comm/

Museum of comment spam: http://thecommentspamblog.wordpress.com/

And of course, the absolute best expression of spam, EVER: