Tag Archives: Facebook

Secrecy, Troop Movements and Social Media

13 May

Reading the Pulitzer-winning (1931) memoirs of General John Pershing recently, I am struck by many things, including the horrifying first use of chemical weapons, the unprecedented loss of life (700,000 dead at Verdun alone), and some unexpected ‘walk-on’ cameos including the Zelig-like appearances of a youthful, high-energy captain on the General’s staff named George S. Patton, Jr. (who later would return to his own fight in France).

But perhaps most interesting, given the unbelievable progress in communication technology since Pershing’s time, is the commander’s genuine shock and horror that the arrival and movements of the U.S. Expeditionary Force on European soil was extensively covered in the press of the time. “To my utter surprise” Pershing noted, the arrival of the Doughboys was thoroughly documented including “port of debarkation, the designation of units and the number of men.”

Pershing called on his aides for an immediate and total censorship lockdown, which was mostly successful. “Secrecy gives a commander the possibility of surprising his opponent,” Pershing writes (pg. 89) “The surest road to defeat would be to let the enemy know all about one’s plans and preparations.”

Fast forward to about a year ago, when a blogger in Abottabad, Pakistan started tweeting about the unusual presence of helicopters in the night sky of the city. Those helicopters, of course, were carrying the U.S. Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden. Had the local blogger been a little earlier, or a little more aggressive, he might have alerted the entire Bin Laden compound to the presence of the commandos.

How long will it be before the casual tweet or Facebook post will actually directly lead to a botched rescue mission, assault or other incident? It is hard to imagine anything else.

What’s even harder to imagine is how to put this particular genie of social media back in the bottle. When I was running Yahoo! News, there was light editorial oversight of social comments. But there really is no mechanism that has the footprint or scale to have any sort of pre-publication review. Hard to imagine that even being possible.

Which leads solely to this conclusion: Had social media existed in ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s time, there’s no question that the arrival of the US forces in France would have been tweeted and blogged. Probably the arrival would have been recorded and streamed on YouTube.

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When Does Communication Become Information?

9 Feb

Virtually immediately. But — this just in — not all interesting communication is valuable information.

I’ve been thinking about this question as I have gotten increasingly involved with Twitter (and its various plug-ins, cousins and competitors). Use is growing fast of the status message (Facebook) or its real-time Twitter-ish equivalent (Tweets, etc.). These messages are rapidly transitioning from quick update resource (“So-and-so just arrived @ ATL”) to headline alert (“USAir 1549 ditched in Hudson; photos here“).

What got me thinking about this issue of the value of these updates is the current debate over whether the rise of this communication is a ‘Brave New World’-ish event that puts at risk the very mission of a current leader of the Web world (Google) and its very mission: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Or whether something a little less earth-shattering is at work.

Here is the debate: Google and other search engines are great archival resources, finding all the information one could want; but they are not doing such a comprehensive job with the real-time, “crowd-sourced” web, and searchable Twitter, Yammer and FB status updates are the next new thing and the incumbents will fail to get a grip on the new ‘borg-sourced hivemind” of the distributed internet. Etc., etc. (Note: I just saw Kara posted on this at allthingsd.com).

Hmmm.

It is an interesting argument. But so far, the rise of the status update feels ‘more, better, faster’ to me. In the news business, the same challenge of tapping the value of real-time information has been around for generations: Baron Paul Reuter’s famed carrier pigeons bearing news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo were an earlier form of ‘tweet.’ The information carried by those birds was actionable financial intelligence that made some folks wealthy, and in many respects created the Reuters news brand.

If the pigeons had simply been carrying word that ‘Wellington arrived Waterloo’ there would have been less value.

There is often a bit of a feeling of deja vu. Only a few years ago, there was some enthusiasm that blogsearch (Technorati. Sphere) would help with monitoring the real-time web. While no doubt helpful, they did not exactly set the Earth spinning on a new axis.

The value of real-time status will be a function of the value of the content of the update, I suppose. Until we come up with some new tools to better infer content, and context, from those updates by some other means, we are going to have to rely upon one another to make sure we are providing some real information in our communication.

As it has always been…..