The Citizen's Guide to the Future

April 24 2014 7:03 PM

Is Google Plus Finally Dying?

The man who led Google’s foray into social networking is leaving the company. “Now is the time for a new journey,” wrote Vic Gundotra in a Google Plus post announcing his departure after eight years.

So what does that mean for Google Plus? If you ask Google, absolutely nothing. But if you ask TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis and Matthew Panzarino, it means Google Plus is walking dead. From their post, which reads like it was sourced from someone's Secret feed:

What we’re hearing from multiple sources is that Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform — essentially ending its competition with other social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Google has apparently been reshuffling the teams that used to form the core of Google+, a group numbering between 1,000 and 1,200 employees. … As part of these staff changes, the Google Hangouts team will be moving to the Android team, and it’s likely that the photos team will follow. Basically, talent will be shifting away from the Google+ kingdom and towards Android as a platform, we’re hearing.

I ran these intriguing assertions by a Google spokesperson, who insisted they are “absolutely NOT true” (sic). Google gave me the same statement it gave TechCrunch: “Today's announcement has no impact on our Google Plus strategy—we have an incredibly talented team that will continue to build great user experiences across Google+, Hangouts and Photos.”

So is Google Plus really walking dead? Eh, not any more than it was before Gundotra left, I suspect. The answer depends on whether you think it was ever truly alive.

When the service launched in 2011, there were hopes it might displace Facebook as the social network of choice. It ended up more like a social network of last resort, populated by an assortment of Google employees, Facebook dissenters, math- and science-lovers, and hobbyists looking for a place to talk shop without all the cats and baby pictures. For what it's worth, my former colleague Farhad Manjoo also raves about its usefulness as a place to store your photos.

Regardless, as the New York Times pointed out recently, Google Plus remains quite useful to Google as an identity service by which the company can better track users across services like YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps. My colleague David Auerbach rightly observes that this has lent Google some of the same qualities that so annoy people about Facebook, without all the same benefits. Still, that's unlikely to change just because Gundotra’s gone, whatever other behind-the-scenes repercussions his departure might wreak.

If nothing else, Google seems likely to keep up the social networking aspects of the service as a way of deflecting claims that it's just about data-mining. That said, it probably doesn't need 1,200 people working on the service, if it ever did.

Facebook may have won the social networking game, but the contest for our data rages on—and Google Plus is still a linchpin of Google's strategy.  

Previously in Slate:

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April 24 2014 5:07 PM

Anonymous Allegedly Hacked Boston Children's Hospital Over Justina Pelletier

In response to the controversial Justina Pelletier child-custody case, the hacker collective Anonymous has been launching attacks against Boston Children's Hospital's website and network since last weekend. In the last few months, Anonymous has chosen other targets related to the case as well.

The Boston Globe reports that though the hospital can't identify Anonymous by the hacks alone, the hacker collective did post a YouTube video outlining its problems with the way Children's Hospital handled Pelletier's situation. Last year the Pelletier family brought their daughter, who they claim has a difficult-to-diagnose mitochondrial disorder, to Children’s Hospital to help her get treatment for digestive issues. While there, Children’s Hospital doctors began to think that Pelletier’s symptoms stemmed from psychiatric issues and that she had possibly been abused by her parents. The hospital brought child abuse charges against her parents that were upheld by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, and a juvenile court judge.


Anonymous’s YouTube video includes a link to a document that says, “To the Boston Children’s Hospital why do you employ people that clearly do not put patient’s first? We demand that you terminate Alice W. Newton from her employment or you to shall feel the full unbridled wrath of Anonymous. Test us and you shall fail.” Newton is the former head of child abuse prevention at Children’s Hospital. The document also lists personal information about multiple Children's Hospital employees.

Pelletier's mother Linda Pelletier told the Globe that she has never heard of Anonymous and doesn't support the hacks. The Children's Hospital website is still live, but the hacks have brought other portals for staff and patients offline.

The full extent of the damage is unclear—and Children’s did not respond to Slate’s request for comment— but in a memo to the staff obtained by the Globe, chief executive Sandra Fenwick described what sounds like DDoS attacks and wrote that the hospital “received a direct, credible threat against our internal network, including staff and patient information.” That can't be good.

April 24 2014 5:05 PM

Netizen Report: Pakistan’s Anti-Terror Ordinance May Endanger Online Speech

The Netizen Report originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. This editing was written by Hae-in Lim, Lisa Ferguson, Ellery Biddle, and Sarah Myers.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Pakistan, where the Senate is deliberating on controversial legislation that would grant sweeping powers to Pakistani security forces in the name of combating terrorism—which could have adverse effects for media workers and online speech. Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan, a local advocacy group, has led a nationwide campaign against the bill, with support from multiple political parties. Passed in the National Assembly on April 7, the bill has since met significant resistance from a range of political groups. Computer-specific language that appeared in the original draft of the bill has been removed, but advocates believe there is still ample work to be done to ensure that the law does not imperil online speech.

April 24 2014 4:08 PM

The First Week of May Will Be Decidedly Un-Springlike for Much of the Country

Bet you thought winter was over, didn’t you? You even put away your cold-weather clothes, you poor optimist. Well, if you live anywhere east of, oh, say, Colorado, chances are you have a few more chilly nights ahead.

Now, it won’t be freeze-your-tongue-to-the-lightpole cold. But the effects of this winter’s repeated Arctic blasts are still lingering.

A significant multi-day severe weather outbreak is looking increasingly likely for this weekend. The powerful low pressure system associated with those storms will push temperatures up into the 80s (or even 90s) across much of the south until Monday or Tuesday.

April 24 2014 3:45 PM

What the Failure of inBloom Means for the Student-Data Industry

InBloom has wilted. The well-funded student data nonprofit announced it was winding down operations this week after sustained protests by parents and privacy advocates forced school districts to drop the service.

Born out of the Shared Learning Collaborative, an alliance of nonprofits, educators, and politicians, inBloom hoped to streamline student information online to enable teachers to track their progress and allow increased personalization of lessons and learning materials.

Yet despite millions in seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and collaborating with school districts in nine states, the company was unable to reassure parents that their children's information would be safe with a third party vendor. Protests began in earnest when it was discovered that inBloom’s software had more than 400 optional data fields that schools could fill out—asking for potentially sensitive information such as the nature of family relationships, learning disabilities, and even Social Security numbers. Although there were no reported leaks, parents were uncomfortable without an absolute guarantee of that data’s safety or a clear indication of who could access it.

Protests and lawsuits from parents in Illinois, Louisiana, Colorado, and other states caused many districts to pull back from the partnership, but inBloom was dealt its most significant blow earlier this month when the state budget bill of New York restricted its Education Department’s ability to contract with companies for storing, organizing, or aggregating student information and demanded inBloom delete all held data.

The CEO of inBloom, Iwan Streichenberger, said in a statement on the company website:

The use of technology to tailor instruction for individual students is still an emerging concept and inBloom provides a technical solution that has never been seen before. As a result, it has been the subject of mischaracterizations and a lightning rod for misdirected criticism.

While inBloom did become a lightning rod for parental concerns over education technology, criticism was not misdirected, the NYCLU’s Advocacy Director Johanna Miller told me. Rather, it’s reflective of a failure to work with the public. “Inbloom and the New York State Education Department were arrogant during this entire process,” she said, “and insensitive to parents who were concerned about their children’s data being collected.”

The collapse of inBloom is a blow for the K-12 education technologies sector generally—a market that, if calibrated carefully, could be beneficial for schools and students. Data collection could help with personalized learning; it might also help schools fulfill the vast number of reporting requirements for state and federal programs such as Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and many others.

School districts across the country are contracting with third-party vendors to supply data services that often lack adequate privacy safeguards and do not obtain parental consent. A study from the Center on Law and Information Policy at Fordham Law School last year suggested that schools and providers are falling short of a number of student data privacy requirements mandated by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. So in theory, it makes sense to have one central repository with the highest privacy standards and with cutting-edge technology to protect that data—just as inBloom attempted to portray itself.

But as Bill Fitzgerald pointed out on the blog of his software development company, FunnyMonkey, without an overhaul of student privacy law, the demise of one software company merely opens the door for another. It’s clear that legislators on both the federal and state level need to consider how to strengthen student privacy protections, with some already calling for improved data protection guidelines, greater consequences for mishandling student data to be built into FERPA, and even a Student Privacy Bill of Rights. While people seem willing to give up vast amounts of their own information to the cloud, there is a strict line when it comes to fears of a child’s learning difficulties haunting her into middle age.

Without such changes, the lesson here for entrepreneurs and states may be more one of PR than anything else. (CEOs may want to avoid blithely announcing that “education happens to be the world’s most data-mineable industries in the world, by far.”)

InBloom’s failure is a teachable moment in trust-building and accountability for the next company in this space—and you can be sure there will be more than a few trying to get a piece in a K-12 education software market said to be now worth about $8 billion.

April 24 2014 2:59 PM

The FCC’s New Net Neutrality Proposal Is Even Worse Than You Think

In 2008 and 2012, President Obama campaigned on the incredibly popular idea of network neutrality—a law that would forbid phone and cable companies from changing the Internet and charging websites new tolls, and different tolls for new fast lanes and slow lanes on the internet. Yet yesterday, the New York Times reported that the man Obama appointed as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, has made a complete turnaround on network neutrality. He is now proposing rules that authorize massive discrimination by cable and phone companies, legalizing new tolls on tech companies, and pretty much putting our entire Internet economy under the control of a few politically connected, powerful phone and cable companies.

Understandably, the Internet exploded.

You don’t know the half of it. It’s even worse than you realize. The rules on paper are bad, and their enforcement will be even worse. That’s because you would need a small army of telecommunications lawyers and economists to bring a case under the new rules.

April 24 2014 2:16 PM

Recovered Warhol Digital Art Has Been Stuck on Floppy Disks for Decades

In the sea of obsolete digital storage, you never know where gems are hiding. The Andy Warhol Museum unearthed a pretty big discovery when it realized that digital doodles by the artist were sitting on floppy disks in the museum’s archival storage.

Created by Warhol on a Commodore Amiga in the mid-1980s, the images include many of Warhol’s classic aesthetics and depict things like bananas, Marilyn Monroe, and Campbell’s soup. The museum only realized it had the images when artist Cory Arcangel happened to see a YouTube clip of Warhol working with digital photos of Debbie Harry in 1985 to promote the release of the Amiga 1000.


Members of the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club and the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry had to devise a careful plan to extract Warhol’s files from the disks. Amber Morgan, the collection manager at the Warhol Museum, said in a press release, “Up until now, we have only been able to address the computer disks themselves, and not the content held within them. This project has enabled us to safely extract the data.”

Watching Warhol gingerly put his hand on the mouse and control the computer in the video clip is an apt metaphor for the societal transition that was taking place at the time. For the rest of us, our early digital scribbles may not be as valuable or as fascinating as Warhol’s, but they were just as exciting to make.


Image courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum.


Image courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum.

April 24 2014 11:59 AM

It’s the End of the World as We Prefer It, and I Feel … Stupid

My predictions for the next 20 years or so:

Natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, and droughts will afflict more people than ever, at greater costs than ever, in poor nations and rich alike.

Epidemics of infectious diseases will threaten large populations and could even spread rapidly across large swaths of the planet.

Crops will fail and people will starve.

Wild fires, biodiversity loss, forest die-offs, and other signs of global ecosystem stress will continue to rise.

Civil strife will flare up in trouble spots around the world, some predictable, others unexpected, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in a state of misery and despair, prompting waves of migration, outstripping the financial resources necessary to respond, and severely testing our diplomatic and aid capabilities.

Availability of high-quality water will be stretched to the limits in many places around the world.

New extremes of temperature and other weather phenomena will be recorded in more and more places.

That’s right: Millions will die; still more will be displaced; nations and economies will teeter at the edge of disaster as populist demagogues rise, regional stabilities are tested, and environmental despoliation expands.

Judging by the attention it’s getting on the various scientist and environmental listservs that find their way into my inbox, the recent New York Times Magazine profile of the writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth has hit a highly resonant chord. Having accepted that (as the REM song goes, and the article is titled) “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” Kingsnorth is retreating to “rural Ireland” to wait out the coming climate-change-induced collapse of civilization, teach his children the skills necessary to survive without a supermarket, and enjoy good wine. It sounds lovely, actually—I wish I had the courage to do something like that.

Of course, even if the climate change apocalypse that Kingsnorth accepts as inevitable magically failed to materialize, every one of my dire predictions would still be likely to come true. Climate change, added on top of all the other causes of these problems, will often make things worse. But for the most part there will be no way to tell which ones are worse than they would have been anyway, or how much worse they have become. So it’s not that apocalyptic fears about climate change are utterly fantastic—climate change may well exacerbate a range of serious and potentially even disastrous problems—it’s that the monomaniacal, apocalyptic version of climate change gives us a picture of the world that is so incomplete that it’s much worse than simply wrong. Worse because, just like religious and political orthodoxy, it cannot be falsified. On the contrary, everything that goes wrong simply reinforces the conviction that there is just one explanation for all our problems—climate change—and that there is only one thing we can do to keep the world from collapsing—stop burning fossil fuels. And thus, worse because the climate-change-as-apocalypse orthodoxy thereby radically narrows the range of viewpoints we are willing to tolerate and the range of options we are willing to consider for dealing with complex challenges to our well-being like natural disasters and infectious disease and poverty and civil strife.

It’s actually hard not to sympathize with Kingsnorth. He’s sad about how things are changing; he likes nature the way it is now, not the way it was before humans settled in Ireland, or not the way it will be after another 100 years of human’s muddling through from one crisis to the next, desperately clinging to technology as the eternal antidote to our follies. The real problem is not the few Kingsnorth’s who actually have the mettle to drop out; it’s the hysterics that they leave behind who insist, often in the name of science, that all the suffering to come will have only one true cause, and that redemption can be achieved only by following one true path. No matter that long and sad human experience teaches us where such absolute orthodoxies lead. Indeed, with climate change being blamed for almost everything these days, the one phenomenon that seems to have escaped the notice of scientists, environmentalists and the media alike is that, perhaps above all, climate change is making us stupid.

April 24 2014 10:05 AM

The Psychology of Unfriending Someone on Facebook

Have you ever unfriended someone on Facebook? Be honest. This is a safe blog post.

You meanie! How could you do such a thing? It was a high school friend, wasn’t it? She was blathering on about the evils of affirmative action, wasn’t she? Two new studies from the University of Colorado Denver investigate the psychology behind unfriending, as well as the emotional response of the Unfriended. (Both draw on a Twitter survey of 1,077 adults, so take the results with a blue breadcrumb of skepticism: It could be that Twitter folk use Facebook differently from other people.) The first, which probes the who and why of unfriending, found that acquaintances from high school are most likely to get the chop, followed by friends of friends, work friends, and common interest friends. Study co-author Christopher Sibona speculates in a press release that we often wish to sever online contact with people who disagree with us about religion or politics (long live the filter bubble). Since we’re most likely to diverge radically in perspective from those we knew in childhood, before we began picking our friends based on their bumper stickers, they get purged first.

April 23 2014 7:18 PM

After a Slow Season, There May Be a Major Tornado Outbreak This Weekend

After weeks of being stuck in neutral, tornado season is about to kick into high gear.

The National Weather Service is saying “strong tornadoes are possible” during a “significant multi-day severe event” set to begin this weekend from Texas to Tennessee.

According to the Storm Prediction Center, the tornado forecasting branch of the National Weather Service, a lingering low-pressure center will emerge from the southern Rockies on Saturday and quickly grow in strength. By Saturday evening, the storm will tap into moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, kicking off a round of supercell thunderstorms with the potential to spawn a swath of tornadoes. The threat will move slightly east on Sunday, and then into the Deep South on Monday. The pattern is being held in place by an intense high-pressure block thousands of miles away in northeast Canada. In addition to possible tornadoes, large hail and heavy rains will be in the forecast for several days.​