Skype 5.0 Brings Facebook Integration, Improved Call Options To Windows

by Ray Willington

These days, people don”t “call each other.” They simply “Skype.” Skype is definitely making a mark in how people communicate, and with more and more people signing up for their VoIP services each and everyday, it”s becoming harder to ignore. The service just keeps getting better with each release, and today Skype version 5.0 is available for Windows users in order to bring them even more new extras.

Version 5.0 had previously been in beta, but now it”s fully out in the open and ready to integrate your Facebook friends. Integration is becoming the name of the game; with Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and countless other social networking sites, pulling them together in Skype 5.0 is making it easier than ever to dial up friends from all regions of life. The new build also pulls in Facebook”s news feed and phonebook, and there”s a revised user interface as well. Additionally, there”s a group video calling feature that”s available, but remains in beta.

For the first time Skype users can keep up-to-dateand interact with their Facebook News Feed, including posting status updates, commenting, and liking, directly from Skype. Even better, the Facebook Phonebook in Skype allows users to call and SMS their Facebook friends directly on their mobile phones and landlines with just a few clicks. If your Facebook friend is also a Skype contact, you can make a free Skype-to-Skype call. Furthermore, the new Skype introduces automatic call recovery, which helps users quickly reconnect calls that are interrupted due to Internet connection problems. Plus, a call quality manager gauges audio and video quality during calls, providing guidance on resolving problems and improving the call experience.

The new version is available now from for Windows users.


Government uses social networking to infiltrate people''s lives

By David Gomez

As part of a lawsuit against half a dozen federal agencies, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)  has obtained chilling documents that reveal how the government routinely monitors people online.

According to an EFF blog post, government officials have been using surveillance of social networks to investigate citizenship petitions and the Department of Homeland Security established a “Social Networking Monitoring Cente” to collect and analyze online public communication during President Obama’s inauguration.

In the information the EFF received, there is a memo (dated May 2008) by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services entitled “Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS” (Office of Fraud Detection and National Security).

This memo is disturbing because of the assumptions the government makes about people who use social networking. The government uses deception to friend people with pending applications for citizenship in the US, and then they use social networking to gather information about that person’s life.

Their hope is to catch people engaged in lying to USCIS. They want to catch people whose relationships might not live up to the USCIS standard of a legitimate marriage. So while using social networking to expose people who scam the system isn’t an act of pure evil, it does make one suspicious of government monitoring of social networking.

This memo makes no mention of how solid the government’s information on a person has to be before surveillance is conducted. This makes is seem as if everyone who uses social networking is a potential target for spying. It also doesn’t say if the government officials who make friend requests to the people they want to spy on actually have to admit their connection to the government.

Based on the memo it would be easy for the government to use social networking to spy not only on individuals who have a citizenship application pending, but their friends and families also.

The EFF also received another bit of information in the form of some slides from a presentation about the Department of Homeland Security starting a Social Networking Monitoring Center. SNMC was created before President Obama’s inauguration to monitor social networking sites for so-called “items of interest.”

The slides describe the tremendous amount of information that DHS collected from social networking sites about people who have accounts. As you might have guessed, nearly every popular form of social networking is being watched.

SNMN goes a bit further than just profiling general social networking sites. They have also been targeting sites with a specific demographic as well. Sites like MiGente and BlackPlanet have been subjected to government profiling as well as political sites like DailyKos.

The slides released to the EFF suggest that the government was collecting information on social networking tied to political events and people’s political beliefs prior to and during the president’s inauguration.

And while the slides attempt to minimize the action of collecting of “Personally Identifiable Information,” it also says “openly divulged information excluding PII will be used for future corroboration purposes and trend analysis during the Inauguration period.”

So, yeah, it’s kind of hard to understand based on the contradictory language in the slides, when the government keeps and deletes certain personal information obtained from social networking.

While some people will gripe and defend the government’s recently revealed activities; the language in the government documents is too unclear to justify any kind of monitoring of social networks.

The thin line between evil spying and government protection is getting erased by this type of activity. The EFF shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit just to find out that the government is sitting around taking copious notes about Facebook and Twitter.

Why all the secrecy over the last few years?

Tracking social influence through Farmville

By John Timmer

Everything from ideas to communicable diseases spread through social networks, so understanding the processes that enable and influence this spread has immense practical value, even if the research involves… Facebook apps like Farmville.

In recent years, such studies have been revolutionized by the availability of data from computer networks, derived from games and social sites, that provide a far more complete picture of network effects. In the latest study of this sort, a pair of researchers analyzed the installation of Facebook applications in order to determine the point at which social influences start, and they came up with a remarkably specific answer: 55 downloads a day.

Facebook applications range from popular games to trivial decorations, and a number of them have become wildly popular, ending up with millions of installations. From the authors”” perspective, however, these are cultural goods that people choose to install based on their exposure to the apps—and, given that the apps generally aren””t advertised, most of that exposure comes purely through a user””s social network. During the period the study examines (summer of 2007), Facebook automatically sent application install announcements to a user””s network, which ensured that a user””s social network came into play.

Facebook””s public APIs also provided the researchers with an opportunity to get complete information on application installs. In the roughly two months they tracked users, the researchers tracked over a million app installs. Only a handful of applications were skipped due to data corruption issues, so the authors feel they””ve avoided the problem of selection bias that frequently afflict real-world studies.

To gauge the impact of social interactions, the authors turned to the field of fluctuation scaling. In the specific analysis they performed, adding a Facebook app was modeled as a coin flip-like process. At any point, a given user has a chance of deciding to install the app. If no social influences are at play, the analysis will spit out a probability that looks precisely like a coin-flip: 0.5. As social influences become increasingly important, that value will climb towards 1.0.

Below a certain level of download activity, social influences were minimal; the analysis returned a value of 0.55. The authors claim that, as far as they can tell, this distinct phase of non-social driven adoption had never been detected in any studies of network effects. They ascribe its previous invisibility to the fact that no other studies had complete access to all the relevant data; previously, these low-profile items were so hard to find, they didn””t end up getting included in earlier work.

At a very specific point, however, a transition takes place. Once an app becomes popular enough, social forces kick in and the correlations among user downloads rise to 0.85. The transition takes place at a remarkably specific point: 55 installs a day. Once social influences kick in, that 0.85 figure stays in effect over two orders of magnitude, until the rate of downloading starts to tail off. To the authors, this suggests that social influences act as a binary, all-or-nothing influence.

The impact of social networks was independent of whether the app itself included a social component. So, a game that allowed friends to play against each other displayed similar dynamics to one that (in the authors”” example) put a virtual lava lamp on your wall.

Not having seen anything like this before, the authors don””t appear to know what to make of it. The discussion simply suggests that it””s an inherent feature of social networks, and they don””t even try to explain it. Until we have either an explanation or replication in other systems, however, it seems premature to conclude that these dynamics are an inherent feature of these networks.

PNAS, 2010. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914572107 (About DOIs).

Social Games that Sway Behavior

To your health: Healthseeker, a Facebook game which launched this summer, encourages users to take on healthy “missions.” When players complete healthy actions, they are rewarded with points, virtual gifts, and approval from friends in their social networks.

With the rise of social networks, game designers are finding new paths to desired outcomes.

By Kristina Grifantini

Can your social network make you healthier? It”s a question that health organizations are asking more and more–as part of a wave of new gaming experiments that aim to persuade players to think and act differently while having fun.

In June, Vancouver game consulting company Ayogo launched a Facebook game called HealthSeeker that awards “life experience” points or virtual gifts when players with diabetes make small lifestyle changes. For example, it might assign a challenge such as not putting sugar in a single cup of coffee and then reward the player for completing the mission.

The challenge of this kind of game isn”t to convince people of something but to get them to act. “People are already emotionally committed to their health,” says Michael Fergusson, the founder and CEO of Ayogo. “They know they need to eat better and exercise.” But approaching that challenge all at once can seem overwhelming and thankless. “We pay them to take healthy actions,” says Fergusson. Reinforcing those small actions could turn them into habits that add up to better health.

“The game is an ongoing exploration for each player,” adds Manny Hernandez, cofounder and president of the Diabetes Hand Foundation, a nonprofit social-media group that worked with Ayogo and the Joslin Diabetes Center to develop the game. “We hope that through that it can become a very strong source of support for the player,” he says. So far, more than 3,000 people have signed up.

Businesses see value in the concept. “We were really trying to utilize the game players” own online social network as a source of inspiration and support,” says Susan Holz, a public affairs and communications representative at the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim, which funded the project as part of an initiative to encourage creative online games related to diabetes.

The real power of the game lies in the principle of reciprocity, the tendency to do something positive for someone who did something positive for you. Game designers take advantage of reciprocity by making it easy for users to send gifts to friends (“You just accepted this pig” in Farmville, or “Thank Don by sending a free mystery bag back!” in Mafia Wars). Even if users know that the cost of a gift is minimal–often no more than a mouse click–“in general we found people will value the thing they receive,” says Fergusson.

In HealthSeeker, a user can send a “Kudo”–a virtual gift designed to be interesting or amusing–to reward friends for completing a task such as going a day without chocolate. When they receive a Kudo, users feel rewarded and acknowledged for doing something difficult, Fergusson explains. They will also feel a subtle but powerful obligation to return the favor, he says: “That obligation drives the loop of social games.”

The game also draws on the power of social networks in other ways. Users can accept challenges from friends, which Fergusson says make them more likely to take on the recommended mission (the average player is working on two active missions; players who have accepted a friend”s challenge average four). What”s more, users tend to return to the game more frequently when their friends are also playing.

While it”s too early for HealthSeeker to have more than anecdotal evidence of the success of the game, other games have shown conclusively that they can alter behavior–even more than expected at times. MovieSet is a website that chronicles movie production to generate advance buzz for largely unknown films before promos hit TV or radio. When it launched a behind-the-scenes Web show last year, it initially attracted few viewers. The prerelease excitement that MovieSet craved wasn”t there.

Article Continues ->

Why Twitter Is the Future of News

This “retweet tree analysis” shows instances of retweeting. When a message is retweeted just a few times it reaches a huge number of users. Credit: Kwak et al.

An unprecedented analysis reveals that the micro-blogging service is remarkably effective at spreading “important” information.

By Christopher Mims

It’s basically impossible for a journalist who relies on Twitter to find stories, stalk editors, rack up “whuffie” and beef with rap stars to be objective about the service.

Fortunately, I don’t have to be, because four researchers from the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have performed a multi-part analysis of Twitter. They conclude that it’s a surprisingly interconnected network and an effective way to filter quality information.

In a move unprecedented in the history of academic research on Demi Moore’s chosen medium for feuding with Kim Kardashian, Kwak et al. built an array of 20 PCs to slurp down the entire contents of Twitter over the course of a month. If you were on Twitter in July 2009, you participated in their experiment.

Four Degrees of Separation

The ideas behind Stanley Milgram’s original “six degrees of separation” experiment, which suggested that any two people on earth could be connected by at most six hops from one acquaintance to the next, have been widely applied to online social networks.

On the MSN messenger network of 180 million users, for example, the median degree of separtaion is 6. On Twitter, Kwak et al. hypothesized that because only 22.1% of links are reciprocal (that is, I follow you, and you follow me as well) the number of degrees separating users would be longer. In fact, the average path length on Twitter is 4.12.

What’s more, because 94% of the users on Twitter are fewer than five degrees of separation from one another, it’s likely that the distance between any random Joe or Jane and say, Bill Gates, is even shorter on Twitter than in real life.

Information as Outbreak

“…No matter how many followers a user has, the tweet is likely to reach [an audience of a certain size] once the user’s tweet starts spreading via retweets,” says Kwak et al. “That is, the mechanism of retweet has given every user the power to spread information broadly […] Individual users have the power to dictate which information is important and should spread by the form of retweet […] In a way we are witnessing the emergence of collective intelligence.”

If this reminds of you early 90’s hyperbole about the then-new world wide web, it should! Back then the web was a raucous, disorganized, largely volunteer-led effort full of surprisingly informative Geocities pages and equally uninformative corporate websites.

These days we have to contend with the creeping power of what can only notionally be defined as media “content”–produced purely to appear at the top of search results. But it appears that the (so far) still entirely human-filtered paradise of Twitter may come to the rescue. Owing to the short path length between any two users, news travels fast in the tweet-o-sphere.

Earlier work suggested that the best way to get noticed on Twitter was to tweet at certain times of day, and Kwak et al.’s paper sheds some light on why this is the case: “Half of retweeting occurs within an hour, and 75% under a day.” And it’s those initial re-tweets that make all the difference: “What is interesting is from the second hop and on is that the retweets two hops or more away from the source are much more responsive and basically occur back to back up to 5 hops away.”

There Are a Lot of Lonely People on Twitter

Clashing with the service’s interconnectivity, Kwak et al.’s analysis also suggests that there are a lot of lonely people on Twitter, and not just the ones who are tweeting angry political screeds at 8 pm on a Saturday night. “67.6% of users are not followed by any of their followings in Twitter,” they report. “We conjecture that for these users Twitter is rather a source of information than a social networking site.”

Another possibility, left unexplored by Kwak and his colleagues, is simply that on Twitter, like real life, some people are much more popular than others.

Aside from its monkey + keyboard simplicity, the fact that links on Twitter do not have to be reciprocal may be its ultimate genius. To that end, I urge all of you to follow Technology Review on Twitter. I must warn you that, as an enormously influential inanimate object, it has no empathy or conscience, so don’t take it personally when it doesn’t follow you back.

NJ Principal Asks Parents to Pull the Plug on Social Networking

by Paul Lilly

Former rapper Will Smith had it completely wrong when he waxed poetic about how parents just don’t understand. It’s the principal who has it all backwards, or at least that’s what you’ll hear if you talk to the students of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

So what is it that has students in an uproar? In an email to parents earlier this week, Anthony Orsini, the school principal, pleaded with parents to turn their children away from social networking and to more closely monitor their text messaging. Here’s part of what he wrote:

Please do the following: sit down with your child (and they are just children still) and tell them that they are not allowed to be a member of any social networking site. Today!

Let them know that you will at some point every week be checking their text messages online! You have the ability to do this through your cell phone provider.

Let them know that you will be installing Parental Control Software so you can tell every place they have visited online, and everything they have instant messaged or written to a friend. Don’t install it behind their back, but install it!

It is time for every single member of the BF Community to take a stand! There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site!

Let me repeat that – there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.

Parents, of course, are under no obligation to take Orsini’s advice and cut their children off from Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking portals, but what’s so surprising is the tone in which he adamantly lashes out against such sites.

Part of what has Orsini’s feathers so ruffled is the often anonymous practice of cyber bullying. More than just a buzzword, the school’s guidance counselor, Meredith Wearly, claims she spends about 75 percent of her day diffusing social networking issues that arise among students.

The problem extends beyond Benjamin Franklin Middle School. Recent research found that out of about 4,000 students between the ages of 12 and 18 representing 41 different schools, 20 percent of them admitted to cyber bullying others in their lifetime. In this case, “cyber bullying is when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronics devices.” And it would appear that adolescent girls are more susceptible to this behavior than other demographics, with 25.8 percent claiming to have been the victim of cyber bullying at least once in their lifetime, versus 16 percent of adolescent males.

And what of the email Orsini sent out? According to the principal, the reaction so far has been mostly positive, though some students have obviously taken issue with his suggestion.

“I’m not going to do anything bad, so why should I get rid of it?,” argues Ali Feniberg, and eighth grade student.

Read the email in its entirely here (scroll down), and then be sure to became a fan of HotHardware’s Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. Parents, students, and even principals are welcome.

FollowCost – Tool for Twitter

FollowCost – With hundreds of people following you every day, it is easy to just start following them back. However, many people later realize that a specific user wasn’t worth following. FollowCost is a new tool that lets you see how annoying a Twitter user would be before you start following them.

Once you enter the username of somebody on Twitter, FollowCost will calculate the average number of daily tweets by that user and their last 100 updates. The tool also compares the average tweets to number of average tweets by Robert Scoble. You can also see what percentage of the tweets are replies and what percentage are 140 characters long.

It is a fun tool to get an overview of a user’s Twitter activity at a glance.