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Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter, Iran and #uksnow

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Dec 09, 09:28 GMT

I know how much some of you hate stories that mention a certain microblogging service - but Twitter is the source of two interesting stories today.

First of all, it disappeared for about an hour at around 06:00, with the website and Twitter applications both failing to function.

Screenshots on some blogs appear to indicate that Iranian hackers - angered by Twitter's supposed role in fomenting opposition in that country - took the site down.

If so, it's a powerful demonstration that social networks are becoming an important battleground, both for liberation movements and for their opponents.

And there's another story rather closer to home. As snow sweeps across Eastern England, Twitter is once again a useful place to find information - as long as it doesn't crack under the pressure.

But amid the steady stream of tweets about snow depths and road conditions, a row has broken out over something rather peculiar - just who owns the UK snow?

Or rather who owns #uksnow, the "hashtag" used by twitterers to identify and find tweets about this subject.

Back in February, when the snow was so heavy it even kept hardy London children from school, an inventive web developer called Ben Marsh saw all the #uksnow tweets and had an idea. Using their postcodes, he plotted them all on a map giving a real-time picture of what was going on.

Yesterday he resurrected the idea with a new map, which you can find here.

I had already said on Twitter that I was planning a trip to Cambridge today, and Ben kindly sent me a message drawing my attention to his map. But minutes later. I was getting a message from another twitterer, Julian Bray.

First, he advised me to "forget cambridge a whole snow dump tonight" then went on "ps I invented the #uk snow hashtag last year and March(sic) hijacked it! ie my intell.prop."

It seems that Mr Bray is cross that his "invention" of #uksnow has been forgotten, with all the recognition going to Ben Marsh. I think it's the first time that anyone has claimed intellectual property rights to a hashtag.

All sorts of possibilities open up - after all, popular hashtags can be used millions of times, so maybe I should now create #hashtagdispute, assert my IP rights, and demand payment every time it is used.

All very interesting - but perhaps less important than the apparent cyber-warfare between Iran's government, the opposition and Twitter.

Social networks are transforming the way we communicate; they're also becoming the place where we fight - over issues big and small.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Maybe I should now create #hashtagdispute, assert my IP rights, and demand payment every time it is used.

    =============

    You'll be lucky. I invented the apostrophe and I'm still waiting for my cheque in the post.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think it's the first time that anyone has claimed intellectual property rights to a hashtag.

    This sort of insanity is a direct consequence of people using the meaningless term 'Intellectual Property' as either a lazy shorthand or a deliberately Orwellian attempt to mislead. There is no such thing as intellectual property - there are copyrights, patents, and trademarks. If you look at them individually it's clear that a hashtag isn't copyrightable, shouldn't be patentable (and in the specific can be easily dealt with - is Julian Bray claiming to hold a patent?), and isn't a trademark since it's nowhere close to being used as one.

    Language shapes the way people's think; in this case it appears that sloppy language has led Julian Bray, at least, into some very sloppy thinking indeed.

  • Comment number 3.

    Rory - I don't mind the BBC mentioning the site when it is relevant, as in the story about Iran. I do however think it is wrong of the Corporation to mention it in TV shows like Question Time and to mention only Twitter when there are many other similar services available.

  • Comment number 4.

    What I love about this particular twitter debacle is the hackers managed to crash their own servers because they couldn't hadnle twitter's traffic. There's been some plucky girldetective work going on amoungst the users, and they're not particularly impressed by the hackers or twitter! The main concern is if they've managed as password grab while they had the chance.

    @ _ewan_
    "Intellectual Property" is a perfectly reasonable term for describing the group you mention: copyrights, patents and trademarks - and unregisterable ideas. It has absolutely no legal weight whatsoever, of course, unless the intellectual propetry in question has been copyrighted, patented or trademarked. Which you can't do for a hastag, so though it may be Mr Bray's intellectual property there's nothing he can do but tell people it was his idea first, which has about as much meaning as a child yelling "but he's copying me!" when a playground friend decides they want to spend all day hopping on one foot too.

  • Comment number 5.

    Didn't the hackers simply poison the DNS records? That is a lot different to hacking into Twitter's servers.

    So is this really "Twitter has been hit by an embarrassing security breach." as the headline of the news article suggests or is is lax security elsewhere that allowed the Iranians to poison/hijack the DNS records, which is something totally different.

    In fact if you read the article it actually states further down:

    "This has the net effect of making it look like, in this example, servers belonging to Twitter were compromised when in reality that was not the case."

    So why did the BBC go with the alarmist headline?

  • Comment number 6.

    I was wondering that too, Steve. Seems like a DNS issue rather than a twitter problem. These things have been corrected before, and it only causes security to be increased. Rather they do this to twitter than some international bank.

    And yeh, if you're going after such a big site, make sure you have the bandwidth to avoid getting slashdotted. Silly hackers.

  • Comment number 7.

    who owns #uksnow, the "hashtag" used by twitterers to identify and find tweets about this subject.

    More precisely can anyone own the # ?

    The use of hash mark’s in technology derives from the research dept. of the US telephone company Bell in the 1970s.
    Bell were developing systems that allowed access to computer data via telephones and needed to include symbols on their keypads as well as numbers, the symbols representing instructions.

    The * and # were selected because they were also on typewriter keyboards and so could be included in typed instructions.
    Once on both telephone and typewriter keyboards the # became heavily used once computers were developed.

    Two Bell engineers invented the name ‘Octothorpe’ for the # symbol; it is still known as this in some dictionaries and was used to describe the # in a 1973 telecommunications patent.
    However Western Electric disliked ‘Octothorpe’ and the name never gained universal usage.

    If anyone has patent rights to the # (on telephones at least), it would probably be Bell; though I doubt they’d be that bothered, they wanted it widely used.

    The # symbol was used widely in the USA before the 1970s to represent pounds (lbs) weight, hence its inclusion on typewriter keyboards.

    The abbreviation – ‘lbs’ – for ‘pound’ seems to have started centuries ago when Italian merchants used a shortened version of the word ‘libra’ (scales) for recording the weight of goods - written as ‘lb’.

    When noting goods of the same value in both the (at the time almost identical) English and Italian weights and measures systems they crossed the ‘lb’ with two horizontal strokes, done hastily it became #.

    In turn this notation was adopted by English merchants trading in the Mediterranean.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ _Evan_ , nkkinston:

    As far as "intellectual property" goes it is obvious that the use of the term is widespread and necessary. And for the "legal weight", it has plenty. Your right to your own creations, like photographs, drawings and music, are granted without any form of registration, you own the right to this material the second you produce it. In my opinion, the opportunity to register various "intellectual properties" has gone a little far, e.g. when considering that one can hold a form of ownership to a phrase (for example George Clinton in the US for the phrase "Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yeah", go figure).

  • Comment number 9.

    @Wilhelm everything you say about these rights existing is perfectly correct, but doesn't really address why the misleading catch-all term is anything but harmful. If you mean you hold the copyright in your own creations, why not simply say 'copyright'?

    Copyrights, patents and trademarks don't behave the same as each other, and none of them behave exactly like property. Talking about them as if they did impairs people's understanding and leads them to thinking that something like the #uksnow idea could ever be their 'property' - it couldn't, and that's obvious if you think in terms of actual copyrights, patents and trademarks rather than the nebulous idea of 'intellectual property'.

  • Comment number 10.

    For Mr Bray to suggest he invented a hashtag, and its his intellectual property is at best glib and at most, disgusting.

    Since last winter's snow I was using that hashtag to submit weather information to Ben Marsh's map. You can create whatever tag you want, but its how you use it that means something. After all, the map was wholly Mr Marsh's idea. What did Mr Bray do other than use the tag? Is there any evidence that he was the first person to use it, and to use it for the features that Mr Bray did?

    I'm afraid he's full of hot air on this one.

  • Comment number 11.

    Unfortunately, this experience about ownership of hashtags is not quite so uncommon as we might think. I've had many a conversation with colleagues new to social networking who regard the hashtag asmarketing tool. If there's an event and they're organising it, it's felt they own the hashtag too.

    I have on occasions been advised to only use a particular hashtag too, something which left me breathless if only because of the stark way it illustrated the extent to which those individuals failed to appreciate the community nature of the medium.

    Whilst on the one hand it seems a little odd to debate who "owns" such a small amount of text - a relatively miniscule number of characters have in the past consumed my thoughts during a much needed cigarette break - the fear is that this like many other organic aspects of internet activity will in time get trodden on.

    I hope not. Because #uksnow offers the kind of group obsession with snow I recall having a kid.

  • Comment number 12.

    This #uksnow map thing (and similar fads) fools gullible "new media" types, but those with us with any common sense know that it is worthless, pointless rubbish. The obsession (of which the BBC is most guilty of all) with vox pops, public engagement and real time information will destroy news and media very soon. For instance, how is the information checked and verified? I'll tell you: it's not.

    Case in point. Last year there was a major UK event of which a major news organisation asked for photos to be submitted by the public. One of those pictures ended up on the front page of the news site and on its news broadcasts as a depiction of the scene. Unfortunately, it later turned out that it was a picture of a completely different event in a completely different country, and about five years ago too: the submitter just chose a random picture he/she found on the internet and the news organisation took the bait like the idiots many "new media" types are.

    Twatter, FaceHook et al are no substitute for research or journalism.

    PS I've just set up a Twitter account and posted that my local town is cut off by 12 inches of snow. And yet, strangely, my local town hasn't seen a single flake....

  • Comment number 13.

    No.7 SheffTim

    Many Americans also use the # as an replacement for No. as in your blog #7!

  • Comment number 14.

    I know how much some of you hate stories that mention a certain microblogging service

    When it's a relevant story rather than a glorified press release, there's nothing wrong with mentioning it. It was just that a few months ago every second blog seemed to be about it (with the ones in-between being about Apple), so it was getting very tiresome and repetitive.

    As for the hashtag property rights, the guy is living in a dream world. If he wants to be able to hold rights over the conventions used in microblogging services, I suggest he create his own service and enforces people to use it how he demands, with people requesting him to create the tags they should be using to discuss each topic. Lots of luck getting people to use it, though. It's such a ridiculous argument, because in an instant everyone could just start using #snowuk and Ben Marsh would just change the tag his service looks for. What is Bray looking for, kudos? Royalty monies?

    (By the way, #snowuk is my intellectual property, even though it's entirely likely that someone else has used it before at some point, so don't go using it without my permission.)

  • Comment number 15.

    how is the information checked and verified? I'll tell you: it's not.

    You're rather missing the point, as do many people who take an unthinking curmudgeonly dislike to things like Twitter. There is nothing magical or special aout Twitter, it's just a way for people to communicate. If one person I don't know tells me something odd in real life I'm probably not going to just take it on trust, but if loads of people independently tell me the same thing it carries a bit more weight. Equally if someone I do know and trust tells me something it doesn't matter if they do it face to face or by tweeting at me - it's the person I trust, not the medium.

    PS I've just set up a Twitter account and posted that my local town is cut off by 12 inches of snow. And yet, strangely, my local town hasn't seen a single flake....

    The net result of which is that no-one's going to think it's snowing in your town, but anyone that notices the tweet will rightly conclude that you're a lying berk.

  • Comment number 16.

    @8 Wilhelm

    > As far as "intellectual property" goes it is obvious that
    > the use of the term is widespread and necessary. And for
    > the "legal weight", it has plenty. Your right to your own
    > creations, like photographs, drawings and
    > music, are granted without any form of registration

    Not so I'm afraid. "IP" is an umbrella term for various forms of material that can be protected, however only copyright is automatically protected. Other forms are not and most certainly do require registration.

    @15 _Ewan_

    > If one person I don't know tells me something odd in real life
    > I'm probably not going to just take it on trust, but if loads
    > of people independently tell me the same thing it carries a bit
    > more weight.

    So if one person passes on an unsubstantiated rumour they read on a website it carries no weight, but if lots of people have also heard the same unsubstantiated rumour and also passed it on (which is what rumours are and how they work) then it *does* carry weight?

  • Comment number 17.

    The #uksnow story is an interesting one - it showed how an idea developed from an initial unstructured conversation, to one that interested, entertained and might even have been useful to, many thousands of people.

    I think of it as an example of what's sometimes called the "Power of Information" effect - if information is freely available for reuse, and a little thought is put into its structure and flow, then interesting (and hopefully useful) things will happen. Sure, this was a fairly trivial example based on weather chatter, but it did a great job of showing the potential of applications like this.

    I've blogged about the inside story of its development (and the little twist yesterday) here:

    http://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2009/12/dark-side-of-the-uksnow-clouds/

  • Comment number 18.

    It appears to me that TWITTER should have an A instead of an I

  • Comment number 19.

    @15

    "The net result of which is that no-one's going to think it's snowing in your town, but anyone that notices the tweet will rightly conclude that you're a lying berk."

    How precisely? Through magic? Or do you believe everyone verifies what they read on such sites?

  • Comment number 20.

    Bah, uksnow is not that valuable and seasonal anyway.
    I own both 'ukhomes' and 'allstockmarkets'

    Anyone care to make me an offer? ;-)

  • Comment number 21.

    personally I feel like twitter's traffic is due pretty much entirely to media talking about how great it is and mentioning it every step of the way. I feel like the 99% of the site's traffic, is just people coming to see what the people on TV were talking about.

    Turn on any TV station, and there is always a "go check out twitter".
    Frankly, I'd be interested to know how much smaller twitter would get, if news would stop talking them for a month.
    Google News? Tech Blogs? Everywhere you go it's, Twitter Twitter Twitter
    http://search.techcrunch.com/query.php?s=twitter
    http://venturebeat.com/?s=twitter
    http://techmeme.com/search/query?q=twitter&wm=false
    http://news.search.yahoo.com/news/search?ei=UTF-8&c=&p=twitter
    http://news.google.com/archivesearch?pz=1&cf=all&ned=us&hl=en&q=twitter&cf=all&sugg=d&sa=N&lnav=d0&as_ldate=2010&as_hdate=2010&ldrange=2007%2C2009&style=1



  • Comment number 22.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 25.

    it`s well known the many company such as gambling company uses Twiter as SEO tool today.i can understand why contries do the same thing :)

 

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