Amazon EC2 4-day downtime debacle: Keeping your users in the dark is naughty

Amazon Web Services logo

A few days ago, Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (or EC2 to you and I) had a catastrophic failure. The world kept turning, but unfortunately, the third-party collaboration/SVN tool we use was on the affected East USA zone where the issue started on Thursday. It wasn’t until late Sunday night that we regained access to our SVN server.

That’s effectively four days of downtime, where our Alfred development was at standstill at a point where we had huge plans for the next release. The third-party was kept in the dark by Amazon as much as we were, twiddling our thumbs waiting for things to get moving.

In the past year, Twitter’s uptime has improved and it has become even more of an essential tool to many people than before. Increasingly, Twitter is in fact being seen as a source of up-to-the-second information and news, with the newly redesigned homepage further driving the point home.

Twitter homepage

Yet, at the time of writing, Amazon hasn’t used the awscloud account to update customers of the status of the outage or the reasons behind it. There are plenty of theories floating around about hardware failure, Amazon’s Cloud Player becoming too popular too soon, but we’ve not heard an official word.

AWS Health Dashboard - April outage

It isn’t for lack of smart cookies at Amazon either; knowing a few of them, I’m baffled why no one felt it was worth using it as a channel for communication. The AWS Health Dashboard was updated fairly frequently with obscure, meaningless status updates and no background information.

Many organisations dismiss Twitter as a social network made for sharing what you’ve had for breakfast but in times of crisis, it can truly come into its own. As far back as 2007, emergency services have used Twitter to disseminate information and help the population when fires raged across Southern California. The Los Angeles Fire Department as well as news outlets tweeted updates to help people get to safety or stay away from affected areas.

More recently, Japan’s phone networks were overloaded after the earthquakes in March – with NTT DoCoMo restricting up to 80 per cent of voice calls, especially in Tokyo – but Twitter, Facebook, Mixi and Skype were lifelines for those hiding under desks during the seemingly never-ending earthquake.

While the EC2 debacle was nowhere near as life-threatening as an earthquake, it was the perfect opportunity to post short, simple updates on Twitter, letting those directly and indirectly affected know that Amazon wasn’t asleep at the switch.

My confidence in cloud computing has been less dented by the outage itself, and much more by the feeling of helplessness Amazon caused by giving us no clue what was happening! I wonder if we’ll ever find out why they chose to be so uncommunicative, and whether they’ll improve if there’s a “next time”.

Twitter's other spam problem: Username chaos

A few months ago, Twitter published a State of Twitter Spam blog post. It claimed to have reduced spam from fake accounts to little more than 1%, lowering the number of offers for prescription drugs, dodgy online scams and invitations from busty babes. We complain about Twitter more than we praise them, but this deserves a “well done!”

What’s on the increase and quite possibly trickier to control is the noise created by users who don’t understand how Twitter works – usernames in particular.

There seem to be a few trends:

Retweets as replies

Users in Malaysia and Indonesia seem to use retweets as a way to “thread” conversation. As a result, the oldest words get truncated. As Veronica seems to be a common name, I’ll often have more misappropriated foreign tweets than real @replies in my stream.

Failing to understand usernames

The next flavour of Twitter spam is due to users who don’t understand that @Vero or @Jake or @Bob are really someone’s usernames and use them willy nilly.

I often see “@Vero’s house for a party” and hope that some stranger isn’t on the way to my place with a couple of crates of beer for an impromptu gathering.

What’s next?

I’ll be interested to see how Twitter tackles this kind of issue. Having steamed past the 100 millionth user some time ago, the noise level is quickly becoming deafening.

Unlike classic spam where a user publishes the same thing hundreds of times, this can’t be fixed as easily as it’s a user education issue.

How could Twitter handle this?

The hardest thing about an idea is to get it started

Ryan Sarver from Twitter presenting during LeWeb 09

Last week, I was kindly invited to attend LeWeb 09 as official blogger. LeWeb is a yearly, two-day conference in Paris, which takes a deep look at the web now and in the future. It’s a frenzied opportunity to meet new people, see old faces and hear great talks.

While watching the world go by at Ebbsfleet Eurostar station, (the best kept secret of European travel) before heading to Paris, it hit me that we nearly halfway through December. I started thinking back on 2009, the successes and failures I’ve experienced or witnessed others experience. It’s been an interesting year, with a few victories, but a few scraped knees also.

Then yesterday morning, in one of the first talks of LeWeb, Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder said:

“The hardest thing about an idea is to get it started”

I’ll tell you a secret: I used to really hate being rubbish at something, to the point where, when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t even rehearse for my vocal music classes in front of people for fear they’d hear me do something wrong. Yet I’d happily sing in concert in front of a huge crowd at the end of the year! And I didn’t speak English til I was in my teens, not because I couldn’t, but because I was embarrassed by my accent.

It doesn’t take much to realise that nearly everyone feels that way to a varying degree; the fear of failure can paralyse us and stop us from doing things we REALLY want to do.

LeWeb is filled with people who’ve taken that jump, who’ve conquered their fears, their peers’ fears, or at least sidelined them long enough to give their ideas a go. Whether it’s launching a startup instead of staying in a cushy-but-boring megacorp job, launching a new wacky iPhone idea or creating and manufacturing a small-run Psion-revival pocket computer.

These people and startups risk money, energy and years of their life for something they’re passionate about or think might change the world (or at least make a dent of difference). They use events and conferences as an opportunity to gain visibility, get feedback on what they’ve created and meet existing and potential users. Needless to say, they also leave with a few bruises from those who don’t “get” their idea and either say it bluntly or tweet it publicly.

Of course, only one out of five* will break even, and only a handful will become rockstars. But some of those who failed will get back up, try something else and one day, succeed.

So as we hurtle towards 2010, why not let ourselves get inspired by brave startups and self-employed ppl who’ve flown the nest of safety and try doing something awesome?

Hopefully, some attendees (or some of the thousands of online viewers of the LeWeb video stream) will be inspired to do something for the greater good in the process. Whether it’s organising a BarCamp event, running a charity-focused event in support of 1GOAL (as presented by Queen Rania) or providing charitable organisations with free coaching, share your wisdom with others.

As Gary Vaynerchuk said, in his usual blunt way, “Everybody’s got a shot, I don’t care if you are in Sillicon Valley or in France” (See his talk here) As Gary has done, from being co-owner of a New Jersey wine shop to becoming a web celeb, he’s shown us that with enough passion and drive, we can achieve just about anything.

Talking about driving… Heading down to Ebbsfleet station, I couldn’t help but be amused that it was a fairly leisurely drive, albeit one involving some of the busiest motorways in the country. Two years ago, the thought of having to drive down the M25 gave me cold sweats. I could have gone on to avoid driving like I had done until I was 25, but I reluctantly went through the scary challenge of driving lessons (it was scary in my eyes, alright!?) A few years on, I couldn’t be happier that I’m on the other side of it all. In hindsight, the hardest thing was to get started.

We all need to occasionally tackle a few fears or go above what we believe we can achieve right here and right now. It takes a while, trudging through how frustratingly bad we are at something at first, but then… oh THEN we feel like we’ve really achieved something great!

What will YOU do with 2010?

To read more from other LeWeb official bloggers, visit the aggregated posts page – with most of them doing a far better job summarising the event than I have done!

[* Stat entirely pulled out of thin air to be representative, don’t quote me on that one and see the experts for real stats]
[Photo credit: LeWeb 09 by Blogowski on Flickr, Creative Commons license]

Torchwood Writer Gets Online Abuse: Where social media stops being fun

A few days ago, I wrote about the Torchwood 5-day mini series which ended on Friday. During that same evening, it’s with great amusement that I also discovered that James Moran, writer for Severance, and episodes of Doctor Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Spooks, and Crusoe, was on Twitter.

In many ways, I enjoy seeing these backstage celebs on Twitter. By backstage celebs, I mean people who aren’t Britney, MC Hammer or Stephen Fry. Those people can be on Twitter all they like, but they’re already in the limelight. Seeing those who usually don’t get the limelight finally interact with the public through more than their scripts, stories or stage direction is more exciting, as we don’t usually get to hear them speak other than through their characters.

However, this evening, I came across a post by James which allowed me to realise just how seriously some people take television. He received many positive and praising messages, but was also highly criticised for a storyline that even upset me. Yes, I did have a tear in my eye when Rhys held the camera for Gwen to record her final words as “the world ended”.

Some have been spewing insults and passive aggressive nonsense. Accusing me of deliberately trying to mislead, lie, and hurt people. Telling me I hate the fans, that I’m laughing at them, that I used them, that I’m slapping people in the face, that I’ve “killed” the show, that I’m a homophobe, that I want to turn the fanbase away and court new, “cooler” viewers, even that I’m hurting depressed people with dark storylines. Asking me to pass on vitriolic, hateful messages to people I love and respect.

Not cool.

As James says, this just isn’t cool.

I love letting a story envelope me and take me away from work, home, the fact that the kitchen’s still not tidy and the stairs need hoovering. I love a story that lets me get a tiny little crush on one of the characters and picture travelling the stars with them. [Hell, I named my cats after Jack Harkness and Rose Tyler!] And yes, sometimes I want to shout at the TV and disagree with their stupid actions. “Don’t go in there alone and DO NOT put your gun down, you idiot!”

But people, all of you people who’ve given James abuse, get. a. fucking. grip.

“Hurting depressed people with dark storylines”? Please, get some real help. And I’m not saying this intending to offend, but with a true concern that if a TV show is enough to make you cross that line, it’s time to look at getting real help.

And if this isn’t your situation, then please go outside and get some perspective. This is television, and for a change, hey, it’s good enough to make people feel strongly about it by choosing a path less travelled. If the writers had taken the usual path, the same people would have clamoured that the ending was cheesy and predictable!

So have some respect for people and their trade. If a writer can’t join Twitter and enjoy it for what it is – a totally open means of communication with the audience – then writers, actors, authors and other backstage celebs will pull back and let their PR agencies do the talking. And that’s not what we want, is it!?

Here’s 50p, go buy yourself an ice cream and some perspective.

South by Southwest 2009: Surviving a Week of Geekery

I landed back in the UK two days ago, and I can already feel the most vivid memories of the week slipping away. Before any more memories disappear, better put pen to paper (figuratively, you know I rarely use paper) and note the salient points of South by Southwest 2009.

I arrived a day early to Austin on Wednesday night after a reasonably uneventful flight – just how I like them. The city was preparing for two weeks where everything changed; First, a week where geeks descend upon the city, then a week of musicians taking over every club, bar and hole in the wall.

On Thursday, once settled in, I met with the lovely Kara, an Austin local I met last year, who drove David, Rebecca & myself down to San Antonio for the day. We visited the Alamo and walked along the river, stopping by for our first Tex Mex lunch of the week (certainly not the last).

Friday, panels started slowly, but there was truly only one I wanted to see – Clearleft‘s Paul Annett’s presentation entitled “Oooh that’s Clever! Unnatural Web Design” focused on the small delights designers can add when creating a site. He bravely invited volunteers onto the stage to reenact the Silverback App site’s parallax effect alongside a gorilla costume-clad Elliot Jay Stocks. A surreal start to what was going to be a surreal week.

The evening was just as memorable; The Boiling Pot on 6th is rather unique, in the sense that the crab, sea bugs & meat gets unceremoniously dumped on the table, everyone gets a bib and a hammer and the fun begins.

Sophie and Steve eating at the Boiling Pot, Austin

Saturday, panel topics ranged from “Tips for Making Ideas Happen” with Scott Belsky, “First year as a freelancer” with Thomas Myer to “Mobilizing your Online Community” (the worst panel I attended all week, I left promptly) and “Building your Brand with Web 2.0 Tools”. The latter had an excellent panel composed of Saul Colt (Freshbooks), Chris Brogan, Loic LeMeur (Seesmic), CC Chapman & Dave Delaney, but the excitement of SXSW caused them to behave like fratboys rather than an intelligent, knowledgeable panel for a good part of the hour. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Brogan!)

The evening was a whirlwind of events: Brief visit by the Diggnation party where Alex Albrecht was seen throwing (Adidas-sponsored) shoes at the audience, followed by a few hours at the Frog Design Party, ending up at the Belmont Lounge for a cocktail before bed.

Sunday morning started well with “Ditch the Valley, Run for the Hills”, moderated by the lovely John Erik Metcalf, on running a successful business outside of the San Francisco area. Opinions were divided, with Scoble suggesting a strong link with the Valley is essential to get a business off the ground, and others proving otherwise. (Louis Gray’s notes)

Next session was “Making Whuffie: Raising Social Capital in Online Communities” by Tara Hunt, which realistically I should have skipped on. It’s a great presentation, but one I had seen twice already.

In the afternoon, the “From Flickr and Beyond: Lessons in Community Management” and “Are PR Agencies a Dying Breed?” panels were enlightening, with more detailed notes to be blogged soon.

Monday‘s first panel was “Beyond Aggregation — Finding the Web’s Best Content” with ReadWriteWeb ‘s Marshall Kirkpatrick, Louis Gray, Gabe Rivera (TechMeme), Melanie Baker (AideRSS) & Micah Baldwin (Lijit) I’ll be blogging this one in more details too but here are Louis’ notes for an early look.

“Enough To Be Dangerous: Managing ‘Expert’ Clients” looked promising but somewhere along the way, I got bored by the duh-that’s-obvious statements and the misinformed observations about the use of Flash in business sites, and walked out to get some Austin sunshine onto my pasty skin and spend some time with new and old friends.

Tuesday, last day of the event, I went to the Great British Breakfast to shmooze a little with the Digital Mission brits. Returning to the Convention Centre, I’d had enough of the fluffy community and social media panels (How many of them? Simon counted) and thought I’d dive into a few topics I knew nothing about; Get Satisfaction’s Thor Muller’s “Welcome to Your Posthuman Future” provided just that. It was like jumping head first into Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” book.

After lunch, I attempted to get in the Kawasaki & Anderson keynote, but it was so crowded that I gave up and wandered the halls one last time. Hoping to finish the week on another unexpected-and-interesting note, I headed to the “DRM: The Fight Isn’t Over Yet” Core Conversation by Fred Benenson of Creative Commons, but Core Conversations are always very hit-or-miss and again, it wasn’t worth staying for.

The Media Temple Closing Party provided a great opportunity to meet new people, where I couldn’t help wondering where they/I’d been all week! It’s always that way,

Wednesday, the long trek home began, flying at 11am from Austin, spending a few hours around Charlotte airport and meeting Glenn Jones for a beer, followed by an overnight flight.

And now, I’m home. The South By Lurgy’s hit me and is holding one of my lungs ransom. But I’ve had a great week, I already miss many of the great people I’ve met and I’m ready to do it again next year.

If I were to make three recommendations to SXSW organisers for next year:

1. Identify the level of the panel more clearly:

Mark panels as Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced on the pocket schedule and ask speakers to stick to that level. The vast majority of panels I attended were far too Beginner level, which sometimes felt like a waste of time. The panelists aren’t necessarily to blame, as they aimed to be as inclusive as possible, but when every panel is lowest-common-denominator, it can be tricky to learn new things.

When I did find a slightly more advanced panel, I reacted just as Simon Willison did “For the record, the asychronous scaling panel is exactly the kind of meaty technical content I want to see more of at #sxsw” When I did find those panels, however, they made my day.

2. Don’t get greedy:

This year, there was a rumoured 12,000 attendees at the Interactive festival. To put it simply, that’s too many. Being refused from entering panels or made to watch a keynote from a second or third re-broadcast room is disappointing, having made the 9,000 miles round-trip to Austin. Having to trek over to the Hilton in the short break between panels was also less than convenient.

It’s great to see the event get more popular and I certainly don’t want it to be reserved for some sort of technical/social elite of the web, but the Convention Centre was creaking at the seams this year.

3. Keep the team in charge of wifi:

I must tip my hat to the team in charge of the wifi at the event. While it wasn’t completely flawless, it was a marked improvement on last year. I hear the AT&T network was a bit more spotty (my roaming mobile picked T-Mobile) and that mobile AT&T vans were brought into the area to boost the service levels for everyone. Someone clearly went out of their way to keep the wifi running smoothly – my bank account will thank you greatly when my data roaming bill comes through.

Finally, to all the wonderful geeks I met for the first time, or had the pleasure of seeing again: See you all next year!

How Stephen Fry lost Britain hundreds of man-hours of work

Around lunchtime today, Stephen Fry, national treasure and Twitter celeb, announced that to celebrate having 50,000 followers, he would hold a challenge:

stephen_fry_challenge

He adds “There’s the competition in a nutshell below. Star it for reference. The prize will be good and sent anywhere in the world.”

Now I’m not quite sure what makes Stephen’s challenge more viral than any other Twitter-led idea but it’s been spreading like wildfire. It could be:

  • Wanting to be recognised as clever by such a high profile personality
  • The lure of the prize (as of yet unknown)
  • The sheer madness of the challenge (Have YOU tried fitting 50 L’s in 140 characters?!)

It’s fair to say that many man-hours were lost today whilst tweeters attempted to make up their own sentences. See for yourself on Twitter Search for the volume of inbound tweets to Stephen today.

This challenge is particularly sweet because there are no strings attached, just a bit of fun with the potential for a fun prize picked by a discerning geek. However, if a brand were to use this format for a campaign, you know what… I probably wouldn’t be too adverse to it! What about you?

And my attempt? I’m still failing because it’s far too long, but here’s what I’ve got so far: “Llewellyn’s llama lulled lamentably ill Lola’s lily & Lloyd lol’ed @ little Lola’s silly ballet flailing. Filling Lilly’s yellow lilo, he spells llastically: Billy tells & yells loyally”

Blurgh!

Kicking off 2009 with a new themeword: Impact

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about my #themeword for 2008, which was exploration. My objectives were to explore in four key areas; travel, business opportunities, new or unused skills and friendships/ relationships.

Owl photo by Aussie Flickr user AaardvaarkIn reflection, it was a good year. In fact, it was an amazing year. I could have done better in terms of travel; I did an awful job of going to new destinations to which I’d promised myself a visit! But I did well in balancing work and fun, with plenty of dinner parties and get togethers with friends throughout the year.

When I wrote about business opportunities exploration, in the back of my mind, I knew I would work for myself before the year was out, it was just a question of having the cojones to jump, so the latter part of 2008 has offered me a taster of what 2009 will bring.

So on with this year’s themeword. I’ve opted for one overarching theme, divided into three key goals, reflecting what Chris Brogan and many others have done.

In 2009

I hope that in 2009, I can use the knowledge I’ve acquired to make a difference. If I can help one business make a lasting impact on their customers, or help someone learn the true value of the communication tools I’m so grateful for, I’ll be a happy gal.

To put it into action, I want to create, lead and focus.

Create by pushing ideas beyond replicas of what’s been done elsewhere by someone else and produce something remarkable.

Lead by example in doing marketing work that is graceful, ethical and genuinely valuable to its participants.

Focus on the right things. With rivers of news and infinite numbers of social networks, with masses of potential projects, clients and events, in 2009 I will need to focus my attention, energy and abilities on the most important ones. After all, there’s only one of me!

Beyond this big picture, I’ve also got a few simple things I’ve promised myself this year, most more personal than the above.

  • Backup my digital life regularly and reliably
  • Host or go out for dinner with (non-business) friends at least once a month
  • Call my mom more regularly and book a trip to Canada before summer ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Visit my sister in Paris when she heads there to study for a few months
  • Take (and publish) more photos on Flickr to remember important life events
  • Keep making homemade stuff like cards, liqueurs and tons of fresh cooking. It’s good for the mental health.

What’s your themeword for the year? Need inspiration? Try searching for #themeword on Twitter Search.

[Image: Owl photo by Aussie Flickr user Aaardvaark under Creative Commons]

Happiness at Christmas is…

Yesterday, I asked fellow Twitter users what Christmas happiness was to them. I got a fun range of answers, so I thought I’d post them uncensored and as-is…

  • sherrilynne: Happiness at Christmas is knowing there are no deadlines for two whole weeks!
  • matthewpennell: Happiness at Christmas is a non-sequitur. ๐Ÿ˜‰
  • davidcushman: time with your family
  • pascalw: is … letting your brain switch off, kick back & enjoy whatever comes your way. Avoiding clichรฉs about kids (but that’s what I mean!)
  • JamesPearce: Happiness at Christmas is… packing everything into boxes and *undecorating* the tree. Oh. Wait.
  • TrudyYS: Happiness at Christmas is not knowing when it ends…
  • MelKirk: Happiness at xmas is seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces
  • mrjaba: Happiness at Christmas is family, booze and food, oh and racing grannies.
  • jodrell: Happiness at Christmas is… 2 cats, 1 wife and dinner starting at 1 and finishing at midnight ๐Ÿ™‚
  • lwarren17: Happi @ Xmas = knowing that leonelyn my sponsored little girl in philipines gets education thro http://www.p-c-f.org/
  • MartinSFP: happiness at Christmas is feeling like a kid again for a day or two; albeit a drunk kid…
  • pidpoid: …flaming buttcheeks
  • edent: Happiness at Christmas is pizza off paper plates (no washing up) pink champagne from the bottle (ditto). All spent with my new *WIFE*!
  • sookio: “Happiness at Christmas is…” giving my impossible-to-buy-for brother-in-law Two Ronnies cufflinks – my favourite gift this xmas
  • weaverluke: Happiness at Christmas is the spirit of family, blood or otherwise.
  • whatleydude – “happiness at christmas is ‘compulsory, signed: Whatleydude…” – LMAO
  • jopkins: …taking timeout to think about the past, present and future; realising what’s important and that you’re there with them ๐Ÿ˜‰
  • daryldarko: i’m sorry – “Happiness at Christmas is understanding that it is just another day.”
  • danielhunt: Happiness at Christmas is having more alcohol than you can shake a stick at, along with a suitably festive house party
  • mattlambert: Happiness at Christmas is having a sword fight with my Mum using the innards of left over rolls of wrapping paper… ๐Ÿ˜€
  • lirontocker: “… celebrating Hanukkah” ๐Ÿ™‚
  • purplekitten: …knowing you’ve tried not to make other people’s lives worse

And on this bombshell, I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, a relaxing time with family and friends. Enjoy yourselves, take it easy for a while, and then get ready to kick ass for 2009!

Twitter buys Summize: The PR tracking tool of the future?

Today, Biz Stone confirmed that Twitter has acquired Summize, which used to crawl online reviews and blog discussions to create summarized reviews of music, movies, books and more. Or so says CrunchBase.

To be perfectly honest, I’d never heard to Summize until Twitter kept crapping out, and Summize was the best option to find out @replies and snooping on what people are saying on any given topic. And now, it’s joined that big happy Twitter family – or at least, 5 out of 6 Summize staff have.

I’m wondering what purpose Summize will serve in the future, other than an improved search and replies tab. Imagine if PR companies turned their megaphone the other way, using Summize as a way to get genuine, candid feedback from the community? Odds are Twitter could find a way to monetise that while keeping the end-consumer service free and accessible.

The web is rife with shouty public relations, it’d be a refreshing change to see companies use honest, simple tools to communicate with their users.

On the topic of Twitter and scalability

Talios: “I wonder if Scoble could be used as a scalability term. โ€œThis application support five 9โ€™s and is fully scobalable.”

Oh hello there!

I'm Vรฉro - a crafty, knitty, spinny gal who enjoys making (and drinking) a cocktail or three. If you've stumbled here, you might enjoy browsing some of my older posts with the tags over to the right or finding out more about me.

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