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Attack unravels the social Web
[August 07, 2009]

Attack unravels the social Web

Aug 07, 2009 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Somebody blasted Twitter out of its tree Thursday morning.

The furious "tweeting" of the social media site, which has grown louder and louder this year, was suddenly silenced for more than two hours due to an Internet spam attack. Service remained spotty with problems continuing late Thursday.

A similar cyber attack also hit Facebook, hobbling the larger social media site, and causing perhaps the biggest social media meltdown since the two sites have surged in popularity. What on earth would millions of social media users do? "I got some laundry done," joked Charlottean Addie Rising, who uses both sites for work.

Twitter, where snippet-snapping users send messages of up to 140 characters, has 45 million users.


The number of unique visitors to the micro-blogging site has more than tripled since January. And the site has perched atop pop culture, as actor Ashton Kutcher has famously amassed 3 million followers, and everyone from Shaquille O'Neal and Oprah Winfrey to the president have joined in the craze. Twitter also played a large role in the protest over corruption in the Iranian elections, giving protesters a way to voice dissent.

Facebook is four times the size of Twitter and has more than doubled in the past year. It now boasts a quarter of a billion users. About 450,000 on Facebook identify themselves as living within 50 miles of Charlotte. Twitter does not keep geographic statistics.

A pioneer of social networking said Thursday that the shutdown -- while hardly a serious calamity -- revealed to many how reliant upon social media we have become.

"It's when your lights go out that you realize how dependent you are on the electrical grid. Now that we've experienced the lights going out at Twitter and Facebook, many people are beginning to face our dependency on online social network services," said Howard Rheingold, who helped invent social media in the mid-'80s and teaches social networking for both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Some users in Charlotte were inconvenienced by the shutdown.

"It killed us," said Charlotte's Michael Hernandez, whose business, weskill.com, uses both sites daily. An online sales training site, Hernandez' firm was unable to begin a teaching program with a new client because he could not send messages on the two sites.

The brief loss of the sites made many feel disconnected.

"It just felt sort of weird to not be able to send out a tweet," said Chad Bordeaux, a Lake Wylie CPA. "I was going to contact people about a poker game." The "denial of service" attacks, which did not threaten private information, overwhelmed servers with spam, shutting out real users.

"Now and then there's this kind of technological attack," Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, told the Observer.

Mashable, a social-media blog, reported Thursday night the attacks were deliberate and simultaneous.

One expert told The New York Times that he believed -- and this points out the weird world of the Internet -- that they were linked to the Russia-Georgia conflict. Bill Woodcock, of the Packet Clearing House, a nonprofit technical organization that tracks Internet traffic, told the Times he thought "one side put up propaganda, the other side figured this out and is attacking them." Woodcock also said LiveJournal, a blogging site, and YouTube were affected.

Other experts speculated the attacks could be linked to viruses that have hit Facebook before.

A Facebook spokeswoman told the Observer that the two companies were working together to investigate the attack, and also seeking help from Google. Assistance from the Web's traffic giant indicates leaders are taking the attack seriously.

Twitter, which remains a small company despite its popularity, with fewer than 100 employees, was an unreliable site in its early days. It has regularly been temporarily overwhelmed by users.

A social media meltdown was meaningless to some, welcomed by others. "Twitter was down? Who cares?" someone posted on charlotteobserver.com.

Another poster wrote: "I went for a walk, got some writing done, baked a cake, and had a rather nice time." Jeff Elder writes about how we connect online. Contact him on Twitter @jeffelder. You can find his blog at http://atcharlotte.blogspot.com.

To see more of The Charlotte Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charlotteobserver.com. Copyright (c) 2009, The Charlotte Observer, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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