Start Up No.1748: the Ukraine war on Wikipedia, Amazon shutters retail stores, Fitbit recalls Ionic, fixing AirTags, and more

Fancy a game of Pong, but don’t have the small change? Don’t worry, you can play a version right here on your phone or computer. CC-licensed photo by Carlos Duarte Do Nascimento on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them carelessly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How the Russian invasion of Ukraine is playing out on Wikipedia • Slate

Stephen Harrison:


According to Samuel Breslow, an experienced Wikipedia editor and an information journalist, one of the trickiest elements of covering the Russian invasion is writing the encyclopedia articles at the right level of detail. Wikipedia aspires to take a long-term world-historical view similar to a traditional encyclopedia like Encyclopedia Britannica. That means presenting a summary rather than an overly detailed description of historical events. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s not immediately clear what events will have long-term historical importance. “For instance, we don’t know whether the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ will ultimately be a significant part of the narrative of the invasion or just a momentary internet rumor,” Breslow said in an email. (If you’re curious, the Ghost of Kyiv’s wiki page describes it as an “unconfirmed MiG-29 Fulcrum flying ace” credited with shooting down six Russian planes. The page also notes that the Ghost is most likely an urban legend that has had the effect of boosting Ukrainian morale.)

Most of the English Wikipedia articles relating to the invasion of Ukraine have a blue “E” symbol in the top-right corner, indicating that editing is limited to experienced Wikipedia editors, those with at least 500 edits and a month’s tenure. That means brand-new editors can only propose edits to the article’s behind-the-scenes talk pages. On the one hand, this protective measure cuts against Wikipedia’s ethos as the encyclopedia that “everyone” can edit. But Wikipedians say that the extra level of protection is helping to reduce vandalism and disinformation attacks on Ukraine-related information. “Writing on Wikipedia always comes with a lot of responsibility,” Breslow said in an email. “Wikipedia is the major collective record of humanity’s knowledge, and its articles are read by a staggering number of readers. They influence what people believe and how they live their lives, so it’s essential we make them as reliable, neutral, and comprehensive as possible.”

…although English Wikipedia has seen a huge uptick in the amount of activity dedicated to Ukraine, the Ukrainian-language version has seen considerably less activity. Since the invasion, the number of article edits per day on Ukrainian Wikipedia has decreased by at least 50%, according to the Wikimedia Foundation. That’s understandable. When a superpower is invading your country, the Wikipedia-editing hobby tends to fall off the old to-do list. “Editing Wikipedia from a bomb shelter is difficult,” said Mykola Kozlenko, the vice president of the Wikimedia Ukraine user group.


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Amazon closing 68 stores, ending Amazon Books, 4-star, Pop Up shops • CNBC

Annie Palmer:


Amazon is shutting down all its Amazon Books physical bookstores, as well as its Amazon 4-star and Amazon Pop Up shops, which sold a variety of electronics and other hot items.

The closures affect 68 stores across the U.S. and U.K., Amazon said. Closure dates will vary by location and Amazon said it would help affected employees find roles elsewhere in the company. Workers who opt not to stay will be offered severance packages, it said.

Amazon declined to say how many employees would be affected by the closures.

…Amazon has gradually launched an array of brick-and-mortar concepts, from supermarkets to retail stores offering branded electronics like Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers. The 4-star stores, in particular, attempted to mesh Amazon’s in-store and offline operations by featuring top-selling products in its web store.

But sales growth of the physical stores unit has noticeably lagged the company’s overall retail business. Physical stores, which includes Whole Foods and Fresh outlets, reported lower sales in 2021 than in 2018.

Amazon is trimming its physical retail footprint after coming off its slowest growth rate for any quarter since 2001. Shares are down more than 8% so far this year, and the stock was the worst performer in the Big Tech group last year.


It always did seem a bit strange to be doing the thing that it was set up in direct opposition to.
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Fitbit recalls Fitbit Ionic smartwatches due to burn hazard, offers refund • DC Rainmaker

DC Rainmaker:


Fitbit has announced a recall of their older Ionic GPS smartwatch, due to situations where the battery can overheat and cause burn injuries. The Ionic was introduced back in 2017, which was really their first smartwatch to support a 3rd party app platform as well as on-watch payments and on-watch music streaming services. It was a massive step forward for the company, setting their watch platform stage for the next half-decade. Their previous smartwatch was the Fitbit Blaze.

The company, in conjunction with the Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) says there are cases where the battery can overheat, and can cause burns. The CPSC says they’ve received 115 reports in the US (plus 59 internationally) over the battery overheating. Within that, 78 of those reports in the US include third-degree burns, with four reports of second-degree burns. Additionally, 40 internal burn injuries were reported.


Sold roughly 1 million in the US, and another 693,000 internationally. If you’ve got one lying around in a drawer, it’s still eligible. Pity it was the previous product that was called the Blaze or it would have been perfect nominative determinism.
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AirTags are dangerous; here’s how Apple could fix them • The Verge

Monica Chin and Victoria Song:


the longer it takes from the time an AirTag is planted to the point when it alerts the victim, the more information an ex or spouse can potentially collect about their victim’s daily activities. Currently, that timeframe is too large.

As Victoria [Song, one of the writers] experienced, and as experts highlighted, the more time an abuser has to monitor a victim before they pull the plug, the more of that victim’s calendar they’re able to reconstruct for future use. “You’re usually in work nine to five; I ping at nine to five — now I know where you work. You’re usually home in the hours of eight to 10PM; I ping it — now I know where you live,” says Kathryn Kosmides. Kathryn is CEO of Garbo, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing tech-enabled abuse. “If they’re pinging at the opportune moments, at the right time, you can start to put patterns together. The ways someone walks to work, you know, all of these different things, which can be super, super weaponized.”

And abusers really are that relentless, says Becker. “They are tracking it while they’re in Zoom meetings; they’re tracking it while they’re checking their email or looking at memes. It is a full-time job to be an abuser, to be a stalker, and they take that job very seriously.”

What would an acceptable window be? That gets tricky. Advocates who have worked with Apple on AirTags noted that the device still needs to be able to accurately identify that it’s moving with someone rather than just near someone, which can take time to assess. “We actually don’t want people completely terrified that they’re being tracked when they’re not because they just happen to be sitting at a cafe with somebody who’s got an iPhone or an AirTag,” Olsen says.

And too many false alarms could put people in more danger — if someone develops a mindset that AirTag pings are usually errors, they could be quick to dismiss a real one. “We don’t want people to start ignoring these as noise,” Dodge said.

Still, all the advocates agree: the current arrangement does not work. There’s “a pretty significant valley between a few seconds and eight hours,” Dodge said.


“Dangerous” inasmuch as stalkers are dangerous, but yes, these seem like reasonable suggestions.
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How Ukrainian tech companies are handling Russia’s invasion • Fast Company

Mark Sullivan:


The Ukraine crisis touches the tech world in a number of different ways. For example, a number of the U.S. sanctions relate to denying Russia’s ability to acquire high technology for military and other uses. And Ukraine is home to a number of business and consumer technology companies that impact the lives and businesses of millions of people around the world. I talked with some of them on Thursday, the first official day of the Russian occupation.

Grammarly may be the best-known Ukraine-based tech company. Grammarly is the maker of an AI-driven tool that helps people communicate better in writing. It is used by millions around the world, and has raised capital from some top-shelf VCs including General Catalyst and Blackrock. It’s now valued at $13bn.

The company has a significant number of software developers in Kyiv, the city in which the company was founded in 2009. Kyiv is about 700km or 435 miles from the current conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. It also has staff in San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver, BC.

Grammarly spokesperson Senka Hadzimuratovic told me via email Thursday that her company is now executing the contingency plans it had in place to protect its employees in Ukraine. She says the company isn’t providing many details of the plans, in the interest of security.


Also Readdle, MacPaw and plenty of freelance developers. (There’s always a tech angle. In a war, there’s an everything angle.)
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Inside Bangladesh village YouTube cooking channel AroundMeBD • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher and Faisal Mahmud:


Almost every week, Delwar Hussain, a stocky 40-year-old schoolteacher with betel-stained teeth, travels more than 100 miles on a public bus from his village of Shimulia in western Bangladesh to the capital city, Dhaka, carrying a 64GB SanDisk memory card carefully packed in a bag of fruits and vegetables. On a good day, this journey takes six hours, but during winter, when dense fog covers the River Padma and ferry services slow to a crawl, it can take more than 12. Once Hussain reaches the city, he heads to a cyber café owned by his nephew and business partner, Liton Ali Khan.

There, he transfers the contents of the memory card — professionally shot videos of elderly villagers preparing, cooking, and serving food to hundreds of people — to a desktop computer, from where the material is edited and uploaded to YouTube and watched by 4 million subscribers. The videos, depicting a community kitchen in Shimulia producing gargantuan quantities of food, are extravagant: meals include 14 full goat intestines, 50 country ducks, a 185-pound vanilla cake, or a 650-pound water buffalo.

The channel behind this operation is called AroundMeBD, and its success has created a whole new economy in Shimulia, which has since been dubbed the YouTube village of Bangladesh.

The YouTube village is a prominent example of a niche but is also part of a growing online trend across South Asia: As the internet reaches villages, rural societies are finding ways to showcase and monetize their unique food cultures to audiences across the world, using platforms like YouTube and Facebook.


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The internet is a force multiplier for Ukraine • Platformer

Casey Newton:


Social media didn’t cause any of this resistance. But it amplified these stories quickly and at scale, overwhelming what analysts say has been a shockingly inept information strategy from the Russians. And with every viral TikTok about the situation unfolding — here’s one in which a Russian car influencer teaches you how to drive abandoned Russian military vehicles — support for the resistance grows.

All of this has offered some comfort during a frightening time. But there is a risk of making too much of the way the internet and social networks have bolstered the Ukrainian resistance to date — or in underestimating Russia’s ability to retaliate.

On the war front: yes, Ukraine’s efforts so far have been inspiring. But we are only four days in, and as this long thread from a Russian military analyst explains, most of the aggressor’s significant firepower is still waiting to be deployed. The most likely outcome continues to be a Russian takeover of the country. (Though even then Putin may find it exceedingly difficult or even impossible to govern, as Yuval Noah Harari explains.)

And on the platform front, the path forward is not at all clear. For their part, tech companies have largely acted as democratic governments have asked them to. On Monday Meta’s Nick Clegg announced that the company would restrict access to Russian state media networks RT and Sputnik in the European Union, just as the European Union itself announced it would do a day earlier. (TikTok followed suit on Monday as well.) Twitter stopped short of banning the networks but added a state media label to any links shared on the network.

Russia is actively resisting these efforts. It blocked Twitter and slowed Facebook. It sought to ban any footage of military action on TikTok. It wrote to Google protesting the demonetization of RT and Sputnik.

These moves are unfortunate primarily for Russian citizens, who will have less access to independent media and the organizing tools that social networks provide.


In Social Warming, I pointed out that humans work best when they work together against a common enemy. It’s how social media can be at its most useful.
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Almost Pong • Lessmilk


Press space (or tap the screen) to make the ball jump and hit the paddles for as long as possible. This arcade game works on desktop and mobile.


Yes, it’s Pong, where you play yourself (or perhaps a two-player if you’re able enough). Well you did want something to take your mind off everything. You’ll certainly lose quite a few minutes on this one. It doesn’t bounce off the sides of the screen – it’s more like Flappy Bird, where you have to keep the bird (ball) up. (Thanks Barry C for the pointer.)
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TikTok faces scrutiny in state attorneys general probe of online harms to children • WSJ

John McKinnon:


A coalition of state attorneys general is launching an investigation into TikTok, seeking information about whether and how the video-sharing platform contributes to online harms to children.

The move is an extension of an investigation unveiled by the same group of eight state attorneys general into Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram that focuses on similar concerns. The expansion adds fast-growing TikTok—owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.—to the list of targets under scrutiny.

“Today, attorneys general across the nation joined an investigation into TikTok for providing and promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while use is associated with physical and mental health harms,” the prosecutors said in a joint announcement Wednesday.

They added: “The investigation will look into the harms such usage causes to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.”

Leading the investigation is a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont, the group said.


Very gradual but relentless. Truly this is turning into social networks’ tobacco moment. That too took a long time to grind through, but it got there in the end.
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Twitter’s fact-checking project, Birdwatch, is MIA as Ukraine rumors swirl • The Washington Post

Will Oremus and Jeremy Merrill:


Over a year ago, Twitter launched a pilot of an ambitious project that was meant to harness the wisdom of crowds to answer just these sorts of questions on its platform, potentially across countries and languages, in near real time. Called Birdwatch, it lets volunteer fact-checkers add notes to tweets that are going viral, flagging them as potentially misleading and adding context and reliable sources that address their claims. By crowdsourcing the fact-checking process, Twitter hoped to facilitate debunkings at a greater speed and scale than would be feasible by professional fact-checkers alone.

Yet after 13 months, Birdwatch remains a small pilot project, its fact checks invisible to ordinary Twitter users — even as its volunteer contributors dutifully continue to flag false or contested tweets for an audience of only each other. That suggests that either Twitter hasn’t prioritised the project amid internal upheaval and pressure from investors to grow faster, or that it has proved thornier than the company hoped.

Twitter vice president of product Keith Coleman said Tuesday, after publication, that the company will be expanding the Birdwatch pilot “very soon.” He said it’s important to make sure that the fact-checks added to tweets are helpful, and the company has been “focused on making that a reality before expanding.”

A Washington Post analysis of data that Twitter publishes on Birdwatch found that contributors were flagging about 43 tweets per day in 2022 before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a microscopic fraction of the total number of tweets on the service and probably a tiny sliver of the potentially misleading ones. That’s down from about 57 tweets per day in 2021, though the number ticked upward on the day Russia’s invasion began last week, when Birdwatch users flagged 156 tweets. (Data after Thursday wasn’t available.)


I’d imagine it’s proved harder to get right than they expected. Spotting false stuff, and walking the line between something that’s “false” and that’s just “wrong” or “misguided” or “overinterpreting” is really difficult; we do it all the time, but if you felt that it could somehow affect how Twitter looks to absolutely everyone, you might be wary. (Or you ought to be.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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