News of the Tweet: Virtually Real

Strava, Sexy Botnets, and Suicide Cycling.

By Seb Kemp

Here is the news.

Man dies of Stravacide.

Nope, he didn't hang himself when someone took his precious KOM title from him, instead he fell off his bike and died while trying to reclaim it. The real tragedy in this story – apart, obviously, of the lose of human life – is that his family tried to sue the people behind social media/internet gaming phenomenon, Starva, because, well, there is always someone else to blame, right?

Joe Lindsey has a great piece on Wired about the incident and the resulting court case, so check out the link to get the details. However, for those too busy to bother but not busy enough to read this weekly insult, sorry, installment, then here it is broken down and translated.

Strava is an app. An app is a digital "tool" that can do anything from helping you mix the perfect bloody mary, convert pounds to ounces, make shitty photos look like old shitty photos or help pass the day while you could be doing something useful (Angry Birds). The Strava app helps you become more and more of a desperate loser by creating an imaginary world where every moment on your bicycle can be turned into a race. Not against yourself, but against other people. Other imaginary people. Each part of your ride becomes a series of timed sections where you compete with the virtual world for the title of KOM (King Of the Mountain). It is sort of like internet gaming except the people that play Strava actually go outside. Which is a shame because the world might be easier to navigate if some of these people stayed indoors more often.

Anyway, Strava has become very popular in a very short amount of time, which goes to show that not that many people actually ever enjoyed riding their bike. Strava fills the void that many people were obviously facing after the lengthy time spent on internet forums debating with imaginary characters about the finer points of every gram and dollar of their bike. Or bikes they will never even ride but have a very solid opinion about. I've always thought that because of the amount of time that "riders" spend on internet forums none of them could actually spend that much time on their bikes. More so, I imagine that when these people are drawn outside to ride their bikes they are faced with nothing but horrible dirty woodland, patchy data network reception, and blood, sweat and, probably, vomiting.

Strava gave internet riders a reason to grin and bare the drudgery of riding because now they could be in contact with their internet friends and, better still, compete with them for an imaginary title. Getting a KOM is like getting a pat on the head from your elementary school teacher for not cutting your finger tips off with the plastic bladed scissors in arts and crafts class. Except there is no teacher and no pat on the head. Except the one you give yourself. While alone in the virtual world of the internet and Strava. Perhaps some people give themselves a pat on the back with a palm full of KY.

But there's an answer to that even.

There are Twitter botnets who you will fall in love with. Unlike Bimbots who lure you into befriending them with profile pictures of big bubbly boobies bursting out of button-up blouses and then start feeding you endless work-from-home job scams, these botnets were designed just to build up a trust relationship by imitating the kinds of messages that specific target groups would spend. In the case of @Trackgirl (Twitter account has been suspended), Greg Marras most successful experiment, the focus was to infiltrate a group of runners.

"She" would scour Twitter for messages with running-themed keywords and post them as if they were her own. Each day "she" would pick five people to follow and then follow back anyone who followed her. @Trackgirl started to gain followers, who thought her cut-and-paste messages about the agony and the ecstasy of long-distance running were coming from a real person. When she posted a tweet about an injured ankle her followers started to message her to see if she was ok and ask how the recovery was going.

The botnet was just a script that people started to interact with. "She" wasn't real, just code, but somehow it fooled enough people.

Of course, the question is what is the point of this, other than pointing out that internet friends aren't real friends and that the anonymity that the internet, in some guises, can create (aka forum avatars, comment names) means that anyone can make up nonsense and hide behind a fake identity. However, in this case it goes beyond that. Because the source code is on-line for all to use, it would be possible to create a bot army, which over time slowly builds up history, credibility and an audience until one day it launches something upon you.

Wired points out the obvious politically motivated potential of such a Twitter bomb and even point out a string of suspicious messages that were in support of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) last September. However, what about selling stuff? The uses for marketeers and admen is obvious. What if your trusted network of tweeps (I hate that word, but more about that next week) started flooding you with messages about the latest Hollywood blockbuster or where you can buy 'The Cocktail' in order to beat your Strava foes?

I prefer the kind of in your face advertising that you can get a handle on, like MonsRoyale's 3D billboard in Auckland.

But…you aren't your nice new Garmin or your shiny Turner or even your Strava time. This is better than Fight Club.

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Why race virtually when you can just sack up and go head-to-head…with a semi-truck.

Talking of racers, the World Cuppists seem to have become self-aware.

Anyway, that was not the news. Till next week, watch what you read and who you follow.