All posts in Tech Journalism

  • Backchannel story: ‘Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome’, February 2015

    My first story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome

    One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake

    'Meet The Ultimate WikiGnome: One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, February 2015

    On a Friday in July 2012, two employees of the Wikimedia Foundation gave a talk at Wikimania, their organization’s annual conference. Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling addressed a packed room as they answered a question that has likely popped into the minds of even the most casual users of Wikipedia: who the hell edits the site, and why do they do it?

    Pinchuk and Walling conducted hundreds of interviews to find out. They learned that many serious contributors have an independent streak and thrive off the opportunity to work on any topic they like. Other prolific editors highlight the encyclopedia’s huge global audience or say they derive satisfaction from feeling that their work is of use to someone, no matter how arcane their interests. Then Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

    “I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

    A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

    “By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

    “It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

    “If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

    Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers—they messed it up again!’”

    Giraffedata is something of a superstar among the tiny circle of people who closely monitor Wikipedia, one of the most popular websites in the English-speaking world. About 8 million English Wikipedia articles are visited every hour, yet only a tiny fraction of readers click the ‘edit’ button in the top right corner of every page. And only 30,000 or so people make at least five edits per month to the quickly growing site.

    Giraffedata—a 51-year-old software engineer named Bryan Henderson—is among the most prolific contributors, ranking in the top 1,000 most active editors. While some Wikipedia editors focus on adding content or vetting its accuracy, and others work to streamline the site’s grammar and style, generally few, if any, adopt Giraffedata’s approach to editing: an unrelenting, multi-year project to fix exactly one grammatical error.

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Ascender story: ‘Digital Delta’, November 2013

    A story for the debut issue of online magazine The Ascender. Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story.

    Digital Delta

    Two men from different fields are teaming up to create the future of mapping in one of most biologically diverse wildernesses on Earth.

    The Ascender story: 'Digital Delta: Into The Okavango', by Australian freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, November 2013

    Deep in the heart of the remote African wilderness, ten men laboriously drag canoes across the high grass of a dry floodplain. Living representations of the idiom ‘fish out of water’, their companions include wild hippopotamuses, crocodiles, birds and elephants unused to seeing humans in their midst this time of year. To make the scene seem even more out place, inside one of the makoros – a traditional Bayei dug-out canoe – sits a gigantic blue-and-white solar panel, its heft manifested on the strained, sweat-strewn faces of the men as they slowly traverse the rugged terrain.

    For three days, the explorers have been confined to land, pushing through the harsh conditions under a scorching sun, burdened by the weight of their equipment that besides the panel includes batteries, computers, cameras and other gear for surviving the trying, 18-day expedition.

    If viewed from space, the humans’ circuitous path would look rather random as though this band of travelers had absolutely no idea where they were going. The men climb trees and scramble to the top of termite mounds in an effort to spy a more efficient route and get to the place they’d much rather be: on the water.

    What, then, are these men doing here?

    This is the annual flood time in the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s last remaining wetland wildernesses in northern Botswana, and Dr. Steve Boyes and his team of wildlife researchers and local Bayei river bushmen are attempting a world-first: to record wetland bird and wildlife sightings in September, a month for which no data previously exists.

    It is ironic then, that this expedition, set against the backdrop of this remote wilderness, is on the cutting edge of location-based innovation and real-time mapping. Boyes and his team are instruments of data transmission, the hefty, solar panel offering the efficient, silent power necessary to conduct their all-important research. Every twenty minutes, the team uses a global positioning system (GPS) to sync their location onto a live map hosted at a dedicated website, IntoTheOkavango.org with evenings spent packaging the days’ captured data using watches and tablet computers – bird and wildlife sightings, photographs, text messages, body temperatures, and their heart rates – and transmitting the precious digital cargo by satellite to a team located on the U.S. east coast.

    “The whole point of the Into The Okavango campaign is to inspire,” says Boyes. “Our research is obviously the primary task out there; first we backed up and uploaded to our server all of the research data, but right after that came the campaign stuff: all of the sharing, tweeting and blogging. We were on a research expedition, but we’ll stay up later and push ourselves harder to be able to share that experience. There are certain sacrifices in this world if you really want to inspire people to be different.”

    To read the full story, visit The Ascender. The above image is titled ‘Sunset on the Hippo Pool‘, by Lawrence Murray.

  • The Vine story: ‘What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution’, October 2013

    A story for TheVine.com.au. The full story appears below.

    What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution

    The Vine story: 'What Was Silk Road? A eulogy for an online drug revolution' by Andrew McMillen, October 2013

    Prior to its seizure by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the early hours of Wednesday, October 3, Australian time, a website named Silk Road was the holy grail for illicit drug users of all stripes. Since mid-2011, dealers and consumers had been drawn to the site like iron filings to a magnet. Their reasons for downloading a Tor browser and copy-pasting the complex URL that housed Silk Road (SR) can be reduced to two key motivating factors: cash and product.

    For drug dealers – or, in SR-preferred parlance, ‘vendors’ – the lure of a steady supply of international buyers was enough to motivate the investigation of innovative, stealthy shipping techniques that would see their packages of powders, crystals and pills delivered to intended addresses without raising the alarms of border security. This quickly became a point of pride among the most dedicated vendors, some of whom marketed their packaging options as ‘undetectable’ and cherished buyer feedback that praised innocuous, ingenious delivery methods. Subterfuge was the name of the game.

    It helped, too, that SR offered vendors the opportunity to turn the risky, dangerous job of face-to-face dealing into the ultimate work-from-home gig. When I began poking around the site in late 2011, while researching a feature story for Australian Penthouse, I interviewed several vendors via SR’s plain-text messaging system. One told me that SR was “better and cleaner” than dealing drugs offline. “Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house,” I was told. “It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    This was the defining image of Silk Road: a mild-mannered, sober, white collar professional who casually fielded an order for a gram or two of cocaine, printed the buyer’s address and applied it onto an anonymous envelope, vacuum sealed the illicit product inside and dropped the package into a random mailbox – with the correct amount of postage stamps attached, naturally.

    That image clashed violently with that of the stereotypical drug dealer, who stands on a street corner and controls his territory and product distribution through coercion, extortion and violence. Both operate outside of the law through necessity, since the supply, traffic and use of many drugs remains illegal in all but a handful of countries, most notably Portugal.

    Where once small-time dealers were confined to a few inner-city blocks, or their regular clients within nightclubs on Saturday nights, enterprising Silk Road vendors were limited only by their own ingenuity and imagination. Both online and off, intelligence is what set apart savvy dealers from those behind bars. In February, a 32 year-old Victorian – SR username ‘shadh1’ – was sentenced to three and a half years in jail for importing and reselling drugs purchased on the site, with reckless disregard for anything resembling security, self-preservation or stealth, three of the essential values on which SR was founded.

    It is telling and troubling for long-time SR users, too, that even the man alleged to have established the site was not above careless security slip-ups; he advertised his personal Gmail address on public forums requesting an “IT pro in the Bitcoin community” to assist with the site’s early growth, according to an FBI affidavit.

    Cash aside, the motivating factor for users was always the product. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine, psilocybin; Silk Road did not synthesise any of these compounds, nor discover the natural substances. It simply revolutionalised their distribution. My interview with a newbie SR buyer for Australian Penthouse was emblematic of what the site offered buyers.

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” the 24 year-old Brisbane resident told me. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    While Silk Road’s days are numbered, and its founder seems set for a long prison sentence, the cat is certainly out of the bag. The site was a brilliant intermediary between drug dealers and users right up until it wasn’t. But to imagine that humans will suddenly cease synthesising, cultivating, pursuing, distributing and ingesting substances that alter mind and mood is at least wishful thinking; at worst, high folly.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security and associated organisations can today congratulate themselves for a job well done in seizing Silk Road and its significant stockpile of assets and intelligence. It is their job to catch criminals. Although the plug has been pulled on the most open illicit drug marketplace that the world has ever seen, tomorrow is a new day.

    The seemingly infallible Silk Road has been beheaded, but two heads will appear in its place, hydra-like. Right now, its competitors will be quadruple-checking their security practices and managing server loads, while new registrations and orders pour in. The mail won’t stop. At the heart of this conversation is the fact that humans like to get high, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. This is but a stumble on a very long walk. Absolutely nothing has changed.

    Further reading: Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

  • Wired story: ‘Daft Punk’s album premiere in Wee Waa, Australia’, May 2013

    A story for Wired.com – my first contribution to the website. Excerpt below.

    We Went to the Daft Punk Album Premiere in Wee Waa, Australia, Pop. 2,100
    by Andrew McMillen / Photographs by Rachael Hall

    Wired story: "Daft Punk's Australian album premiere in Wee Waa" by freelance journalist Andrew McMillen, May 2013. Photo by Rachael Hall

    WEE WAA, Australia – The world premiere of the latest Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, was originally scheduled to take place on May 17 at a farm show in the rural Australian town of Wee Waa, population 2,100. The unconventional choice of locale made worldwide news, as intended. The event (and its marketing) was always about more than just two French guys releasing an album: It was an attempt to breathe life into the idea that a distinct collection of songs could still be relevant in 2013, when digitally downloaded singles dominate and launch dates have become almost meaningless.

    Imagine Sony’s frustration, then, when Random Access Memories trickled onto the internet on May 14, three days ahead of the intended world premiere in Wee Waa, and Daft Punk hastily started streaming the album on iTunes to tide over listeners till the actual release date. The impact on the planned celebration was immediate. A journalist from the local newspaper The Narrabri Courier told Wired that the Wee Waa Motel experienced 37 out of 60 cancellations in the day following the leak. What had been sold as a world premiere now seemed humdrum, an experience that anyone with an internet connection, BitTorrent or iTunes could have.

    To many music fans, Tuesday’s news was an inevitability, and surprising only in its lateness: most big releases appear online weeks, or even months ahead of their true street date. So what value, if any, does an album release event have after once an internet leak has removed the mystery? I went to Wee Waa to find out.

    When I wake up on the morning of 79th Annual Wee Waa Show, I add Random Access Memories to my to collection on the streaming music service Rdio, a process that takes only minutes. During the seven-hour drive to Wee Waa, the temptation to listen to the album is powerful. After all, it’s right there. I resist, though, out of respect for the album and the experience ahead. I figure that saving that crucial first listen for the first night will be worth it.

    Situated 560 kilometers (347 miles) north-west of Sydney, Australia’s most populated city, Wee Waa was previously known for its cotton production, and little else. The choice to host the album launch here had everything to do with sheer disorientation — hence the global headlines. Sony first floated the idea with the Narrabri Shire Council in February, two months before the news was made public in mid-April. The Wee Waa Show committee discussed at length how the showgrounds would cope with the influx of tourists; local accommodation was fully booked soon after the news broke.

    This three-day event is an important cultural staple of the region, even when Daft Punk isn’t around. The show format combines elements of agricultural presentations (cattle judging, pet shows) with competitions (horse-riding, cake-baking) and carnival rides familiar to attendees of American state fairs. It’s easy for city-dwelling outsiders to poke fun at these meets, but for local farming families, these regional shows provide a welcome respite in their routine. It’s a chance to put down tools for a couple of days, socialize with one another, and celebrate successes.

    In the days before the main event, rumors of a last-minute appearance from the French duo still circulate, and Sony stokes the flames by refusing to rule out the possibility. On Friday, there’s talk of the local airport being temporarily closed for a couple of mysterious, high-security chartered flights. Perhaps Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had elected to make the trek after all, people say; perhaps their statements to the contrary were a smokescreen to deter all but the true believers, the fans who still thought an album launch meant something, leak or no leak.

    For the full story, and more photographs, visit Wired.com.

  • Sydney Morning Herald story: ‘How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer’, April 2013

    A feature story for smh.com.au, the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Excerpt below.

    How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer

    A malicious virus known as Remote Administration Tools (RATs) can be used by hackers to switch on your webcam and control the machine without your knowledge. Andrew McMillen reports.

    'How hackers can switch on your webcam and control your computer' story for Sydney Morning Herald by Andrew McMillen, April 2013

    The 14-year-old couldn’t believe his eyes. The virtual currency he’d worked so hard to amass in the online role-playing game Runescape had vanished. He’d lost the equivalent of $700 in the blink of an eye, after investing his pocket money into the game’s economy for months. All that remained was an instant message dialogue box: “Haha, you got RATted!”

    Sitting in his bedroom in Wauchope, on the mid-north coast of NSW, the teenager wrote back: “What does that mean?” He didn’t know at the time that his machine had been compromised by a Remote Administration Tool (RAT), an aggressive form of malware that allows hackers to access a victim’s entire computer. It was too late. The thief had disappeared. “He ran away with my money, like a girl,” laments Alex (not his real name).

    Weeks later, his desolation and rage had been replaced by joy. After researching RATs and spending an entire day spreading an innocuous link using Runescape’s in-game chat function, in the hope that someone would visit the page and run the Javascript application embedded within, Alex had his mark.

    Within a few clicks, the teenager had access to a stranger’s entire computer, without their knowledge. “I was the happiest kid in the whole entire world,” he says. “I could see their desktop, what they typed, the history of what they’d typed, stored passwords, files – everything.”

    His victim didn’t have a webcam, so Alex wasn’t sure of their gender or their appearance, although he assumes they were male. But he knew that they played Runescape, so he got straight to work on what mattered: looting their gold, just as he’d recently experienced himself.

    After emptying the stranger’s account, the teenager watched, intrigued, as his mark realised that he’d been hacked, and began trying to close the connection. Fifteen minutes later, Alex’s first “slave” – hacker shorthand for a compromised user – had disconnected himself.

    The RATted had become the RATter. “I felt unstoppable,” says Alex, now 17 and studying Year 11. “I was really insecure about myself at the time. I felt like the most powerful person on Runescape.”

    The senior security manager at antivirus software company Trend Micro has another name for RAT: Remote Access Trojan. “It’s a piece of software loaded onto somebody’s computer that allows it to be controlled or accessed from a third-party location,” says Adam Biviano in Sydney.

    “They often arrive on a computer masquerading as something else,” he says. “Just like the mythological story, you open your gates up and you allow it inside your protected walls. All of a sudden, you think you’re getting one thing, but in reality you’re getting what they call a ‘RAT’. You’re giving access to your computer to … who knows who.”

    To read the full story, visit smh.com.au.

  • CNET story: ‘The Man Who Virtually Has It All’, March 2013

    A feature story for CNET Australia; excerpt below.

    The man who virtually has it all

    A 30 year-old Sydneysider has amassed a small fortune by trading virtual items for real cash in the online game Entropia Universe. What next, though?

    Zachurn "Deathifier" Emegen in Entropia Universe, pictured as part of 'The Man Who Virtually Has It All' story for CNET Australia, March 2013

    In game, the nearest moon to Planet Calypso sits huge in the sky, framed against a blanket of twinkling stars and space clouds. Surrounding mountains tower above and oddly bendy palm trees sway in a gentle breeze. It is beside the teleporter located at Camp Icarus, Planet Calypso’s seaside outpost for new players, that I met with Zachurn “Deathifier” Emegen, leader of the Dark Knights society and one of the wealthiest men ever to play Entropia Universe.

    With a few quick mouse gestures, Deathifier — a tall, handsome avatar clad in shiny red armour — had spawned a Quad-Wing Interceptor, an impressive and expensive-looking aircraft. He then added me to the vehicle’s guest list and invited me to take a seat inside. Our destination? Treasure Island.

    Deathifier is the owner of the 25-square-kilometre plot of in-game land called Treasure Island. He purchased it for US$26,500 in December 2004 and set a Guinness World Record for the largest amount spent on a virtual item. We had to take the long air route, though, because Entropia Universe game developer MindArk had, without notice, disabled the teleporter that allows new players to travel between Camp Icarus and Treasure Island with ease.

    My pilot wasn’t pleased about this unexpected change: he’s reliant on hunting tourism for much of his income, and if players can’t easily get there via teleporter, he’s missing out on potential Project Entropia Dollars (PED), the in-game currency that’s tied to the United States dollar at a fixed exchange rate of 10-to-one. (Treasure Island cost 265,000 PED in 2004.)

    In real life, outside of this vast virtual planet and its two continents, Deathifier is David Storey, a 30-year-old Sydneysider who has been playing Entropia Universe for almost 10 years. Throughout that decade, behind the screen, in-game investments and earnings have comprised the bulk of Storey’s income. With help from a handful of silent partners, whose identities he has never revealed, Storey has invested over US$1 million into the game. The $26,500 Treasure Island purchase broke even in its first year, thanks to Storey’s tireless development, salesmanship and marketing, both online and off.

    At first, this is a strange concept to get one’s head around. This man makes a good living by spending his work week inside a computer game, a space more readily associated with fun and entertainment than commerce and profit. While Storey piloted the Quad-Wing Interceptor south-west across vast oceans and jagged mountain ranges toward Treasure Island, my avatar sat in the gunner’s seat — the aircraft is armed and able to shoot down opposing vehicles if necessary — while we spoke over Skype.

    I asked him whether it’s been difficult to separate the fun from the business side of the game. “They’ve always been intertwined,” Storey replied. “At some points, it’s been more for fun; at others, more for business. More recently, I’ve transitioned more toward business, because the fun elements have declined, so to speak. The core gameplay hasn’t changed in 10 years.”

    To read the full story, visit CNET.

  • CNET story: ‘Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace’, January 2013

    A feature for CNET Australia; my first story for the site. Excerpt below.

    Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace

    The Brisbane design studio tasked with rebuilding Myspace tells CNET Australia about its vision for bringing Myspace its sexy back.

    "Josephmark: the Australian architects of the new Myspace" story for CNET Australia by Andrew McMillen, January 2013

    Picture a racehorse wearing blinkers, galloping across the turf, completely oblivious to its competitors. The animal runs its own race, at its own pace, never for a moment considering whether it’s leading or whether it might ultimately win. This is the image used by Ben Johnston, co-founder of Brisbane-based digital design studio Josephmark, when describing the ethos of a unique Australian team that has just put the finishing touches on a refreshed version of Myspace.

    Speaking exclusively to CNET Australia, studio director Johnston was enjoying a rare opportunity to touch base in Brisbane with Josephmark’s general manager Carl Watney and creative director Jess Huddart. The studio’s 21-strong team has scarcely been in the same room in the last year, when Josephmark [pictured above] landed a contract to retool the world’s first truly global social network.

    Johnston prefers the racehorse-with-blinkers analogy because he lives by the same mantra in his personal life. “[The point is] not to win a race, but to not get distracted by what’s on either side of you,” the 29-year-old said. “You set your own benchmarks, I guess. That, joined with a sense of curiosity, is what drives us to work, to go beyond a brief — to invest heavily in our own learning.”

    The blinkers are evidently helping. All three Josephmark leaders told CNET Australia that they can’t name any other company in the design sector that they aspire to emulate. “There are aspects of other companies [that appeal], but I think we inherently live those traits,” said Johnston. “It feels good, because it means that as a company, we’re leading — even if we’re going in the wrong direction!” he laughed.

    Though Josephmark has driven unique web design projects in recent years — including real-time music chart We Are Hunted and Australian independent journalism hub The Global Mail — this is the first time it is competing on the world’s stage as Myspace’s design and vision partners.

    The pitch

    Five design studios were invited to tender for the Myspace partnership; four of those were based in North America. The invitation arrived at just the right time for Josephmark. “Past clients helped firm up our resolve about what we know, and how we know things can work, too,” said general manager Watney. “If you’re going to do something bold and radical, and it’s design-led, the design has to overcome bureaucracy and egos and whatever else might be involved, and actually push through it. We have to stick to our guns if we’re committing to something of this size.”

    Josephmark’s approach to the Myspace tender was straightforward. They simply asked themselves, “If Myspace was ours, what would we do with it?” Though the brief was “quite thorough”, creative director Jess Huddart said that the team soon decided to ignore it.

    “We looked at it and went, ‘if you do what you think you want, then we’re just going to end up creating what you already have. That’s not going to solve this massive problem that’s ahead of you’,” Huddart recalled. “Then we took ownership of it, and I think that’s a massive difference between us and perhaps other studios in their responses. Rather than just simply doing what the client’s asking you to do, we actually own it as if it’s our own project.”

    “There’s a certain boldness in that [approach],” admitted Johnston, “but effectively, it comes back to how we value our own time.” Josephmark didn’t approach the project with a pay cheque in mind. The studio saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference to an ailing, yet historic online media brand. “Obviously, there were certain things in the back of our minds, like, ‘it’s f***ing Myspace! Is there a chance for this thing to turn around?” And what would it take to turn it around?'” Johnston said.

    The solution developed by Josephmark was delivered as a video pitch — which Johnston described as a “two and a half minute narrative capsule with a voiceover that painted a picture of what Myspace could be” — accompanied by a more traditional pitch document. “Unbeknown to us, the video went down extremely well, to the point where [Myspace executives] called everyone in and showed the whole company, saying ‘this is where we’re going!’ This is before they even engaged with us.” That video then went on to be used in the company’s sales pitches as they sought potential partners.

    Josephmark’s pitch became the company’s decisive flag in the ground, allowing the company to state proudly: “This is what we’re doing.”

    For the full story, visit CNET Australia. More on Josephmark here.

  • Kotaku story: ‘What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?’, October 2012

    A 6,000 word feature story published on Kotaku in October; excerpt below. This is the result of 15 months’ investigative work.

    What Went Wrong With Silicon Knights’ X-Men: Destiny?
    by Andrew McMillen

    Bad video games are released all the time. A raft of factors conspire to influence the quality of the outcome. Maybe tight deadlines are to blame. Or maybe the problems include inexperienced developers, incompetent project management, impossible publisher requests, funding concerns. It’s a seemingly unavoidable fact that not every game can be great, or good, or even average.

    So how does a game, one made by a celebrated studio and backed by one of the richest game publishers in the world, turn out to be a bad video game? This is a story about exactly that. It’s about Silicon Knights the studio behind the great Eternal Darkness, the miserable X-Men: Destiny. It’s about a proud leader, frustrated ex-employees, many internal clashes and a secret sequel everyone hoped would be great.

    To an extent, it’s the role of the gaming media to warn potential buyers away from these inferior gaming experiences, and encourage them to spend time with well-designed games developed by skilled teams, led by sound project management, and unhurried by unrealistic demands. The conventional wisdom is that life’s too short to play every game — or read every book, or listen to every album, or see every film — and as a result, we tend to only want to invest our time and money into the very best.

    X-Men: Destiny — developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii — could have gone either way. Sure, previous X-Men titles didn’t exactly set the world on fire: 2006?s X-Men: The Official Game, averaged a score of 52 out of 100 on Metacritic across seven platforms, while 2009?s character-focused X-Men Origins: Wolverine averaged a 65 across six platforms.

    But X-Men: Destiny (XMD), released September 27, 2011, underperformed them both with a dramatically low Metacritic score of just 41 across four platforms. (The DS version, developed by Canadian studio Other Ocean Interactive, registered a 33 on the site, making it the single worst-reviewed X-Men title in Metacritic’s records.)

    There are plenty of possible explanations for the poor result. Maybe the game’s publisher, Activision, rushed the release in an attempt to hit a quarterly revenue goal. Maybe it was just dragged down by the weight of a crappy, overdone superhero licence, as so many games before it. Maybe the title just didn’t come together in the end, or simply failed to resonate with reviewers.

    These are all possible, but discussions with former employees of XMD developer Silicon Knights suggest that the game’s fate was sealed long before Activision gave the project a green light back in 2009. The following story excerpts extensive interviews with former Silicon Knights employees who describe their experiences at what they say was a disorganized, unfocused company that squandered ample time and resources before being forced to release a game it was far from proud of.

    Management at Silicon Knights refused to be interviewed on the record for this story, despite repeated requests over many months. A spokesperson for the game’s publisher, Activision, also declined requests for comment. Accordingly, keep in mind that what follows is but one side of a very complex story. When first confronted with wide-ranging allegations of XMD‘s tumultuous development in mid-January 2012, company president Denis Dyack gave the following statement:

    “Silicon Knights is obligated to its partners (in the case of X-Men: Destiny — Activision and Marvel) to not disclose the development process of any project they work on. These obligations also apply to all the people who worked on X-Men: Destiny. Silicon Knights appreciated the opportunity to work on the game and we hope to get an opportunity to work together with Activision and Marvel again.”

    This statement remains the only comment that Kotaku can attribute to the man behind the biggest failure in the studio’s 20-year history.

    Enter: “SK Whistleblower”

    It’s not as if Silicon Knights was some untested, fly-by-night developer brought on to quickly crank out just another licensed title. Founded in 1992 by current company president Denis Dyack, the St. Catharines, Ontario-based company is best known for their 2002 GameCube hit Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which scored a “universal acclaim” score of 92 on Metacritic, based on 41 reviews. The company’s 2004 Metal Gear Solid remake, The Twin Snakes, scored 85 across 54 reviews. And while Silicon Knights’ 2008 Xbox 360 release Too Human averaged a sub-par score of 65, the company’s history still suggested it could produce good games.

    But X-Men: Destiny stands alone as the worst game that Silicon Knights has released since it was founded. How did a company that was once known for compelling, original, quality video games come to release a title best described as “mediocre,” “mindless,” “generic” and “an absolute mess”?

    (1UP gave the X360 version a D+, concluding that the game is “is an absolute mess that isn’t worth your time.” IGN gave the PS3 version 5.5 points out of 10 — “mediocre” — and remarked that “even for an action brawler, this one is as mindless as they come.”GameSpot reviewed the same version and awarded the game 4 out of 10, noting that XMD “does the incredible: it makes being a genetic marvel a generic bore.”)

    “I am writing to you in regards to Silicon Knights’ upcoming title X-Men: Destiny,” read the July 21, 2011 email from a mysterious, throwaway Hotmail account with the handle SK Whistleblower. “Silicon Knights’ executive team has just recently implemented a new policy to discredit all employees who have recently resigned. This includes employees who have worked on it for between six months and three years. Between 35 to 45 former employees will fail to have their credits appear in the game.”

    I knew firsthand how to deal with such serious allegations. At the time, IGN had recently published my 4,500 word feature story based on interviews with 11 anonymous former employees of the Australian studio Team Bondi, in which those developers detailed seven troubled years of work on L.A. Noire; years that culminated with many of those employees failing to receive the credit they believed they deserved for their work. Now, someone was suggesting that Silicon Knights was having similar problems with its latest title.

    “Much of what was written about Team Bondi’s situation can be said about Silicon Knights as well,” SK Whistleblower continued. “I am certain that if you contacted former and current Silicon Knights employees and offered them anonymity, you would receive evidence of an appalling antipathy from management towards the employees, publishers, and the quality of their games.”

    Anonymous allegations are easy to make; verifying them is much tougher. I spent the next couple of months reaching out to dozens of former Silicon Knights employees, including a list of 32 allegedly omitted names supplied by SK Whistleblower. Many of those who responded confirmed that they, too, had heard the rumours of their names being removed from the credits of XMD. Some refused to speculate (“I can’t confirm who made it into the credits or not until the game is released, so I’m unable to comment”); some expressed concern for their former colleagues (“I feel that any information I give you will only hurt the current employees at SK”); others feared the ramifications of their involvement in this investigation (“any other information possibly leaking would not look good towards my professionalism and possible future opportunities”).

    Ultimately, I secured interviews with eight former SK employees who worked on XMD, including the initial whistleblower. Between them, these former staffers represented over 45 years of service to the Canadian game development studio. All of them spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, for obvious reasons. Interviewees suggest that the company has been plagued by a complex set of internal problems for years. It soon became clear that this story was about much more than a minor grievance with SK’s crediting standards.

    To read the full story, visit Kotaku.

  • Qweekend story: ‘Goal Mining: Minecraft and education’, October 2012

    A story that was published in Qweekend magazine on October 13, 2012. Click the below image to view as a PDF (link opens in a new window), or read the article text underneath.

    Goal Mining
    Story: Andrew McMillen / Photography: David Kelly

    A video game that uses collaboration and communication to engage children online has inspired a new method of teaching.

    The first thing we need to do is collect wood. We do this by smashing our fists into tall trees until the wood disintegrates into small blocks, which then become ours to keep. Curiously, punching out the tree trunks makes no difference to their structural integrity; they continue standing tall, trunkless, while we pilfer their wood.

    The second thing we need to do is make sticks. “Using the crafting table, put one wood block on top of the other,” says James Keogh, who acts as group leader and instructs our gang of five as we navigate this strange world.  Easier said than done. Under the clear blue sky, I can’t interpret his instructions to make the most obvious and essential item.

    Sticks are the basis of the pickaxe, the shovel and the sword. I need all of these things to survive and prosper in the world of Minecraft, a computer game set in a randomly generated landscape of mountains, valleys, forests and deserts. Minecraft is unlike any game I’ve played – there are neither clear objectives nor clear instructions. The player is left to his own devices in this virtual playground, to spend his time however he wishes.

    My fellow adventurers – four 11-year-old boys who attend West Moreton Anglican College, west of Brisbane – try time and again to explain the simple process of creating sticks. I’m sweating as oblong clouds pass across the square sun. The blocky mountains surrounding us seem to be frowning at me. Dark squid float idly in the lake nearby, indifferent to my crafting struggles.

    I feel stupid and inadequate, especially in the company of these four well-travelled friends. Darcy Keogh, James’s twin brother, takes pity and gifts me a stone pickaxe, short-cutting the process considerably. It’s a relief. Without my companions, I’d be clueless; come nightfall, I’d surely be dead.

    James and Darcy have been busy using their pickaxes to excavate dirt out of the side of the nearest mountain for our “hidey-hole”, while their friend Liam Catlan patiently attempts to coach some success into me. Torrin Beverley has taken it upon himself to begin digging deeper into the earth in search of precious resources like iron, gold, and – if he’s lucky – maybe even diamond. Mining tools in hand – just a pickaxe and a shovel for now – I climb partway up the mountain and stand at the entrance, admiring their handiwork.

    James warns us that it’s almost night time. I step inside the hidey-hole, shutting the door behind me. Foolishly, Liam stays out and attempts to fight a giant spider. Anguished howls echo across the landscape as he dies at the fangs of his eight-legged foe. His now-itemless character respawns beside us. “Did you have anything worthwhile on you?” James asks. Two stone pickaxes, his friend types. “Not really much, then,” replies our leader nonchalantly.

    Torrin asks if anyone wants a sword. “Yes,” I type, before opening the door and stepping outside. It’s snowing. Pretty, digital snowflakes criss-cross the night sky, falling lazily to the ground. “Whoa,” I say to no-one in particular. It’s a beautiful sight.

    I check my inventory and find Torrin’s gift. All four boys have joined me outside, just beyond the light cast by the flames of our farthest torch. The square moon passes slowly overhead. I wonder aloud whether it’s a good idea for us to be out here, given that one member of our gang of five was so recently slain. “Not really,” says James, swinging his sword defiantly at nothing in particular.

    The boys tell me that there are zombies, skeletons, Creepers, spiders and Endermen out here, prowling the dark landscape. Horrible creatures all. We head back inside and close the door behind us. I turn and stare through the window once again at the mesmerising snowflakes, reflecting on the wide range of emotions I’ve experienced during my first 20 minute-long day/night cycle: confusion, frustration, satisfaction, wonder and, finally, fear.

    ++

    Minecraft is fun because it’s so divorced from reality that minds run free with possibility. Key attractions include its detachment from the responsibilities of daily life – school, work, parenthood, traffic, taxes – and the ease with which the digital world bends to your will. Want to dig a hole in real life? It’s bloody hard work, for starters. Then there are property rights and land ownership to consider, as well as the high likelihood of your dad going off at the sight of his well-tended lawn transformed into a crater.

    In Minecraft, though, it takes just seconds to carve into the ground, or a mountain, and begin exploring what’s beneath. (Once you’ve conquered the admittedly tricky first act of crafting your mining tools, of course.) Likewise, it’s just as easy to create solid structures in-game. Two of the most impressive mega-creations include a 1:1 scale model of the Starship Enterprise, from Star Trek, and a current project involving a few dozen people working on crafting the entire Westeros realm, from the fantasy series Game Of Thrones. Put simply, it’s Lego in a limitless virtual world where the only impediment is your imagination.

    Created by 33 year-old Swedish game programmer and designer Markus Persson, best known by his online handle “Notch”, Minecraft is an international phenomenon. Notch self-published the first “alpha” version of the game online in May 2009, charging a one-off fee of about $12 (€9.95) and updating Minecraft with new features until version 1.0 was released in November 2011 for $24.50 (€19.95). More than 10 million players have bought the game across both the PC and Xbox 360 platforms; it also boasts 42 million registered users, a figure still growing by around 140,000 new players per day.

    Few are immune to its charms, even those who struggle with the game’s mechanics at first – which is essentially everyone, as the PC version of the game offers no in-game assistance. (Minecraft Wiki – a popular first destination for the clueless – contains more than 2,000 detailed articles.) This is the kind of unorthodox design decision that few gaming studios or publishers would allow, yet since Notch created it all himself, he was beholden to no such orthodoxy. Evidently, it hasn’t hindered the game’s popularity.

    “Younger gamers are completely enthralled by Minecraft,” says Janet Carr, series producer of ABC TV’s Good Game, which screens Tuesday nights on ABC2 and attracts an average weekly audience of 108,000. “Since you create your own fun, it gives you the freedom to play it the way you want to. It’s personally satisfying because you have that feeling of discovery, and of creation. Normal game design theory would say that making it hard to play is lethal to your game. Minecraft is the complete opposite: because the kids have to work quite hard at getting a handle on it, they get invested in it really quickly, and very deeply.”

    Carr’s team also works on Good Game Spawn Point, a program aimed at gamers aged 8-12 watched by 80,000 viewers on ABC3 Saturday mornings. She estimates that half of the 10,000 emails sent to the show’s presenters each week are from younger gamers seeking answers to Minecraft gameplay questions. “It’s not even just the number of emails we get about the game that’s surprising, it’s the sophistication of the information they’re seeking,” Carr says. “It’s not, ‘how do I build a pickaxe?’ It’s ‘how do I set up my repeater units so that my mine cart will travel a few kilometres?’ Engineering questions.”

    ++

    It’s impossible to discuss Minecraft without acknowledging its potential to become truly consuming. Since the game world is randomly generated and limitless, it’s unsurprising that those who fall for its charms tend to invest serious hours in the never-ending process of day and night, mining and crafting, exploring and expanding. “A lot of parents are concerned their kids are spending too much time on video games,” says Carr, whose youngest son was obsessed with Minecraft but has since moved on. Unlike most other games, though, Minecraft is undirected. Players must use their own intelligence, intuition and inspiration to derive enjoyment from the game, rather than relying on objectives and rewards predetermined by game designers.

    “A large issue for parents is that they don’t understand what their kids are so enthusiastically raving about,” says Luke Bennett, a 49 year-old ecological consultant who lives in Castlemaine, Victoria and is the father of 11-year-old twins. “When our son first started playing, my wife and I discovered that if he played up until he went to bed, he was so mentally wired that he could not sleep. I’ve responded by letting him play, but not in large chunks of time. Minecraft is a valuable part of a complex lifestyle. You need to leaven it with the other stuff.”

    Recently, Bennett and a friend set up a private online server where about ten children aged 7-12 play online together most nights. “This means my own gameplay is now more of a moderator role, rather than just purely building,” Bennett says. “We’ve set up a blog for the kids so that they can discuss differing playing styles, and resolve conflicts. The biggest issues in the game are virtual urban and environmental planning. The kids’ default response is to ask me to intervene, which has resulted in some very odd conversations at afternoon school pick-up,” he laughs. “But I think it’s great,” adds Bennett, who now tends to play late into the nights with his middle-aged friend after their kids go to bed at 9pm. “Minecraft is a game that encourages players to think, create, solve problems, engineer, train reflexes and socialise. It’s almost education-by-stealth, in the guise of a video game. It’s like hiding cauliflower in mashed potato.”

    Janet Carr agrees that playing with children, rather than observing their behaviour from a bemused distance, is the best way to appreciate their enthusiasm and set limitations around gameplay. “If everyone in the household understands the rules, it doesn’t become an issue,” she says. “If you’ve got a child who’s really wanting to spend all their time talking about Minecraft, you’re almost beholden to get a great understanding of it yourself so at least you can have high levels of conversation about it, and talk about how to manage that time.”

    Steven “Bajo” O’Donnell is co-host of both Good Game shows. “I hate the word ‘addictive’, because it has a negative association,” he says. “I like to use the word ‘compelling’ instead. Minecraft compels you to go back into it, and keep playing it, and keep building.”

    His co-host, Stephanie “Hex” Bendixsen, agrees. “I don’t think it’s necessarily addictive in the way that [online role-playing game] World Of Warcraft is addictive, because that game offers you constant rewards for ‘X’ amount of hours that you’ve put in. Whereas Minecraft doesn’t really have any kind of reward system; it’s really about what you get out of it personally. It may be hard for people to stop playing, but that’s really due to their own experience rather than something that the game is doing.”

    The Good Game hosts regularly hear from teachers who’ve had to ban the game from their schools, or allocate specific times when kids can go into the computer labs at lunchtime to play. “Some teachers use it as a system of reward: if the students get through a computing studies class, then they’re allowed to play for 15 minutes at the end, because they just can’t stop kids from playing it,” says Bendixsen. “They’ve had to try to find ways to work it into school life. Since it’s a game that doesn’t have any kind of guns or shooting, and encourages kids to be imaginative to work cooperatively, it works quite well in the classroom.”

    ++

    High above the clouds, I’m standing on a transparent platform bathed in the orange glow of twilight. At the edge of one horizon, a square sun dips; behind me, a square moon rises. Underneath the platform is an enormous mass of blue-green. It’s the kind of view only an astronaut would see in reality: star-speckled blanket of infinite space above, stable blue marble below. Suddenly, a man in a white labcoat appears next to me. The glowing yellow text above his head reads “Elfie”. He begins giving me a virtual science lesson while showing me around his greatest Minecraft creation – an animal cell he built for his biology students.

    “The whole idea of these first platforms was to give the kids an overall picture of the cell, because it’s very hard to imagine what it looks like from the outside once you’re in there,” says 32 year-old Stephen “Elfie” Elford, who teaches science, maths and humanities at Numurkah Secondary College (enrolment: 300) in north-eastern Victoria.

    As we travel between observation decks by right-clicking on teleportation terminals, we’re getting closer to the giant blue-green mass. Its curvature is reminiscent of the human brain. On the fourth and final deck, I’m presented with the option of teleporting to four unfamiliar, scientific-sounding stations. I choose “Golgi”, the first option. Now I’m inside the giant mass, and before me is a roughly rectangular prism that represents the Golgi apparatus. Right-clicking on an information block at the edge of the platform gives a text overview of its function, written in the same straight-talking language Elford would use while standing at the head of his classroom. “This is an animal cell,” says Elford. “As my biology students tour the cell, they fill in a booklet. I wanted to deepen that understanding and give them a good visual representation they could call on, when needed.”

    So Elford invested six months, on and off, in creating this three dimensional, to-scale replica of how he understands the inside of an animal cell might look. He estimates that he’s moved two million virtual blocks during the 50-hour building process. The brightly-coloured textures of this fascinating structure bear little resemblance to the lifelike shades of the world I explored with the four 11-year-old boys.

    Elford’s animal cell is a remarkable, inspired piece of work from Australia’s foremost expert on MinecraftEdu, a modification (or “mod”) based on the existing game engine. Developed in collaboration by teachers in Finland and the United States, the mod’s disparate but growing network of Games-Based Learning practitioners see efforts like Elford’s as a way to engage the next generation of “digital native” students. (Elford runs a blog called “MinecraftEdu Elfie” where he shares his learning experiences with teachers throughout the world. He has also uploaded dozens of videos to YouTube showing how his classes have interacted with the game.)

    For the last eight years, Elford had taught Nurmurkah’s science students about animal cells from the textbook, two or three times a year. “I was kind of over it,” he reflects. “I don’t know if it was a seven-year itch a year late; I just didn’t feel like I was enjoying myself. And then this came along, and now I’m enjoying my job again. It’s given me that little bump to keep going.”

    Rather than learning through Elford’s descriptions and the biology textbook, it’s much more engaging for students to see his scientifically accurate representation of an animal cell with their own eyes. I didn’t take any science subjects in senior high school, partly because it all seemed so dry and dull. Had MinecraftEdu existed when I started year 11 in 2004, though, I could well have been drawn in by the technological lure.

    Elford is the first to admit that fanciful creations like this won’t entirely replace traditional teaching methods. In fact, he has used this incredible virtual environment in-class once so far, for a total of two hours. He has plans to upload the map so that other teachers can use the animal cell in their own classes. “The time and effort I put in is far outweighed by the students’ immersion in this cell,” Elford says. Using the game, he’s also led students through reaction time experiments; he’s explained the transformation between solids, liquids and gases (by setting his students on fire, in-game, of course); and he’s run an assignment wherein students built energy-efficient houses, then recorded video tours of their new creations. Despite these breakthroughs, MinecraftEdu is only used on occasion at Nurmurkah, when it’s appropriate to the learning at hand.

    “Personally, I think it should be in every school,” says Elford as he wraps up his tour of the animal cell while we stand outside, gazing up at the monolith. “The opportunities it provides for students to create, and to be creative, is something I haven’t found anywhere else in my time as a teacher.”

    Meanwhile, 15km north-west of Cairns at Kamerunga in far North Queensland is Peace Lutheran College, a prep-to-year-12 school of 585 students. Andrew Wright, 40, is eLearning mentor at Peace. He’s the one who drove the college’s IT department to adopt MinecraftEdu for the first time this term, across two classes of 25 students. “It’s been fantastic,” says Wright, who also teaches Year 7. “We’re studying Ancient Rome at the moment. We found a MinecraftEdu map of that, where the pupils started off in the Colosseum, then partnered up and walked around Rome to have their photographs taken outside iconic landmarks such as the Pantheon. They then went away and researched what that real building would have been used for, and made a presentation about it. You walk around [the virtual] Rome yourself and you think, ‘wow, someone must have spent years doing this!’”

    Though a classroom of 25 kids running rampant in MinecraftEdu sounds chaotic – despite the availability of teacher-only crowd control tools that can instantly freeze, mute or teleport students – Wright assures me it’s quite the opposite. “Because the students want to be learning, and they want to be engaged, they’re very respectful of the game and of each other,” he says. “That’s what we try and teach them – within the game, you have to cooperate, you have to use all the skills that you’d need in the real world. Collaboration, communication; it’s all there. There’s a real learning curve going on because the Year 7s are teaching the Year 1s.”

    Wright, who is now in his fifth year of teaching at Peace, says that “addictive” is “a strong word” when used in the context of Minecraft. “As a teacher, if you’ve got something that the students are keen on using, and you can use it in an educational way, you’re on to a winner. It can be seen as taking up a lot of time, but as with anything, you have to manage that time. When parents see their children coming home and working on this stuff after doing their homework, I don’t think you can put a value on that.”

    ++

    James and Darcy Keogh are showing me around their virtual world one week before my first in-game experience. It’s the first time I’ve seen Minecraft in action. James walks through their well-tended farm of pumpkins, melons, wheat, sugar cane and cacti while playing on a laptop that’s connected to a widescreen television in the living room of a house in Chuwar, about 6km north-west of Ipswich.

    Parents Robert and Grace, who are separated, watch intently from the lounge as their 11-year-old sons walk them through a world they understand a fraction as well as their youngest children do. Throughout the 90 minutes the twins spend pumping me with information, they chatter constantly, challenging one another on which elements of the game to demonstrate and how best to describe its complex functions. It’s a dizzyingly detailed language spoken by twins fluent in Minecraft-speak.

    “There are different ranks of tools,” James explains. “You start with wooden, which is the worst, then upgrade to stone, iron, gold and diamond.”
    “But you’ve got to mine all that stuff to make it,” says Robert, who has himself dabbled with the game.
    “You’ve got to chop down the trees to get the wood,” Grace adds. “That’s the first thing you do – punch a tree. I never got past wooden tools,” she says, with a hint of regret.
    “When you play, you just muck around,” James gently cajoles her, “putting blocks down anywhere …”
    “You’re not fanatical like some!” Robert interjects. The Keogh family laughs together.

    Countless hours sunk into this intriguing world built on blocks, mining and crafting. Millions of players absorbed by the limitless promise of what this game represents better than any before it – a tangible, tantalising sensation of freedom. Two 11-year-old boys who have been playing video games as long as they can remember, and who have played this particular game practically daily since their eldest brother, Brendan, first showed it to them in 2009.

    “So why do you guys play?” their father asks.
    “Because it’s creating, and you can basically do anything you want to,” replies James.
    “Where most games are just, ‘you do this, then you do that …’” says Darcy, “and you don’t get to …” James interrupts by finding the right word for his twin.
    “Most games are linear,” James says. “Minecraft isn’t linear.”

  • ZDNet story: ‘The Digital Beat: policing social media’, July 2012

    A feature story for ZDNet; excerpt below. Click the image for the full story.

    The Digital Beat: policing social media

    Your business may not have to deal with issues of life and death in social media, but there are lessons for everyone in how Australia’s police forces interact with the public.

    If you were in Queensland during the floods of January 2011, Kym Charlton’s iPad may have saved your life.

    The device itself has since been superseded and effectively retired, yet its weathered, black leather case still features a hastily scrawled note, which, at the time, acted as both a mnemonic and a reality check. Two words in thick, white text: DON’T PANIC.

    As executive director of the Queensland Police Service’s (QPS) media and public affairs branch, Charlton [pictured above, centre; to her left, senior digital media officer James Kliemt] was bunkered down in the State Disaster Coordination Centre while then Premier Anna Bligh and her team of emergency-services specialists alternated between internal briefings and live-streamed press conferences.

    The matter at hand? How best to deal with an uncanny series of weather events that would ultimately leave 90 per cent of the state declared a disaster zone.

    iPad in hand, Charlton was responsible for posting live updates to the QPS social-media accounts — vital information which, for some Queenslanders, meant the difference between fight or flight; home ownership or homelessness; life or death.

    Having convinced the deputy commissioner to sign off on a six-month social-media trial in mid-2010, Charlton and her media team had grown the QPS Facebook page to a respectable following of 6500 by the end of the year. As rain saturated the state throughout December, QPS was in the ideal position to establish itself as the state’s singular, trustworthy news source in a time of need.

    “It was quite an organic thing for us,” Charlton said from her office in the QPS headquarters just outside of the Brisbane CBD. “We’d been using social media for six months, so we immediately moved to get the information out through those channels, because time was so critical.”

    Charlton is a calm and confident narrator, having had plenty of time to reflect on this topic both in private and public — including a presentation at the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism in Marrakech last year — yet it’s clear that the urgency and quality of the work that her team produced in January 2011 is never too far from her mind. The numerous framed awards hanging on her office walls make such matters difficult to forget, in any case.

    The QPS social-media presence meant that Charlton didn’t have to waste time with the clearance processes that ordinarily hamper police news dissemination. “Rather than me sitting in a disaster-management meeting, listening to the premier being briefed, taking notes, going out and giving it to someone to write a media release, then spending the rest of the day chasing around incredibly busy people to clear the information, I started to post status updates as I heard the premier being briefed,” she said. A self-imposed limit of 140 characters per update meant that the news could be bounced from Facebook to Twitter with ease, and without diluting the message.

    “We were able to pump out a whole lot of information that we knew wouldn’t make the mainstream media; they just wouldn’t have picked up that volume of information. It was quite low level, but it was really important if it was about your area,” she said.

    “For example, the day that the Lockyer Valley flooded was the same day that Brisbane and Ipswich realised there was going to be a major flood. All of a sudden, you had the entire population of both cities desperately trying to work out if their houses were going to flood. A lot of people weren’t here in 1974; also, there are way more houses [now] than there used to be. We saw a huge jump of people coming to the page to find that information.” On that particular day, 10 January, Charlton sent her first and last tweets at 4.45am and 11.45pm, respectively.

    The numbers surrounding 10 January are astonishing. The QPS Facebook page received 39 million individual story views — the equivalent of 450 page impressions per second — while being updated by staff every 10 minutes or so. (“That amount of traffic would have crashed both our public website and our operational website,” Charlton noted.) Their Facebook audience grew from 16,500 on 9 January to 165,000 within a fortnight; many of those joined the page during the 24-hour period following the Lockyer Valley torrent. Overnight, the QPS social-media accounts had become a lifejacket to which many Queenslanders clung.

    Though neither QPS staff nor their newfound legion of followers would have realised it at the time — it’s fair to say that there were far more pressing matters to consider, like whether their houses would go underwater — this confluence of events exemplified the great big promise of social networking that Zuckerberg et al proselytise: to connect humans with one another, and to share meaningful information immediately.

    Charlton’s decision to establish and nurture the QPS social-media presence the winter before that unforgettable summer was fortuitous. “We were in that wonderful position where we knew enough to be able to use it [during the floods],” she said. “It wasn’t a decision where anyone said, OK, we’re going to focus on social media’. We just started doing it because it worked.”

    For the full 3,700 word story, visit ZDNet. Above photo credit: Andrew McMillen.