BEST OF THE WEB: Why do mobile networks fail in emergencies?

One of the most common scenes after emergencies now is the failure of mobile networks to deal with the demand.

This week, after the bombs in Boston exploded, the sheer amount of traffic on the network couldn’t be sustained. As a result, confusion reigned. While networks should make communication easier, the massive amount of traffic threw everyone back into the pre-mobile era.

It’s a common scene, as this BusinessWeek piece describes. The Hurricane Sandy disaster put mobile networks on a standstill.

But as the piece describes, this wasn’t because authorities shut down the networks. It was simply too much for the networks to handle.

The science behind these failures in wireless connectivity isn’t complicated. In every city, each mobile carrier operates hundreds or thousands of cell towers, which route calls and data to the carrier’s backbone network.

Each tower is designed to accommodate a set number of calls per second, per a certain geographic area. In a crisis, when everyone naturally reaches for their phone, that limit is quickly surpassed and the radios on the tower get sluggish.

Simple science, right? Except it’s 2013, and many mobile users would like to think mobile systems should be able to survive a disaster or two. But as the piece describes, there isn’t much that can be done.

Carriers could engineer networks to handle these situations by adding radios and towers and amplifying connections from the towers to the network’s backbone. But a vast majority of that extra capacity would then be wasted.

For now, it seems, our constantly connected era is prone to failure

The birth of the banner ad

The online advertising market has been going through a tough time during the past few years, and it will never recover.

Of course, we’re far from the 1990s in which online advertising prices soared as the medium became the next big thing. Over at Digiday, there’s a nice write-up of the history of one of the biggest revolutions in online advertising: the banner ad.

The banner ad started at a company called Hotwired, which was the internet version of Wired, to start selling banner advertising. As the piece points out, this wasn’t a new idea, but Hotwired wanted to put the ads at the top of the screen.

It is important to remember that the Web was a chaotic confusing place back in 1994. People discovered other sites not through search engines or directories — Yahoo didn’t exist yet — but through “site of the day” recommendations. The Web was still mostly the preserve of artists, technologists, academics and hackers.

As the piece describes, companies loved the idea. AT&T was an early adopter. Although it was hard to convince businesses to see the internet as a commercial medium, companies slowly started signing up.

Eighteen years later, banner advertising is a $13 billion business in the US alone that is the bulwark of the commercial Internet. Despite its many flaws — and all those that created the original banner share misgivings about what it’s become — the banner has powered the creation of tons of freely available content and given birth to a substantial new media industry.

If you’re involved in internet advertising in any way, this is a nice read on a piece of history you should be aware of.

Is BuzzFeed the future of journalism?

The website BuzzFeed is enjoying a strange amount of success. Part pop-culture aggregator and part-journalistic endeavour, the site is attempting to bridge the gap between serious journalism and collections of pop-culture GIFs.

That’s a big gap. And as this piece in New York Magazine points out, there’s plenty of problems in that approach. But so far, the site has earned more than $46 million in venture capital: this for a site where journalists write stories on drone warfare alongside articles like “the 40 greatest dog GIFs of all time”.

But as the piece points out, founder Jonah Peretti has a big plan for the site: creating such a huge amount of content the internet can’t simply ignore it.

But the site has received criticism, especially for its paid advertising, which critics say is indistinguishable from the site’s own product.

In February, Andrew Sullivan took to his popular blog, the Dish, to write a diatribe titled “Guess Which BuzzFeed Piece Is an Ad,” comparing two similarly enthusiastic posts about Sony’s new PlayStation.

The same evening, at a contentious debate with Ben Smith, he suggested, “If journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society.”

But as the piece says, BuzzFeed may be earning as much as $40 million in ad revenues.

Online journalism may be struggling to find a way to fund itself, but BuzzFeed, for all of its criticism, may have found a way to survive.

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