Revolutions, Lynch Mobs and Anonymity

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Column

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Tunisia in the midst of overthrowing a two-decade old regime. A new website that lets you answer and ask questions. And, in Thailand, a 16 year-old girl feels the full weight of the online public after being photographed using her cellphone after causing a deadly car crash.

OK, so what does a revolution, a boring sounding website and a lynch mob have in common?

The Internet has done something that perhaps we said we were ready for—and it turns out we’re not. It has not made us all members of a global village; it’s more like we’ve all been thrust into a very large room. This is great if the music’s good and the wine is flowing, or we’re all British and politely forming a line, but it’s hopeless if some of us get restless, or start pushing.

Chaos ensues.

There are several currents at work here. One is that as the Internet gets easier to use—and the reason why everyone uses Google and is on Facebook is because they’re so easy to use, let’s not forget—so the environment becomes collaborative. We want to share stuff, we want to contribute.

But there’s a counter-current at work too: as it gets easier to collaborate, so it gets easier to be combative. Any academic will tell you that if someone is anonymous—either because their identity is hidden, or because they’re in a big seething mass—then they behave differently to when they’re sipping tea with the vicar on a Sunday afternoon.

This is why you’ll see angry comments on even high-brow websites: These people are, for the most part, anonymous, or, they’re camouflaged. There’s some distance between them and the people they’re cussing. You don’t find people you know, for example, posting obscene messages on your Facebook wall. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Which is why a new website called Quora is such an interesting thing. The idea is simple: Someone posts a question and other members of the website post answers. Simple, And not particularly new. But somehow—so far—it works. The kinds of people who post answers seem to know what they’re talking about; indeed, more than a few times the person most likely to know the best answer answers. Like Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, who has answered questions on AOL, advice for entrepreneurs, and the chances of the Stanford Women’s soccer team of winning a national title.

Those who frequent Quora liken it to the early days of the Internet, when everyone was a bit more, well, laid back and helpful. I’ve yet to find a ‘doofus’ comment on Quora.

Of course there are other reasons why Quora is hot. Twitter may have helped us move information around more efficiently—and serendipitously—and Facebook has enabled us to share videos of our children and of strangers walking into fountains in malls while texting, but it’s left a hole in terms of finding a set of considered, serious answers to questions from people who aren’t anonymous—indeed, whose expertise is clearly annotated.

Going back to our big room thing, Facebook helps us peel off into a room with friends. LinkedIn with business contacts. Twitter with people we don’t necessarily know throwing out random tips and bits of gossip. Quora lets us wander into a room full of specialists and ask a question—or find a question that’s already been asked—and measure the quality of the answer by the qualifications of the person giving it.

This is good. But it may also be important. Tunisia wasn’t a Facebook revolution—they would have kept on fighting with or without Facebook—but clever use of Facebook, and blogs, and other Internet tools—helped focus their efforts and inspire them to keep going. And, perhaps most important, provide a source of independent and alternative information. In Tunisia, this worked well—fortuitously assisted by a clutch of WikiLeaks cables.

But it doesn’t always work this way. Tunisians already knew their situation was dire, and their government even more so. The Internet gave them access to information and organization that helped galvanize and convince them of the legitimacy of their cause.

But the Internet can just as easily give poor information and lead people astray. Take the Thai lynch mob—incensed by a photo that seemed to suggest  the teenager’s callous disregard for the tragedy she’d unleashed. Based on that photo alone Internet users launched a massive online hate campaign against her and her well-connected family.

They may have been right. But they had insufficient information to make that call. Instead of the Internet being a source of knowledge, a crowd-sourcing of information, it became a ramp for a stampede, an unruly mob fed by supposition, assumption and prejudice.

I don’t necessarily believe that something like Quora will help this. But I do believe there’s room for rooms in this online community we’ve created. We probably need to start thinking about this—not necessarily doing away with anonymity, but of finding ways to give greater credence to those who know what they’re talking about, and not get carried away by rumor, innuendo, or photos provided without context.

It might also help the foot soldiers of the next revolution, wherever that happens to be.

18. January 2011 by jeremy
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