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.

The Slashdot Report, Part III: An Interview With Jeff Henning

Here are extracts from an IM interview with Jeff Henning, COO, Perseus Development Corporation, an online survey company.

Me: i was starting from the experience of being slashdotted/boingboinged, and trying to give it some context for the general user, and using it as an excuse to talk about how information gets around…
Jeff Henning: Well, let me start with my two 15 minutes of fame
Jeff Henning: I created this and posted it in one online community with 200 members, a Lord of the Rings Character Test, right when the first movie came out. It ended up being taken over 4 MILLION times. This one I showed Dave Winer. It ended up with the most interest of any study I’ve done in 18 years in market research
Me: interesting…
Jeff Henning: Dave of Scripting News linked to it then other bloggers linked to it and it took off from there.  I’ve seen this happen again and again with other items — oftentimes they start in some backwater blog and perculate before being amplified by one of the Technorati 100
Me: i see..
Jeff Henning: The phrase for this in the blogging community sometimes is “succumbing to the meme” as in “I’m succumbing to the meme and writing about Schiavo”

Me: what i’d like to explore for a general reader who’s never heard of slashdot effect is how the internet changes (or perhaps doesn’t change) the way information gets about, and why that might be important for them. have blogs made information easier and more plentiful, or just increased the volume of bad information?
Jeff Henning: Yes. 🙂
Jeff Henning: Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap.  That certainly seems true of blogs.
Jeff Henning: Many blogs are primarily intended to be read by 10-40 friends — so they are like e-mail;  quickly written, not vetted.
Me: right. so the interesting bit is when one of those blogs, or postings, crosses over into ‘meme’land, right?
Jeff Henning: Well, I think blogs are interesting for many other reasons too but in terms of information propagation, the “blogoshere” as a whole does try to be self correcting:
Jeff Henning: someone might post a rumor, ask others for comments, and it might be quickly invalidated or verified, then once that has happened, it might get wider play in larger blogs.  It needs to be noticed in the “short head” (opposite of the “long tail”!) of blogs for it to crossover to the mainstream media.
Me: yes. i guess the really interesting part of all this is when something that’s interesting moves rapidly to a larger audience, when it finds its way onto the short head, like boingboing?
Jeff Henning: Yes — and its not just that the short head is important because of its audience, it is also important because many of those leading sites are aggregators, with their authors skimming thousands of blog posts for interesting ideas, so for those of us with shorter blogrolls, they become the Reader’s Digest of what else is happening in the blogosphere
Me: good point. is it your impression that the ‘blogosphere’ is now a much broader sphere than it was a year or so ago? have aggregators really aggregated, and if so what impact does that have on information?
Jeff Henning: yes, the blogosphere is much, much broader.  I bought a T-shirt a few years ago from ThinkGeek that said “I’m blogging this” and when I wore it people had no idea what it meant — they always misread it (“You’re a lumberjack?  A jogger?”) 🙂
Me: 🙂
Jeff Henning: Now I overhear discussions about RSS, which is pretty technical
Jeff Henning: Not change your oil technical but not the type of thing I’d expect there to be a growing awareness of
Me: i see… good to hear that. but i still see resistance among readers to this kind of thing. a) they don’t really know where to find stuff b) they don’t know what to trust (or how to confirm). going back to my original starting point, the bb and /. phenomena… the latter is old hat now, it’s been around a while, and businessweek suggests the impact is diluted these days. do you have any thoughts on this, and where it fits?
Jeff Henning: Well, /. is one of the most influential blogs for self-proclaimed geeks — computer programmers, server administrators, and so forth.  If that was an audience I was trying to win over, then I would definitely try to get slashdot coverage.  There is a perception that it is mainly Linux and open source, but I work in a mixed shop and most of the Windows guys read it as well.  So it is a fun powerful forum.
Boingboing is quite different.
It’s funny — when you IMed, I was listening to a song (I can’t remember what they call them — its a mix/hack up of a current pop song, a Beatles song, a George Michael song and an Aretha Franklin song) that someone blogged about after seeing it on boingboing.
Jeff Henning: Boy, I’m not sure how to sum up boingboing.
Me: it’s a tricky one, isn’t it?
Jeff Henning: It really is — I amazed it is the most popular because it is so hard to pigeon hole.  But then maybe that is why it attracts such a wide audience — a little bit of something for everyone.  But still geekier than a general audience.
Me: yes. do you see any point of convergence, where a v general audience starts to look to bb for information? has that already happened?
Jeff Henning: It may have crossed over for a general 20something audience — I would expect it will do that first before reaching the larger general audience.