Why the Web Went Wrong: From Self-Organized Swarms to Unruly Flash Mobs
Mary Joyce recently wondered if most examples of “bad” practices in digital activism consist of governments and corporations compromising personal privacy via surveillance, cookies and intrusive messaging or distorting public opinion via disinformation, astroturfing and plain old paid propaganda.
I have previously written that the internet is value agnostic, like all technologies, and can be used for both good and evil, across the 5Cs of citizen activism. Misleading or inflammatory content can be used to drive propaganda and spread conversations that turn into viral rumors. Communities can easily become closed insular cabals, and suffer from self-reinforcing groupthink. Collaboration can lead to the formation of angry and vindictive flash mobs on the fly. Collective intelligence can be used to profile and persecute minorities and other disadvantaged groups.
So, even as we celebrate swarm behavior on the social web (and what is digital activism if not “good” swarm behavior), we should remember that self-organized swarms can quickly turn into unruly mobs.
White the Western media focuses on China’s human flesh search engines as an example of online mob behavior, such behavior seems to be at the heart of American internet culture. Spend some time going through the guest list at ROFL Con, browsing through examples of viral web memes at Know Your Meme, Internet Famous and You Should Have Seen This, reading through comments on 4Chan‘s anonymous board /b/, or following Twitter’s trending topics and you’ll be amazed at the human capacity to celebrate the trivial and the tasteless. And, to see how thin the line between good and bad memes, good and bad mobs, or good and bad activism really is, watch TED attendees applaud a story of mob justice during Christopher “moot” Poole’s talk on the benefits of online anonymity.
I have come to believe that “good” mobs (like the Pink Chaddi Campaign) are the exceptions that prove the “mobs are usually bad” norm. Even in such rare cases, not everyone agrees that “good” mobs are good after all (see the Hindi blogosphere’s reaction to the Pink Chaddi Campaign) and they often end badly (the Pink Chaddi Campaign Facebook Group was hacked).
When governments or corporates seed or support such mobs (see Delhi Traffic Police’s panopticon project on Facebook), I tend to become a little more worried, but realize that they are tapping into basic human behavior. Large groups, left to themselves, tend to devolve into mobs and mobs are usually destructive, online or in real life.
Like I said in my book chapter on digital activism, the social web open up possibilities for new behaviors and new power structures. It’s up to us, as individuals and societies, to choose which these possibilities we turn into reality. The question is: how well will we choose?