Directory:Akahele/The anonymous swarm
The anonymous swarm
This week, French president Nicolas Sarkozy decided to spruce up his image on his Facebook page, displaying a new, more relaxed look, using the social media site to try to interact directly with his target audience, which would appear to be technically savvy youngsters who use the site as part of their daily routines. It would seem that Barack Obama's successful use of these social media sites would be most likely the inspiration for Sarkozy's foray into this communication strategy. One would think that, judging by this very well-publicized launch, that the heyday of web 2.0 social media would probably be in the future.
On the same day that this campaign was launched in France, Dr. Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia and president of Citizendium and the soon-to-be-launched WatchKnow site) posted a story on his blog in which he describes his current frustrations with web 2.0, saying "For me, the bloom is off the rose."
The post is interesting to read in its entirety, but Dr. Sanger sums up his frustrations in three main areas:
- Facelessness or the issues of anonymity and how they create psychological vacuums by the sheer number of anonymous entities with whom one interacts on various social media sites.
Groupthink or the way in which these faceless entities tend to adopt a herd-like mentality and conform to the same sorts of behaviors and choices.
and finally (and probably the most important of all):
- Such a godawful waste of time.
Dr. Sanger would like to leave sites such as Wikipedia and his own Citizendium site out of this discussion, as they are involved in the generation of "useful content" (which is a concept which may or may not be valid, depending on what you feel is useful). In my post concerning MP3.com, I discussed how the transition from web 1.0 to web 2.0 involved a parametric change from focus on content to focus on traffic. When one looks at the amount of traffic generated by the production of content versus the amount of traffic generated by group discussion, socializing, and other procedural processes, it seems to me that Dr. Sanger is not being entirely straightforward in leaving these types of services outside of this discussion.
In many ways, however, Dr. Sanger is describing something which is very much of the zeitgeist.
The anonymity issue came to the fore in Wikipedia circles this week with the outing of Arbitration Committee member Sam "Sick as a parrot" Blacketer as David Boothroyd, a British political researcher and member of the Labour party. The connection between the (now) former arbitrator and a (then) former administrator who was removed for pushing a pro-Labour agenda has been graphically proven by ace Wikipedia sleuth, "Tarantino". The irony of this situation, as pointed out by Wikipedia Review regular Milton "Uncle Miltie" Roe, is that Boothroyd/Blacketer was executing undercover the same kind of paid editing that he had attacked Gregory Kohs for doing in daylight in the past. Cade Metz of the Register has printed an article which sums up the situation extremely well.
What is currently being explored is an interconnection between this account and other pseudo-anonymous arbitrators with a relationship which dates back to the mid-1990s in the context of Usenet. It would appear that these anonymous characters all know each other very well after years of interaction. That they each have arrived at this point together does not appear to be a coincidence. As sources are examined and confirmed, as we prefer to adhere to a multiple-source policy, we will try to inform our readers of developments in this area. What remains clear is that the issue of anonymity and hidden agendas remains a central problem in Wikipedia politics.
Marblecake also the game
Groupthink was also a central part of this week's current events with Operation YouTube, organized by various Internet groups including 4chan and others in an attempt to submerge YouTube in porn videos hidden behind popular keywords, with the initial keyword being "marblecake" as discussed in Judd Bagley's last post about the Time 100 List.
This type of behavior of anonymous mobs has been described as "swarming" by Danièle Citron in her paper "Cyber Civil Rights". Dr. Citron describes several case histories, including a situation involving the Women's Space Blog and Encyclopedia Dramatica. These types of group swarming events may be focused on one individual who is usually identified by the group as an outsider (such as Chris Chan or the Internet phenomenon Boxxy), or they may concern institutions of power (for example, the Church of Scientology), or as a means of launching a joke or fashion (such as the Time 100 List "precision hack".)
This "swarming" activity is happening more and more frequently, with larger and more visible public repercussions. It would seem that the anonymous hive has realized that the powerless masses have the power to change the course of events, even if it is only the Internet. And this is becoming increasingly important as more and more of our existence is taken up by these social media activities.
You really don't have anything better to do?
Finally we come to the central issue: Such a godawful waste of time. Recently, my esteemed colleague Gregory Kohs made the astute remark that people may no longer be capable of putting a man on the moon since "everybody's too busy tweeting". With the number of people I see walking the streets of Paris with their cell telephones glued to their ears, only stopping to check their batteries or to send a text message, you have to wonder how many people still are able to have internal thoughts in their brains, much less imagine things which are not on screens or headphones.
As someone who is guilty of the extreme eccentricity of refusing to have a cell phone, I appreciate having the space in which to have my own thoughts and to have silence in which to think. Increasingly I am finding my experience becoming more and more marginalized by people who are addicted to the connectivity and instant communication which is central to web 2.0. But do the Twitterati (the very apt phrase coined by Valleywag's former editor Owen Thomas) express anything in their 140-character-max tweets? Valleywag's daily sampling would suggest that even a Nobel prize in literature would sound like an idiot on Twitter. Do we really want to fill our brains with these types of "communication nuggets"? I personally do not.
Tune out, turn off, drop out
One might like to think that the anonymous swarms described in Danièle Citron's research might be more oriented toward a specific agenda, which might include changing social mores, modifying media manipulation, and striving for social judgment -- a sort of latter-day cyber hippie movement. Some aspects of the anonymous movement have led to this sort of action, such as protests concerning the Church of Scientology.
However, just as the 1960s also included such things as "Zip to Zap", much of what the anonymous convey consists of "memes" or short, catchy phrases that refer to inside jokes. Beside "Marblecake" and "The Game" mentioned in the Time precision hack, others include phrases which may not make much sense outside of the circle of initiates, such as "mudkips", "Pool's closed" or "Delicious Cake".
While repetitive chanting of these sorts of catch phrases might seem harmless on the surface, when they are repeated over long periods by large groups of anonymous participants with lots of time on their hands, the end result can be psychologically and even economically devastating. For example, the comic Tom Green has been the object of a long-term meme campaign against his web television show, which has prevented him from fully realizing this project and which has caused him obvious emotional distress.
So, it would seem that Dr. Sanger has described something which is currently unfolding. What might some reactions be? I was amused to read in Aaron Swartz's blog the web 2.0 version of "turn on, tune in, drop out" in the form of a manifesto proclaiming Mr. Swartz's intention to spend a month without the Internet. Declaring one's independence from web subservience is one sensible reaction: go read a book, write something longer than 140 characters, or (gulp) go out and try to start a conversation with that crazy person who isn't talking on their telephone.
Jon Awbrey put it much better than I could in a recent comment that he made on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. His thoughtful comment is directed specifically at Wikipedia, but it could apply to any of these web 2.0 "social media" sites: in a nutshell, the way that they cause us to think and to react to the world is a threat to our way of life.
And, given this specific context, what of political leaders using this sort of platform to get their messages across? One would hope that anyone attempting social media interaction has been made aware of the failed experiments of the past, such as the "Greenteagirlie fiasco, or of any one of these recent examples. Part of trying to tango with the anonymous mobs who seem to be forming at every corner of the web is remembering that people don't always behave as you'd expect them to behave. When they figure out that you're trying to "pull a fast one", they generally aren't very happy about that.
One also must hope that all of this virtual tweeting, texting, blogging, and commenting will not completely replace real-world contact with people in that elusive zone known as reality.
Today, the text messages will be sent telling people "I'm on the train" or "buy a gallon of milk". The tweets will be made, and the world will rest easier knowing that Jessica Coen got eel sauce in her hair. Thousands of people will take the "Which Brady Bunch episode are you?" quiz on Facebook. The drama that is Wikipedia will continue to boil, much to the amusement of the anonymous hive of slaving worker bees captive there. Those who are counting the Alexa numbers will continue to pretend that traffic is money.
For the few of you schlepping around without as much as a BlackBerry on your belt, missing out on all of this excitement, I'm the crazy guy without the headphones who's singing out loud to the music in his head. Does anybody else still do that?
- Rose, Wikimedia Commons, CC license
- Parrot, Wikipedia, GFDL
- Marblecake, Wikipedia, public domain
- Owen Thomas by Mark Coggins, CC 2.0 attribution license
4 Responses to “The anonymous swarm”
- Dan T.
- Well isn’t my own time my own, free to be spent on whatever I want even if others think it pointless?
- Not to mention that you seem to be simultaneously crtiticizing the “Web 2.0 world” for (1) wasting lots of time without accomplishing anything, and (2) being scary because of the massive (and possibly massively destructive) things it can accomplish.
- Though I do kind of agree that the use of “social networking” by stodgy mainstream politicians is probably less a sign that the “heyday” is ahead than that those media have “jumped the shark” and the truly hip crowd will have to find something new!
- Paul Wehage
- My dear Mr. T., you are certainly more than welcome to waste your time as you see fit. Just don’t ask me to believe that this has anything to do with “reality”, whatever that means these days…
- I’m not pretending to understand everything here. The point of this article is to say that Larry Sanger is describing what I perceive as an emerging phenomenon. What this ends up meaning is anybody’s guess at this point. It could be something with massive consequences, however.
- Can we at least agree that what Dr. Sanger is describing merits further inquiry?
- Gregory Kohs
- I was BlackBerry-free for the past two years at Comcast. Now I have one. I’m not supposed to use it for personal matters, so now I have my personal cell phone in my briefcase, plus the BlackBerry on my hip. The thing buzzes twice every time I get a new e-mail at my work address.
- I am thankful that I am not permitted to let this small-keyed, small-screened device become my nexus of personal communication. My thumbs began to hurt on the first day of use.
- Mark Woodard
- If only more than 51 people would hear this.