Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The digital masses

In 2008, this video surfaced on the internet after a NYC critical mass cycling event. It immediately went viral, with thousands of internet vigilantes demanding the name of the officer responsible (and his head on a plate). The video was posted on a Friday, by Monday morning Officer Patrick Pogan had been stripped of his badge and gun.

Would Pogan have been caught, and properly punished, without the power of youtube and the internet? Possibly, but with much less public vitriol and shaming. Youtube, and the widespread nature of the camera phone, has enabled citizens worldwide to become "internet vigilantes." When injustice arises, often conveyed through an inflammatory youtube video of humans behaving badly (which are becoming increasingly common these days), these vigilantes use whatever information is available to them to seek out the real identities of the people involved and make sure the victim is safely taken care of. Sounds great right? Sort of like a global neighborhood watch, people watching out for each other.

Except if anybody has ever been involved in a neighborhood watch, they know the system is far from perfect. There's always that guy, or maybe a few guys, who are really into keeping the neighborhood safe. He's constantly reporting minor infractions to the local police, who start to ignore him as the reports become more frequent. He starts to get fed up that the police still haven't arrested that damn 13 year old with the paintball gun who keeps vandalizing the stop signs. One night, while dutifully patrolling the neighborhood for troublemakers and criminals, he spots little Jimmy up to some mischief and hastens to make a citizens arrest. In his anger, he tackles Jimmy a bit too hard and accidentally breaks his hand. And when the police show up, it is the neighborhood watch guy, not Jimmy, who ends up in the back of the squad car, screaming at the top of his lungs that he's not the threat to public safety, that kid with the toy gun is!

Internet vigilantes have garnered a reputation for taking it too far as well. This past summer, 11 year old Jessica Leonhardt (better known as Jessi Slaughter) uploaded a youtube video of her and her father. In the video, she is crying while her dad yells angrily at the internet trolls who have been harassing her. Yelling things like "I dun backtraced it," "I called the cyber police," and "consequences will never be the same," Jessi's dad, and the video itself, soon became an internet phenomenon. The internet was eager to teach this misinformed Floridian family about the power of a digital mob. Jessi's real name, address and phone number were posted to countless internet forums, and the mob set to work. Pizzas were ordered to the Leonhardt household, the phone began ringing off the hook with prank calls. But it didn't take long for the pranks to get even more insidious. The prank calls soon turned to death threats. People were calling and showing up at the house at all hours of the day. The family started to become fearful for both their daughter's safety and their own. The events culminated in Jessi being taken away from her family for nearly a week to be placed in police protective custody. Eventually, the digital mob calmed down, and Jessi was able to return home.

So what sparked such widespread internet outrage? Why did Jessi's father feel the need to get involved in the first place? Well apparently, Jessi had been posting videos online for a while. One of a growing number of young girls learning that the internet is a great place for attention, Jessi had found a small following among people who wanted to hear about her day, or her opinions on emo music. Others simply wanted to poke fun at her, trolling with comments to try and make her angry much like a pesky little brother would do. However, Jessi ignored a crucial internet rule (don't feed the troll!) and responded to these comments with a foul-mouthed video in which she tells all the "haters" to "suck her non-existent penis," and "get aids and die." Gleefully, devious internet users began reposting her obscenity-laden rant, encouraging further trolling until the point that her father felt forced to involve himself (which simply provided more food for the trolls).

Okay, so what does all this have to do with Dan Gillmor's "We the Media?" A lot, actually. While reading the book, I was struck by how outdated it seemed, even though it is only about 5 years old. When Gillmor wrote "We the Media" in 2004, Youtube didn't even exist yet (hard to believe I know, but it's true!). Nick Denton, founder of Gawker media, had not yet created The Consumerist, a blog that publicly shames companies for treating consumers badly (remember the Facebook TOS scandal?). And Wikileaks had not yet replaced Memoryhole and DrudgeReport as the leading provider of confidential scoops. It seemed like Gillmor's favorite concept was the blog, an idea that has become just one of many ways people publish their ideas online these days.

However, the deeper I read into the text, the more impressed I became with Gillmor's foresight. Even though Youtube did not exist, Gillmor realized the incredible value of video in journalism. "News organizations should issue a camera phone and digital camera to every member of the staff and urge people to shoot anything that even resembles news," he said. He predicted a rise in the usage and value of camera phones, and video in general, predicting that as a consequence "keeping secrets... will be more difficult for businesses and governments." Enter the Consumerist, a website dedicated to opening up corporations to the public eye. Gillmor predicted that Nick Denton's style of micro-blogging would catch on, and catch on it did. Today, Denton's company Gawker Media owns or originally created a significant portion of the most influential blogs online, including gadget blog Gizmodo, internet gossip blog Gawker, life tip guide Lifehacker, the popular female oriented blog Jezebel and the gaming oriented blog Kotaku, among others. Gawker blogs embrace conversation on their site, encouraging users to post comments and tagging everything with a #hashtag to make it easier to find similar articles. I've mentioned the Consumerist in particular a few times because of the way it has torn down walls of corporate secrecy. Among their most valuable features is the grocery shrink-ray, which exposes the corporate practice of shrinking the sizes of products while keeping them at the same price. Nearly all of the Consumerist's stories are user supplied, and the sites staff use these tips to adhere to the site's motto: "Shoppers bite back."

So what's the point of all this nonsense about internet vigilantes, The Consumerist and Wikileaks? I guess I'm eating my words from last week's assignment (I more or less committed the sin of being a cluetrain skeptic!). I focused a little too heavily on the idea of markets, and not enough on the conversation. The internet literally puts billions of people at your fingertips, a power I severely underestimated in the past. These digital masses can help you shop, or they can get you fired. They can build incredible open-source software, or they can harass a family into witness protection. They can even get you your own tv show. The only thing they can't do is be ignored.

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