Clay Shirky, an obvious favorite in English 3372, wrote Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, in 2008. It’s primary focus is on group organization, mobilization, and effectiveness in a modern world that is dominated by social media. My focus was on Chapter 1: It Takes a Village To Find a Phone.
Shirky recounted a harrowing tale of a lost phone that led to espionage (sort of) and the coming together of powerful forces to tackle the issue of injustice. This eventually leads to the involvement of the police, town hall, and even the military.
In reality, the story is much more mundane. A lady carelessly left a phone in a taxi. Some hapless teenager got their hands on said phone and refused to return it when confronted. Wrong? Yes, absolutely, but hardly worthy of global notice. With that said, global notice it got. What happened was an interesting look in to society and what it can do with a global network of like-minded individuals.
As Shirky pointed out, the story struck a nerve with people. I will not recount all of the events as you can read about it in much greater detail here, here, and of course in the above link. Basically, people heard about what was going on through the modern day equivalence of word of mouth advertising. What happened was Mr. Guttman put together a page detailing the ordeal. This page included pictures the suspect took on the lost/stolen phone (obviously not the brightest crayon in the box). He included rapid updates. That’s very important to the story since people seem to get bored very fast. This page was sent to his friends who sent it to their friends and so on. Eventually it ended up on the front page of Digg. That’s no easy task since typically only important news of the day and cute pictures of kittens wind up on the front page. Obviously something in this story caught a lot of people’s attention.
The attention the story garnered is not what is important here though. What is important is what one man was able to do with the power of a global community behind him. Had something like this happened a decade before, it would have gone nowhere. The ability of the common man to reach the masses was almost non-existent. A newspaper or nightly news program would have had no interest in something as trivial as a lost phone. I am sure those in charge would have had some degree of empathy or maybe even sympathy, but to run the story alongside presidential debates, murders, or missing persons would have been viewed as a waste of time and resources.
Even when the media did get involved with the missing phone story, they weren’t interested in the phone itself so much as they were interested in the attention something so commonly lost could gain. An entire network of people from lawyers to police officers and from hackers to military personnel were galvanized in to a frenzy of vigilantism. They all had one common goal and were going to achieve it no matter the cost. I believe this is one of the real and tangible dangers of social networking.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe the benefits of social networks and user generated content for outweigh the downsides. I will, however, concede that there is a dark side. The above story doesn’t exactly seem like a bad use of social networking on the surface, but if you look just beneath the surface you will see something rather disturbing. The person who had the phone was a 16 year old girl. Sure, she should have given it back, but should she have also been subject to having her picture plastered all over the internet? Should her personal details have been put up for the whole world to see? Basically, was a phone really worth the harassment of a child? Say what you will, but a 16 year old girl is indeed still a child.
Put in that context, doesn’t it seem like this was turned in to an endeavor to put a boot on a child’s neck for daring to act like a child? I personally believe so, but we as a society cheered because a wrong was supposedly righted. Yes, the phone was returned. The question you have to ask is this: did the ends justify the means? Personally I don’t think so.
This was not the last time communities on the internet sprang in to action to punish those who they felt deserving. It was probably one of the last time that we cheered them on though. Recently, a poor girl who went by Jessi Slaughter (caution: adult language and content) was put through a brutal campaign of harassment, abuse, and even death threats for simply being a teenager on the internet. She was obnoxious, boisterous, and vain. Like I said, a typical teenager. Like the poor girl who took the phone, Jessi’s information was put up all over the internet. Her name, phone number, and even physical address were revealed all in the name of teaching her a lesson. Sound familiar? In this case though, the community was the bad guy. I have to wonder if there really is a difference?
As Shirky pointed out, it is important to understand that we are social animals. Our civilization is a thin disguise for an underlying instinct to follow the pack. We don’t willingly do it; it is a part of who we are. We evolved to form groups. Group think is something that comes natural to us. That is why riots, stampedes, and gang violence continues to persist. We want to go along with the group. Why would we assume anything different would happen on the internet? When some people see their group going after someone who is not one of them, they want to belong. They want to join.
So what does all of that mean? I believe it means we need to be careful. It really is that simple. By putting up the means and methods for harassment, we have a responsibility to use it wisely. We owe it to each other to put our abilities and our connections to good use. The thin veil over society depends on us largely playing our parts for the good of everyone else. Despite what some may believe, this veil extends to the social networking and the entire internet as a whole.