Violent Mobs on Facebook

A woman drops a cat into a trash bin. It’s caught on video. That video is posted on YouTube and Facebook. Within a day, intrepid internet users have identified the woman. The next day, she is under police protection.

This particular event is unfolding in Britain. Here’s an over the top article to explain the situation. The video drew hits because of the shocking nature of the act, but it’s the aftermath that should make us pay attention.

Mary Bale, the perpetrator, called for police protection after reading the many threats of violence directed towards her on Facebook. The comments are understandable. Animal cruelty offends many people and the communal nature of Facebook makes it a perfect venue in which to vent. The question is whether all that social rage would enable a violent act. We do know that participants were able to identify Mary within a 24 hour period. Armed with that information would someone try to “spray her with BBQ sauce and throw her into a den of lions at the zoo” as one poster suggested? Let's hope not.

Many people believe Mary Bale deserves shame for what she did. Perhaps she does. I don’t think she deserves fear. It’s very frightening to have a mob chasing you. And mobs beg for vigilantism, even if the mob in question is digital. Look at China, where they've been dealing with online vigilantism for years. They even have a word for hunting down wrong doers through the internet, renrou sousuo, it translates to human flesh search engine.

For example, in April after a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States showed her support for pro-Tibet independence demonstrations, Chinese bloggers started a human flesh search with pictures of her at the demonstration to find out who she was. In the end, not only her name, age, and which part of China she came from was publicized, but also the names of her parents and where they lived. -Asia Times Online

This is what bothers me. I’m a strong supporter of freedom of speech and association. I’m also very enamoured with informational transparency as enabled by modern communication systems. I am not a fan of mobs. Mary Bale’s “crime” was a physical act. The Duke student’s crime was an opinion. In both cases, individuals that had no direct connection with the accused took the time to dig up personal information and pass it on to some very angry people. What sort of actions are you calling for by doing that sort of legwork? One last example, the hunting of an adulterer.

Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.” The search crossed over to other Web sites, then to the mainstream media — so far a crucial multiplier in every major human-flesh search — and Wang Fei became one of China’s most infamous and reviled husbands. Most of Wang’s private information was revealed: cellphone number, student ID, work contacts, even his brother’s license-plate number. One site posted an interactive map charting the locations of everything from Wang’s house to his mistress’s family’s laundry business. “Pay attention when you walk on the street,” wrote Hypocritical Human. “If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.” -China's Cyberposse, NYT

I’m a huge fan of empowering the individual but oftentimes technology serves to amplify the darkest parts of our nature. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t believe the answer is wishful thinking that people can learn to obey the golden rule. I certainly don’t want to ban or police chat rooms. Can we code for civility? I’m not sure. I think we better find out soon.

Google as Guidance Counselor

I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

-Eric Schmidt

A recent interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt is gaining a lot of attention, mostly for his belief that children will need to change their names as adults to escape the youthful indiscretions captured and posted on sites like Facebook. I'm more intrigued by his thoughts on the future of search.

Schmidt says, "We're trying to figure out what the future of search idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type." It's easy to see the practical benefits of a 24/7 digital personal assistant. Facebook is already the only reason I ever know when anyone has a birthday coming up. I would love it if my phone reminded me I was out of milk while driving past the local grocery store, but do I really want Google to tell me what I should be doing next?

I suppose it's a matter of finesse. Right now, I think Google could recommend "next steps" to me with about as much accuracy as Netflix recommends movies, meaning not that well. Netflix thinks I will enjoy every documentary Ken Burns ever made just because I liked Spellbound. That's better than Amazon's recommendation of Sawyer's Premium Clothing Insect Repellent...which was based on my ownership of the book Colloquial Swahili, but not by much. I attended a Nerdcore show at the Casbah a few weeks ago, but I wouldn't want my phone to text me every time I pass the O'Reilly books at Borders. That's the wrong kind of nerd.

I could hope that Google's recommendations were on the level of Pandora, a music service I find useful, but that would bring its own set of problems. My musical taste is very specific, so all my Pandora stations have a laser-like focus and consist of about five songs on constant rotation. Now, I like these stations very much, but they play no part in expanding my musical horizons. If Google were like Pandora, it would only alert me when I pass liquor stores and pizzerias. I don't need my ruts dug deeper.

I hope the future of search is something amazing. I hope Google can bottle serendipity and send it to my phone. I'm fearful that the next few years will be more like Microsoft's office assistant paperclip, everpresent and annoying.