Will Social Software Mutate Blogosphere into Mob Rule?

Filed as News on September 10, 2006 1:46 am

Don Park postulated an interesting question yesterday:

… are bloggers activists or journalists? What prevents us from abusing our attention-based power? When is it not an abuse to publically single out a person to be fired?

Now, Don was specifically referring to how Robert Scoble, over at Scoble-izer has posted multiple times on one of the biggest stories hitting the blogosphere at the moment; the surveillance scandal at HP, involving the chair of the board, Patricia Dunn.

Now, the question really isn’t a new one.

While its arguable how popular or how widely read blogs really are, there seems to be the case for bloggers, particularly influential ones (A-listers), and groups of bloggers having roles in influencing both off-line and on-line media. One book characterizes it fairly well: BLOG; understanding the information reformation, by Hugh Hewitt – and political maunderings aside, makes a pretty cogent case for bloggers having a role in the failure of John Kerry to win the 2004 Presidential Election, but as well, Dan Rather’s gaffe which led him to “retiring” for his role as anchor on CBS.

If taken as fact — both of these events happened over 2-3 years ago. So its not a new debate about how in the attention economy, what role, if any, does conscience necessarily play in the minds of those who command it? Who watches these watchmen? What’s to prevent the mobilization of opinion towards vigilante style justice?

However, I think these questions take on new relevance in light of the events which transpired this week in the blogosphere. In particular, the explosive controversy at Digg with top Diggers allegedly gaming the promotion algorithms to manipulate the front page stories.

And as well, the debacle at Facebook, wherein a new ‘upgrade’ which allowed people to view existing data about their friends more easily (a newsfeed) caused their users to put the “lash” in backlash, and go supernova about privacy violations.

In both of these scenarios, one could comment on a number of aspects of social software — but one thing certainly stands out.

And that is, how FAST the reaction was to whatever the percieved slight was.

On Digg, this was represented by the speed at which the comments section grew, and the number of sequentially posted, and then promptly promoted to the front page, articles on the topic.

On Facebook, users mobilized themselves using Facebook, and gathered on an Anti-Facebook site, growing its membership by, supposedly, 15-30 members per second.

Social Software, in the way that it enhances connectivity, plugs in networks to networks, and encourages discussion, dissent and controversy (some would say, “trolling”) – it acts like an accelerant.

So this is where Don Park’s question comes in.

If an A-list blogger, who already has a community built in to his blog, who already commands a large amount of attention and opinion, goes on a crusade for whatever opinion — what will the effect be if it gets picked up by social software, and amplified through social networks?

Whether or not the original opinion was right or wrong, one could invision how things could quickly spiral out of control — growing faster and even changing beyond the original intent of the original message.

I can almost guarantee, for example, that Kevin Rose’s posting on the Digg Blog wasn’t meant to publicly chastise top Diggers for allegedly gaming Diggbut that’s how some people interpreted it; and furthermore, it seems to have encouraged a group of users at Digg to automatically “bury” any of the top30 Diggers stories.

To answer Don Park’s question behind the question — I don’t think there’s much we can do. The nature of the web has a duality when it comes to its intelligence; the interconnectivity can lead to marvelous collaboration and progress towards lofty goals that everyone can benefit from. On the other hand, it can also cater to lowest-denominator thinking.

With respect to contentious or sensational issues, particuarly when attention aggregates naturally, there is startling potential for how fast some ideas can take traction. Bad, good and otherwise.

And I just don’t think there’s an effective way to police, goven, or legislate people to use self-restraint for the all the best reasons in the world.

Which, for Patricia Dunn, is really, some pretty bad news.

Tony Hung is a blogger, whose home is over at DeepJiveInterests.  You can contact him at anthony dot hung at gmail.com

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  1. By Jim Grisanzio posted on September 10, 2006 at 2:28 am
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    Well, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to be concerned about mob rule in any part of a free society. Freedom is messy at times, no question. But you don’t need the latest “social software” to start a mob. Word of mouth, letters, telephones, radio, and television all work rather well, too. And I’ve seen mob mentality in every profession I’ve ever been in and at every school I’ve ever attended. I think it’s part of being human. Sometimes it escalates to violence, but more commonly it simply influences thinking and behavior, which is more insidious. But getting back to who’s watching the bloggers. Well, I can just as easily ask the following: Who’s watching the marketers? No one. Who’s watching Hollywood? No one. Who’s watching the advertisers? No one. And who’s watching the media? The American media is the biggest and most sophisticated communications distribution mechanism the world has ever known. Who watches them? No one. True, laws come into effect when things get illegal in any of these professions, but in general no one is “watching” anyone. And the notion that the media watches (checks is probably a better term) the government has always fascinated me since the media is made up of corporations supported by the sale of advertising. So, profit-making companies selling soap and perfume are checking the government? Wild world we live in, eh? I’m not at all worried about the bloggers. The mainstream media is far more powerful and that power goes largely unchecked.

  2. By Big Roy posted on September 10, 2006 at 9:35 am
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    One of my biggest complaints about mainstream media has always been, who polices them? They are quick to vilify a government official even someone as low on the totem pole as a single police officer. They are quick expose the mistakes of doctors and teachers. Who for the most part are simply trying to do the right thing. Who holds the media accountable for their mistakes and their hidden agenda?

    While the power of bloggers, even so called A-List bloggers may be something we can look at. The real problem that needs to be dealt with is mainstream media. Who after all does what the do for one reason, shareholders, they are concerned with the bottom line and nothing else.

  3. By Rob Hyndman posted on September 10, 2006 at 11:04 am
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    Same mob. Just now paying attention to what it wants to, not what the TV and newspapers tell it to. Or at least, less so. My more detailed comment at Don’s site.

    BTW, it’s “Robert” Scoble.

  4. By Tony Hung posted on September 10, 2006 at 11:42 am
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    Thanks! Its corrected now.

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