Tue, Mar 02, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Online lynch mobs tyrannize the Web

The instant interaction of the Internet brings out the worst in some people, such as the ones who sabotaged others’ work on a collaborative novel, or those who spew invective at the drop of a hat

By James Harkin  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Even hell hath no fury like an electronic crowd, as Richard Dawkins discovered to his cost last week. Dawkins’s mistake was to update his Web site with a letter politely giving notice of a few planned changes to its “community” bulletin board, where 85,000 enthusiastic atheists come to air their views and discuss them with like minds.

“Dear forum members,” his cheery posting began, and before long the feedback was coming in thick and fast. Dawkins returned to his computer to find himself described as “a suppurating rat’s rectum.” Another anonymous community member expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails down your throat,” while a third described the author of The God Delusion as having “a slack-jawed turd-in-the-mouth mug if ever I saw one.”

The reaction must have confirmed Dawkins’s worst suspicions. He was already concerned at the amount of the gossip, abuse and irrelevant discussion that turns up on his site, which was why he was keen to subject it to greater editorial control. Dawkins is no wallflower but, even for someone familiar with the fury of US creationists, the bile he provoked seems to have taken him aback.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical.”

There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it.”

Dawkins’s language is extravagant but he makes an interesting point. When anyone can have their say, what use is the stuff that comes out the other end? What can be done with it, and who’s going to be in charge of quality control when things go wrong?

Three Google executives are considering at least some of those questions. They were convicted last Wednesday and awarded six-month suspended sentences for allowing a clip of an autistic boy being viciously bullied to play on Google Video. Google, the judges claimed, had violated the boy’s privacy, even though the company removed the video as soon as it was brought to its attention.

It raises the question of what to do with the mass of material that is piling up on social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google Video.

For the Internet gurus who travel around like fire-breathing evangelists, preaching hate for the old world and an all-consuming love for the new, the answer is clear — the vast ocean of electronic information out there, them say, represents a historic triumph of the audience over the institutions which have kept them at bay.

Many mainstream institutions have taken their advice. There’s no question that the deluge of data can be a great resource, or that social media is a fantastic way of passing nuggets of information around.

Make the mistake of promising vast, anonymous online audiences more profound involvement, however, and the results can be ruinous.

Take an experiment mounted by the publishing company Penguin UK when it invited millions of Web users to collaborate on a “group novel” called A Million Penguins. Over six weeks, beginning on Feb. 1, 2007, a blank Web page was launched with a call for contributions from anonymous online scribes. In keeping with the collaborative spirit of the enterprise, anyone was allowed to add, edit or delete what had gone before.

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