Those of us happily swimming in the social media waters often extol the virtues of crowds of people who can act collectively to generate new knowledge or new products. Beth just wrote a great post for Huffington Post providing a summary from our book on the various ways that crowds can work together to support causes. Crowds can create knowledge together (e.g. Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count), they can create a product or work of art together (e.g. Royal Opera Company’s Twitter Opera). And, of course, crowds of people can vote for their favorite Idol or candidate or grantee or sports all star online.
But there is a dark side to crowds and that is when they turn into mobs. There have been two instances in particular of mob behavior online that have caught my eye. The first was the explosion of vitriol aimed at Cooks Source Magazine and its editor, Judith Griggs. A free lance writer, Monica Gaudio, posted a story on her blog on November 3rd, 2010 about this magazine using an article of her without permission. As if the lifting of her story wasn’t bad enough, the response she received from the editor was appalling. The most egregious passage from her response was this widely circulated paragraph:
But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”
The outrage in the blogosphere and on the magazine’s Facebook page was fast, ferocious and unforgiving.
Of course, the magazine realized the PR disaster it had on its hands and within a matter of days issued an apology and a donation to Columbia School of Journalism as Monica had originally suggested.
Two weeks later the magazine, with just two staff people Griggs and her daughter, had shut down.
Last week the Internet was abuzz with rumors that the social bookmarking site, Delicious, was shutting down. An employee of Yahoo! the parent company of Delicious tweeted out this slide from a presentation:
What to do to save years worth of tags and bookmarks many of us had been saving on Delicious? A flurry of tweets flew around with suggestions of sites to transfer information from Delicious. Beth suggested Diigo and yesterday I set up an account there and transferred all of my data form Delicious to Diigo. It’s impossible to know exactly how many other people have done similarly in the last week, however, there was a message on the Diigo site saying that it was slow because thousands of new accounts had been created to do exactly what I was doing.
Today Kerri Karvetski posted on my Facebook wall a link to this article saying that that the death of Delicious may have been prematurely reported. The article quotes a part of a blog post from Yahoo saying:
“We’re actively thinking about the future of Delicious and we believe there is a home outside the company that would make more sense for the service and our users,” the blog post says. “We’re in the process of exploring a variety of options and talking to companies right now. And we’ll share our plans with you as soon as we can.”
Thousands of users have already shifted over in the time it took Yahoo to respond to the rumors. What may have been a slideshow intended to spur internal brainstorming may have turned into a death knell for Delicious.
I’ve been thinking about how these two examples are alike and different.
They are alike in that these mobs formed instantly and widely online and they both killed an institution (I’m guessing the damage to Delicious may be irreversible, could be wrong about that, of course.)
Of course, there are significant differences between them. In the case of The Cooks Source the crowd was incensed, rightly, by the insensitive and ignorant comments from the editor. However, the Delicious example is unclear whether it was an employee trying to save or bury Delicious by making public an internal presentation. I know, there is no internal or external in our Wikileaks world, however, it seems that the intention of the presenter here was to share an early idea not make a public announcement. In addition, the Cooks Source crowd was out for blood, the Delicious crowd just wanted to protect itself even though the consequences of inaccurate information leaking out early may be that we all inadvertently put them out of business.
All in all, these examples leave me with more questions:
1. When and how does a crowd turn into a mob – and is there any way back once it becomes a mob?
2. How can a company or organization, particularly a small one like Cooks Source, react fast and widely enough to calm a mob? One answer is that they will need friends in their network to advocate on their behalf, but again, this requires an incredibly fast and loud response to calm a mob.
3. We are assuming no evil and premeditated intent on the part of the mob catalyst in both of these cases. But what if someone had an ax to grind with the magazine or with Yahoo! We’re living in an environment where widespread panic is just a mouse click away for any organization or company. Even though the process is opaque, even Wikileaks portends to do some due diligence on the information it receives to verify it’s authenticity.
I don’t have any answers to these questions, just thinking about them…