The Tyranny of Online Crowds – beyond Crazy Frog?

Writing at www.edge.com Jaron Lanier warns us of the dangers of mass online anonymity.

In the last few years, though, a new twist has appeared. Along with all the sites that encourage individual expression, we are seeing a flood of schemes that celebrate collective action by huge numbers of bland, anonymous people. A lot of folks love this stuff. My worry is that we’re playing with fire.

There are a lot of recent examples of collectivity online. There’s the Wikipedia, which has absorbed a lot of the energy that used to go into individual, expressive websites, into one bland, master description of reality. Another example is the automatic mass-content collecting schemes like DIGG. Yet another, which deserves special attention, is the unfortunate design feature in most blog software that practically encourages spontaneous pseudonym creation. That has led to the global flood of anonymous mob-like commentary.

On the face of it he has a point. Crowds can be stirred, or manipulated, to act in ways which later may appal or shock the individuals involved. If we believe that collective action online is possible – and that it can make a ‘real world’ difference – then we have to worry about online mob action. In my opinion Crazy Frog is one proof of how mass psychology and technology blight our lives.


In the piece linked above he’s repeating his work from earier in the year which received this response from Confused of Calcutta

All this is about individuals working together. Not the technology. What the technology does is reduce the barriers to entry, reduce disenfranchisement; reduce the search costs and connection costs; allow the conversations to persist and be searchable and findable; provide a rich context; have low maintenance costs; where relevant, allow people to work in small groups bringing their communal, often amateur, expertise to bear on lots of small problems.

    We musn’t forget a couple of other things. Online, any mob action can be equally quickly mobilised against.
    Online popularity is often exactly what Lanier fears – the actions of a mob, which roars about one thing one moment – and then next is clicking or digging an altogether different message.
    Most of us know that much of what appeals on t’internet is really just a fleeting whim of a huge crowd of strangers. Which is why it pays to be as discerning.

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