Last Friday's Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition included an article by Jennifer Saranow entitled "The Snoop Next Door" that contains a roundup of a number of web sites dedicated to documenting deviancy from social norms, large and small. The title and photos led me to prepare for an alarming expose on the abuses of using the web to highlight transgressions, but I came away thinking that this trend toward capturing and sharing examples of unacceptable behavior on the web is, by and large, a Good Thing. It seems like a conceptual mashup of citizen journalism and whistleblower support organizations such as the Government Accountability Project ... a collection of citizen accountability projects.
With the proliferation of cameraphones, blogs and photo sharing web applications, it has become easier for people to create sites that make it easier for people to post stories and/or upload photos of actions taken by [typically] other people that they don't approve of ... things like bad parking, bad driving, loudly talking on mobile phones, leering, littering or police brutality. And, so, more of these sites are appearing, with varying degrees of specialization, participation, and impact.
The article includes a number of specific stories, but none of them strike me as vigilantism taken too far ... indeed, I found myself feeling a rather smug sense of satisfaction that justice was being rather well served, as I've often felt exasperated by others' inconsiderate driving, parking and talking on mobile phones. Of course, I acknowledge that I, too, have driven, parked or talked loudly without being fully conscious of how my actions might be affecting others. Perhaps I'll see myself (or my license plate) on one of these sites one of these days.
I've written about other episodes of cybershaming before, and I'd heard about some of the stories, groups and web sites noted in the article. There were a few new items of particular interest. One was the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program, wherein anyone can watch webcams along the border and contact authorities to report a crime. 14,000 reports were filed during a month-long trial of the program in November (no mention was made of the number of reports that were either acted upon by law enforcement authorities, nor how many arrests were made). This idea of citizens being given access to cameras is very much in alignment with scenarios envisioned by David Brin in his book Transparent Society nearly 10 years ago (a world filled with surveillance cameras, which can either be monitored by "authorities" or the public) ... but the notion of people being encouraged to turn other people in is reminiscent of futuristic scenarios envisioned by George Orwell in 1984 (a world in which people are encouraged to report transgressions to the Thought Police).
Another item that was news to me was the use of phones and cameras in a football stadium, though with humans very much in the loop:
Since August, spectators at Cincinnati Bengals home games have been able to call 513-381-JERK to complain about rowdy fans. When a call comes in, security zooms in on the area with stadium cameras, confirms there's a problem and dispatches security. Initially, the hotline was receiving more than 100 calls a game, about 75% of which were crank calls. Reports were recently down to about 40 a game, with less than 25% being crank calls.
I found myself wondering what would happen if, rather than showing the alleged transgressors on private video monitors seen only by authorities, the camera images were shown on the large public screens at the stadium. I suspect this may increase rather than decrease rowdy behavior, which may not be perceived as shameful by many members of the audience ... add to that the TV viewership potential, and I think we'd see a marked increase in this sort of thing.
This, in turn, reminds me of the happy slapping phenomenon, where a [typically] young tough walk sup to an unsuspecting stranger and slap that person, while an accomplice captures the event on a cameraphone, and the photo or video is later posted to a web site. I have no idea how prevalent this practice is (though I suspect it is relatively rare), but it seems to be the reverse, or perhaps converse, or at least a perversion, of cybershaming, as it is celebrating shameful behavior.
I have not yet heard of an incident where the victim of happy slapping pulls out a cameraphone to capture (and post a photo) of the perpetrators, but that would be an interesting twist on Steve Mann's rather futuristic notion of shooting back. An even more interesting (and inspiring) twist is anti-slapping, in which random acts of kindness, rather than violence, are captured by camera[phone] and posted to a web site.
Finally, I'll note one more interesting and inspiring example of using cameras and the web to promote accountability (and transparency): a video of a campaign speech by Virginia Senator George Allen, in which his attempt to shame the man filming his speech, whom he called "Macaca" (a derogatory term), backfired. It's all the more ironic, as he starts off his speech by saying "My friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive, constructive ideas, and it's important that we motivate and inspire people for something" and then, in the very next sentence, uses a negative, destructive word to refer to the videographer. Although this was not the only, nor necessarily the most important, issue in the campaign, Allen was, ultimately, held accountable, and lost the election. I hope we will see more of these kinds of citizen accountability projects in the future.
[Update, 2007-01-24: Ben sent me a link to Sunlight Labs, which has produced (and provided access to) a collection of government accountability mashups, in service to its goal "to prototype tech ideas to improve government transparency and political influence disclosure".]