The Dark Side of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces

DarkTwitterBird-reversed Recently, I've been disturbed to read about some significant frontchannel disturbances arising through the use of Twitter backchannels to heckle speakers at conferences. Having finished off my last blog with an example of the beneficial ways that Twitter helps us connect with consequential strangers, I want to revisit some issues that initially arose [for me] 5 years ago, surrounding the use of another backchannel tool in another conference context, and reflect a bit on the dark side of how Twitter can leave us vulnerable to maliciously consequential strangers, even when we are in the same physical place ... and in some cases, especially when we are in the same physical space.

Five years ago, at the first Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium (SCS 2004), a speaker was in the middle of a presentation when laughter spontaneously erupted from several people seated at different tables around the room. Apparently, someone had made a snarky comment about the presentation in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) backchannel that had been created for the event, and a few people found the comment so amusing that they could not contain themselves. Fortunately, after a relatively brief period of confusion - for the speaker and for many people in the audience who weren't previously aware of the backchannel - the speaker was able to continue the presentation. Although there were a number of other issues that arose on or about the backchannel (details about which are described in Liz Lawley's blog post - and ensuing vigorous debate in comments - on "Confessions of a backchannel queen"), the event proceeded without further significant disruptions.

CSCW2004 At another conference (CHI 2004) a few weeks after later, danah boyd - who at the time was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and was also at SCS 2004 - and I were talking about how surprised many of the academic and industry researchers were about seeing IRC used as a backchannel at the symposium. We conspired to propose a panel for the upcoming conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2004), in which we would bring this discussion to a larger group of researchers who were interested in innovative uses of computer-mediated communication tools. We also conspired to bring the experience of the backchannel to the conference itself, and succeeded in persuading the organizers of the conference to offer wireless Internet access (a first for CSCW) and to promote the use of sanctioned IRC channels (one for each of the three conference session meeting rooms).

The backchannel attracted varying levels of engagement throughout the conference, depending (in part) on the nature of the different sessions, e.g., the channel was most active during panels, which are generally intended to be highly interactive, and least active during keynotes, which tend to be more like formal lectures (at CSCW). Several people on the panel (e.g., Richard Hodkinson, Liz Lawley and danah) and in the audience (e.g., Jack Vinson, Eric Jurotich, and even USA Today) have written about their experiences during the panel. danah and I later compiled and analyzed the experiences in a CHI 2005 short paper on Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces: Experiences at an Academic Conference.



What I want to revisit in this context is the various ways that backchannels were brought into the foreground during the panel. In my own blog post about the experience, frontchannels, backchannels and sidechannels at CSCW 2004, I wrote:

In many respects, this panel offered a hands-on, or at least eyes-on, experience.  For example, during Elizabeth [Churchill]'s opening statement, she projected a series of photos of herself, with bubble thoughts (comics-style), creating yet another "channel"; one backchannel participant posted the message "She's talking on one channel, putting up those slides ... evil! evil!" ... After the short position statements by each of the panelists, we decided to project the IRC window onto the main screen, so that everyone in the audience -- not just those with wireless personal computing devices that enabled them to directly participate in the channel -- could see what was going on.  At one point, there was a lively and creative series of posts proposing new names for backchannels such as the one(s) created during the panel, including "crackchannels", "smackchannels", "trackchannels", "hackchannels", "cochannels", "snackchannels", "lackoftactchannels" and "FAQchannels".

It's important to emphasize that the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel was done with the intention of broadening the awareness and discussion of the backchannel in the frontchannel. After all, the backchannel was the topic of the panel, and its projection on the big screen thus served the goals of all the stakeholders: the panel organizers, speakers and the audience.

Web2expo-logo Flash forward 5 years (almost to the day), and I was disturbed to read about a resurgence of "lackoftactchannels" in Rude Tweeters Take Over Web 2.0 Expo, describing "a roomful of content co-creators who, along with their status as members of the audience, have also shed their human decency". The author, Nicole Ferraro, references an earlier post on "Twittering a Distraction During Twitter Business Panel", and goes on to talk about her most recent encounter with Twitter-fueled distractions at the Web 2.0 Expo in NYC last month:

A similar situation just occurred here at the Web 2.0 Expo during a keynote given by Microsoft researcher danah boyd, who was apparently speaking too fast for the Twitterati -- how ironic. Throughout her entire presentation -- entitled "Streams of Content, Limited Attention" (also ironic) -- boyd stood in front of a giant screen of Tweets, most of which were attacking her presentation skills

Actually, in reading and watching danah's talk (which I highly recommend), I'm struck by the many other elements of unintended irony that can be found throughout the themes and topics she presents: the "flow" state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; living "with, in, and around" information; adding to, grabbing and redirecting streams; "the law of two feet"; the non-democratization of attention; our addiction to gossip; the unhealthy cycle of manipulation for stimulation; and the prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, and power promulgated by homophily in networks ... to name a few.

My two favorite - and most ironic - insights from her talk (which was written before she went on stage) are given at the very end:

  • Advertising is based on capturing attention, typically by interrupting the broadcast message or by being inserted into the content itself.
  • Y'all are setting the tone of the future of information. Keep it exciting and, please, recognize the power that you have!
I wasn't at the conference, but after watching the talk, and reading numerous accounts of it on blog posts and comments, I would say that some members of the audience clearly recognized their power, and were setting the tone by using the backchannel to insert content and thereby interrupt the message. And they were, in effect, advertising themselves, offering an example of the impact of negative advertising.

danahboyd I was tempted to add a comment on Nicole's post noting an additional irony, that danah had, once again, though unintentionally, "sparked a broad conversation about the implications of turning the backchannel into part of the frontchannel", but I was hesitant to write about this event, as I didn't want to focus any [additional] attention on the whole affair. However, a few days later, danah herself wrote about the "spectacle at Web2.0 Expo... from my perspective" (starting with the description about sparking conversation that I quoted in the preceding sentence), and a day later, in response to an outpouring of support through various channels, she tweeted "there's nothing like being publicly vulnerable for starting convs. THANK YOU for the digital hugs." So I felt it was OK for me to talk about it, too.

danah notes that she was surprised by a number of factors: she was not allowed to use a laptop, nor a properly angled podium for her notes, she was blinded by the lights and unable to see or visually connect with the audience, and she hadn't realized until shortly before the talk that a live twitter feed would be projected on the screen behind her. She started out a bit flustered, and then things got worse:

within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. ... The more people rumbled, the worse my headspace got and the worse my talk became. I fed on the response I got from the audience in the worst possible way.

Afterward, when Brady Forrest, co-chair of the conference - and one of the most innovative and engaging conference chairs I know - explained what had transpired on the Twitter stream (and how they had shut it down temporarily a few times when things got really ugly, creating even more rumblings), she was surprised that she had misread the feedback - even though it was all going on behind her - and noted yet another dimension of irony: the unseen "feedback" (if it can be called that) about her going too fast had actually prompted her to go faster. In her final analysis, though, she nailed the core issue:

The Twitter stream had become the center of attention, not the speaker. Not me. ... The stream was not a way for the audience to communicate to the speaker, but for the audience to communicate with itself.

I have written before about my view of Twitter as a witness projection program, in that it addresses our fundamental human need to matter or to have a witness, and even adds a layer of witnesses to our publicly articulated witnesses. I had been focusing on the online implications of projected audiences and witnesses, and hadn't specifically considered the prospect of a physical projection of the "witnessing". Unlike the CSCW 2004 panel, where the backchannel was the intended focus of attention (for all stakeholders) - and was shown on a screen that was visible from both the stage and the audience - at the Web 2.0 Expo, it appears that the projected backchannel was serving the needs of only a subset of stakeholders, offering a vocal minority an irresistible opportunity to literally - and publicly - talk behind the speaker's back. 

ScottBerkun danah says she can imagine how, with the right kind of event, the right kind of speaker(s) and the right kind of audience, the projection of the backchannel into the frontchannel could be a positive influence. Scott Berkun, who recently wrote a book about public speaking, also spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo, and has offered his views on how to meet the challenge of visible twitter at conferences. He also suggests that the projection of tweets may be beneficial in certain contexts, with appropriate support, but also asks an important question:

What problem are you trying to solve?

Jeremiah Owyang has written about an "audience revolt" via Twitter at SXSW 2008, about how the tweeting audience influenced his own moderation of a panel at Web 2.0 Expo 2008, and more recently offered a compilation of lessons that he and others have learned about How Speakers Should Integrate Social Into Their Presentation. [Those who want an even more comprehensive guide may be interested in Olivia Mitchell's 62-page eBook on "How to Present with Twitter and Other Backchannels", or in Nancy White's compilation of backchannel resources.] While I agree with some of Jeremiah's recommendations - regarding greater preparation of presentations and better knowledge of the audience - I don't agree with his general assertion that "speakers, panelists, and moderators must monitor the back channel" [emphasis added], although he does provide some examples that suggest such monitoring can be useful in certain cases. Whileh he doesn't generally recommend projecting tweets on a screen behind the speaker, he suggested in a comment that:

A displayed back channel on stage behind a speaker should be used when the message from the organizers clearly say "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker" It's right for some conferences --but not all.

I'm trying to imagine conferences in which "the audience is of equal importance as the speaker". Speakers are typically paid - or at least invited - to present, whereas audience members typically pay to hear and see what the speakers have to say and show. The relationship is, by definition, unequal, which becomes evident when one considers the relative impacts of an attendee not showing up vs. a speaker not showing up. Attendees in the audience may have considerable expertise and experience in the topic(s) the speaker is talking about - in fact, ideally, there is such an alignment - but that does not give the audience the right to be rude, and certainly doesn't give them the right to gang up to tear down the speaker.

The most extreme example I've read of a cyberlynching by a Twittermob [at a conference] didn't involve a projection of the tweetstream. In an article by Marc Parry in the Chronicle of Higher Education on "Conference Humiliation: They're Tweeting Behind Your Back", he offered a word to describe the practice:

Tweckle (twek'ul) vt. to abuse a speaker only to Twitter followers in the audience while he/she is speaking.

[a commenter on his article later posted a reference to an earlier tweet that allegedly defined tweckle]

Highedweb-homepageopenconnected Parry describes a mob-like "virtual lynching" that arose in the Twitter backchannel of the HighEdWeb 2009 conference in October, which had the ironic theme, "open + connected":

Perfect conditions propelled this Twitter torrent: a speaker who delivered what was apparently a technically flawed and topically dated talk to a crowd of Web experts who expected better. They reacted by flaying him with more than 500 tweets in one hour. The onslaught grew so large that it went viral—live. The conference became one of the most popular topics on Twitter, meaning strangers with no connection to the meeting gaped at [the speaker]''s humiliation when they logged onto their home pages. One consultant who coaches academics on public speaking now uses the disaster as a what-to-avoid case study.

And it all started at 11:59 a.m. with one measly, harmless, innocent tweet, a dig at [the speaker]'s hard-to-read PowerPoint slide: hella drop shadow.

[Since I have not read anything about the speaker's response to the event, I've elided the speaker's name throughout this post.]

Parry goes on to share other examples of collective cyberbullying in other conference contexts, and notes some of the strategies employed to thwart the attacks - publishing social-media “courtesy” guidelines or publicly calling out the twecklers (i.e., cybershaming ... or perhaps reverse cybershaming). The comments on the article comprise a mostly civil and engaging discussion of a variety of related topics, including civility, engagement, protocols, preparation, propriety, mutuality, reciprocity and transparency, as well as references to positive and negative uses of backchannels at other conferences, and other recommended strategies for moderating the backchannel, e.g., an "audience ombudsman". One comment references a fascinating analysis of the HighEdWeb Great Keynote Revolt of 2009 (measuring the "snark factor" in the tweetstream on a scale of 1 to 5), and another describes a #positweet-worthy story about using Twitter to band together to replace a laptop that was stolen from an attendee. [Interestingly, while examples of #positweets abound, I couldn't find any examples of #negatweets ... that is, until I #negatweeted a link to Parry's article.]

So what is it about conferences that brings out the mob on backchannels? I've been ruminating on this - on and off - ever since reading the first account of danah's experience at Web 2.0 Expo last month. Three things I read this week helped me get a better handle on this troubling trend.

One was an article by Elizabeth Bernstein in this week's Wall Street Journal, "The Dark Side of 'Webtribution'" (defined as retribution via the Internet), which describes several examples of how spouses and intimate friends - or former spouses and formerly intimate friends (or friends of formerly intimate friends) - have used email, blogs, MySpace and/or Facebook to publicly humiliate their [former] loved ones. The article references the online disinhibition effect, which can take benign or toxic forms, and talks about how "The Internet turns us into a mob". Interestingly, though, there really aren't any examples of a mob in the article - they are all more personal, or individual, attacks - and none of them involve Twitter. I remember, with lingering indignation, a mob attack in the blogosphere a few years ago (around the time of another O'Reilly conference), but I was unable to find any such attacks in the Twitterverse ... except those (listed above) that have taken place at conferences.

The Wikipedia entry for online inhibition effect lists six components:

  • You Don't Know Me (Dissociative anonymity)
  • You Can't See Me (Invisibility)
  • See You Later (Asynchronicity)
  • It's All in My Head (Solipsistic Introjection)
  • It's Just a Game (Dissociative Imagination)
  • We're Equals (Minimizing Authority)

However, when online tools are used in shared physical spaces, they transform them into what Adriana de Souza e Silva and others call hybrid spaces. In such spaces, the first four components are not as relevant or applicable, and so the hybrid inhibition effect may only involve the last two, and I think the one that best explains the Twittermobbing at conferences is the last one.

I have attended many conferences where there are people in the audience who, at times, believe that they know as much - or more - than the speaker (and in some cases, I'm sure they do). Having a digital backchannel allows for explicit and implicit assertions of authority, and even superiority, by members of the audience. The fact that Twitter usernames and avatars can reduce or eliminate anonymity and invisibility (the first two factors above) may create a powerful disinhibition effect in such face-to-face contexts.

The laughter I witnessed 5 years ago at SCS 2004 came, in part, from a number of "A-list" bloggers - bloggers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers (analogous to microblog "followers") - in the audience during a presentation on some of the earliest academic research into blogging. I don't recall the actual comments on the IRC backchannel there, but would not be surprised if some of the experienced bloggers were offering some contrasting perspectives. I was not present at any of the more recent conferences listed above, but I would not be surprised if some of the attacks were variations on this theme.

The second thing I read this week that helped shed some light on this behavior was the last chapter, appropriately called "The Downside", in the Consequential Strangers book I reviewed in my last post. The authors make several references to a paper by Ronald S. Burt, Bandwidth and Echo: Trust, Information, and Gossip in Social Networks, which shows that shared dislikes (negative information and attitudes about specific people or things) is more conducive to group bonding than shared likes (positive information and attitudes), and so gossiping about, say, someone presenting at a conference can enhance cohesiveness of the audience.

The third relevant item I read this week was another blog post about the Web 2.0 Expo cyberlynching, in which Michele Riggin-Ransom references the term harshtags to reflect the way "people start tagging their related tweets with something insulting in order to get it to trend". She goes on say:

There’s something seriously wrong about a thousand people who won’t talk to each other in the hallways bonding together to silently mock presenters, who have taken time, energy and in many cases personal expense to come speak. ... this livestream Twitterbashing (Tweckling?) seems a bit like the bully in my Spanish class who used to reflect a circle of sunlight glinting off his watch onto the teacher’s bottom while she was writing on the chalkboard just to make the class laugh.

I'm going to resist the urge to speculate further on the personality profiles of the mockers, though I am interested in learning more about the personality and social psychology that underlies such behavior. I would also be interested in learning more about the Twitter profiles of mob members (e.g., # of followers, # of followees, # of tweets and the photorealism of their avatars), and their Twitter influence (an ill-defined metric for which there seems to be a new tool deployed every day). But I'm going to leave those topics for another post.

However I can't resist the urge to end off with a cartoon that danah recently tweeted about. In the commentary on his cartoon, Tweuology, Rob Cottingham notes:

There’s a fascinating renegotiation going on between audiences and speakers. Twitter and backchannels are part of it, but I suspect something deeper is afoot. There’s a revolution sweeping all forms of communication – ask anyone who works for a newspaper or a record company – and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that even something as seemingly timeless as public speaking would be affected.

But that doesn’t mean we have to be jerks about it.



Spampliments, Spampliments, Spampliments, Spampliments ...

A reader using the name "Cara Fletcher" posted the following comment on the first blog entry I posted about my wife's anal cancer (Anal Cancer: A Real Pain in the Butt):

The anal cancer should be really a pain in the butt and I am sure it's not very pleasant.I now have to deal with my back pain and with the searching of cure for it that will really help me and hope I'll never have to deal with anal cancer.

I won't insert the old post here, but suffice to say, the title of my initial post was intended as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to lighten up during an otherwise very dark and frightening period ... and the darkness and fear was more directly reflected in the body of the post (though perhaps not as clearly as I'd intended). "Cara" may have read the post, may even be dealing with back pain, and I wouldn't wish anal cancer - or back pain - on anyone. However, seeing as "Cara" lists her homepage as www_alleviatebackpain_net, I suspect that her comment is simply a fairly well-disguised attempt to draw traffic to the site.

The timing of this comment is somewhat ironic, given that my second-to-last blog entry - Don't Take Anything Personally: Commenting on Commenting - was about such spampliments - comment spam with context-sensitive content, referencing something in the title or body of a blog post, often using complimentary terms, and thus better masking the real intent of increasing the Google Juice of the URL referenced by the person(s) posting the comments. That earlier post offered me an unexpected opportunity to practice not taking things personally (such as comments posted on my blog, but also including any perceptions or judgments I may have about others taking anything I say personally). And this comment - and, I suppose, all comments - offer me opportunities for further practice.

I'm reminded of two of my favorite "life rules", as articulated by Cherie Carter-Scott in her inspiring book, If Life is a Game, These are the Rules

Rule Three: There are no mistakes, only lessons.
Growth is a process of experimentation, a series of trials, errors, and occasional victories. The failed experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that work.

Rule Four: A lesson is repeated until learned.
Lessons will repeated to you in various forms until you have learned them. When you have learned them, you can then go on to the next lesson.

So, as with the earlier spampliments I noted, I'm not going to take the comment by "Cara" personally, even though this one touches on an area with a strong emotional charge. I am, however, going to delete it and report it as spam to TypePad. If "Cara" was truly intending to add value to me or my blog, well, I apologize ... and suggest that she (?) take greater care in creating even more sensitive context-sensitive content to post as comments in the future.

BTW, the title of this post is a thinly veiled allusion to a chorus in the famous Monty Python skit on Spam ("Spam, spam, spam, spam, ...") ... after all, if I'm not going to take these kinds of things personally, I might as well enjoy a good laugh. Surprisingly, I couldn't find a YouTube video with the segment, but there is a version, with Japanese subtitles, on Google Videos.

[Update: Here are two more examples of spamliments I just found (and deleted) from my wine weblog, both originating from IP address

I am impressed to see this blog. There is a lots of imformation for me. I naver been seen this type infomative place . I m very thank full to the owner of this blog. http://www_cheapviagrabuy_com

hello friends first of all I want to know how to make this type blog. I want to make a this type blog where people come can disscuss and give us his opinion than we get more knowledge. http://www_weightlossdietpillz_com

I also found other references to the term "spampliments" on other blogs - Michael Terry and the - so I clearly did not invent the term.

Finally: I found the Monty Python "Spam" skit on YouTube:]

Cyberbullying: Prevalence, Preventability and Politics

Perhaps due, in part, to things I've read, thought and blogged about recently regarding cybershaming and accountability, and the fearful overreactions of parents and other authorities over teens' use of MySpace, I had a more skeptical reaction to a Wall Street Journal article this week on "Schools Act to Short-Circuit Spread of 'Cyberbullying'" than the last time I read, thought and blogged at any length about cyberbullying (nearly 3 years ago!).

The article alludes to the case of an 8th grade girl, Kylie, who suffered emotional distress over the purported creation of a web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated" by classmates ... a site of which I can find no trace, other than references in other articles (most of which are simply referring to the WSJ article). It goes on to catalog varying degrees of preventative measures considered or enacted by different schools and school districts, and the legal issues surrounding the prospect of schools intervening into affairs that take place, in large part, off campus.

Given my recent [re]priming of the MySpace overreaction, I started wondering how prevalent cyberbullying really is. The first few pages of results returned after googling for "cyberbullying statistics" yielded no results that I would consider statistically valid  An organization named i-Safe has a statistics page claiming that "42% of kids have been bullied while online" and that over half have sent or received mean messages online. Leaving aside the question of where they have drawn the line between receiving mean messages and bullying, I cannot find any information about the methodology by which the statistics were gathered (phrasing of questions, sampling method, numbers of responses, etc.). Another site, by Qing Li at the University of Calgary, provides a surprisingly small amount of methodological information (for an academic institution) -- a survey of "177 grade seven students (80 males and 97 females)" -- before noting that 54% of survey respondents had been bullied and 25% had been cyberbullied. Once again, it's not clear (to me) what bullying (or cyberbullying) means to the surveyor -- or surveyees -- but assuming that cyberbullying is simply the online equivalent of whatever bullying is in the offline world, it is interesting to see that cyberbullying appears far less prevalent than bullying (at least in this limited sample).

There are, of course, numerous articles about cyberbullying, just as there are numerous articles about abuses associated with MySpace. But it is not clear to me in either case that the use of online tools is increasing or even magnifying instances of "bad behavior". I'm not saying that aren't examples of horrendous deeds being accomplished through the use of online tools, it's just not clear how frequent or widespread such instances are.  And if one were to be able to somehow measure the overall frequency and/or severity of bullying (or other forms of abuse) -- combining online and offline incidents -- I wonder whether there really is a significant or demonstrable increase in either dimension.

I also wondered whether online tools might be used to mount more effective responses to bullying -- online or offline -- by offering a platform from which victims can mount defenses, or perhaps even counteroffenses, by shining a light on perpetrators and presenting rebuttals to unfair accusations or attacks ... another example of virtually "shooting back".  Perhaps schools could devote more effort to helping students understand how to utilize the technology more effectively in defending themselves or rallying to the defense of friends who are under fire ... of course, that would require the repeal of DOPA, and that seems like too much of an optimistic stretch of the imagination.

Reflecting further, on the relationship between cybershaming and cyberbullying, it seems like a rather fine line between them ... with the former seeming somehow justified and the latter seeming unjustified (picking on someone who deserves it vs. picking on someone who doesn't deserve it). I started wondering whether Kylie had done anything to incur the cyberwrath of her classmates (I can't find anything that says anything about events leading up to the creation of the purportedly humiliating site) -- I suspect it was a reaction (or overreaction) to something.

Probing a wee bit deeper, I started questioning whether anyone really deserves any kind of shame or bullying, cyber or otherwise. In my most recent post on cybershaming, I noted that my satisfaction in reading about web sites being used to highlight unacceptable (or at least unaccepted) behavior felt rather smug. I felt a twinge of embarrassment in writing [that part of] the post, and I feel it more keenly in this one. Did Kylie really deserve the purported humiliation she was allegedly subjected to? And who am I (or anyone else) to render such judgment?

I've also been noticing a smug satisfaction I've experienced in the increasing shame -- online and offline -- that U.S. President George W. Bush is being subjected to over the devastating consequences of his judgment and actions regarding the Iraq War.  As usual, I could not bring myself to watch or listen to his State of the Union address (though I could watch and listen to a parody); in the snippets I heard on NPR subsequently, he seems to have lost a bit of his hubris, and while I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he actually feels any shame, humiliation, guilt or remorse, I suspect he at least recognizes that, in the eyes of [many] others, he has done wrong. And I feel a sense of guilt over this feeling of smug satisfaction, especially given how many are suffering and dying -- and will likely suffer and die in the future -- in what Senator Harry Reid recently referred to as the worst foreign policy disaster ever.

Bringing the focus back to cyberbullying, I believe the greater transparency afforded by the growing array of easy-to-use online tools will ultimately reduce attacks by children against children, by giving them weapons with which they can fight back ... and, as I've noted before, I hope that adult citizens, inside and outside of government, will also learn how to use these tools to increase transparency and accountability, and reduce the frequency and severity of poor judgments by our leaders.

Citizen Accountability Projects

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".]

More Cybershaming via Cameraphone on a Train

Another recent incident of cybershaming, involving a subway passenger in New York who used a cameraphone to create and share a photographic record of shameful behavior, was reported in the New York Daily News yesterday. 


On August 18, Thao Nguyen was on her way back from an interview when a man sitting across from her on a nearly empty subway car started staring at her and then started to masturbate.  She snapped a photo with her phone and the man got off at the next stop.  Nguyen filed a police report, and then later posted the photo on Flickr and craigslist, allowing a far broader set of people to participate in identifying the man.  Given that the photo has been on Flickr since August 19, I'm surprised that the man has still not been identified.

I welcome the empowerment of broad participation in community policing exhibited through this incident and the earlier example of cybershaming in Korea.  However, I suspect it will not be long before someone uses a manipulated photo to publicly humiliate an innocent person ... perhaps it's already occured ... and we've seen some pretty serious repurcussions from an earlier incident of broadly publicizing forged documents.

[via BoingBoing]

[Update, 2 September 2005: WNBC reports "A Manhattan man was arrested Wednesday and charged with public lewdness after a rider in a subway car used her camera phone to snap a photo of the man exposing himself and posted it on the Internet."]

Cybershaming and cybercompassion

Don Park reports on a woman whose dog defecated on a train in Korea and refused to clean up the mess. 

Img_13_623_4 Img_13_623_3

It began in a subway train with a girl whose dog made a mess on the train floor. When nearby elders told her to clean up the mess, she basically told them to f[***] off. A nearby enraged netizen then took pictures of her and posted it, without any masking, on a popular website which started a nationwide witchhunt.

Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture. All mentions of privacy invasion were shouted down with accusations of being related to the girl. The common excuse for their behavior was that the girl doesn't deserve privacy.

I remember reading something a while ago that attributed the increase in crime in the USA to a decrease in shame, arguing that laws and law enforcement alone are not enough to deter crime, and that the entire community needs to make sure that transgressors know when they are engaging in unacceptable behavior.  [I can't find that article now, but other discussions of this topic can be found here and here.]

CBS News ran a recent story about an online system for tracking sexual offenders in Bryan, Texas, which not only posts photos of transgressors, but shows their residences on a map, and a nationwide system, SCAN USA (for Safe Community Action Network), that will send registered users a notification if a released sexual offender moves into their neighborhood.  The Korean story represents a lowering of the threshold, both with respect to the seriousness of the crime and the level of institutional support required.  [Cyberbullying might represent a further lowering of thresholds, to what I consider to be socially unacceptable levels.]

On the one hand, I think it is beneficial whenever members of a community take a greater interest -- and stake -- in the people, places and events that affect their community.  On the other hand, I've been wrestling with questions regarding my own judgment and shame, toward myself and others.  I want to become less judgmental and more compassionate.

It is interesting that among the photos that were posted about the Korean incident was one of an elderly man cleaning up the mess.  I don't know whether that man had -- or expressed -- judgments about the woman, but I think that he is modeling a crucial element for stronger communities: a willingness of members to fill in the gaps for those who are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their own actions (or, in this case, the actions of their dogs) ... practicing random or purposeful acts of kindness.

I just read a passage last night in "Field Notes on the Compassionate Life" on an experiment in which children behaved more generously after watching an adult acting generously, even when there is a "single exposure" to such an act ... and even when several months elapse.  I know that I often find kindness contagious; for example, I am more likely to allow another driver to merge onto a highway when someone else has earlier shown me kindness in allowing me to merge into a lane.  I wonder how far this kind of cumulative effect might carry our society.

And, getting back to the original topic, I wonder whether posting photos of acts of kindness and compassion might trigger an outpouring of approbation and gratitude ... and further acts of kindess and compassion, in online and/or physical communities -- a virtuous cycle of cybercompassion.

[via BoingBoing]