FriendFeed, Syphilis And The Perfection Of Online Mobs

People have always been inclined to join mobs – most people have at least one story to tell about a time that they got swept up in or had to face a crowd demanding justice for one thing or another (both of my experiences were in college). The Internet has proven to be a frighteningly efficient tool to create virtual mobs. But we note two trends that suggest a bleak future: the increase in non-anonymous mob participation and the evolution of online services towards ever more efficient and real time communication platforms that facilitate mob creation and growth like never before. Things are changing online way too fast for society and culture to adapt. Something will eventually break.

I’m going to pick on FriendFeed in this post because I believe it is the nearest thing to Shangri-La for mob justice enthusiasts. I explain why below. But first I want to compare FriendFeed to Syphilis, which may have been the “perfect” disease when it first hit Europe in the 15th century. Today Syphilis takes years to kill its victims and is easily treated with antibiotics. But back in the early 1500’s it led to certain death within months.

Consider the surprising evolution of syphilis. Today, our two immediate associations to syphilis are genital sores and a very slowly developing disease, leading to the death of many untreated victims only after many years. However, when syphilis was first definitely recorded in Europe in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, cause flesh to fall off people’s faces, and led to the death within a few months. By 1546, syphilis had evolved into a the disease with the symptoms so well known to us today. Apparently just as myxomatosis. those syphilis spirochetes that evolved so as to keep their victims alive for longer were thereby able to transmit their spirochete offspring into more victims. (Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond)

What changed? Syphilis killed people too quickly. And dead people can’t spread a sexually transmitted disease nearly as well as non-dead people. So the disease evolved to keep its victims alive.

FriendFeed today is like Syphilis in 1495. It will be forced to evolve to something less dangerous or it’ll destroy itself.

This really shouldn’t be happening because FriendFeed isn’t an anonymous service. Just a couple of years ago experts were saying that the rise of online mobs could be traced to sites that promote mass anonymous content creation. From a 2006 Time Magazine article:

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’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.

But FriendFeed users tend to be easily identifiable as real people. The site’s original purpose was to let users link their blogs, photos, social networking, Twitter and other content streams in one place. The whole idea is that you know exactly who it is that’s posting content there. And suddenly these people are getting comfortable talking hate under their real name. TechCrunch writer MG Siegler wrote about this trend earlier this month on his personal blog. For whatever reason, people are becoming comfortable writing seriously threatening stuff under their real name. That boldness means people are becoming even more comfortable with mob mentality, and more willing to take direct action.

Real Time Content Can Easily Become Real Time Mobs

In the past for an online mob to get any real traction outside of anonymous chat rooms, lots of people had to write about their outrage on their blogs or other websites. That meant an issue had to be broadly interesting to a lot of people. There are lots of examples of these situations, particularly in Asia. One example: “In another well-known Chinese case, an angry husband who suspected his wife was having an affair with a college student she’d met in an online game asked for help tracking him down. The Associated Press reported that the student, who denied the accusation, was bombarded with harassing and threatening e-mails. This vigilante action might be prompted by understandable moral outrage, but some are concerned that the headline-grabbing witch-hunts have been vastly out of proportion with the original transgressions.”

In these examples outrage built over a number of days. Some actual facts were able to spread as well, which usually calmed the mob before real world threats could be carried out by vigilantes. But sites like FriendFeed allow the centralization of a conversation to occur, with real time updates appearing on screen without even the need for a refresh. Things can get out of control instantly.

I was on the receiving end of mob justice a few weeks ago when Leo Laporte exploded at me for asking rudely about a conflict of interest. People massed at FriendFeed and called for my head (a lot of the worst comments have now been deleted).

What the mob didn’t know is that it was largely a misunderstanding (I thought he was joking and egged him on, he was most definitely not joking). Leo and I quickly resolved the issue (and now it’s all just a joke). We both apologized and had a subsequent podcast and really talked things through. But most of the mob members had no idea that was happening. And in the meantime a number of death threats were posted in the comments on TechCrunch. Emails came in as well, including one from a non-anonymous account saying “Go TO FUCKING HELL YOU FUCKING TROLL, HOPE YOU FUCKING DIE”

These weren’t direct “I’m going to kill you” threats that I’ve gotten before. But they were serious enough that, like last year, I had to cancel a number of speaking engagements and generally worry about personal safety issues again.

This is the problem. The mobs get going, and even then most of them wouldn’t even consider physical violence as a real solution to the situation. But enough people are crazy enough that when they get fired up, they want to do something about it. And then, suddenly, I’m in a position of worrying about my personal safety because I asked someone to disclose a conflict of interest about a mobile phone. Seems crazy, right?

Some people say it’s not appropriate to pick on FriendFeed. Other services like Twitter, which are much bigger, have similar problems. But the conversations on Twitter aren’t centralized. It’s hard to see it when a mob forms unless it’s something massive like the almost-revolution in Iran. But on FriendFeed all the comments are aggregated on one page, and everyone participating sees it all. It’s much more likely to break out into a mob. And even niche topics, like mobile phones, can lead to death threats.

So what can we do to change this? In my opinion, nothing more than doctors could do to fight Syphilis before it changed itself. Things are going to get much worse before they get better. At some point an online mob, maybe one that begins at FriendFeed, is going to break out and seriously hurt someone. Perhaps it will be someone who’s being unfairly accused, like the student in China. And at that point society will demand change. Tools will emerge to temper mobs as they begin to form on mainstream sites. A lot of us, me included, will look back at today as a time of freedom on the Internet. But the system is breaking under it’s own weight. It is not sustainable.

Image Credit.

Update: A very relevant post that I missed before from blogger and former FriendFeed user Aaron Brazell.