Here’s my own take on this new phenomenon of crowd-sourced detective work - We’re clearly living in times of rapid technological and communicational evolution. There is no road map for how to proceed, nor any feasible centralized way to control the usage (or benefits or risks) of internet-connected groups who spontaneously start analyzing images and identifying possible suspects in a case such as this.
Will mistakes, even terrible and regrettable ones be made as this phenomenon catches on? Undoubtedly, and they already have, such as this case.
However, such dynamics can also evolve and improve. The onus is on us, meaning everyone, including those who participate in such crowd-sourced sleuthing, to properly contextualize uncorroborated and unconfirmed judgements. We cannot, in any way, lay the blame squarely upon Redditors or 4channers, but can very definitely lay the blame on, in my opinion, official media outlets or the authorities themselves if such data is prematurely announced.
In other words, it’s my opinion that we need to clearly distinguish between at least two tiers (and probably more) of authority/legitimacy/confirmation when it comes to anything remotely like this. We can, indeed, blame anyone that takes any direct vigilante action against someone as well, and make an example of that not being the thing to do.
From my observation, law enforcement has been very, very careful and deliberate in the information that they release, despite many (wrongheadedly) putting pressure on them to hold press conferences at particular times, or criticizing them for not. Bravo for them.
And, as media watching journalist, Dan Gillmor observed earlier this week, there does seem signs of the emergence of slow news in the wake of this tragedy. Of course, one has to separate the despicable behavior of the New York Post, in its choice to publish the photographs of unconfirmed suspects on their front page, from other more professional and careful outlets. In heated newsworthy situations such as the Watertown shootout and subsequent Boston-area manhunt which occurred overnight, where events were unfolding in real-time, and many people were glued to minute-by-minute reports and speculation, cable news outlets were clearly following what was being discussed and reported on Reddit and elsewhere, but I heard and read many responsible qualifiers to speculation. So I don’t interpret what occurred as anything remotely like an actual lynch mob, at least for the overwhelming and most important majority of professional news and communication I witnessed.
Today I’m reading and hearing much consternation, and some outright hostility to Reddit and Redditors, and yet I feel such anger and criticism misses the bigger picture and some potentially important and valuable opportunities that we have. What I think we really need to do is to learn, collectively, how to conduct crowd-sourced sleuthing in an effective and helping manner, and not in a manner that confuses and complicates things.
I’m also sensing a great deal of hostility toward Reddit coming from traditional journalism sources. That strikes me much, much more as self-interest and self-preservation at work, than a legitimate or rational analysis of the phenomenon that’s emerging and what is possible in such dynamics. And I say this because none of the criticisms I’ve read so far have pointed out the many potential improvements that could be made, and the potential benefits that could come from improved approaches.
Here’s why I don’t equate what’s now emerging as crowd-sourced sleuthing with “vigilantism” or “lynch mobs.” Neither historical phenomenon was paired with the type of communication technology that have today - in other words, real-time communication and information update capabilities. In vigilante and lynch mob dynamics, a determination is made and then the mob goes and acts. Period. There’s no effective or even feasible communication and informational feedback loop at work. In traditional vigilantism and lynch mobs there exists no mechanism or means to allow a pausing, reflection, or reassessment to occur. Such traditional dynamics are truly (not just figuratively) out of control. But in the realm of the internet and mobile communications, where we could, if we so choose, establish reputation system architectures and other types of checks and balances, it’s completely and rationally possible to envision the emergence of a truly new, beneficial, and improvable collective behavior.
I’ve also seen many hasty calls for more surveillance. And by surveillance this usually means governmental, centralized, and corporate surveillance, of the type that’s much more ubiquitous in countries such as England. Frankly, I find that kind of Big Brother-like, always watching eyes (under the control of centralized authorities or corporations) both psychologically oppressive and concerning to our civil liberties.
Instead I favor something quite different. I favor all of us, collectively, developing response instincts that can be employed in a person-by-person, distributed fashion. For example, in any situation where there’s an emergency, or attack such as occurred in Boston on Sunday, I think EVERYONE should spontaneously pull out their mobile phones and cameras and start snapping photographs all around them and shooting videos of the surrounding scene and environment.
We were fortunate that one person in Boston caught a photograph of one of the suspected marathon bombers with his iPhone that was much clearer than the security camera at the department store. Together they were even more powerful. But together, with some collective thought and planning, we could do much more in the future. With face-recognition and pattern-matching technology advancing, it will soon be possible to sort through thousands of such captures much more efficiently than we do today. But, and this is key, highly distributed, spontaneous crowd-sourced surveillance in the wake of some collectively agreed-upon-as-worthy event, would have many advantages over constant 24/7 dragnet of centralized surveillance. The type and level of commercial and private building surveillance that we see now is useful, sometimes in a preventative manner and sometimes, as was the case in Boston this week, in helping to solve the case.
But government-sponsored surveillance leads to surveillance footage on an ongoing basis, piling up in a centralized government (or farmed-out private corporation) databases. That type of surveillance does have its uses and is likely to expand anyway, but it can never be as powerful as almost all of the eyes in any crowd, and carries potential risks to civil liberties.
Let’s respond instead with a smarter, improved, risk-managing, and more distributed model. This week’s experience should be seen as a positive learning experience, and not just an opportunity to uncreatively bash internet culture for the mistakes it’s made. Let’s acknowledge and study errors committed, and endeavor to do better and smarter next time.
Make that continually better and smarter every time.