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World Wise Web or the Idiocy of the Crowd

November 22, 2010

The Internet: ultimate democratic playing field. Where ideas can be shared freely, without threat of suppression. Where hierarchies pale into every other voice.

But is this really the case? Recently I’ve been gassing about the power that the internet has in providing the ultimate vehicle for misinformation. We aren’t really free, are we? We will still get entangled in all the web-guff that gets churned out. We still follow the Pied Piper when we gobble up online information in crowds.

Take this quote as a starting point:

Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”- Charles Mackay : Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds 1841

This is so very true even today. Twitter is fast, it mixes comment with fact, it binds people and it redefnes what counts as news. But more concering is that because it’s bitesize, we can do oursleves a dis-service in our quest for truth by misinterpreting the real headlines and an even bigger dis-service in falling for the fakes.

In a recent article from Guardian Editor-in-Chief, Alan Rusbridger, he rightly identifies that, “The downside of Twitter also means that the full weight of the world’s attention can fall on a single unstable piece of information.”

Whether it’s Jeff Goldblum being reported dead, the discovery of the Montauk Monster;  the mistaken belief that an onion will indeed charge your iPhone; or the story that Carla Bruni was having an extramarital affair with a songwriter, while President Sarkozy, her husband, was sleeping with one of his ministers – we fall for a story, we latch on and we follow it across the web. We are susceptible in crowds. When the pied piper plays a tune that tickles our fancy we go with it, often unblinking, and in doing so we redefine what makes the news and what is indeed true.

Many Twitter and Facebook users re-post links after reading only a story headline. Rich Hoover of (a website that helps perpetuate fake stories using a replicable template) states, “I’m absolutely flabbergasted by the success of this and the impact these social networks have on communication — and the communication of misinformation.”

Ok, so the jury’s out on whether the crowds’ Wisdom trumps Idiocy, but this is because we have so much of the web at our disposal to corroborate truth from fact. Jeff Goldblum is definitely alive right – Kevin Spacey told us so.

But what is worrying is this scenario in light of the fact that the Web is becoming fragmented. There are pockets that are becoming stronger. Just as humans settled on cities in the real world, we are settling on familiar platforms on line too. In a way I guess we have to – the vast ocean of web is just too much for out tiny minds to wander around in all at once.

Its no longer enough to point to ‘the web’ when referring to the crowd – rather it’s those pockets of the web where conversations are happening and where our autonomy is slipping.

The man hailed as the creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee this week stated that the growing power of large platforms like Facebook is stifling the free flowing liquid excahnges of information that he had always envisaged the internet to facilitate. These platforms are harbouring information and if we’re all stuck in the port, we’ll lose sight of what’s going on across the ocean.

As Sir Tim states, “The more you enter, the more you become locked in. Your social networking site becomes a central platform – a closed silo of content, and one that does not give you full control over your information in it.”

This talk of ‘fragmented islands’ is a concern that may lead to the crowd actually becoming smaller. And if the crowds lose track of what’s real and what should count as worthy, there’s a good chance ‘the crowd’ will become ‘the mob’.

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