Saturday, November 13, 2010

critical mass media

So somebody posted a tweet making a joke threat to blow up Robin Hood Airport, the legal cogs turned and spat out a punishment for broadcasting a menacing statement, the result a huge outpouring of outrage. It is a situation which couldn't have happened even a couple of decades ago and probably shows that the legal system is ill equipped to deal with 21st Century communications technology.

But that is not the main point that struck me about this; what struck me is that not just the legal system is out of date but the whole way we, as people living together in society, filter our communication is outdated and unreliable now. Consider the same statement made in different circumstances.

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!"

The context would completely change the amount of menace we construed: if it was a friend or a taxi driver who said it or if it was a comedian as part of a show or if it was an intercepted radio transmission etc, etc. In just about every case there is a natural dampening process which takes even the most potent sounding threat and downgrades it: because it doesn't reach many people, because we expect fiction or (in the last case) because there would be a validation process on the interception before anybody in a position of authority would allow it to reach the public domain.

Our media has been fairly strictly delineated so that we know when we are being told news about real things going on or when we are getting entertainment. Through experience of the way people around us talk and act, we judge when they are really threatening and when they are just sounding off. Sometimes this breaks down clearly - no system this complicated is fool-proof - like the panic induced by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast or the conman who we believe to be genuine. But the dampeners stopped most of these things before they reach a critical level and we put an enormous amount of faith in the calm voice of authority which reassures us that "everything is under control and there is no need to panic".

But now there are no recognisable boundaries between real news, social chatter and entertainment and there is no obvious authority to stop rumour, fear or anger from spiralling out of control. When something goes viral online it's so fast that the normal dampeners are way to slow to contain it. The old style news media is relegated to reporting the online reaction and effects. The danger is that real people are at the sharp end of these fireballs: somebody who said something which they might say every day in normal circumstances but didn't allow for the effect of putting it into the incendiary environment online. The speed of tranceiving pieces of information and the number of people doing it means there is an unstable critical mass at any time waiting for a catalyst to start the chain reaction.

So what is disquieting about the airport threat joke is not that somehow free speech has been denied by the law but more how easy it is to assume that when we are using these new forms of communication that the old rules apply.


Blogger Rowan said...

People talk a lot about the linguistic characteristics of online communication: short and rushed, like speech, but lacking tone of voice; addressed to a specific audience, but often accessible to millions, if they come upon it.

But I've long been fascinated also by the way online communities take on the form of real societies. When I used to "hang out" on H2G2, I saw the community struggling with regime change, civil rights movements, immigration, and so on. Wikipedia has had bitter factional fighting in trying to maintain a democratic/meritocratic control structure.

On the face of it, Twitter is a much more open-ended platform, with no central focus as such, but it has enough of an identity that it has evolved its own conventions and social norms (retweeting and hashtags are obvious examples, emerging as conventions long before they became integrated features).

So I think part of the problem is that joining a new online community - or, indeed, reading something said on one you have never joined - is like arriving in a foreign country: you don't know the cultural context. So a regular twitterer would probably recognise the airport threat as hyperbole (and know how to check the context), but might take offence at an innocent remark made by a novice user which breached local etiquette. The "filters" are not provided by the medium, as was the case with publishing or broadcasting, but by interaction with the community.

Unfortunately, it's much easier to "travel" between online communities than between real-world ones - indeed, you often find you've stumbled into a community when you were looking for a reference work. So it's far too easy to take offence, or cause it, out of pure naivety.

The archetypal example is probably Usenet's "eternal September" when its annual intake of new University students was swamped by the public accessing it via AOL. I've also seen communities put up border controls: limited access for new users, or in the case of b3ta, an enforced period of lurking before you can post at all.

It is not the technology itself we have to adapt to, but the ever-growing number of new experiences it makes possible.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Seb said...

True, and now it turns out that you don't actually have to be participating in an online community to have your comment become subjected to global scrutiny online. Wikileaks is just the beginning - you can't go back, we should get used to the idea that anything we say and do is going to be recorded and will be potentially broadcast. As with all new media the impact will diminish in inverse proportion to the growth of familiarity. After all the idea that you can get a million people together on a Facebook group already doesn't seem that amazing and really doesn't change society as much as much smaller groups from previous generations. My guess is that the first Truman Show completely publicly broadcast life is only a few years away and it will be interesting in the same way the first webcams of people's rooms were interesting; Within a decade the idea of pausing and rewinding your own experiences and posting clips on your wall will be common-place (Life+ perhaps); Within a generation full life backups will be feasible and human memory will be indistinguishable from machine memory.

2:19 PM  

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