Category: Technology

Crowdsourcing Policing: A Double Edged Sword

We’re going through the biggest period of change in human behavior since the invention of the printing press. One of the biggest changes is crowdsourcing: the ability to have many people do tasks that individuals and small groups used to in the past.

You can find examples of crowdsourcing changing nearly every industry including encyclopedias (wikipedia), news (twitter), sports reporting (bleacher report), investing (kiva, kickstarter), menial tasks (mechanical turk), tshirts (threadless), space exploration (mars rover) logo design (99designs), editing (ueditme), traffic (waze), travel reviews (lonleyplanet), restaurant reviews (yelp), even concert tours (eventful). Pretty much any industry you can think of has been disrupted by crowdsourcing. Most for the better.

Crowdsourcers use the ubiquity of data and an internet connection to provide better service to consumers than they previously had from full time employees or big, slow institutions. Many of these services have replaced the old guard completely. Nobody would think of looking at encyclopedia britannica anymore. Wikipedia is way better, easier and cheaper.

Crowdsourcing has started to spill over into even more traditional industries like government and policing. Police have always had tiplines and there have always been amateur sleuths, but the internet, a proliferation of data, and online communities have supercharged these efforts. Regular people, or those with a cause, can help police identify witnesses, send in tips and even add to the investigation.

In Boston, reddit and 4chan immedietly sprang to life to try to identify the bombers. In another case, a gearhead was able to identify the car used in a hit and run just by looking at a photo of it’s headlight. In the Stubenville rape case, Anonymous hacked into youtube, email and other online services to gain access to incriminating texts, videos and pictures that directly led to the rapists’ conviction.  In another case the police released a video of an assault and the perpetrator was identified by his social media a few hours later. These are all cases where the crowd’s participation has led to justice.

In the Boston bombing, it’s led to singling out many people, most of whom are not guilty, but so far nobody’s been falsely accused by these amateurs. But what happens when the wisdom of the crowd turns into a mob? What happens when online sluethes are convinced they have a suspect?

The mob has started to publish people’s personal details, family, net worth, address etc. During the Trayvon Martin case, Spike Lee tweeted the personal details of the wrong Zimmerman. The family was harassed and intimidated and feared for their lives as the mob circled them. When Anonymous or other internet hackers have disagreed with individuals or believed that they’ve committed a crime, their response has been to publish personal details, invade their privacy and try to turn the mob on them.

Some people believe that the crowd can replace traditional police work. And that the crowd can act as a deterrent to bad behavior. I believe that the crowd can help, but we must weigh the potential to shame innocents and devolve into mob behavior and public lynchings of people who should be innocent until proven guilty. I don’t want to live in a world of distributed 1984, where everyone is watching, everyone can be an informer. That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

We must come up with new social norms that allow the crowd to help out, like in the Stubenville rape case, but that deter people from devolving into mob behavior, publishing people’s personal details and shaming people before they’re are proven guilty, or at least until there’s significant evidence to support the conclusion. This will be a big trend to watch over the next 3-5 years as these social norms develop.

The Stop SOPA and PIPA Blackout

Tomorrow, many websites you depend on each day will go dark to protest the abomination that is SOPA and PIPA, two incredibly bad laws to restrict internet freedom currently proceeding through Congress.  7000 sites including Wikipedia, WordPress, Reddit and others will go completely dark.  Mozilla will go dark.  Google will post a large message explaining expressing their opposition to these horribly thought out laws.

SOPA and PIPA are two bills pretty much written by the movie and music industry lobby to ostensibly limit illegal downloading, but they are so broad and poorly written that they allow people to be jailed for up to 5 years for illegally downloading a single song.  They’d force companies like Twitter and Facebook to censor user posts.  And they’d force search engines like Google to not show “offending” websites or face big penalties.  For more info, read my full post on SOPA and PIPA from last month.

Kids, if you have homework due tomorrow and thursday, get it done in the next few hours because Wikipedia won’t be able to help you!

Santorum: The First Ungoogleable Presidental Candidate?

Rick Santorum finished a surprise 2nd place in the Iowa Caucus yesterday after gaining a ton of ground in the past two weeks with a huge grassroots campaign that took him to every county in Iowa.  Santorum finished a surprising 8 votes short of front runner and establishment candidate Mitt Romney and did it with lots of handshakes, personal events and groundwork, all the while spending almost no money.  He spent $20 per vote, compared to $480 for Rick Perry and $155 for Romney.  He also did it by eschewing the Internet, twitter and other new media.

Now, as the American electorate is being introduced to Santorum, their first reaction will be to run over to Google and type in “Santorum” or “Rick Santorum.”  Many will not like what they find, but not just for political reasons.  If they Google “Santorum,” the first 2 results and 6 of the 10 results on the first page will refer to the aftermath of a specific sexual activity (full definition of Santorum here, I warn you, its really gross).  If you Google “Rick Santorum” #3 refers to the same activity.

Santorum got its alternative meaning in 2003 after he made anti-gay comments, including comparing being gay to bestiality.  Sex advice columnist Dan Savage proposed renaming a sex act with Santorum’s last name to forever stain his name with his antigay comments.  I remember reading the original columns in The Onion and thinking it was pretty funny, but never thought that the campaign would actually catch on like it has.  Savage set up a website and it quickly went viral.  I cannot hear his name without thinking of the other meaning and now Google is introducing millions more to the alternative meaning.  Savage offered to take down any references to the other meaning if Santorum stopped his anti gay rhetoric and then donated $5m to marriage equality causes, but Santorum turned him down.

So what does this mean for Santorum the candidate?  And what does his story mean for the rest of us?  I think Santorum’s original comments in 2003 ruled him out from winning a Presidential election, so in the grand scheme of things, it won’t really change his chances of winning.  But it does make him answer uncomfortable questions.  And I think it’s the start of a trend.

Google and other social media have become such powerful tools, especially for people with influence.  It shows that if you piss off the wrong people on the Internet, you too can be synonymous with something equally disgusting.  Before, people were accountable for only what people could remember, or what they could find in librarian’s archives.  Now, anyone with a voice can share their opinion.  And their opinion is there forever.  Google and the Internet never forgets.

What happens when my generation decides to start to run for office?  We’ve had Facebook, Twitter, blogs and personal websites since our teens.  It’s going to be really easy for people digging up dirt to find photos of us wasted or doing stupid things (more likely both at the same time.)  What about old status updates and non-mainstream political ideas?  Bad jokes we made to friends that can be taken out of context?  We’ve all got it and if you don’t you’re either incredibly private or really boring!  People will either disqualify presidential candidate with these “problems” or they will realize taht everyone has similar posts and decide that it’s just part of life.  I sure hope it’s the former or we’ll have some really boring people in office!

The other issue that’ll affect all of us, not just politicians, is that the Internet never forgets.  Before the internet, we could reinvent ourselves, change our opinions, do dumb things when we were young and nobody besides the people involved would know your past.  We could start fresh.  It’s part of what made us human.  Now our past is all out in the open for anyone to find. From blogs to twitter to tumblr and now the Facebook Timeline, anyone with enough time or curiosity can find exactly what I thought in 2005 via my Facebook Timeline, my political views in 2007 via my blog and dumb things I tweeted to my friends in 2009.

In the past, we could change our opinions when presented with new facts.  In fact, that’s the most admirable trait that I think someone can have.  Now, if you change your opinion, you’re branded a “flip-flopper” or you “don’t have strong convictions.”  I think that’s bullshit.

Eliminating the ability to change and reinvent ourselves is going to be a really big change for humans.  There’s no way to put a wild past, a flirtation with a non-mainstream ideology or simple youthful exuberance behind you.  There’s always a record.  I’m not suggesting that it’s good that people can lie about their past, but I don’t think its healthy to be able to get as specific as the internet allows you to.  And Santorum is  one of the first public figures to experience our new reality.

Will Millennials Put an End to “Gotcha Journalism” or Perpetuate It?

I think one of the most interesting stories of the 2010s will be whether my generation puts an end to “gotcha journalism” or makes the problem even worse than it is today.

The classic definition of gotcha journalism usually refers to an interview style where the interviewer tries to trap the interviewee into saying something that would be damaging to themselves or their cause.  It has been around since the early 80s and became firmly rooted into our political and popular culture since then.

With the rise of the Internet, journalists, bloggers and citizens have taken gotcha journalism to new levels.  The barrier to entry is much lower:  instead of having to secure an interview with someone in order to trap the interviewee, the new breed of gotcha journalism uses the Internet to sift through all of the statements that a person has made in their entire life to try to paint them in a bad light.

Now, bloggers go through politicians’ every public statement for any misspeak or inaccuracy and then try to crucify them.  It started with John Kerry being labeled a “flip-flopper,” moved to George Bush‘s butchering of the English language and more recently, led President Obama’s Green Energy Czar to quit because of statements he made almost ten years ago.  When President Obama misspoke on the campaign trail, saying that he had visited all 57 states, right wing bloggers tried to make it seem like Obama was stupid.  When Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene, left wing bloggers and some in the media sifted through her previous public statements to search for any inaccuracy.

It seems like 75% of the news stories I read about each day have to do with some politician getting raked over the coals for some statement he just made that is different from a statement he made a long time ago.  Many times, the person leveling the charge is a fellow politician, along with the media and the blogosphere.

My generation is the first generation to be online from an early age.  We first interacted with email, then instant messaging, then social networks and now blogs.  We created (and are still creating) vast amounts of data about ourselves, much of which is stored online.  We have archived AIM conversations from when we were in 6th grade,  digital pictures from high school and college that are online and we all have our dumb Facebook wall posts that we made throughout our college years.

Many of us have blogs on wordpress or blogger and many more have microblogging accounts on services like Twitter where we make observations and pithy comments about our daily lives.  I know I’ve changed alot since I was in 6th grade and I assume I will change almost as much between now and the end of the 2010s.  During the next decade, as people in my generation get older and become leaders in business, politics and culture, will we still be subjected to gotcha journalism like our public figures are today?

One argument is that since everyone has all of this content online, we will become desensitized to people’s dumb or incorrect statements from when they were young.  Everyone has pictures of themselves on Facebook that they wished never made it online.  Everyone is going to have a poorly thought out wall post that could be taken out of context, or a pithy remark on Twitter that does not stand the test of time.  Anyone who blogs about anything interesting will be majorly wrong about something.  Will millennials become bored by the new gotcha journalism because everyone has something online that could make them look bad?

On the other hand, millennials may just make gotcha journalism even worse than it is today.  Since everyone has created gigabytes of online content, bloggers and the media will have an easier time digging up dirt on anyone who enters the public eye.  Imagine being able to see the new candidate for Governor at a boozy college party or getting a transcript of his AIM conversations with his best friend or girlfriend from high school.  The media, bloggers and most of all, the citizens will eat this stuff up.  Ratings will go up and everyone will be happy, execpt for the public feature.

I hope that my generation helps start the shift away from gotcha journalism.  I can’t imagine being shocked by the vast majority of the dirt that someone would dig up about a public figure online.  I hope that millennials are willing to allow people to change their opinion and not be called a flip-flopper.  I hope we will cut public figures some slack when their college photos get published to the major blogs and their old blog posts come back to haunt them.  I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful.  If not, we will have some really boring politicians, business leaders and public figures!

Do you think millenials will help stop gotcha journalism or do you think the problem will get worse?

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