Wisdom of Mobs: the feedback loop

It’s that eerily calm pause between Christmas and New Year frenzy.  There’s a number of half-formed posts in my head, but we’ll go with a swirling scarcely-formed one about crowds, audiences and mobs. Desirable audiences and undesirable ones.

Thought one: the way that the internet has caused unknown mass audiences to become active participants.  I’m thinking of the people who complained to the Press Complaints Commission about Jan Moir’s piece on Stephen Gately; and on a lighter note, the people persuaded to download Rage Against the Machine in preference to this year’s reality TV winner.  The public are kicking back, in ways never seen before.   We have become a fine bunch of complainers, in particular.   We’re able to express ourselves easily now, in ways that used to be difficult.

Thought two: TV’s nervous courting of fans while striving to maintain distance and control.   Russell T. Davies’ famous characterisation of diehard Doctor Who fans as ‘ming-mongs’.   On a fresher note, the BBC Three series Being Human has dished up lots of interesting extras for fans of the show; still, if you apply for tickets to a preview screening, the BBC asks you for your age and gender so that it can, errr, shape the studio audience appropriately.  As you move to tick the box for your age, you think: am I the fan this show is actually looking for? Would I be better off presenting as male and twenty-something?

Thought three: danah boyd’s unpleasant experience of presenting against an increasingly hostile Twitter backstream. danah boyd is a greatly-respected internet researcher with a private dread of speaking in public.   She gave her presentation against a large-screen backdrop of live Twitter updates, which the Twittering audience then used to criticise her.  Up front and behind her back, all at the same time.

The internet allows us to feed back our enjoyment, our heartfelt disapproval and even our bitchy private comments. But on the other side, what do we (as receivers of the feedback) do with it?  Is all of it The Truth ™? Do we throw it out because the feedback is not representative (they’re not Daily Mail readers, they’re not true fans)?  Do we congratulate ourselves on the upswing in page views?

The thing about feedback of this kind is that it’s really not a conversation.  It can be a tennis match, or out-and-out war, but there’s typically little conversation.   The danah boyd example shows what happens when feedback is so close and unregulated that it changes the very nature of the act.

Thought four: One of the oddest reactions to the danah boyd was that ‘Live Tweeting is the way of the future, she’d better just get used to it.’   Really?  Really?

I don’t think we yet know what feedback means, or what to do with it.

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6 Responses

  1. Re thought one: It is worth noting that the big change is that peopel are rebelling over much smaller things. In the past we had things like slavery, the vote, the corn laws, and fighting facism. Now we have people taking 10 seconds from their busy day to add a comment or tick an online petition.

    There is a risk at the moment that the informed view and the uninformed view are going to be treated as equally valid (Irish comedian Dara O Briain has a very good sketch on this point, for example ‘just because science does not have all the answers does not mean you can fill in the gaps with fairy stories’).

    One of the problems with feedback is that people have been kept ill informed and powerless for generations, so we can hardly be surprised that when we are all suddenly empowered we behave badly. But we need to get past the behaving badly stage, somehow.

    • I think that’s a fascinating point. We are arguing about the little things, but we’re not really shouting about politics, outside of the interested minority.

      I do think that different commenting arenas play by very different rules (Youtube versus CommentisFree versus the Independent, the Daily Mail or indeed Outpost Gallifrey). Indeed the Daily Mail has been so beleaguered I wouldn’t be surprised if the editors made it slightly harder for passers-by to comment.

  2. Another thought following on from thought 1 is that many examples of this action are hijacks. Rage/X Factor is an obvious one but as Clay Shirky pointed out (in a talk I summarised on my blog) Obama had to disband the change.gov initiative to crowdsource policy priorities, since the overwhelming victor – above healthcare, Middle East and the economy – was legalising cannabis.

    As long as crowdsourcing democracy/polls remains relatively small, it is quite easy to organise a few likeminds together and get the desired result

    • Yep. I also think it’s very easy to mistake a large online crowd for a representative one, when it’s often nothing of the sort.

      There’s also a point I didn’t elaborate upon, which is the social element in commenting (and certainly in protesting) on an issue. Twitter seems prone to that in particular: you become part of a group very easily.

  3. A post that’s really stopped me in my tracks and forced me to think. Thanks! As a result I’m wrestling with the notion that the flattening of the world, the interwebs ability not to discriminate, means we seem to have a difference in use/impact between the personal (Moir, Boyd) and the institutional (BBC3/Being Human) but we haven’t yet worked out the etiquette (or standard accepted behavioural norms) that discriminates between the two. More thinking to be done!

    • I think there are difference in our approach to newspaper articles, to TV, to blog opinions and opinions given in person.

      Commenting context and the construction of online identities have a powerful effect on what people feel they can say. Anonymous commenting tends to be harshest, personal ID-linked commenting far more moderate, with temporary or permanent personas coming somewhere in the middle.

      In the case of the nasty Twitter back-channel, I think that’s the result of a user group valuing their group membership (tee-heeing about the presenter) more than being an unconnected audience member. At least some of the comment around that suggests that there are people in new media who value their herd membership very highly – above even their actual context.

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