BEWARE THE ONLINE COLLECTIVE

Jaron Lanier [12.27.06]
Topic:

What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It's amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It's time to think about that power on a moral basis.

JARON LANIER is a computer scientist, composer, and visual artist. He is the author of You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto; and Who Owns The Future?

Jaron Lanier's Edge Bio Page 


BEWARE THE ONLINE COLLECTIVE

[JARON LANIER:] It's funny being an "old timer" in the world of the Internet. About six years ago, when I was 40 years old, a Stanford freshman said to me, "Wow Jaron Lanier—you're still alive?" If there's any use to sticking around for the long haul — as computers get so much more powerful that every couple of years our assumptions about what they can do have to be replaced — it might be in noticing patterns or principles that may not be so apparent to the latest hundred million kids who have just arrived online.

There's one observation of mine, about a potential danger, that has caused quite a ruckus in the last half-year. I wrote about it initially in an essay called "Digital Maoism."

Here's the idea in a nutshell: Let's start with an observation about the whole of human history, predating computers. People have often been willing to give up personal identity and join into a collective. Historically, that propensity has usually been very bad news. Collectives tend to be mean, to designate official enemies, to be violent, and to discourage creative, rigorous thought. Fascists, communists, religious cults, criminal "families" — there has been no end to the varieties of human collectives, but it seems to me that these examples have quite a lot in common. I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob.

One of the most wonderful things about the rise of the Web and other Internet-based communication schemes is how anti-mob they have been. I was in heaven 10 years ago watching millions of people build web sites for the first time as a form of expression. I'm just as excited today when I run across a creative web page, Myspace site, YouTube video or whatever. There are zillions of people out there who are developing themselves, reaching out to others, becoming more creative, better educated, and richer than they otherwise would have been. My personal favorite of the current batch of fast growing sites might be Second Life, where people create avatars of themselves to share in a virtual world. Bravo!

In the last few years, though, a new twist has appeared. Along with all the sites that encourage individual expression, we are seeing a flood of schemes that celebrate collective action by huge numbers of bland, anonymous people. A lot of folks love this stuff. My worry is that we're playing with fire.

There are a lot of recent examples of collectivity online. There's the Wikipedia, which has absorbed a lot of the energy that used to go into individual, expressive websites, into one bland, master description of reality. Another example is the automatic mass-content collecting schemes like DIGG. Yet another, which deserves special attention, is the unfortunate design feature in most blog software that practically encourages spontaneous pseudonym creation. That has led to the global flood of anonymous mob-like commentary.

I remember the first time I noticed myself becoming mean when I left an anonymous comment on a blog. What is it about that situation that seems to bring out the worst in people so often? It's a shame, because the benefits of blogs (such as that citizen journalists can pool resources to do research that otherwise might not get done) get cancelled out. Blogs often lead to such divisiveness that people end up caring more about clan membership than truth after a while.

There's a pattern in recent online businesses that is sometimes called Web 2.0 that I think is distinct from the collectivity problem, but for some reason seems to be leading a lot of entrepreneurs into promoting collectives.

The Web 2.0 notion is that an entrepreneur comes up with some scheme that attracts huge numbers of people to participate in an activity online — like the video sharing on YouTube, for instance. Then you can "monetize" at an astronomical level by offering a way to bring ads or online purchasing to people in your gigantic crowd of participants. What is amazing about this idea is that the people are the value — and they also pay for the value they provide instead of being paid for it. For instance, when you buy something that is advertized, part of the price goes to the ads — but in the new online world, you yourself were the bait for the ad you saw. The whole cycle is remarkably efficient and concentrates giant fortunes faster than any other business scheme in history.

So what's wrong with this pretty picture? All too many entrepreneurs seem to think that if you reduce the human element, the scheme will become more efficient. Instead of asking people to create videos or avatars, which require creativity and commitment, just watch their clicks, have them take surveys, have them tweak collective works, add anonymous, unconsidered remarks, etc. This trend is lousy, in my opinion, because it encourages people to lose themsleves into groupthink.

What's to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It's amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It's time to think about that power on a moral basis.