Who will be the John Lennon of Social Media?



Bringing about a sense of change and responsibility.

For my generation these ideals where embodied in people. People like John Lennon who typified all the good thing, all the good ideals in our society. Peace, love and human compassion for others were his rallying call.

To today’s Web generation these are some of the things that are being attributed to the potential of social media and all the tools and services that are a part of it. It’s a nice idea to think that such a change could happen just because of something we have created using the wonder that is the Web. Like all nice ideas though not everything is positive or warm and fuzzy.

As with human nature, and anything we touch, there is always a negative side, the dirty side of the story that no-one likes to talk about or admit to. The same applies to Social Media and we see it rear its ugly with every case of Internet flash mobs of hate and recrimination.

For the longest time we like to blame all the bad things that happened in everything from the old USENET newsgroups to the more modern social networks on those nasty people who hide behind anonymous nicknames. They are painted as cowards who unleashed their venom against people via their keyboards just because they can.

Then as we moved into this new open world of Social Media and people started coming out from behind those nicknames many claimed that the day of mob mentality would fade into the past like a bad dream. After all the thinking has always been that it is a lot harder to mean and cruel to other people when they know your name or know where you live. The only problem is that we have forgotten a key part of human nature – not everyone is nice.

Sure it was easier when there only existed anonymous nicknames but even in this day of openness and accountability something haven’t changed. People can still be thoughtless, cruel and fall easily into that mindless mob mentality that can act without taking to the time to make sure what they are doing is right.

Up until recently this kind of mob formation still took time to form as the Web is only as fast as someone hitting the refresh key. While it might not seem like much of a delay it has been a long enough one that it would give people enough time to calm down or maybe double check their information. that is changing though as we move faster and faster to a real-time Web.

No longer is there time to take a deep breath and think things through. Now we are dealing with raw emotions that don’t have a chance to cool off before – often in seconds – they get re-enforced by a new flood of heated emotions. What were once flash mobs are now becoming real-time mobs that can strike faster than a cobra and be even more poisonous.

Michael Arrington wrote today, in his usual link grabbing and in your face way, about how he considers Friendfeed to be one of the primary feeding grounds for this kind of real-time mob mentality. The section of interest for me is this:

Some people say it’s not appropriate to pick on FriendFeed. Other services like Twitter, which are much bigger, have similar problems. But the conversations on Twitter aren’t centralized. It’s hard to see it when a mob forms unless it’s something massive like the almost-revolution in Iran. But on FriendFeed all the comments are aggregated on one page, and everyone participating sees it all. It’s much more likely to break out into a mob. And even niche topics, like mobile phones, can lead to death threats.

He uses his recent experience with Leo Laporte and the blow up that happen as one of his illustrative points and it does quite rightly prove his point. I remember this because I was reading at least two separate threads on Friendfeed where he was being hauled over the coals, and not nicely either. At the same time though I was also watching the follow-up podcast/videocast that he and Leo did to sort out what was nothing more than a misunderstanding.

But this escaped the people locked into the real-time threads because they were too busy feeding off of the emotional cesspool that had been created around the incident. No-one took the time to find out what – if anything – was going on from Arrington’s or Laporte’s point of view.

While I have decided recently to take a holiday from Friendfeed I must say that during my time using the service I have seen this mob mentality rear its ugly head more than a few times. Some, like the incident that caused Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins to leave during the American election, were before Friendfeed switched to the real-time display but the speed at which they form has increased since that switch.

This is only the tip of the problem when it comes to the idea behind the real-time Web. As we increasingly advertise our whereabouts and voice our opinions there is going to be somebody out there who isn’t going to be satisfied with just spewing their venom from behind a keyboard. For them this avenue is no longer good enough regardless how real-time it is and they now have all the tools at their disposal to make this truly personal.

It is true that when it comes to our social media world there is no-one that is of the larger public stature that John Lennon was for that earlier generation but that doesn’t preclude that the same result couldn’t happen. The only thing that is a big question mark is who is it going to be.

For all the good that Social Media can bring to our society there is that negative aspect of human nature egged on by the immediacy of the real-time web that is the great unknown. One thing that isn’t unknown though after seeing the depths of anger and hate that can be exacerbated by the real-time web is that some-one will be the John Lennon of the Web Generation. It’s just a matter of who will be our Chapman.

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