The lonely crowdsource

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News
umbrella man

by Rob Walker

The subreddit FindBostonBombers — where users “compile, analyze, and discuss images, links, and thoughts about the Boston Bombing” — wants the media to buzz off. That’s not likely to happen: The FBI has yet to make public the “clear picture” it’s said to have of a potential suspect, but when that happens, we’ll know whether it is — or isn’t — one of the individuals in various images deconstructed in that subreddit and elsewhere online.

In other words: did “the crowd” get there first? Or have random innocent citizens been unfairly demonized? And if it’s the latter, whose fault is that?

As perhaps the most prominent “crowdsleuthing” venue to emerge in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, FindBostonBombers has been criticized by everyone from Gawker to The Atlantic as mindless online vigilantism. Thus a top post on FindBostonBombers at the moment blames “the media” for “making images of potential suspects go viral” (and further accuses it of “picking on this small subreddit”).

Certainly I would never “pick on” a subreddit, large or small. But it seems to me you either believe the magic of “crowd” power is a useful means of identifying suspects, or you don’t.

“The harsh reality is that discussion requires looking at all possibilities,” the subreddit’s explanation declares. Okay. But then a list of “rules” includes this: “Do not make any images viral. Limit reposting images outside of this sub.”

And how is that supposed to work? “We’re unleashing the power of the crowd — don’t tell anybody”? Any image posted in an open forum on the Internet is an image that has been made public. And that’s something we celebrate all the time: the leveled playing field that makes it possible to route around the gatekeepers of the old mass media age. Among those who have signed on to this world view, of course, is most of the current mass media, which is eager to celebrate and propagate the latest hot memes via drive-time radio to late-night chat shows and all venues in between.

Motherboard articulates how the pro-crowd view ought to apply here: “Thousands of eyeballs combing the digital documentation of the tragic day's events are better than the scores the FBI can muster—the enthused, unpredictable crowds on Reddit and 4Chan might turn up leads even the seasoned forensic scientists at the FBI or the Boston PD might miss."

As it happens, I don’t agree with that at all. There are scenarios where crowdsleuthing could be useful. But in this instance, in addition to public imagery, the FBI has access to massive (and, indeed, probably unnerving) amounts of surveillance imagery, and high-tech tools for analyzing it, that the crowd lacks. And if the agency isn’t yet ready to publicize the name and image of the suspect it is said to have identified, I have no problem with that — the stakes are very high, and sometimes a “gatekeeper” isn’t such a bad thing.

Still, if you believe otherwise, and figure it’s a useful idea to speculate in public that maybe this or that guy with a black backpack attending a popular event is a murderer, then you are welcome to that opinion. But it’s not “the media” that’s put that speculation in the public sphere. The Internet is not a secret hideout: it is the public sphere. Usually, that’s exactly what we find so amazing and wonderful about it. To pretend otherwise now would make “the crowd” a hypocrite.


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