Why the mob matters

I have only been on Twitter for a few months, and I admit, at first I didn’t get it.  I saw  ‘s "tweets" reposting on her blog, so I went to the page, and I still didn’t get it.  A blog in a few lines?  Why?  But then, as I continued to read her (clever) microposts, some of them coming from the middle of the day, giving me a quiet, oddly intriguing picture into her daily life, I began to see the appeal. Still, I didn’t join, because while it was amusing, I still didn’t see why I should do it, too.

I remember the man who was arrested in some Middle Eastern country and got out because he tweeted "arrested" right before they incarcerated him, and his friends and family mobilized and got him out.  I thought, okay, there it’s valuable, and if I’m ever overseas in a country where I could potentially be arrested for almost nothing (apparently now, this includes photographing buildings in England, so, duly noted), then I’ll get Twitter.  But even though I still didn’t join, I kept thinking of how amazing that technology was, that with that text he could so quickly change the power balance in his situation.

When I finally joined Twitter, it was because I wanted to follow @TheFix’s tweets of one of the Presidential debates.  I had to get an account to join, and so I did.  To my surprise, many of my friends were on as well, and I ended up "watching" the debate with Chris Cilliza, Caryle, Kim, Jess, Michele, and other people I didn’t even know yet.  And the more I tweeted, the more fun I had.  So I kept going, and going, and then nanowrimo came, and I tweeted through that, and then I kept tweeting, and then I dragged Dan along, too, and I was hooked for good.

But it wasn’t until the mob scene that was #amazonfail that I really saw Twitter work for me.  I wasn’t arrested in a Middle Eastern country, no.  But I did witness, in the span of a few hours, a major "glitch" appear in a very, very powerful company, a glitch which made it clear that, whether the discriminatory filter was intentional or accidental, it was easy to manipulate in an invisible manner, and as the matter wore on, it became clear it was difficult to undo. Through the Twitter hashtag, I found realtime information (and wild, insane rumor), leaks, and, finally, some few press reports.  I discovered how far the issue reached.  I saw how far back it had gone.  And, my favorite part, I saw how many people took censorship very seriously.

Most traditional media outlets don’t seem to know what to do with Twitter.  Some seem to have figured out how to wade in, and some like The Des Moines Register have embraced it wholeheartedly, but overall, the media seems to view Twitter as some bastard cousin of blogging, which was bad enough already.  Where are the facts, they cry?  Where’s the research?  Where’s the reporting?  It’s just a bunch of mad people shouting!  It’s like the people pontificating and barking on blogs, only concentrated and full of hysteria!  Well, the problem is that everything they complain about Twitter and blogs are true–everything but the just.

I don’t read any paper newspapers anymore, and while I don’t mind anyone at all lamenting their death, and while I acknowledge the space of time between their passing and whatever comes up in their stead could be an interesting time in a not-good way, I still don’t really care about them anymore, and I have no plans to pick them up.  I like the DM online, but I still find it hard to navigate.  I think we won’t have a real transition to web until the current under 25 generation comes into full maturity and me and mine are just a bunch of cranky old people at the home barking about how this newfangled stuff is too hard and has no soul.  I won’t be one of them, because I’ve already left newspapers and even a lot of major television outlets.  I hate how canned and sifted it is, and I hate how seldom them seem to talk about anything I actually care about.  I don’t care about what Michele Obama is wearing, or what the dog ate, or what celebrity went into rehab (again).  I liked hearing about the pirates. I like hearing about Iowa, and gay rights, and major economic policy.  I love NPR, and I have it on all day long.  But what I love best are blogs: lots and lots and lots of them.  And I love Twitter.

If you’re willing to read a lot of tweets and a lot of blogs, and if you’re willing to actually use your brain instead of simply opening it up to ingest whatever news service you subscribe to’s daily swill, you can learn things from the internet you would never have been able to learn in any other age.  The #amazonfail story is an excellent example of this.  Amazon.com is absolutely notorious for changing absolutely nothing.  I am still shocked that they backed down at all on the ridiculous Author’s Guild cry that their voice-to-speech technology was copyright infringement; of all the things to actually listen to anyone on, this is one of the dumbest.  But over the years I’ve heard a number of increasingly dark complaints about the company from the industry: they’ll push a used copy of a new release item side-by-side with the new version which would actually make the author money was the first I’d heard.  There have been louder and louder cries of foul from publishers for being told by amazon.com what they would be allowed to charge, or how things would be distributed.  I ignored them all, I admit, because I like cheap prices, and because I like their searches.  It seems like amazon.com sells everything, and I loved it.  So maybe they were a little bossy.  Didn’t publishing deserve it, just a little?  Weren’t they operating a backwards system (yes)?  Didn’t they need to be shaken up and convinced to move with the times (oh my god yes)?

But the #amazonfail story caught me in the throat.  For hours I scanned tweets and followed links, trying desperately to prove they were wrong.  Yes, there was hysteria on there.  Yes, it was a mad, wild mob.  Yes, there was a lot of worthless drivel in there.  But there was also real, hard news, if you could stop sneering at the mob long enough to actually listen to individual voices.  Big name bloggers got involved, and some of them got answers nobody else could have gotten.  Bigger stories emerged, with people (who could point to blog entries verifying themselves) who had issues months ago.  Hacker claims were debunked by smarter hackers.  The trick with the hashtag was you had to follow it, and keep following it.  Only fools logged on, read three tweets, and declared they knew it all.  There were thousands and thousands and thousands, and a small percentage of them were easily identifiable retweets.  If you wanted this story, you had to dig. And unlike the media outlets, who were cautious and worse, bemused, bloggers posted what they knew when they knew it.  They also calmed some of the storm of Twitter, and helped remind you where you should actually be outraged (or provided you with a format for disagreement).  They updated, and linked, and not only did you get valuable information, you got new social networks and new viewpoints almost constantly.  It was an information orgy.

The most important power of that Twitter mob, however, was that it did what nothing else would have been able to do: it got amazon.com’s attention.  They barely said anything at all, but they said something.  If you actually think for a minute that they would have said something otherwise–well, I can’t help you.  A lot of people I know are dismissing the #amazonfail as amusing or annoying or horrifying.  Only a very small handful of them are authors (and most of them who are own Kindles).  Only two are authors of LGBT literature, but both are with very large publishing houses who could watch their backs.  If you are a small press author or self-published, this was a wake-up call to a nightmare you didn’t even know you could have–or, as is becoming increasingly aware, we are all joining a nightmare a few authors have been having on their own for some time.  #Amazonfail isn’t over, and I hope people who were outraged on twitter don’t simply meander back to shopping there because it’s so easy.  I hope the mob mentality lives.

Mobs are unpretty, yes.  Mobs are not good news sources, most of the time.  Blogs are not terribly reliable, and they’re full of opinion.  How can solitary voices attracting small, scattered audiences or screaming banshee conglomerates of whoever-the-hell-has-a-twitter-account be better than solid media outlets–this is what is so easy to think.  The problem here is that, actually, we don’t know when this is true, and when it isn’t.  We have been well trained by a lifetime of conditioning to think that, somehow,  the important difference between the NYT and a blog and CNN or FOX and twitter is that the media outlets have quality control and the free-range versions don’t.  What we fail to remember is that, in fact, there are mobs in both scenarios.  Millions of viewers and readers passively ingesting prepared news and not acting on it beyond the water cooler are millions of viewers in a mob.  But unlike blogs and tweets, this mob has nowhere, really, to go.  On blogs and twitter, you have to be active.  You have to find the blogs to read.  You have to make choices about viewpoints.  You have to read the information yourself, and you have to think.  You have to do the work.  You have to leave questions unanswered.  And you have to actually make choices, instead of being informed, or worse, entertained.

We are now a global culture.  We can talk and interact to one another from around the world.  You can be reading this blog from anywhere with an internet connection and a knowledge of the English language.  The internet is a great equalizer, an amazing leveler. The internet is the place where everyone can be a reporter, however good or bad. The internet is the place were a corporate giant with a long history of ignoring everyone and doing whatever it wants must unhinge its jaws and actually speak, however ineffectual.  The internet is the place where employees can fart on your pizza and within days they are fired and brought up on charges and the company sets up an account to assure you of their product’s quality.   The internet is the place where a cable company tries to cap bandwidth and online protests are so loud that they have to back down.  The internet is the place where you can find out the statehouse had another damn marriage amendment come up again, but it got voted down (all this before the local papers get off of their coffee break).  The internet is the place where news travels fast.  The internet is the place where you have to work to get your news, but if you’re willing to engage your brain and do a little work and sift through hysteria, you can learn more than you ever would have otherwise, faster, and on subjects you otherwise would never have heard about.

The internet, in short, is the place where the mob has the power to transform from a tribe of suburban zombies into a vibrant, wild net of life.  And I for one hope it never, never goes away.

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