How to thrive in a networked world – book chapter excerpt
By Lee and Barry
The theme of our book is that it is a networked world, and that being networked is not so scary. Rather, it provides opportunities for people to thrive if they know how to maneuver in it. Arguably, the emerging divide in this world is not the “digital divide” but the “network divide.” Technology continues to spread through populations, so the emerging need is for people to learn how to cultivate their networks—and to get out from the cocoon of their bounded groups.
Those who want to thrive in the network operating system need insight into its realities and need to practice how to function effectively in this changed world. People and institutions exist now in information and communication environments that are strikingly different from the ones that existed just a generation ago. People’s relationships remain strong—but they are networked. Neighbors, and neighborhoods still exist, to be sure, but they occupy a smaller portion of people’s lives. It is hard to borrow a cup of sugar from a Facebook friend 1,000 miles away, but it has become easier to socialize, get advice, and exchange emotional support at whatever distance. Where commentators had been afraid that the internet would wither in-person ties, it is clear that they enhance and extend them. It is not an either in-person OR online dichotomy; it is an in-person AND the internet AND mobile contact comprehensiveness. They all intertwine in the ecology of the relationship.
These, then, are the hallmarks of the new operating system in which networked individuals function: The volume of information has grown and the pace is accelerating. The variety of information sources has boomed. The velocity of information is accelerating (especially at the level of personal news and niche communities). The places and times in which people encounter information, media, and each other have expanded to anywhere at any time as long as there are mobile connections. People’s attention to communicating and gathering information has become simultaneously more fractured as sources multiply and more focused as their searches become more specific. Information itself has become networked and more densely packed, making people’s experiences with it more immersive and participatory. The capacity of people to find relevant, abundant information on topics has radically improved in the era of instant search. The ability of people to tell their own stories and share their own ideas has substantially broadened in the era of social media. And their ability to build, tap into, and learn from personal networks has bounded upward with the rise of social networking sites and other applications.
These changes in the network operating system have affected individual’s behavior and attitudes. Among other things, people now expect to find information on almost every subject quickly. They expect that they are more findable and reachable at many more times and places than in the past—and they assume others are equally as likely to be accessible. They change the way they use their time and allocate their attention. They pack more information and communications exchanges into their days and they are interruptible in their activities more often. Their sense of place, distance, and presence with others is transformed as they participate in more encounters that feature “absent presence” or “present absence.” Their sense of self transforms from a hard unitary shell to a reconfigurable amoeba with situationally changing pseudopods. Their sense of personal efficacy grows as they practice the art of seeking and gaining social, emotional, and economic support using new technologies. Those activities also highlight the extra effort that networking requires.
This is an operating system that confers social and economic advantages to those who behave effectively as networked individuals, blending significant personal encounters and new media as they solve problems and build social support….
[The book then describes an extended story of Linda Evans, a woman who rebuilt her life after a divorce by tapping into her extended and extensive network and using technology to access information and people who could give her assistance and help her make decisions. We discuss how her friends and her use of technology helped rebuild her social life and remarry; how she used her social network and online searches to find a pathway to getting advanced academic degrees and moved her career along; how her extended group of friends and acquaintances helped her make solid financial decisions; how she built a powerful and far-reaching online support group for those suffering from Myasthenia Gravis; and how her technology use played a central role in her mothering and in her efforts to stay connected to those she loved.]
The New Rules of Networked Individualism
Linda Evans is a networked individual. Her story of how she used the various strands of her social network to meet her needs is typical of those who now navigate their personal networks to get the aid and comfort they need. There was very little overlap among the various groups who assisted her in different aspects of her life-rebuilding effort. The people who were most instrumental in helping her make her educational and career-development choices do not know the people to whom she turned when her emotional and social life was troubled. And people in those groups had no direct point of connection with the people and online resources that were important to Linda as she wrestled with questions about her finances.
Linda’s story demonstrates how the social shift toward networked individuals changes the rules of the game—the operating system—for social, economic, and personal success. Abundant evidence shows that good, strong social networks of all kinds have important benefits. Moreover, those with relatively big and diverse networks, including many weak-tie associates, gain special advantages. They get information, support, and advice from more—and more diversified—sources. They are freer to move between different networks, when one becomes too controlling or does not supply what they need. They have the capacity to construct their own groups and negotiate the terms of their engagement with others.
Without consciously following the “rules” of the new social operating system, Linda was practicing the precepts of those who generally do better in a world of networked individuals:
Invest in existing relationships via the Golden Rule so that help will be there when needed: Some old friends were the ones who checked in with Linda regularly right after her separation, commiserated during long phone calls when she felt poorly, and were sounding boards during the legal process leading to divorce. Other long-time pals served as coaches and technical support when she needed to master computers and the internet. And still others helped out with household logistics such as carpools for her children. “My best friends walked with me every step of the way,” she says. Surely that was because Linda had given similar aid and comfort to them when they had times of need.
Use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) enthusiastically and nimbly: Linda developed from having little involvement with ICTs into an enthusiastic active user of a variety of internet and mobile technologies. Beyond appreciation of technology and having the skills to use it, media-literate people are in better shape as networked individuals in their ability to find information, assess it, react to it, and even remix it with their own creative spin on it. With this sort of media realism, people can manage their networks better. Not surprisingly, those who have broadband internet connections and are serious internet and mobile users tend to have bigger and more diverse networks and have contact with a wider array of partners. They do not sacrifice the quality of their relations for the greater quantity of their ties. New digital tools give them more ability to function in larger networks.
This is not a blanket endorsement that urges everyone to be early adopters of new ICTs. Rather, it is to note that the evidence suggests that people do well as networkers if they are not timid about technology. In some Pew Internet findings, more active technology users had bigger and more diverse networks, and more socially useful contact on a regular basis.
Use technology to develop your access to a wider audience that can share your interests: Linda Evans used technology to create and maintain a thriving Myasthenia Gravis support group. The wisdom of crowds can now be tapped in ways that were impossible in the pre-internet era. The web is full of examples of people acting altruistically or seeking help from strangers and getting it. The “audience” layer of people’s networks often stands ready to respond when a request for help comes along. In a modest, unscientific sampling of 294 tech-savvy people who had agreed to take online surveys, Pew Internet found that roughly two-thirds had done something altruistic online on behalf of strangers or just to give a distant connection a helping hand. Many had responded on listservs and other discussion forums to strangers who had technology problems. Many others had given consumer tips on products and services.
One respondent said he was happy to act as an informal trip adviser just for the fun of helping people have good travel experiences. Another performed language translation activities for non-English-speaking inquirers. Another acted as an advice giver and listener to anonymous victims of domestic violence. Another was a group leader on Griefnet and regularly interacted with newcomers to the site seeking to be consoled. Another who was an amateur genealogical expert after years of practicing it as a hobby online said she regularly assisted others get started on their own family trees and provided links to relevant resources. Another helped connect people seeking to adopt pets to those trying to get rid of pets on Craigslist. Another had created an online support group for people suffering from lupus and dealt with queries from strangers every day. Another did the same for those recovering from weight-loss surgery. Another provided free editing assistance for wannabe writers. Another described a prolonged online session where he comforted someone who had received a death threat and extortion scheme that proved bogus. A photography enthusiast regularly posted free advice columns offering tips to amateur photographers. Another acted as an aggregator of links and advice to parents of gifted children. Another took it upon herself to become a patient advocate for strangers seeking help from the Veterans Benefit Administration. Another ran an online support group for families with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And on and on and on.
Stay active and nimble: Know how to scan the different segments of your social network so you can access the people who are the most suitable to provide the needed information and support. Linda used a variety of contacts as she was making decisions about her educational options—different ones during periods when she was pondering new options. “When I first went back to school, I ran it by a few girlfriends, but it wasn’t a hard decision,” she recalls. “I had to do it and there was an easy option. When I was going for the higher degrees I felt it was best to talk to professionals and experts—and do a lot more research on my own. My effort was more serious because the stakes were higher and I was less certain at the beginning what the best choice was.”
Do not count on a single, tightly connected group of strong ties to help: Linda pulled together one-to-one encounters or ad hoc groupings on an “as needed” basis. “I often had very specific needs and each new need was different enough from the last one that I needed another person to help me,” she said. Groups in the networked age are often too weak, small, specialized, and uncoordinated to hang together over the course of an extended problem-solving period. They often lack access to a shifting diversified set of resources. One-to-one relationships and partial networks are the ones that usually are most effective and efficient.
Develop meaningful new ties as you go along and be especially alert to reaching into new social circles that serve your purposes: Linda made new friends in the church group of divorced people, her teacher buddy Barb who linked her to information relevant to entering the master’s program, her classmate Marci who affirmed her decision to seek a Ph.D., and her tax preparer’s son Troy who became her financial mentor. None knew the others or traveled in the same circles. They had varying interests and expertise. All were appropriate choices for advice and support when Linda was making decisions. Asked if she was consciously trying to diversify her social network in these choices, Linda demurred: “It would be more accurate to say that I had a sense of who had the most knowledge to help me or whose insights into me and my personality seemed accurate.”
Develop larger and more diverse networks: Personal networks can now run to thousands of people, if you count the most remote, but still meaningful consequential strangers. Look at all the ties that Linda was accreting in little more than a decade, with many more ties to come and few to lose. No doubt she will rely on Facebook or similar software to keep in some contact with friends from past years and life experiences.
Although bigger is not always better, those with diverse, broad-ranging networks are often in better social shape and have a greater capacity to solve problems than those who have smaller networks. Quantity does equal quality. Not only do larger networks provide more overall sociability, support, information, and connections to the rest of the world, but also preliminary research shows that each tie in a large network is likely to be more supportive than those in smaller networks. A culture and network of support breeds more support. And, those with many functional “weak ties” can find support and solve problems more adeptly than those who are deeply embedded in a small, tight social network.
In the digital era, networking behavior turns out to be an efficient way to collect and verify information. Recent research has shown that connections between clusters of friends—or websites—are efficient structures for acquiring information. Most clusters contain superconnectors—people linked to large numbers of others in multiple social milieus—and these connectors rapidly diffuse information. At the same time, talking to friends within clusters allows people to assess and validate the information they have received.3
Act “transitively” and not “dyadic”: Look beyond your friends to become aware of the people in their networks who could provide access to new worlds. That is what Linda did when she asked her boss Susan for help finding someone who could help her manage her divorce nest egg. That same impulse prompted Linda to ask a similar question of Cynthia, the tax preparer. “I didn’t know any good financial advisers on my own,” recalls Linda, “so I had to get tips from the people who seemed more financially-savvy than I am. I figured there would be someone in their lives who’d be a good fit for me.”
Act as autonomous agents to cultivate your personal networks: In the good old days of strong kinship systems and closely knit villages, people could sit back and let things happen to them. They’d wander to the pub and find friendship, go to their mother-in-law’s house every Sunday for dinner, and know there would be support when trouble struck. With dispersed, sparsely knit person-to-person networks, those days are no longer here. Linda had to reach out and actively get help and advice. She even had to go to her church group for help rather than waiting for them to come to her.
This is the era of free agents and the ethic of personal agency. Social advantages and privileges accrue to those who prospect for network ties the way effective sales agents prospect for clients. The individuals primed to take advantage of this are the ones who are motivated to reach out to others, share their stories and support, and then invite conversation, feedback, and reciprocal gestures. The internet and mobile phones vastly expand the capacity of people to do the outreach and nurturing of friendships that are part of prospecting.
Monitor and manage your reputation—your personal brand: At the first level, individuals need to monitor the information about them because there is likely to be much more available in social media such as Facebook, blogs, listservs, photograph sites such as Flickr, video sites such as YouTube, and online discussion forums.
Information persists once it has been created and communicated online. As information scientist danah boyd notes, “What you say sticks around. This is . . . not so great when everything you’ve ever said has gone down on your permanent record. . . . [Moreover,] you can copy and paste a conversation from one medium to another, adding to the persistent nature of it. This is great for being able to share information, but it is also at the crux of rumor-spreading.”
In effect, there are limitless possible ways to recreate and reshare and recommunicate material after it has been created digitally. Even worse for those bent on anonymity, boyd points out that people and information are searchable even if you segment your network: “With social media, it’s quite easy to track someone down or to find someone as a result of searching for content. . . . This is great in some circumstances, but when trying to avoid those who hold power over you, it may be less than ideal.”
The increased prevalence of self-monitoring and observation of others creates a dynamic environment where people promote themselves or shroud themselves depending on their intended audience and circumstances. In several surveys about reputation management, Pew Internet found that 57 percent of American internet users had searched for material about themselves online.Overall, the message from the surveys was that when people consider the trade-offs of disclosure vs. privacy in the digital era, the majority of them see advantages in disclosure and the prospect of being findable. They take modest steps to limit information about themselves, but most are not deeply worried about disclosures they think are reasonable and confer benefits.
This is a reality for all networked individuals, but it is especially important for those whose livelihoods depend on the outside world knowing who they are and what their reputation is. In the 2009 Pew Internet survey, 12 percent of the respondents said their job required them to promote themselves or market their name. That population segment will surely grow and the portion of them monitoring their online identities will likely rise. Fully 84 percent of the people with those jobs had checked for information about themselves in 2009; 73 percent were social networking site users and 29 percent were bloggers. There will also likely be broader awareness of the online tools that are available to those who want to check up on their “virtual selves.” Those tools include email alerts and syndicated news feeds when an individual’s name is mentioned on news or other prominent sites and buzz-monitoring tools for the rankings, ratings, and social media sites where that person’s name might pop up.
The incentive to monitor and control information will become more pronounced as more information about people finds its way into databases and online venues. As Daniel Solove argues, “once information about us finds its way into the minds of others, we can’t control what they think about it. Our ability to exercise control consists of being able to limit the circulation of information about us.” Solove points to the key conflict for networked individuals in reputation management: too much information disclosure harms individuals’ privacy and freedom to act; too little information inhibits people’s ability to promote themselves and, more important, to build trust. Too little information also stifles free speech and the free flow of information.
Segment your identity: Linda’s networked identity consists of multiple, different networks: her church group, her divorce group, her teaching-support group, her graduate school friends, and two different groups focused on Myasthenia Gravis. She does not hide them from each other, but there is not much overlap.
Over time, more people will take at least a few steps to manage their identities by segmenting pieces of themselves—in effect, embracing a networked identity in which different parts of themselves are on display to different audiences in their networks. It is not that they will have separate selves for different segments of their networks, or for online versus offline interactions. Rather than different personas, people’s selves are networked: there is a core, but different aspects of that self get emphasized in different social situations. These are difficult trade-offs for networked individuals to calculate. They know, though, that people can be especially hurt by mismanaging their identities in one of several ways. For example, if an individual does not disclose her needs, talents, and achievements she will miss opportunities to gain help or advance. Or, if she discloses too much inappropriate material about her life she may likewise find herself denied opportunities. And if she does not monitor what is known or said about her online, she cannot know where her reputations falls short of reality or where it could be bolstered.
Develop the knack of functioning effectively in different contexts and “collapsed contexts”: For Linda, like all of us, the act of joining and belonging to multiple groups requires a development of group understanding or knowledge as each has different histories, norms, and folklore. As boyd puts it: “Some behaviors are appropriate in one context but not another, in front of one audience but not others. Social media brings all of these contexts crashing into one another and it’s often difficult to figure out what’s appropriate, let alone what can be understood.”
People must learn the ropes in these different milieus. The more gracefully they can do this, the quicker they can assume greater roles within multiple communities and networks. Effective networkers have to take this into account by expanding the milieus in which their activity can be understood, and explaining themselves in ways that multiple audiences can comprehend. Realize that intense scrutiny—even in unexpected situations—is a realistic possibility. As coauthor Rainie’s Pew colleague Susannah Fox likes to point out, the new social networking environment means that people “should always be ready for their close-ups” nowadays, because that close-up moment could be viewed and reviewed and reviewed after that.
Build high levels of trust and social capital in each network segment: Linda has worked diligently at this as she has navigated her complex life. Social capital can be earned, amassed, to some extent banked, and often used. A bedrock law of social networking is that people need to discover and interact with those who can provide resources. Although humans seem to be hardwired for reciprocity, social capital has its own rewards as it allows us to gain prestige with individuals or within groups, get things done, and enhance our sense of self. The essential point is that trust and reciprocity are primary currencies for networked individuals.
Digital media and social networks provide new ways to offer and procure social capital online, and the basic value of social capital is growing because such networks are so essential to people’s success. Just as digital technology has changed the contours of identity and privacy for networked individuals, it has also added elements to the dynamics of trust building. One particularly challenging change is tied to what the technology community calls “transparency.” Trust building at the personal level has always required evolving levels of disclosure, but now the audience for such disclosures is bigger and the expectation it will take place is also greater.
Another aspect of trust building that has intensified in the digital era relates to mistakes. Everybody makes them. But when they occur online or are captured digitally, people’s mistakes can be more widely disseminated and accessed. It is not clear yet whether social norms have become—or will become—more forgiving of prior indiscretions because of this or whether people will “pay” for their mistakes over a longer period of time because they are archived and findable by would-be friends, by would-be employers, by would-be romantic partners, by would-be clients, and by people from the past. The technology community’s response is to encourage people to admit their mistakes, correct them if possible, and seek forgiveness.
Manage boundaries: As the power of formal, densely knit groups wanes in light of the buildup of personal networks, personal and community boundaries are less distinct. With digital technologies, more private information is potentially available to interested members of the public—and to government and organizational surveillance authorities. Networked individuals need to develop nuanced understandings of what to make public, which publics to make information available to, and how to intermix technologies of privacy with those of public narrowcasting. People used to do that more or less routinely in real life, as they encountered the sights, sounds, smells, and the people of different social milieus. But online, all they face is a screen. As danah boyd puts it:
“There’s the blurring of public and private. These distinctions are normally structured around audience and context with certain places or conversations being “public” or “private.” These distinctions are much harder to manage when you have to contend with the shifts in how the environment is organized. . . . Trying to keep social acts to one space online is futile, even though that is the norm in unmediated environments.”
Other identity-shaping boundaries are also blurred or obliterated in the digital age. The edge between home and work (or school) becomes less distinct as people work at home outside “regular” work hours and do “leisure” activities while they are sitting at their desks on the clock at the office. Similarly, the border between education and entertainment is not as clear as it used to be in the era of “serious games” that have educational purposes at their core. Surely the longstanding distinction between consumer and producer has eroded as people remix media, and as nonprofessionals broadcast their works on video-sharing websites and publish their thoughts on blogging sites.
Manage time well; multitask strategically: People need to manage their attention more carefully than ever before. Effective networkers exploit this new digital environment more powerfully than those who get lost in their browsing or swamped by information inputs. Under the conditions of networked individualism, people need to work harder to stay on top of their own needs. They must spend more time maintaining ties in their networks and making sure that stores of social capital are replenished. Moreover, they know they are a part of others’ networks and they have a heightened sense of obligation to meet the needs of those who consider them social ties. A new widely accepted etiquette for transitory networked relationships has not emerged to create acceptable social rules that allow people to more easily enter into or break off from networked relationships. But it is taking shape in the context of perpetual engagement and partial attention.
New Literacies for Networked Individuals
The networked individuals who thrive have a combination of talent, energy, altruism, social acuity, and tech-savviness that allows them to build big, diverse networks and tap into them when they have needs. They are mastering a set of new literacies to navigate the network operating system.
They have graphic literacy that recognizes that more and more of life is experienced as communications and media on screens. They can interpret this material and feel some need to contribute to it. They know how to participate in digital conversation and creation. This literacy requires networking behavior that is often conducted graphically.
Networked individuals also have navigation literacy, a sense of internet geography that allows them to maneuver through multiple information channels and formats. They understand the change that has occurred as linear information formats such as print and broadcast media have given way to the nonlinear realities of hyperlinked, networked information. Not only do they know how to navigate, they also use their communications and contributions to help others navigate, often by recommending links in their digital communications or by creating their own posts to show others what they have learned.
Beyond that, they have context and connections literacy that helps them weave together the information and chatter that is flowing into their lives at a quickening pace. Even if the tidbits they gather are disaggregated from any larger context, they have the wherewithal—often with help from the network helpers—to puzzle through the material they collect. Networked individuals draw on their family, friends, and associates to make meaning of the things they encounter and the things that happen around them.
We suspect that networked individuals who are thriving have focus literacy as well: the capacity to minimize the distractions of the digital cacophony and complete the work they need to do for their jobs and their personal enrichment, even as they multitask. The paradox is that even while connecting people to multiple social networks, digital technologies carry with them almost an insistence that people stay connected on their mobile phones or the internet. Yet there are other times when people who are completing an urgent or personally satisfying project require a more individualized mastery of material and creation of knowledge. The most accomplished networked individuals are better at turning the solitude switch on so that they can focus.
Despite their focus, they also have multitasking literacy: the ability to do several things (almost) at once. With multiple inputs from family, friends, work, and institutions—and multiple in-person, internet, and mobile sources provide these inputs—thriving networkers have gained the ability to attend to them all with manageable fuss. Those who say it can’t be done forget the reality of driving a car in a big city, which routinely integrates steering, breaking, checking gauges, scanning the surroundings, chatting with passengers, and listening to music.
One of the great challenges in this age of overabundance of information requires skepticism literacy. Internet veteran Howard Rheingold’s NetSmart outlines the essential case that people need new tools and effort for “crap detection”—the ability of individuals to evaluate what they encounter online. This is especially urgent for those who get an unrelenting stream of material from others in their social networks. The most successful networked individuals have the capacity to assess inputs from friends and media sources for their accuracy, authority, relevance, objectivity, and scope. Skepticism literacy is the ability to weed out the media and people who have outdated, biased, incomplete, and agenda-driven or just dead-wrong ideas to pass along.
Connected to this is the idea that networked individuals should have an ethical literacy as they network with others. Successful networked individuals build trust and value for their partners by being accurate and thoughtful with the information they create and pass along. When everyone can be a publisher and broadcaster, there are advantages that accrue to those who are found to be reliable and transparent about the information they share. In contrast, social penalties are conferred on those who cheat, misrepresent information, cut corners, exploit relationships, and are mysterious about the sources of their information.
In a sense, you could say that the basic argument of this chapter is that the most successful networked individuals have networking literacy. Like Linda Evans, they know how to move adroitly through their network operating system—personal, institutional, and digital—without getting locked into one world. They follow the Golden Rule. They scan their existing networks for the possibility of gaining introduction to new networks that can expand their reach and diversify their sources of information. They strike useful balances between being “on the grid” taking advantage of opportunities and being available to help others, and “off the grid” when they need time to rebalance and contemplate without interruption. In short, they are masters of the new network operating system’s universe.
Networked Individuals in a Networked Posse
I was especially pleased for two reasons to be invited to participate on October 17 in the Keith Davey Forum at the University of Toronto to discuss politics and social media.
The first is that I can reconnect with my co-author and Toronto native Barry Wellman and his wonderful students, who are now also my pals. The second is that I will get to meet the other Forum participant for the first time. He’s Jesse Hirsh and it will be nice to meet face-to-face because he writes one of my favorite blogs and it was through that blog that he introduced me to one of my favorite stories about networked individuals in action.
The material below is the full story as we wrote it for an early draft of the book. It fell in our chapter about “networked creators” in a section that described several new kinds of activities that have become popular thanks to the growth of social media. In that chapter, we also cite examples of …
1) how networked individuals can produce content online that helps them expand their social network and increase their social standing. We used some terrific casework done by Patricia G. Lange for the MacArthur Foundation’s comprehensive research on kids digital learning to describe how youth use YouTube for these purposes.
2) how networked individuals can construct just-in-time and just-like-me support groups through telling their stories and building archives or links to others’ content. In this case, we cited research done by my late friend, Tom Ferguson, about Karen Parles and the amazing resource she built at Lung Cancer Online. Tom taught us at the Pew Internet Project many things about e-health and his friends have carried on his work in an exceptional group blog about e-patients and in the Ferguson-and-friends book, ePatients: how they can help us heal health care.
3) how networked individuals can use social media to solve problems. This is the section that uses Jesse Hirsh’s tale of a “meta-mob” in action. Here’s what we wrote:
To catch a thief: a social posse in action
Another new kind of social activity afforded by social media is illustrated by what Toronto-based internet strategist and columnist Jesse Hirsh has called a “meta-mob.” He has written occasionally about a meta-mob of car enthusiasts who tried over many months to stop a car-parts thief.
In April 2009 the thief struck in a parking lot of Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall. While the victim was at work, someone stole a specialized front bumper-lip from his car, an Acura TSX. Cleverly, the thief used his own car to block passersby from seeing what he was doing. The victim, though, was smart enough to go to mall security to get the security video footage of the crime. But, because the thief took the plates off his car, and there were no witnesses, the police said there was nothing they could do. So, the victim turned to the TSXClub.com site, a forum for Acura TSX owners. He started the thread in the early hours of May 21, 2009.
Almost immediately after Hirsh posted a link to the thread, the group identified a suspect. One of the discussion group’s members recognized the car in the security video as being almost identical to photos of a car posted by another user of the site.
“At first people were hesitant to point fingers, but when the user tried to defend himself with a poorly written reaction, intense scrutiny started to fall on the suspect,” Hirsh wrote. The meta-mob began to examine the user’s history and found a connection between the suspect and the victim. A few weeks before the theft of the bumper lip, the victim had posted a “help wanted” ad for his workplace and the suspect had asked what hours the store was open. The group began to think that by asking about the store’s hours, the suspect felt he could safely strip the car when the victim was working.
Hirsh noted: Once this connection was identified, a frenzy ensued. Many of the users on the site were also users on other forums and recognized a pattern.
Within hours, multiple user accounts on multiple sites were linked to the same suspect who had been accused of stealing cars and car parts and reselling them via these forums and all these various aliases…. Ironically, one of the real tell-tale signs of the connection between all these accounts and identities was the language and writing style used by the suspect, which included poor grammar and spelling.
Hirsh described how the meta-mob came to believe that the suspect’s defense of himself had fallen apart when mob members accessed a photobucket.com account he used to post images to all kinds of auto enthusiast forums. “The suspect was using the photobucket account to host images of the allegedly stolen parts he was selling on the various sites,” noted Hirsh. “By looking at the web address URL and then details of the photos, people were able to identify his license plate, house number, and even photos of him.” Rather than giving up or confessing, the person then created a new account under a new name, and used the identity from the new account to “confess” to the crime, as an attempt to divert scrutiny from photo accounts that were under suspicion.
Hirsh continued. “However, [the suspect] used his same computer to create the new account, thereby having the same internet address and browser information, linking this posted confession to all [his] other accounts. A day later, after realizing how totally stupid that was, he removed those posts. But by then it was too late. The group had their guy.”
After the internet forensics were complete, and group members were convinced they had their man, the first thing that emerged were image mashups of the alleged thief, mostly making fun of him. Soon thereafter, users combed over Google Maps using the pictures of his car in front of his house and information that it was in Richmond Hill neighborhood and eventually they were able to identify his address by recognizing it in the satellite view.
And then, even more information was unearthed: “They were able to identify his mom and where she lives, his grandmother and where she lives, his sister, her employment, and some of his past crimes, including the fact that he is currently driving even though his license is suspended.” This was then followed by suggestions that all members of all auto clubs in the Toronto area show up at the purported thief’s house. Some started talking about the violence they would like to inflict upon him. On his end, the targeted suspect continued to post on the site and reply, escalating the violent rhetoric.
Hirsh concluded this telling of the story by noting that on May 27, six days after the first postings, the thread on the Acura TSX fan site was closed by site administrators. The suspect’s account was closed and his computer’s internet address was barred from accessing the site.
That did not end the matter, though. Other members of the site launched a petition seeking a police investigation – and rounded up several dozen signatories. For weeks afterwards, people continued to post items about sightings of the suspect, his new license plate numbers, and pictures of him.
Hirsh himself concluded: “This is a fascinating example of the rapid rise of a ‘meta mob,’ which was the result of not a single community or forum, but rather an aggregation of many sites working together to connect the dots and remove a predator lurking among them…. This is something we’re going to have to come to terms with, as it’s certain to re-appear frequently as people realize the power of this kind of mobilization. Why turn to the police when you can raise a mob of Internet people to help bring justice?” Well into 2010, the meta-mob was still at work, watching out for the suspect and posting pictures of him from time to time. The police had not taken any steps to intervene in the case, though. Hirsh summarized: “He is essentially stalked by tons of people who when they do see him post photos so that others can watch out. So, his purported racket is ruined. I would guess,