With great power comes great responsibility

I read about the fuzz generated around an interview Sara Lacy held with pop star Mark Zuckerberg. Sara was slaughtered on-line with several blog posts and numerous tweets that called her all sorts of things. Michael Arrington called it right when he spoke of a witch hunt, blaming a few in the crowd making some noise and the “press” picking up on it.

Brian Solis wrote a nice blog post on what really happened and talked with Sara on her own experiences. Several bloggers spent time on the issue, including Robert Scoble, putting the blame on a few Twittering assholes, and Steve Hodson who makes a right point in saying:

It doesn’t matter that Robert Scoble suggests that the SXSW audience is unlike any other. That still doesn’t excuse lack of respect and believing that one’s own overblown ego gives you the right to be insulting and intentionally hurtful to anyone let alone some-one who was just trying to do a job that they had been hired to do and requested by the person who was being interviewed. I will say that Robert’s title for his post today on the matter is an equally perfect way to end a post – Audience of Twittering Assholes. You would have thought your parents would have taught you all better manners than what you showed to the world yesterday.

I remember reading about a similar incident here in the Netherlands where Joseph Pine was giving a presentation. The organizers had opened a twittering back channel where people could react to the presentation. It turned out the channel was mostly used for making jokes, not even at the expense of Joseph Pine. Unfortunately he couldn’t see the back channel screen himself and was faced with a crowd laughing about things unrelated to his presentation.

The thing that interests me about it is the way technology sometimes enables the darker side of human nature without a penalty. Current web advocates always talk about the greater good that web 2.0 is bringing us in terms of interaction. Instead of a one way communication stream, the technology allows everyone to to interact by open up 2-way communication channels. It also allows every person to have a voice and be heard. We can all have blogs, join on-line conversations like Twitter, be journalists, write books. Any kind of professional, wheter it is a journalist, book writer, blogger or CEO for that matter are all feeling the pressure of the voice of millions of people joining the conversations in their domain. While setting the conversation free is a good thing it also provides us with several side effects that show the worst in human nature.

  1. Sensational journalism. You know what I’m talking about.  Right now there is a storm blowing through the Netherlands. The last time it happened, the national weather center issued warnings about dangers. As a result every news reporter went out to different locations within the Netherlands to report live from the scene. We heard interviews all day about possible dangers, what if scenario’s, possible casualties, damage etc. Nothing happened! Sure there was wind, rain and even some damage to a few buildings here and there. But the media hype was way over the top making everyone look ridiculous (which was of course covered in lengthy “lucky nothing happened” reports on TV.
  2. If there isn’t news, we simply create it. Just look at the way we get reported on the US presidential elections. Zephoria wrote a nice post about that called “Enough already”. In this post she describes how the media, when one candidate seems to pull ahead of another, the media immediately start creating stories from nothing. Just for the sake of keeping the competition going, or getting people to tune into their “sensational” stories.
  3. The person is more important than his actions. The world has become a public media place allowing no one to have some privacy. As soon as someone draws attention through his actions, the first thing that happens is that we start to focus on the person itself, instead of the things he is doing. Just look a the way the blogosphere reports about Mark Zuckerberg. He is the CEO of Facebook, and yes, people do discuss the work he is doing over there. But how many posts were about his looks, his slippers, his geekyness, and all other kinds of personal traits? Another example in general would be the reporting on the Eliot Spitzer case. Although ZDnet has some interesting angle on it here, in general the reporting was more a tabloid type “ooh we caught a public person in an embarrassing situation”.
  4. The breaking news factor. With everyone being a “professional” journalist these days we can only drive traffic by providing a possible audience with “Breaking News”. Even if there isn’t any. Or if at least a 1000 other people have reported on the breaking news too. Just look at TechMeme on any particular day and you will see what I mean. Especially the biggest blog sites like TechCrunch, GigaOM, etc.  use that technique. I haven’t actually counted the number of times “Breaking News” was in a blog post title. But I do know that I rarely visit those sites first. Everyone copies each others stories, often without factual checking, but who cares. There is no penalty on it. Personally I don’t care much about the breaking news, I’m way more interested in the analysis afterwards. Of course, for a good analysis you need smart people. So at that point I find myself  reverting to the experts, instead of the eager beaver traffic driving personalities.
  5. The “I can shout things out and that makes me important” factor. This is what happened during the Sara Lacy interview with Mark Zuckerberg and the example I provided with the Joseph Pine presentation. There are always jerks around. Before Twitter, back channels, blog sites,  these people only had close proximity tools to show off that they are jerks indeed (i.e. direct conversation or afterward complaining). But the current technologies allows us all to join in on the conversation, by writing blogs, twittering, shouting out in back channels. It provides everyone a voice, including people that aren’t really there to join the conversation and add to it. The thing about it is that it really doesn’t matter if anyone is listening to them. It is the power of being able to shout that makes people focus on their own importance, instead of on the contribution to the discussion they want to make. They really don’t care if anyone is actually listening. They simply do it because now they can.

I believe that setting the conversation free is a great thing in itself. It is important that everyone has a voice. It is also great that the technology not only enables us to speak out loud, get into the conversation, but that it also helps us to find an audience, to get into interaction. I’m thankful for it. It allows me to blog even though I’m just an amateur. I’m surprised and thankful for the number of people that are willing to take the time to read my writings, even if they are often quite lengthy 😉

But this freedom also unleashes some of the worst in us, sometimes making ourselves more important than the other. There is no way around that. It’s called human nature. But we don’t have to accept it just because it happens. The same power that is granted to those that shout out to (intentionally) hurt others is in our hands to call them to order. Instead of blindly copying their behavior, or ignoring it, we should be addressing it directly. In a democracy we need to feel responsible and take care of those who are weakest or most vulnerable at any time.


Wasn’t it Ben Parker in the Spiderman movie  that said “With great power comes great responsibility”?


About vanelsas

See my about page, https://vanelsas.wordpress.com/about/ ;-)
This entry was posted in conversation set free, Joseph Pine, Mark Zuckerberg, Responsibility, Sara Lacy, side effects, Technology, Twitter, web 2.0 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to With great power comes great responsibility

  1. Pingback: Facebook communication, Sander S

  2. I think self-regulation will work. Because being online anonymously becomes more rare every day. We have an online reputation to think of now.

    Suppose I knew one of the ‘Twittering assholes’, after the Lacy-thing I’d probably like the guy less. After a few actions like these, I’d probably never talk to him. There goes his network.., and his business.

    Being a jerk isn’t rewarding in the offline life, and it now becomes less an less rewarding in the online life.

  3. Alexander van Elsas says:

    @Ernst-Jan Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that on-line reputation will become a factor. But that is just one mechanism. There are always people that do not care about reputation, on-line or physical. And it isn’t very difficult to impersonate someone on-line either. I think that there is a large group of people on-line that uses a profile that doesn’t reflect reality. Just look at the success of fake steve jobbs. I also remember the Katy Sierra incident where anonymous death threads caused her to stop blogging.

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