|Subject: Gloves off on the message boards
By Paavo Rautio
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Date Posted: 02/23/05 2:50:56am
Many books and scientific studies have been written on the potential and the influence of the Internet. Often the role of the Net is understood as being a means of offering billions of pages from which we can glean information. Information that we can use later in the real world.
The reality, however, is somewhat different. For example, message boards on the Net have morphed into human interfaces. The users do not merely look for information from them, but also build something, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts - human opinions and knowledge. They network into a virtual community.
One manifestation of the power of this interfacing is the so-called "flash mob" phenomenon. In the flash mob world, people decide upon common actions or operations at a predetermined moment.
This could, for instance, be a situation where a group is rounded up on the Net and they all arrive at the steps of Parliament at a pre-arranged time, drop their pants and moon the MPs, and then disperse again.
Using the same basic principles, virtual super-calculators are being developed. Many will have heard of one of these, the SETI@home project, which is part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence "out there".
In the SETI experiment, thousands of home PCs utilise their down-time - when the screensaver would be on - chewing on small slices of datafiles that have been collected from the monitoring of radio waves from outer space. In this way an entity is put together that can number-crunch even more effectively than the supercomputers.
The power of networking was also seen when the victims, the missing, and the found from the Indian Ocean tsunami were promptly listed on the Net. No official organisation could match the efficiency of the ad hoc groups armed with a notepad and a modem.*
More rough-cast examples of the strength of the networks can be had from the field of consumer protection.
A car repair shop accidentally let one of its clients see that the note "Customer is a dickhead" had been flagged next to his name and details in the firm's customer database. When the customer in question commented on this on an Internet newsgroup, the other members of the group became aroused, and the name of the repair shop became synonymous with poor service.
Right now, users of one popular message board are continuing the debate prompted by a weekly investigative journalism programme [MOT] shown on the Finnish Broadcasting Company's TV1. The programme was about the problems of used cars brought from Germany - a popular issue these days, as the tax breaks make it quite attractive.
A dealer who sold such an imported car in Finland and kept quiet about its [many] faults has already been outed and branded.
More than 160,000 views have been recorded of the discussion thread that pointed out the dealers in question were a bunch of swindlers. This is bound to have an impact on future sales.
The power of the Net differs in certain respects from the power of the more traditional media. In the online world, anyone can present their experiences - real or unreal - of "a bunch of swindlers".
The credibility of the writer depends largely on his or her ability to put fingers fluently to keyboard. There is no golden rule that urges writers to veracity as exists in the world of journalism.
On the net, the kid gloves come off. Companies offering poor service or shoddy goods are bluntly named and shamed, and the adjectives are colourful, to say the least.
Message boards and newsgroups differ from traditional media channels in another way, in that newspapers and electronic media can be called to account and ordered to publish corrections or provide space for responses.
But how do you intervene over the fact that the wired community kicks, punches, and brands on a daily basis?
A newspaper goes into the recycling bins to be pulped, and a news bulletin is largely forgotten in a couple of minutes. But on the Net the discussion goes on and on, if the theme is sufficiently interesting.
On open-access message boards, ones that do not require registration before posts can be added, a few activists can keep the debate nicely wound up and build a national movement, even using an array of pseudonyms.
The individual, too, can feel the hammer-blows of the merciless Net community.
Consider the recent example of the beauty pageant contestant who was exposed for having posed for racy pictures.
Precious few people had actually seen the images in the small-circulation men's nudie mag. However, after the scandal broke, links to hastily-assembled sites carrying the pictures appeared almost immediately in posts on the Internet message boards.
For instance, on the popular Suomi24.fi discussion portal the doings and attributes of the Miss Finland candidate have been goggled at by upwards of 200,000 users.
Provincial newspapers would be proud to boast of such circulation figures.
At its best, the Net uses the discussion groups to organise the Netizen community on its own terms. At their most trivial, message boards simply rehash familiar topics, and at their worst they are strewn with slander and abuse written by the pathologically illiterate.
For the sake of the freedom that is at the heart of the Internet phenomenon, we cannot pick and choose one of these manifestations.
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