Humans are animals designed to work together – this is why we live in societies. One person may not be able to change much, but when we band together for a cause, big things happen.
The Egyptian uprising (part of the Arab Spring) is an example of the internet being used a platform to mobilise people towards a cause. Social media acted as a decentralised information exchange, where the population of Egypt could organise the formation of protests and action. So effective this was, that the government shut down 88% of the country’s internet access to stop the people acting together.
The internet allows for peer-to-peer connections, and the creation of distributed information networks. Instead of relying on a central source, which publishes content as an individual package, a distributed network allows anyone to talk to everyone in real time. This means large amounts of progress can be made at extreme speed, as the human resources behind an online swarm can be millions of times more productive than a central source could muster.
Imagine a crowded room. A person is speaking into a microphone onstage and everyone is silent – this is a centralised network. Now imagine the crowd has torn down the stage, and everyone is shouting their opinion at each other at a relatively equal level – this is your distributed network
But could there be downsides to allowing large swarms of people to collaborate over the internet this way?
On the 5th of April 2013, two homemade bombs were set off at the Boston Marathon finish line, killing 3 and wounding many others.
Reddit lit up straight away, a prime example of how a distributed network is not only more responsive, but more collaborative. Shortly after this thread, users decided to use their collective power in an attempt to identify and find the terrorists behind the attack, and the witchhunt kicked off.
A subreddit (now private) was created, and ‘reddit detectives’ used it to theorise, contribute and update each other on the situation. Unfortunately, not everyone is qualified to be an investigator, and while Reddit did without a doubt assist the authorities, they also worsened the situation in two ways.
Firstly, the group came up with a few different suspects, one of which was missing teenager Sunil Tripathi, who’s name was heard by an ‘informed citizen’ over the police radio. The full wrath of the swarm was unleashed on his family – they were harassed by countless people online, and forced to take down their missing person Facebook page. They were also harassed in person by redditors, and by the traditional news media, who had followed Reddit’s trail leading to the family.
Sunil was later found dead, he had committed suicide around the same time as the bombings, the reason for his sudden disappearance.
Secondly, the mess created by the search is suspected to have been the driving force behind the FBI prematurely releasing photos of their suspects – the actual terrorists. The photos were released to minimise the damage on innocents being perpetuated by Reddit and other citizen investigators.
Because these photos were released, the terrorists Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev panicked, and went on to kill a policeman, kidnap a man and enter a shootout with police, causing another officer to die from their wounds later on. Both men were shot and killed.
This situation could of been avoided had the authorities had the time to set up and find the duo before they became aware that they were being hunted down.
Distributed networks are very powerful at accomplishing tasks, but it is important to remember that they operate as a hivemind, and that the mob mentality can often overcome of logic and reason in the rush to complete its task.