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The Madness of Crowds: Twitter, 4Chan & Chaos Theory

27 May

We all know what chaos theory is, right? That whole schtick about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan followed by an Indonesian volcano erupting a few days later and so forth, yeah?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic and a bit misleading, as examples go. Chaos theory is all about how a tiny event can have seemingly unrelated consequences somewhere down the line – but those events are connected. Trying to imagine the series of events that causes a butterfly flapping to set off a volcanic eruption is a bit much. But if you imagine said butterfly flap causing a small bit of air to move, and in turn that movement triggers more movement and so on, until you get to a point where a tornado may or may not form… we’re getting closer.

Why is this relevant? Because Twitter, that’s why. (And Anonymous / 4Chan but we’ll get to that in a bit). This week the marvellous Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted (one of the greatest British comedies ever) and the nearly as brilliant IT Crowd, decided to have a bit of a laugh. As a comedy writer, this seems quite natural. So he tweeted the following:

Silly, really, but worth a chuckle. Reminded me of Chris Morris saying (live on Radio 1) that he “would let listeners know if there was any news of the death of Michael Heseltine” – but without specifically saying he was dead. Cue the predictable fawning followed by uproar. Marvelous fun.

But then it goes a bit mad. People often see what they want instead of reading something carefully. And then you get tweets like:

“So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions” tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

And

“If you’ve never seen The IT Crowd, please don’t let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It’s still great ” Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

And these little shifts in the story get carried by the wind. And the butterfly’s wing wafts them every further afield, until suddenly it’s a story that appears in the mainstream press and everyone goes a little bit meshugah. This kind of thing isn’t new – we used to call it “Chinese whispers” – but Twitter as a medium really enables this kind of spread. Once upon a time, this kind of thing spread from group of friends to group of friends via any number of method. A hundred years ago, it might have been people talking over the garden wall; more recently it would have been “down the pub,” and now it can be over Facebook or Twitter. I can remember when every year at Glastonbury there would be some huge rumour that would start in the camp sites in the morning – you’d wake up and hear people shouting “Thatcher’s dead!” and so forth, and the rumour would persist for the weekend ‘til you got home. That was until smartphones became ubiquitous and people could check the veracity of such claims in seconds. The only difference is the time it takes to spread – what once took weeks now takes seconds.

It’s like seeing Chaos Theory, which should take reams of data spread over vast stretches of time to identify, but happening all speeded-up like a Benny Hill sketch. Follow the path of any story and it takes on tiny embellishments, changes of meaning and people’s own interpretation of the original story; then people comment on someone else’s analysis of the original story until you’re so far from the original facts that you have no chance of really grasping them.

Take a football phone-in on the radio. You listen to an opinion that’s based on a commentary they’ve heard on the radio (which is, in turn, just the commentator’s opinion of what he / she is seeing). The host adds in their take, you react, spin your own interpretation of the point of view and then repeat it to your friends down the pub / on Twitter who then repeat it to someone else… but with all the authority of having been there in person and watched the game from the bench. See also: Match of The Day. If you have watched 8 minute long highlights of a 90 minute game, your opinion that “Lucas was shit and kept giving the ball away” may not actually be as close to the truth as you think.

And so the strange movements and minute changes that, over time and space, become enormously significant once again look like our theoretically chaotic friend. Only unlike the sodding butterfly, this is an effect you can actually see.

And then there’s Anonymous. If you don’t know what Anonymous is, I don’t feel that keen to be explaining it as (a) it’s hard, (b) describing something that is the sum of millions of moving parts, all changing, breathing, reacting and crashing into each other is always going to be inaccurate and (c) I am scared of them. But I shall try. Anonymous was born out of the 4Chan message board. 4Chan is the ultimate in free speech – there are no rules and you don’t have to post under a name (most posts are from “Anonymous” although some people do choose a moniker). Posts range from discussions to Photoshopped images and range from the inane to the pant-wettingly  funny to plain creepy or shocking. Such is freedom – people can be total arseholes and they often are.

Anonymous as an “entity” (term loosely used) is when the hive mind decides to come together to pursue a common cause; it’s as if there is a tipping point (fuck off Gladwell fans, I don’t want to hear it) is reached where a point of view reaches critical mass and action is demanded. Whilst some have tried to portray Anonymous as a politically-minded entity, it is really nothing of the sort. That title indicates an agenda that is cast in stone, and as far as Anonymous is concerned the only underlying ethic that ever tied it all together was that they were “doing it for the lulz” (lulz = LOLs / laughs btw). In other words, they’re having a bit of a giggle. I first remember seeing Anonymous about 5 years ago when they started on the great Habbo Raids. This involved mass invasions of Habbo (an online kids’ virtual world kind of thing) and, shall we say, behaving somewhat inappropriately. Childish, but it made me laugh. Later came more serious matters: a white supremacist website Tom Cruise seen "shitting pants" with ragebelonging to Hal Turner got hit with a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS), costing him thousands in bandwidth charges; YouTube got hit with hundreds of porn uploads; any number of frankly silly, yet rather amusing, activities.

And then there was Project Chanology which was when the hive mind took on Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology bullshit was uploaded to YouTube, the Church Of Scientology claimed copyright infringement to get it taken down. And this is the kind of attack on free speech that really gets 4Channers / Anonymous types going. And there was a war. Likewise, when Blizzard (makers of World Of Warcraft) announced that posting on their forums would require people to post under their own names rather than behind a pseudonym, Anonymous types proceeded to demonstrate the value of anonymity on the internet by hacking & posting private details of Blizzard employees and their family members. Blizzard backed down.

The fact is, when a consensus arises within Anonymous, they act. But how they get to that point is fascinating (although difficult for the casual observer) to observe. In 1991, Loren Carpenter, a leading computer engineer set up an experiment to show what a hive mind can achieve. The results were fascinating. (Stop @ 11:28 if it doesn’t stop itself)

The fact that everyone doesn’t just indicate “up” or “down” is an amazing demonstration of the hive mind. And it doesn’t just work in “yes” or “no” decisions (although that is how the individual works) but there is a point where consensus is seen as representing the group desire and accepted by the whole. And that is kind of what happens with Anonymous.

Whilst some things they do seem predictable, others fly in the face of reason. Take the delightful Westboro Baptist Church, the “Christians” that like demonstrating at soldiers’ funerals and reminding people that their God hates fags. Anonymous had already taken aim when Pastor Fred Phelps sent a message to Anonymous that laid down a challenge, goading them that they wouldn’t be able to take WBC down. And a few attacks on the WBC, over and above what was already happening, did seem to take place. And then this happened.

When some anonymous (small ‘a’) hacker goes on a news programme and purports to represent the collective, there seems to be a debate that rages on the various forums, followed by an acceptance / rejection of the “spokesman” in question. More have been disavowed than accepted, for sure. And that person’s legitimacy and platform then falls away. Think about how this would have happened had it been a club or society or organisation. There would be meetings, agreed messages, votes, appeals, whatever – a lengthy process. But these Anonymous decisions seem to happen in almost real time.

But what gets me most is how unpredictable it is. I thought when I saw the WBC goading Anonymous “Woah, get the popcorn, this is going to be fun.” And then there was this outbreak of outstanding rationality which delivered a far more humiliating blow to Phelps and his mob than any DDOS attack. But it could have gone either way – and that’s the chaos stuff. I watch marketers dropping links / videos that are clearly (to me) marketing dressed up as community postings and think “pah.” But sometimes stuff gets through. The likes of Digg, Reddit & Stumble represent potential marketing gold because of the huge potential audience but gaming the system is almost impossible as you just can’t predict what exactly the community reaction will be. Can technique improve the chances your submission will get upvoted? Yes. Can it guarantee it? Nope.

All communities over a certain size are subject to this unpredictability because once you reach a certain size there can be no single defining characteristic that overrides all other personal concerns to keep people unified. That’s why you can see enough of a political party during an election campaign to vote for them, but a couple of years later when you’ve seen all their policies in action you realise you don’t agree with X% of their activity.

Chaos theory lives large in our lives in all kinds of ways; Twitter and other social media just lets us see it writ large. But the lesson is that you can’t always manipulate things to be the way you want them to be. Some things are just… unpredictable.

 

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