Not all online mobs are smart
The ability for individuals to use the internet to coalesce around an issue was first described in the Cluetrain Manifesto in 2000. Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger outlined a set of 95 theses, organised as a call to action for organisations operating in the internet connected market.
Howard Rheingold picked up on the theme in his book Smart Mobs in 2003. He defined a smart mob as a group of people that behaves intelligently online. Social networks enable people to self-identify and mobilise for common purpose.
Both Cluetrain and Smart Mobs were written long before the launch of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter but both foresaw how these platforms would change the way that individuals engage and cooperate online.
But we’ve come to learn in recent years that social networks aren’t always a force for groups of people to behave well online.
In the last few years we’ve seen the emergence of the so-called twitchfork mob, an unhealthy antidote to smart mobs, who noisily and angrily vent their fury online.
Twitchfork mobs revert behaviour to the original definition of a mob. They are formed by individuals who head to social networks and jump aboard a collective bandwagon targeting an unfortunate individual or organisation.
In this form the mob returns to primeval instincts and takes comfort from both anonymity and safety in numbers.
The BBC Newsnight programme about child abuse in November that led to Lord McAlpine being incorrectly identified as a paedophile on Twitter is an example of a Twitchfolk mob in action.
In a first of its kind McApline is seeking recompense from the 10,000 Twitter users that named him on Twitter.
Last week we saw another unfortunate example.
The Twitchfork mob that turned to Twitter and called for action against the nurse Jacintha Saldanha in the royal prank story is now calling out the Australian radio presenters at 2Day FM who made the call and are baying for virtual blood.
An explanation of the recent phenomenon was provided by two of my Twitter followers. Tony Veitch said that online is an angry mob's optimal tool as it provides a low cost of entry to riot.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb made the same point in The Black Swan suggested Alan Patrick. If risk takers are insulated from the downsides of their risks, those systems simply break.
In this instance social media is broken. Lord McAlpine is fighting back.