The Invisible Mob

Things are getting a lot tougher for the jerks of the world. Irritate an articulate blogger with a modest Twitter following, and said jerk could find themselves ridiculed in a post whose flames are fanned by a hurricane of tweets. Pretty fun for everyone to watch; not so fun for the jerk. But they had it coming, right? Or did they?

There’s a perverse fascination in watching the public humiliation of people we think deserve it, a satisfying schadenfreude that runs deep into our reptilian brains. And it’s something we like to share with others, the pleasure magnified with increased participation. After all, what’s better than one pie in the face of a jerk? Why, two, of course.

This all came to mind recently as I watched people repeatedly retweeting a blog post titled “Please design a logo for me. With pie charts. For free.” The author (David Thorne) is purportedly sharing an email thread between himself and a technology entrepreneur named Simon Edhouse. In said exchange, Mr. Thorne appears to be the wronged creative, and Mr. Edhouse the egomaniacal business hack bent on extracting value with no intention of compensation. Thorne rakes him over the coals in an intensely creative way. His post is brilliant, scathing, very funny, and has a ring of truth in the way business people take advantage of creative talent. Through another lens, though, his post could also be seen as mean-spirited and sadistic.

When a few people on Twitter got a hold of this post, it spread like wildfire. As of this writing, the URL passed around has been clicked nearly 83,000 times (view up-to-date statistics). Twitter is a potent accelerant for this kind of fire because sharing links is so easy. Not only does the fire light easily, but it can have some staying power as links pass through different social graphs. In this case, everybody got in on the act, pie-throwers and kind people alike, maybe because it was funny and seemed justified.

I read the article, and had quite a laugh, but then it made me a bit uncomfortable. I felt kind of dirty. And then sad. Even if the story is true and Mr. Edhouse is a monumental jerk, does that justify the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve now had a chance to laugh at his expense?

Digital media will always spawn mobs, some good, some bad. This is nothing new and others have written about it (see Scoble’s piece on mob mentality for an example). On the positive side, I love seeing how Twitter and other social media can be used for good (e.g., ONE Drop, Movember, Tweetsgiving). On the negative side, social media tools can be perverted like other communication platforms. They can be used to support mis- and disinformation, corrupt and hateful thinking, bigotry, or just stupid behavior. I’d argue that this kind of stuff generates enough reactions, though, that people attempt to fight it, or at least engage in dialogue about it.

The thing I find different about the Edhouse roast is that no one even seemed to notice the mob, and it’s these invisible mobs that trouble me the most. They seem to fly under the radar, because it’s all just really poking fun, isn’t it? Maybe so, but it just shows how mediated experiences can inure us to what it’s like to physically participate in someone else’s humiliation. We seem to do it without a second thought, and tools like Twitter make it a bit too easy. Ultimately, as fun as it can be and however justified it is, I think joining these invisible mobs can be just as bad as joining the ones with fires and pitchforks.