Putman Essay 1

Jared Putman

The Collaboration Virus
In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains how the internet has had a significant impact on the ability of humans to form groups. Group formation has become such a simple exercise that anyone can find supporters and/or fans for any subject. Shirky says that “in economic terms, the costs incurred by creating a new group or joining an exiting one have fallen in recent years, and not just by a little bit. They have collapsed (18).” This means that the amount of time, money, and effort that it used to take to form a successful group have all fallen to almost zero. If a person wanted to form a club twenty years ago, they would have had to spend a massive amount of recourses to even just get started. Today, thanks to the fact that we are all wired to each other, a simple Google search or message board can connect one person to thousands.

Shirky takes a look at this mass connectivity phenomenon in his book, and he gives a couple good examples of this, but I do not think he really looks at the issue close enough. Collaboration has risen to such extreme levels that it has gone viral. What I mean here is that thanks to the ease of group forming that the internet provides us, it has become so popular that it is like an epidemic. Because this situation is so wide spread, the results are becoming more and more bizarre and ridiculous. Shirky gives the example of the woman who used the internet to get her lost phone back. While this instance is pretty quirky and interesting, there have been so many other absurd groups formed and actions taken that the situation is almost getting out of hand. We are almost to the point where revolutions could easily be started online and I think, at least on a very small scale, they have.

One aspect of collaborating with a group is actually getting the members of that group together in one place. In years past, this would require phone calls, news paper ads, and in some cases television commercials. Now, getting people together is so simple that it is almost stupid. The group Improv Everywhere has gotten so good at gathering people together that the term “flash mobs” has been used to describe their public performances. Improv Everywhere is a performance group that carries out pranks on a massive public scale. These “missions”, as they call them, usually take place in crowded areas around New York City and are usually carried out by a large group of people. For instance, in 2006 the group pulled a prank at a Home Depot in Manhattan. A group of about 225 people gathered in the store and, while shopping, pretended as if time had slowed down for exactly five minutes. Ten minutes after that, everyone in attendance froze in whichever positions they were in for another five minute period.
This idea of flash mobs has filtered down through the online population to the point that they are being acted out on a much more amateur basis. In Blacksburg a few months back, several Virginia Tech students dressed as zombies and walked down the city’s Main Street. I was actually driving that day and saw thirty so of my peers in torn clothes limping and moaning down the sidewalk. What is even odder is that just a few days latter I found out that my own sister was participating in this zombie walk. There is now a Facebook group that has the sole purpose of planning future outings just like this.

I think that flash mobs present an interesting turn of events for our society. The ability to bring a large group of people into a specific area in a short amount of time for the support of a central idea has the potential to be dangerous. Just to think of all the terrible outcomes of mobs such as lynchings, riots, lootings, etc it is easy to see where “flash mobs” could get out of hand. What if instead of a zombie walk, students were to gather to protest the administration of Virginia Tech. Thanks to the speed of today’s technology, this could happen as soon as tomorrow if there was enough reason for it. In fact, from just looking at the amount of organization that Improv Everywhere is able to achieve, a mass protest could easily become very difficult to control. I think we are already starting to see the beginning of this with the Tea Party Protests that have happened recently. These events were organized and advertised on the internet and the out pouring of support was substantial.

The “flash mob” idea could be a very powerful political tool in the future, I just hope it does not fall into the wrong hands. What could happen if a central figure is able to gather enough support from the internet community? The net has become so wide spread and permeates so much of our society that support from the online natives could spell real social change—good or bad. I have recently come under the impression that a person with enough of an online presence could easily get anything they want. For example, in 2006 Stephen Colbert gave his fans a mission. Officials in Hungary were holding an online contest to decide what to name a new bridge that was being built. At the time Chuck Norris was leading on the website’s poll, but Colbert urged his fans to turn the tide. When the poll was closed, Colbert was announced the winner with over 17 million votes which is 7 million more votes than the entire population of Hungary. After a quick recount, Colbert was officially declared the winner of the contest by the Hungarian Ambassador to the United Stated on Colbert’s show. However, there were two stipulations for the contest: The winner had to be fluent in Hungarian, and they also had to be dead. Unfortunately, the bridge was ultimately named Megyeri but I think Colbert still achieved something even though he did not win.

Stephen Colbert made an appeal to the online community and he did it quite successfully. Enough of the community watched his show and the idea was just kooky enough to encourage a significant amount of people to come together and vote on the bridge’s website. I think Colbert is a pretty good example of someone who was able to be a figurehead for an online movement. Yes, Colbert’s final goal was a bit silly and stupid, but the results sure were not. Colbert entered the contest late, there were already significant leaders in the race, but he still managed to win by a large margin. This is an interesting state of affairs because it could bring about major social change in our society. What if more people like Colbert, who possess an established fan base, start making more demands of the online community? Sure, Colbert only wanted to get a bridge in Hungary named after him, but he could have asked for more. Say contractors in New York City run a contest like this one…we could one day have a Howard Stern building pop up in the New York sky line. What if one day a crazed right-wing television pundit got the bright idea to organize and lead his online fans? This could lead to even zanier and possibly dangerous outcomes. Digital natives, in an ever more technology driven and sustained world, are a powerful force, who ever is able to harness that force could potentially do some real damage.

It is easy to see that Colbert was able to get his way partly because his already had an established fan base to lean on. This follows the usual hierarchical structure of a group with one main leader and several lesser peons. However, what if the group had no leader? With no one to conduct the group and make decisions for the members at large, how could a group be as effective as Mr. Colbert’s rabid fans? I think the answer can be found with a discussion about the popular internet meme Anonymous. The group has its genesis in the chaotic and perverse world of online image boards. Visitors to the boards could post whatever they wanted under the protection of complete anonymity. Eventually, members started coming together to protest against a multitude of political issues. In the past, members of Anonymous have helped to get Hal Turner’s white supremacist church closed, and have Chris Forcand (a pedophile) arrested. Most recently their efforts have been focused on the Church of Scientology.

Anonymous sees the religion of Scientology as dangerous and they are currently working to have the church dissolved. In the group’s most famous YouTube video, the gauntlet was thrown down and a serious threat was made. The group claimed that they planned on expelling the church from the internet and that they would “dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form.” From here the group took immediate and swift action. They began bombarding Scientology’s website in an attempt to shut it down—they were successful. Also at this time, Anonymous flooded Scientology’s national headquarters with prank phone calls and black faxes. Soon after this, the open protests began. What I am getting at here is that while this group started out as a sort of funny internet fad, it grew into a pseudo-vigilante group. Anonymous has a multitude of members who, for some reason, have decided to take up the digital sword and fight back against the internet’s wrong doers. What is really interesting is when the group held open protests in the real world, they all wore masks. Thus, even when they were out in the public eye, they still kept their identities secret.
How is this possible? How is it that a group of computer nerds posting on a message board were somehow able to come together and fight for justice? In a way Anonymous has become the Justice League of the internet. They go to work and love their families under the privacy of their secret identities, but when a villain surfaces they rise up as a group and fight back. Even Improv Everywhere has a founder and organizer, but it seems that Anonymous does not have either or these. Or, if they do, no one knows who those people are. With this group and all my other examples kept in mind, I really think we are headed into a strange and hopefully hilarious future.

I guess what I am really trying to show in this paper is what can happen when the online community spills over into the real world. The internet is a supremely powerful tool. Today, just about every aspect of our lives is hardwired into the network and there is no way we can work our way out of the web. Those who are able to live within the web and form communities of like minded individuals will start to find themselves coming into real power in the future. Whether these people will be television personalities like Stephen Colbert, or out of work improvisation actors, or just ethereal specters of the net—I’m not sure. I think how much power these people get depends on how integrated into the internet the human race becomes. Just think what would happen if eventually the President is chosen with an online poll. Stephen Colbert almost had a bridge named after him, what if next time it’s Leader of the Free World?

Works Cited
Shirky, Clay. “Here Comes Everybody.” Penguin Group, 2008 New York, New York.
I also found most of my information at the following URLs:
1. http://www.colbertnation.com/home
2. http://improveverywhere.com/
3. http://www.whyweprotest.net/en/

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