The Thoughtlessness of Internet Lynch Mobs

Every time I hear Clay Shirky speak or read something he’s written, I think to myself “he’s an order of magnitude smarter than everybody else in the room”. Today’s blog post, on the fallout of the #AmazonFail business, is just the latest example:

Here’s how stupid that belief made me. I have been thinking about the internet as hard as I can for the better part of two decades, and for the latter half of that time, I’ve been thinking about the problems of categorization systems, and it never occurred to me that the possible explanation for systemic bias might be something having to do with a technological system instead of a human one, that a changed classification in the Amazon database could trigger the change in status of tens of thousands of books.

From the moment this particular controversy broke, it felt like Motrin Moms 2.0. Just as Twitter enables us to rapidly raise money and inspire positive action, it’s also exceptionally good at fostering reactionary fury. As Shirky writes, Amazon unquestionably got some stuff wrong, but they’re not nearly as guilty as the web was making them out to be.

Speaking as an occasional lynch mob member (and as someone put it a while back, a friend of the gays), we need to moderate our furious impulse to propagate scornful messages until we have enough of the facts. It’s only going to get easier and easier to direct angry online attention at something, so we need to get better and better at thinking before we retweet with vengeance.


  1. I followed the #amazonfail discussion with interest (because, you know, I *do* have a stake in the discussion). Agreed on the Motrin moms redux.

    Also, I agree in principle with what you and Shirky are saying about not being so quick, but I also think that Amazon should have been prepared. Being a business online and not realizing that there is no 9am-5pm business model anymore and that the internet doesn’t sleep? Not anymore, in my humble (non-techie, non-PR, non-internet-and-society) opinion.

  2. Amazon’s early boilerplate responses (effectively, “your book is adult, so it’s not appearing in rankings” — but only to gay-themed works) were what really ripped this one over the edge. Even though it was a technical problem, Amazon acted as if it were a policy decision, and set off the mob.

    Conversely, if they’d said, “Hang on, we don’t know why all these books are suddenly not being ranked. Let us figure it out,” things might have differed.

    If they’re willing to take our money 24/7/365, then they’d better be prepared for both technical and PR problems on the same basis.

    1. (@Raul as well) Indeed, it was a PR problem. And, as is often the case, it was some junior staffer who clearly said the wrong thing.

      My complaint here, as with the Motrin Moms issue, is not that the that companies didn’t make mistakes. They did. The problem is that the Internet’s response seems seriously out of scale compared to the incident itself.

      In both cases, if those incidents happen on a Tuesday, they probably cause a minor kerfuffle instead of the weekend tempest. Should an accident of timing really determine the scale of our response?

      More practically, I wish that it didn’t take some corporate misstep to motivate some people to take action around a cause. It’s the single-serving, fire-and-forget nature of these controversies that bum me out.

  3. It’s always funny to me when guys describe MotrinMoms as a bad thing. I guess it’s pretty threatening when women use new technologies organize successfully to push back on sexism.

    Apparently it’s equally threatening when LGBTQ’s feminists, and disability rights activists to push back on having their voices silenced.

    You certainly don’t seem like a “friend to the gays” to me, at least not in this case.


    1. If you imagine that I’m ‘threatened’ by crowd-sourced social change advocacy, you’re wrong. I’ve been involved with a bunch, several of which involve helping out minority groups.

      It’s possible for a thinking person to support an ideal without supporting every single expression in defense of that ideal.

  4. …we need to moderate our furious impulse to propagate scornful messages until we have enough of the facts.

    Dude, this is the INTERNET. Half the fun is watching people freak out at anything and everything.

    I think you hope for too much, there. People are people. Better just to try to be one of the few to spread the sober truth about things when it does surface.

  5. You’re assuming internet users are all thinking people. The online ratio of thinking people to sheeple may well reflect “real life”. It’s not a Web 2.0 problem.

    However, I do appreciate your admonition for web users to use the power at their fingertips for good and not evil. Never a bad thing of which to be reminded.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: