Monday, July 29, 2013

On the Internet, there are No Walled Gardens

Will Oremus, writing at, brings up an interesting reminder of what should by now be an old saw: You can’t control what people do with or think of the stuff you post online once it’s posted.

Oremus writes of the Boston Marathon bombings and an online pursuit of an individual suspected of being the bomber. The rumors were false, of course, but didn’t stop the hurt to a family looking for a missing member who turned up as a suicide a few days after the speculation reached its peak.
Many of those caught actively pursuing the rumor and those who merely passed the rumor on via Reddit upvotes or retweeting someone else’s tweet on the rumor want to evade any moral responsibility for their mistake, hiding behind what they considered to be walled gardens of speculative thought or the idea that retweeting or upvoting the rumor didn’t mean they thought it was true.
Oremus pokes a pretty big hole in that line of thinking:
Redditors see Reddit as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Tweeters see Twitter as a contained space for speculation and maintain that it isn’t their responsibility to verify information before posting or upvoting it. Professional journalists, by and large, recognize that it is their responsibility to verify information before publishing or broadcasting it—but many still view their tweets as immune to such standards.
Problem is, neither Reddit nor Twitter are confined spaces. Those who want to speculate can speculate all they want, but once that speculation is on the net and distilled by upvotes or retweets, the caveats that rested in the so-called walled gardens of speculation did not leave the garden with the rumors. Only the rumors left, and as they left they were granted stamps of veracity by journalists who rebroadcast the information outside of any vetted published space, and by amateurs hoping their actions would help find the perpetrator.
This introduces us to tricky territory – I don’t think cutting the net off from speculative thought is a good idea, because the net’s ability to accumulate thought and inspiration and fact and knowledge is a terrific tool. But we should not blithely post whatever the hell crosses through our minds without giving it some thought – why am I posting this? In the case of a crime, is it going to be helpful? If it’s not going to be helpful – speculate away. But make sure that speculation occurs behind a real walled garden, where those not cued in to the speculative manner of the conversation can’t take things out of context. And if you’ve got tips you think would help, turn to the authorities, not your keyboard or mobile device and the world at large.
New York Times writer Jay Kang has a pretty good blow-by-blow account of what happened when such speculation turned out to be not helpful at all.
To me, the ugliest part of this episode is not the speculation, but that the professional media passed it along. From Kang’s piece:
Several journalists began tweeting out guarded thoughts about Sunil’s involvement. If the family had taken down the Facebook page, the reasoning went, it must mean that the Tripathis had seen their missing son in the grainy photos of Suspect No. 2.
I lost my job in journalism for screwing up on names and details in a court case. As far as I know, nobody involved in smearing Sunil Tripathi has lost his or her job. I’m not bitter about losing my job; I’m glad I’m no longer a journalist. But I know firsthand what can happen to a professional journalist who plays loose with the facts, even by accident or carelessness.

No comments: