Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Loudest Voice Strikes Again

As the San Francisco Chronicle gets thinner and thinner, I find that I spend more time with its RSS feeds than I do with the print edition. Furthermore, I realize that, where local news is concerned (which is the only news I now get from the Chronicle), the comments submitted in a response to a story, particularly when crime is involved, tell me more about conditions in the City than the 5W1H (who, what, when, why, where, how) basic reporting does. The problem is that the news one can mine from these comments often turns out to be more disconcerting than the source reportage, particularly when one factors in the reader recommendations given to those comments. Last month I examined one particular homicide story that left me wondering whether the Internet was the new home for the kind of lynch mob portrayed in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's Ox-Bow Incident; and today I encountered a similar situation worthy of some reflection.

Last month's story involved a one-on-one assault resulting in death. This time the scope of the episode is significantly more extensive. Once again I shall turn to the account by Chronicle Staff Writer Jaxon Van Derbeken for a summary of the basic incident:

A Fisherman's Wharf nightclub was already facing a seven-day city suspension of its license for out-of-control crowds when a gun battle erupted there over the weekend, leaving one man dead and four wounded, San Francisco officials said Monday.

The city imposed an emergency suspension Sunday, after Lawon Hall, 19, of Richmond was slain in the shootout in front of the Suede Nightclub and Lounge, 383 Bay St.

The 19-year-old gunman who police say killed Hall was himself wounded by a club guard, a police patrol special officer. The suspect, whose name has not been released, was being treated at San Francisco General Hospital.

Forty-four shots in all were fired when the battle erupted at 1:40 a.m. Sunday, police said. At least one gunman besides the wounded suspect was involved, say investigators, who are hoping to make more arrests.

On Monday, the club said it would voluntarily close for a month while the city decides what to do next. That comes on top of the emergency suspension that the Entertainment Commission's executive director imposed.

Neighbors have complained about Suede to the commission and to police since 2007, not long after the current management bought it. They said it is too crowded, too loud and does too little to limit the unruly crowds that spill out after closing time.

There are a variety of ways to approach this story, which goes on to examine why any actions by municipal authorities have been slow in coming and not particularly effective. If the Chronicle thought that creating a space for comments would bring a town-hall-like level of discussion to problems like these, then they should by now be aware that such "Internet democracy" is just another glass of Kool-Aid from technology evangelists. As had been the case with last month's homicide story, the most popular comment seemed to indicate that "the crowd" is more inclined to violence than to wisdom. Here is the text in its entirety:

Richmond people.......will you please keep your shootings in Richmond? Thanks.

Furthermore, will someone please read this to them?

If there is any good news here, it is that this particular voice is not quite as strong as the one I encountered last month. At that time I read the comment the morning after it had been posted, by which time it had received 975 thumbs-up recommendations and 15 thumbs-down opposing votes. This time both the posting and my reading took place is approximately the same time frame, and the above comment had received 490 positive recommendations against 76 negative ones. That means that the overall response was a bit less than half that of last month's data set and the negative percentage was a bit healthier. The one positive sign is that readers may be recognizing that it is easier to speak out against bullies (even in this rather modest way) under the protection of anonymity. If so, then it would refute a hypothesis I have previously entertained, which is that "anonymity tilts the crowd towards madness, while identity transparency tilts it towards wisdom." If it is going to come down to a shouting match, anonymity may actually make it easier for both sides to have roughly the same amplitude.

Nevertheless, there is at least a dim positive glow to this more recent episode. When I examined last month's data, I suggested that the results "may illustrate the extent to which that reaction can be manipulated by the way in which the 'report' has been framed." In other words the Chronicle may actually like cultivating these inflammatory comments because they bring eyeballs closer to the Kaango Classified ads that appear immediately to the right of those comments (complete with eyeball-attracting images). (Last year I identified this as the problem of "the cohabitation of news and advertising.") However, in this case it seems as if Van Derbeken went to greater lengths to use his column space to lay out the complexity of the situation. (Yes, he had physical column space. Not only did he have a healthy amount of it, but also his story began above the fold in the Bay Area section of today's print edition.) This leads me to wonder whether the voting numbers for this story were lower because the story itself went deeper and tried to maintain more balance.

Note, however, that the last sentence of that preceding paragraph is nothing more than a speculative hypothesis. I offer it to illustrate that, if we really wanted to be serious about exploring just how wise the crowds of cyberspace are, there are a variety of ways in which we can formulate hypotheses that can then be tested against data such as these comment areas. By all rights this should take us closer to an understanding of the social world of the Internet than either the anecdote-harvesting of the "wisdom of crowds" evangelists or the blood-curdling counterexamples of Gustave Le Bon! Unfortunately, a research endeavor is only as good as its ability to attract funding; so the prospect of any research team putting serious effort into going down this path is a dim one.

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