The Wisdom of Crowds: Reddit, Twitter, and the Hunt for the Wrong Man

April 23, 2013 | 6 5 min read


Thursday night’s abhorrent online vigilantism — in which Reddit and Twitter users seized upon police radio chatter to accuse a missing (and completely innocent) Brown University student of bombing the Boston Marathon — reminded us of one of the most under-acknowledged facts of the internet: that beyond the sleek, profitable edifices of Web 2.0 there remains the humming, virtual presence of an online crowd that is restive, unpredictable, and hungry for a cause.

One need only glance at a few of the threads from Thursday night to get a sense of the zeal, numbers, and unscrupulousness of the throngs that intercepted two misidentified names and promptly set about defaming one. As with any physical crowd, what began as isolated innuendo quickly became the rallying cry of thousands. At midnight, Anonymous tweeted the full names of two possible suspects mentioned by the police — one of them the missing student, Sunil Tripathi — but omitted the all-important modifier “possible.”  By morning, the post had been retweeted over 3,000 times, and it was not until the police confirmed the identities of the actual suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that the crowd’s furor over Tripathi subsided.

I first learned of the night’s disturbing events the following morning, when a friend called to warn me that Sunil Tripathi had been the victim of an online smear campaign. A year and a half ago I had visited this friend in Providence, and on the way there I happened to share a ride with Sunil and another Brown student. I had not met him before or since, and I did not know he was missing. My thoughts immediately went out to his family and friends, though soon I was also checking Reddit and Twitter to see the damage for myself. What I found were the digital debris of an internet lynch mob — incendiary posts, hastily produced collages of Tripathi’s face next to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s, some comments that had since been deleted, some that had been redacted to note that he was not, in fact, their man.

covercovercoverIt’s a bit unfashionable to speak darkly of “the crowd” these days. One might think that the term itself betrays a certain elitism or establishmentarianism, and yet the odd state of affairs is that it is precisely the establishment — generally business and mainstream media — that has recently embraced the power and resourcefulness of the online multitudes. In the past decade, much has been made of the untapped energy of online crowds, of their wisdom, ingenuity, and potential for productivity. Search Amazon and you will find, apart from James Surowiecki’s inaugural 2004 discussion The Wisdom of Crowds, titles like Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business and We Are Smarter than Me: How to Unleash the Power of Crowds in Your Business.

To be sure, the power of crowdsourcing has given us gifts both precious (like Wikipedia) and picayune (the cover design of Elizabeth Gilbert’s next book), but it is a legitimate achievement of the digital age, one that proves that the internet is capable of transforming the way we interact collectively. Prior to vilifying Tripathi, for example, Reddit users had been helpfully sifting for leads amid the enormous amount of footage taken at the Boston Marathon. Nevertheless, the reflexivity with which we invoke the “wisdom of crowds” seems to suggest less that we think crowds are truly wise and more that we understand — if only dimly — their undeniable potency. The fact is that the digital age has yet to really countenance the cultural anxieties produced by the new invisible crowd.

In this regard, the jitters of the internet era bear an almost comic resemblance to a central disquietude of the august, and apparently closed, epoch we call modernity. For just as the increasing institutionalization and regulation of the internet seem to be attended by the lurking possibility that everything could crumble from one cyber attack unleashed by a handful of anonymous malcontents, so too did the project of modernity grapple with the contradiction that even as its liberal institutions grew more powerful, its stability became more dependent on the whims of the crowd. The French Revolution and its aftershocks are the textbook examples here, providing the archetypal images of the crowd in all its revolutionary splendor and violence. Now clearly, the works of Anonymous or 4chan don’t quite match the grisly proceedings of the Jacobins, but one can detect definite recursive qualities between them — namely excessive zeal, indiscriminateness, feverishness. And if history insists on recursion, there’s no reason not to learn from its lessons.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, several cities, including London and Paris, were the crucibles in which the mass of the crowd seemed unerringly to precipitate. Writing of London, Edgar Allan Poe described with fascination “the dense and continuous tides of population” that rushed past a hotel window. Across the Channel, Paul Valéry called it savagery. Yet amid the talk of “the riffraff” and the pervasive anxiety that from this rabble the revolution might spontaneously recur, Charles Baudelaire stood apart with his famous dictum épouser la foule (literally, “marry the crowd”). Baudelaire could register as well as anyone the terror of the crowd, but what made him different was his wish to be truly at home in the dirty, swarming city, and to do that he needed to embrace the frisson of crowds.

coverAbove all, it was Baudelaire’s willingness to explore the often erotic allure of anonymity and the pleasure of suppressed individuality that allowed him to investigate the logic of crowds — a logic that bears equally on our digital throngs. In particular, Baudelaire was acutely sensitive to the fantasy of escape into otherness that crowds provide. In one of his prose poems he writes that the man who marries the crowd “adopts as his own all of the professions, all of the joys and miseries that circumstances present to him.” The person in the crowd takes up cares, pleasures, and tasks without a thought of one’s personal business or even one’s credentials. The bricklayer fights in the revolution; the butcher helps dislodge a cart from the mud; and so too the Redditor plays detective by heatedly comparing the eyebrows and jawlines of Tripathi and Tsarnaev. Writing much later in Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti theorized this tendency, noting that a crowd “needs a direction” if it is not to lose mass, and die. Today, the same pressures drive online throngs into their unfailing surety of purpose: we all want to think our feeble little tweets are worthwhile.

For denizens of the digital space, the lesson of épouser la foule is not that we should all spend more time in the bowels of Reddit, but rather that we must recognize that we, like Baudelaire, wish to be at home in our new, crowded world. This entails coming to terms with not just the wisdom but also the idiocy, hyperbole, and prejudice of crowds.  It means that we need to know beforehand the feverish, speculative nature of the virtual crowd, so that when a slanderous rumor is tweeted at least established news outlets will check their sources.

I can think of no sadder instantiation of the pervasive crowd mentality than Salon’s grudging admission Friday that it too tweeted Tripathi’s name as a suspect, though it pointed out that it only did it “when just about everyone else on Twitter was doing so.” So much for journalism! Baudelaire’s flirtations with la foule 150 years ago are enough to indicate that human nature isn’t about to wean itself off the thrill of the crowd, but that’s no reason to integrate the will-to-follow into the architecture of the very institutions that are supposed to uphold fact over fantasy.

Tripathi needed an advocate that night, and not a single voice tried to stay the crowd.

Image via The Bay Area’s News Station/Flickr

is a freelance writer and critic. He lives in New York City.