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

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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.

It’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.

Above 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

Proving a Villain: The Search for Richard III

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The modern world swooned last month when the bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England were confirmed to be indeed those of Richard III. Part of the fuss was due to the wonderfully incongruous image of a 15th century king entombed under this age’s most banal and omnipresent architectural fixture — “What’s under my parking lot?” we mused breathlessly. And, to be sure, Anglophilia is ascendant in these tremulous days of “Downton” and Hilary Mantel’s fittingly titled historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. But the real business with the skeleton of course had to do with Richard’s status as a hated historical king, the deformed, dissembling, and nephew-smothering arch-bad guy whose downfall mercifully concluded the grisly War of the Roses.

It’s more or less agreed among people who take the time to review these things that Richard was the target of a posthumous smear campaign orchestrated by the triumphant Tudor dynasty (whose founder Henry VII defeated Richard in 1485). Official Tudor chroniclers during the mid-16th century purposefully blackened Richard’s character, and Shakespeare followed suit by putting a hunchbacked tyrant on stage in the electrically charged history, The Tragedy of King Richard The Third. Rightly or wrongly, Richard went down in history as a regal punching bag, a ruler who embodied the worst of late-medieval chicanery.

But now, with even the American media reporting at fever pitch on the miraculous discovery, the contested reburial plans, and digital facial renderings (evidently, Richard III resembled Shrek’s Lord Farquaad), it appears that England’s most reviled king may just get a reappraisal. Richard’s apologists hope that his newfound celebrity will encourage us all to submit our old Shakespearean prejudices to a round of honest fact-checking. It’s a simple procedure, in which historical evidence is marshaled to root out the mythology inherent in literary representation, to the point where the literary work in question can be dismissed as little more than myth itself.

The technique has its fair uses — we might be grateful for it when dealing with, say, Kipling’s odes to imperialism. But its corollary is nearly always the driving of a wedge between art and history, two disciplines, we are admonished, that best not consort with one another. Already we can see the process at work with Richard III. Even Harold Bloom, high priest of American Bardolatry, recently averred in Newsweek that “Shakespeare’s ironic, self-delighting, witty hero-villain has a troubling relation to actual history.” This is defensible enough, yet we should remember that there is no corrective for propaganda like a reader’s awareness thereof. If we arm ourselves with this knowledge, Shakespeare’s art can yield deeper, more illuminating insights into Richard’s life and times than we might imagine. However, if we divorce Richard III from the “actual history” we are insensitive to literature and, worse, we weaken our own understanding of monarchy, power, and history itself.

In Shakespeare we encounter Richard III as an evil genius, one theatric-evolutionary step beyond the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Richard deceives and beguiles his way to the crown, killing off his rivals and then his friends until he has only ghosts to attend him. There is a clear logical schema for all this hell raising: the man is a monster, a hideous swamp-world creature, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up.” His monstrosity served him in wartime, yet now civil conflict has given way to stable Yorkist supremacy under his brother Edward IV, and the bellicose Richard finds himself without suitable vocation. The weapons have been hung up on the walls, and the lutes come down for seduction and other trifles of peace. “Since I cannot prove a lover / I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard intones, and that’s that.

And yet Shakespeare just doesn’t come sans complication. Richard is too clever a thespian, too candid a soliloquist, and, belatedly, too tormented by conscience to lose all title to sympathy from the audience. He is too conflicted and desperate in his final scenes to bunk amicably with Iago in the prison of Shakespearean opprobrium — Iago who, like a mischievous alien beamed down to Venice exclusively to fuck with Othello, just sort of shuts down after Desdemona is murdered. In fact, Richard’s near-remorse on the eve of the fatal Battle of Bosworth Field provides material for some of the most contorted, dialogic, and self-conscious lines in the Complete Works. After a night of visitations from the ghosts of his victims, a frightened Richard “Starteth up out of a dream”:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
…Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
What happened to the cool calculation and protean slipperiness of the old sly Richard? Whence this fabulously split subject, marooned by his own malfeasance? This Richard improbably presages the dazzling self-doubt of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the late-19th-century disconsolate and poet of brooding, rhyme-packed, sprung-rhythm verse. Turns out this most detestable of English kings, killer of little boys, and bane of decent folk everywhere also clutches that thing Hamlet purports to have, “that within which passes show,” a deeper interiority, a nagging conscience, an ego turned on itself. And yet Richard, like a good schoolboy intent on completing an assignment, has proved a villain. So why does he quake?

The pith of the tale, for modern viewers at least, is that even as Richard proves a villain, he disproves the concept of pure villainy — at the end of the day, a much more consequential disproof than proof. The question at hand is not whether Richard kills people, rides roughshod over morality, or perversely revels in doing so. The problem for us — we distant modern viewers who have seen so many kings come and go in these history plays — is that as soon as Richard affixes the label of villainy to himself the label starts to lose its distinction, to melt into the milieu of political violence.

The other part of the “story” in the exhumation of Richard III — the interest over and beyond monarchic infatuation and historical import — also had to do with our abiding lust for proof. This time it came not from Tudor ideology but from the de-politicized precincts of scientific empiricism. And what proof: the identity of the bones of Richard the Third has been settled in a bravura display of genetic testing, radiocarbon dating, and advanced anthropological sleuthing. Mitochondrial DNA found in a tooth pulled from Richard’s jaw matches mitochondrial DNA of two descendants of his sister, one Michael Ibsen, furniture maker of London, and a second anonymous relation.

As the story broke I joined the multitudes of media viewers in satiating my curiosity and awe. I read the articles, gaped at the curved spine, scrutinized the nasty blow to the head. I went on YouTube and found the videos produced by the University of Leicester detailing all of the digging, extracting, and testing done to get to the elusive bones, and then to their precious DNA cargo. Suddenly Richard III became a marvel of scientific certitude, a job-well-done of today’s sophisticated epistemological techniques. Now we know.

“What do we know? Know Richard? There’s none else by…” So the bones are Richard’s. As he might have said, “I am I.” But the tautology does us as much good as it did the roles’ first interpreter, Richard Burbage, when he declared it before an Elizabethan audience. It was as if the moment Richard’s mortal remains hit the Internet, he ceased to be a villain or a politician and became merely a curiosity, stripped of intrigue or depth, a subject of pop historian enthusiasm.

To be sure, it was a banner day for the Richard III Society, the organization which, since 1924, has dedicated itself to promoting a rehabilitated Richard. Members of the group, which as it happens is patronized by the current Duke of Gloucester, raised $250,000 to support the search for Richard’s grave and his genetic testing. It was money well spent. As one organizer told the New York Times, “Now we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king.” This defanged, refurbished king was a civic-minded administrator who improved the commons’ channels for airing grievances and lifted bans on printing. His violence was understandable given the times. As for the young princes in the Tower — who really knows what happened.

We all want to be remembered well, and that’s a hard proposition when you die on the losing side of bitter dynastic struggle. The Richard III Society may be correct in asserting that Richard was vilified without substantial proof. There is proof Richard did enact some nice, forward-thinking policies — as solid proof that the parking lot bones once fit together to form Richard’s scoliotic frame. But there’s something meretricious, or perhaps just distracting, about the whole question of proof in this case. If Richard wasn’t as bad as we think he is, there also seems to be no need to truly pal around with his ghost. To invoke a touchstone of modern political affability, Richard probably wasn’t a guy you’d want to have a beer with, a power-hungry warlord at best. And it remains likely that much of the evidence that would prove or disprove Richard’s rotten reputation has been lost.

That’s no reason to gag Richard’s supporters — let them toast to their gallant White Boar if they want — but the lessons worth drawing from the whole business are too important to be lost in the penumbras of medieval recordkeeping or the weirdness of historical fanclubs. This is true especially when the crux of the lesson can be found in Shakespeare’s plays. By this I mean that, besides celebrating the Tudor ascension, Richard III and the other history plays demonstrate time and again the precarity, anxieties, and senselessness of the whole monarchical enterprise. No one belongs on the throne, not Richard and not Henry Tudor, but each must believe he does. Thus, it’s not that Richard III is so off the mark in representing the spirit of its subject. Rather, the great falsehood, deeply rooted and insidious to this day, is the belief that all the other players in the sordid history were so dissimilar from the scheming Duke of Gloucester. The theatrical Richard’s manic fear of self-harm (“Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?”) bespeaks the big idea here: his violence is selfsame with a larger violence, a culture of conflict that will undo him.

Thus, a fascinating paradox is at work in Richard III, one with far-reaching implications for our notions about the proper relationship between art and history. It so happens that a piece of literature drenched in historical revisionism nonetheless captures Richard’s zeitgeist with impressive moral and political clarity. Our own pop-historical gaze seems downright blurry by contrast. How can this be? It seems the paradox is an effect of repression: due to our liberalist preference for transparency, information, and empiricism, we refuse to peddle in political myths. But our romance with regalia suggests their attractiveness; we maintain an unacknowledged appetite for a power system whose very structure rests upon the myth and spectacle of an unverifiable claim to kingship.

Shakespeare’s art, on the other hand, luxuriates in this kind of myth. Writing centuries later about Dostoevsky, the critic Mikhail Bakhtin described how the great Russian novelist transformed the monologic “idea” into the living “image of an idea,” the irreducible dialogue that composes a single idea. This is precisely the mechanism of Richard III, a dramatic work that is not interested in dispelling myths, but rather in giving them life, and then subjecting them to the logical pressures of experience. Long before Richard’s bones were exhumed and his identity finally proven, Shakespeare had already unearthed from the pit of Richard’s soul the essence of his character, the self-contradiction of his idea: “Is there a murderer here?” No/Yes. It’s not villainy, it’s politics: monarchic despotism that sanctions horrific violence. It’s the stuff of kingship, and it’s still going on. The embattled Bashar Al-Assad is, after all, a king in trouble too. He might pause to think on Richard.

Image via Wikipedia