Mob rules; interesting look at the direction the internet is taking these days

Mob rules when twitterverse crowd turns feral

Bruce Guthrie

December 4, 2011OPINION

'There's a downside – it's appalling what people will say anonymously.'‘There’s a downside – it’s appalling what people will say anonymously.’ Photo: Phil Carrick

Recent roastings of public identities portray a very antisocial social media.

HAVE you noticed how social media is becoming distinctly antisocial? Whole communities of hecklers are springing up all over the place.

The most obvious victims in recent weeks have been broadcaster Kyle Sandilands and the embattled national carrier Qantas. Both were torn apart on Twitter and Facebook after ill-advised public comments and actions. Even the Prime Minister and her partner are not immune – Julia Gillard was called a whore by one tweeter last week, another said Tim Mathieson was gay.

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Sandilands copped plenty after he called a female journalist a ”fat slag” because she reported on the poor ratings of his recent small-screen effort. Twitterers lined up to take pot shots at the acerbic radio and TV host using the hashtag ”vilekile”. Soon there was an online petition calling for his removal from radio and Mark ”Chopper” Read challenged him to a fight. It doesn’t get much more antisocial than that – I’d probably pay to see it, though.

They were at him on Facebook too, with pages including the indefensible (but quite clever) ”Ran into Kyle Sandilands this morning, put it in reverse and hit him again”. That had 99 ”likes” when I last looked.

Qantas was similarly under siege after some bright spark in the marketing department invited twitterers to submit examples of luxury Qantas experiences. The debacle was best summed up by a mid-week tweet that suggested Qantas now stood for ”Quite A Number of Tweets, All Sarcastic”.

While the attacks on Gillard and Mathieson were indefensible, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the broadcaster or the airline. Sandilands behaved boorishly and Qantas tried to cynically use social media without really understanding that it’s the voice of the mob – and sometimes the mob can turn on you.

Of course, digital strategists prefer to call them the ”crowd”. Either way, social media is about empowering people so they can be heard. Traditional media and their agents – editors, news directors, producers – are no longer the gatekeepers of public opinion. And, as the CEO of Deloitte Digital, Peter Williams, told me: ”The crowd’s proving more and more that it’s got teeth … my gut feeling is we are only scratching the surface.”

Which will no doubt disturb companies and individuals busy building their brands. Some can be brought down in as few as 140 characters, with one of the most popular forms of antisocial media being fake Twitter accounts. Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Bolt and Qantas boss Alan Joyce are among the many parodied in barbs of about 25 words, endlessly retweeted.

Much of what flows from this people power is positive – think Arab Spring. But there’s a downside too, as we saw during the London riots, when Twitter was used to flag assembly points for bovver boys. And it’s appalling what people will say anonymously.

While Sandilands, Qantas and the PM can deal with the challenges thrown up by antisocial media – they have large marketing machines behind them – others aren’t as well placed.

Former undercover cop Colin McLaren, who now runs a restaurant and boutique accommodation near Bright, believes some aspects of social media threaten small businesses. ”It’s disillusioning people in the restaurant business,” says McLaren. ”Some of them are just packing up, saying they’ve had enough.”

While his property, Villa Gusto, has been well received by critics and customers – its restaurant was awarded a chef’s hat in the latest Age Good Food Guide – he’s noticed disparaging comments appearing on the travel site TripAdvisor, which relies on user-generated material for its content.

He’s not alone. Recently, The Age reported that Allan Parker, owner of Gigi’s of Beechworth, was considering legal action over a posting on TripAdvisor that described his restaurant fare as ”like dog food but more expensive”. Parker believes it was written by a disgruntled former staff member.

In Britain, more than 700 hotels and restaurants are threatening legal action against the US-based site, claiming malicious and anonymous postings are damaging their businesses. In response, a TripAdvisor statement said in part: ”Our more than 35 million reviews and opinions are authentic and honest from real travellers, which is why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty and growth.”

That said, there seems little doubt that some social media are being used to square-up and no doubt there will be wider calls in the future for stricter controls, as there were during the London riots. I’d argue social media has produced much more good than bad, but watch this space.

The ire of users can even extend to single-subject blogs. My favourite is the local one devoted to telling the world about the shortcomings of a national retailer who sold the author a dodgy doona.

Two years after the blog was written, it still shows up in the top 10 results if you Google the retail chain. Beats walking up and down the street all day with a placard.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The AgeThe Sunday Age and Herald Sun.

Twitter: @brucerguthrie

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