Networked Individuals in a Networked Posse

I was especially pleased for two reasons to be invited to participate on October 17 in the Keith Davey Forum at the University of Toronto to discuss politics and social media.

The first is that I can reconnect with my co-author and Toronto native  Barry Wellman and his wonderful students, who are now also my pals. The second is that I will get to meet the other Forum participant for the first time. He’s Jesse Hirsh and it will be nice to meet face-to-face because he writes one of my favorite blogs and it was through that blog that he introduced me to one of my favorite stories about networked individuals in action.

The material below is the full story as we wrote it for an early draft of the book. It fell in our chapter about “networked creators” in a section that described several new kinds of activities that have become popular thanks to the growth of social media. In that chapter, we also cite examples of …

1) how networked individuals can produce content online that helps them expand their social network and increase their social standing. We used some terrific casework done by Patricia G. Lange for the MacArthur Foundation’s comprehensive research on kids digital learning to describe how youth use YouTube for these purposes.

2) how networked individuals can construct just-in-time and just-like-me support groups through telling their stories and building archives or links to others’ content. In this case, we cited research done by my late friend, Tom Ferguson, about Karen Parles and the amazing resource she built at Lung Cancer Online. Tom taught us at the Pew Internet Project many things about e-health and his friends have carried on his work in an exceptional group blog about e-patients and in the Ferguson-and-friends book, ePatients: how they can help us heal health care.

3) how networked individuals can use social media to solve problems. This is the section that uses Jesse Hirsh’s tale of a “meta-mob” in action. Here’s what we wrote:

To catch a thief: a social posse in action

 Another new kind of social activity afforded by social media is illustrated by what Toronto-based internet strategist and columnist Jesse Hirsh has called a “meta-mob.” He has written occasionally about a meta-mob of car enthusiasts who tried over many months to stop a car-parts thief.[1]

In April 2009 the thief struck in a parking lot of Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall. While the victim was at work, someone stole a specialized front bumper-lip from his car, an Acura TSX. Cleverly, the thief used his own car to block passersby from seeing what he was doing. The victim, though, was smart enough to go to mall security to get the security video footage of the crime. But, because the thief took the plates off his car, and there were no witnesses, the police said there was nothing they could do. So, the victim turned to the TSXClub.com site, a forum for Acura TSX owners. He started the thread in the early hours of May 21, 2009.

Almost immediately after Hirsh posted a link to the thread, the group identified a suspect. One of the discussion group’s members recognized the car in the security video as being almost identical to photos of a car posted by another user of the site.

“At first people were hesitant to point fingers, but when the user tried to defend himself with a poorly written reaction, intense scrutiny started to fall on the suspect,” Hirsh wrote. The meta-mob began to examine the user’s history and found a connection between the suspect and the victim. A few weeks before the theft of the bumper lip, the victim had posted a “help wanted” ad for his workplace and the suspect had asked what hours the store was open. The group began to think that by asking about the store’s hours, the suspect felt he could safely strip the car when the victim was working.

Hirsh noted: Once this connection was identified, a frenzy ensued.[2] Many of the users on the site were also users on other forums and recognized a pattern.

Within hours, multiple user accounts on multiple sites were linked to the same suspect who had been accused of stealing cars and car parts and reselling them via these forums and all these various aliases…. Ironically, one of the real tell-tale signs of the connection between all these accounts and identities was the language and writing style used by the suspect, which included poor grammar and spelling.

Hirsh described how the meta-mob came to believe that the suspect’s defense of himself had fallen apart when mob members accessed a photobucket.com account he used to post images to all kinds of auto enthusiast forums. “The suspect was using the photobucket account to host images of the allegedly stolen parts he was selling on the various sites,” noted Hirsh. “By looking at the web address URL and then details of the photos, people were able to identify his license plate, house number, and even photos of him.” Rather than giving up or confessing, the person then created a new account under a new name, and used the identity from the new account to “confess” to the crime, as an attempt to divert scrutiny from photo accounts that were under suspicion.

Hirsh continued. “However, [the suspect] used his same computer to create the new account, thereby having the same internet address and browser information, linking this posted confession to all [his] other accounts. A day later, after realizing how totally stupid that was, he removed those posts. But by then it was too late. The group had their guy.”

After the internet forensics were complete, and group members were convinced they had their man, the first thing that emerged were image mashups of the alleged thief, mostly making fun of him. Soon thereafter, users combed over Google Maps using the pictures of his car in front of his house and information that it was in Richmond Hill neighborhood and eventually they were able to identify his address by recognizing it in the satellite view.

And then, even more information was unearthed: “They were able to identify his mom and where she lives, his grandmother and where she lives, his sister, her employment, and some of his past crimes, including the fact that he is currently driving even though his license is suspended.” This was then followed by suggestions that all members of all auto clubs in the Toronto area show up at the purported thief’s house. Some started talking about the violence they would like to inflict upon him. On his end, the targeted suspect continued to post on the site and reply, escalating the violent rhetoric.

Hirsh concluded this telling of the story by noting that on May 27, six days after the first postings, the thread on the Acura TSX fan site was closed by site administrators. The suspect’s account was closed and his computer’s internet address was barred from accessing the site.

That did not end the matter, though. Other members of the site launched a petition seeking a police investigation – and rounded up several dozen signatories.[3] For weeks afterwards, people continued to post items about sightings of the suspect, his new license plate numbers, and pictures of him.

Hirsh himself concluded: “This is a fascinating example of the rapid rise of a ‘meta mob,’ which was the result of not a single community or forum, but rather an aggregation of many sites working together to connect the dots and remove a predator lurking among them…. This is something we’re going to have to come to terms with, as it’s certain to re-appear frequently as people realize the power of this kind of mobilization. Why turn to the police when you can raise a mob of Internet people to help bring justice?” Well into 2010, the meta-mob was still at work, watching out for the suspect and posting pictures of him from time to time. The police had not taken any steps to intervene in the case, though. Hirsh summarized: “He is essentially stalked by tons of people who when they do see him post photos so that others can watch out. So, his purported racket is ruined. I would guess, too, that this group’s faith in the rule of law has been diminished substantially. So, if there was any takeaway from this, I’d say that incidents like this erode the rule of law while creating templates for vigilante justice.”

Still, it was not just the style of the mobilization that was fascinating. It was also the way this group did research and posted material using “old” content-creation technologies tools such as discussion boards and new tools like Google maps and picture-uploading.

Networked individuals in these situations are creators and sharers as well as investigators. They network by creating content or finding it elsewhere and passing it along to the tribe that has gathered around their work. One way they stand out from community-builders in the past is that they do not have to depend on their direct access to friends or even friends of friends to get out the word about a project that galvanizes them. They simply convene with those who are connected even if they are complete strangers to each other.

The posts on the Acura discussion board make clear that few of them actually knew each other. Yet they still felt a sense of common purpose in the hunt. They performed networking activity merely by the act of searching for content, staying vigilant, and sharing what they found.



[1] Hirsh, Jesse. “An epic thread yields rapid internet justice.” Available at: http://jessehirsh.com/an-epic-thread-yields-rapid-internet-justice … Much of the raw material for Hirsh’s story comes from this message thread: http://tsxclub.com/forums/canada-east/35879-warning-help-all-members.html

[2] See http://www.teknotik.com/jdmrides/forum/showthread.php?t=3613&highlight=ek_k20

[3] See http://tsxclub.com/forums/canada-east/35992-theft-investigation-petition-law-enforcement-authorities.html

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