Publishers on Publishing WikiLeaks

With the release of US diplomatic cables, publishers are chiming in on public interest versus national security. Here’s a rundown.

The New York times discusses its rationale for publishing and reporting on the documents:

The Times believes that the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match…

…The Times has taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security. The Times’s redactions were shared with other news organizations and communicated to WikiLeaks, in the hope that they would similarly edit the documents they planned to post online.

The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins says that The job of the media is not to protect the powerful from embarrassment:

Is it justified? Should a newspaper disclose virtually all a nation’s secret diplomatic communication, illegally downloaded by one of its citizens? The reporting in the Guardian of the first of a selection of 250,000 US state department cables marks a recasting of modern diplomacy. Clearly, there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive, whatever computing’s snake-oil salesmen claim. No organisation can treat digitised communication as confidential. An electronic secret is a contradiction in terms.

Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest. When that democracy purports to be “world policeman” – an assumption that runs ghostlike through these cables – that interest is global. Nonetheless, the Guardian had to consider two things in abetting disclosure, irrespective of what is anyway published by WikiLeaks. It could not be party to putting the lives of individuals or sources at risk, nor reveal material that might compromise ongoing military operations or the location of special forces.

Der Spiegel believes US foreign policy is badly shaken, and that public interest outweighs political and security concerns in their decision to publish:

Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information — data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which US foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America’s partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public — as have America’s true views of them…

…With a team of more than 50 reporters and researchers, SPIEGEL has viewed, analyzed and vetted the mass of documents. In most cases, the magazine has sought to protect the identities of the Americans’ informants, unless the person who served as the informant was senior enough to be politically relevant. In some cases, the US government expressed security concerns and SPIEGEL accepted a number of such objections. In other cases, however, SPIEGEL felt the public interest in reporting the news was greater than the threat to security. Throughout our research, SPIEGEL reporters and editors weighed the public interest against the justified interest of countries in security and confidentiality.

William Kristol of the Weekly Standard writes that the US government should ignore the release and refuse all comment about it. He later adds that WikiLeaks should be punished:

I didn’t mean to say that treating the leaks as beneath contempt and beneath comment was all the U.S. government could or should do. My original post didn’t deal with the possibilities of criminal prosecution or covert action or cyber-warfare against WikiLeaks. I’m for whatever can be done on these fronts.

CNN explains why they did not have advanced access to the documents:

In addition to the Times, four European newspapers — Britain’s The Guardian, Le Monde in France, Der Spiegel in Germany and El Pais in Spain — had prior access to WikiLeaks documents. CNN has not had advance access to the documents because it declined to sign a confidentiality agreement with the site.

For a cheat sheet of what’s actually in the release, the Atlantic Wire has a good aggregation of current reporting and analysis.

Otherwise, head to the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais or Le Monde for your initial deep dive.

The links above go to the landing page on those sites for their complete coverage.

On Architecture and Music

David Byrne walks us through nightclubs, cathedrals and rain forests and asks how music is affected by the venue it’s created for.

It’s an interesting thought experiment: how do our musical venues affect the type of music that’s actually created and played.

Do large concert halls and sports stadiums change the composer’s process in the type of compositions he or she creates?

David Byrne most definitely thinks yes as he walks us though cathedrals, small clubs and the rain forest to explain how acoustics are affected by environment.


This is the venue where I, as a young man, some of the music that I wrote was first performed. It was, remarkably, a pretty good sounding room. With all the uneven walls and all the crap everywhere, it actually sounded pretty good. This is a song that was recorded there. (Music) This is not Talking Heads, in the picture anyway. (Music: “A Clean Break (Let’s Work)” by Talking Heads) So the nature of the room meant that words could be understood. The lyrics of the songs could be pretty much understood. The sound system was kind of decent. And there wasn’t a lot of reverberation in the room. So the rhythms could be pretty intact too, pretty concise. Other places around the country had similar rooms. This is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. The music was in some ways different, but in structure and form, very much the same. The clientele behavior was very much the same too. And so the bands at Tootsie’s or at CBGB’s had to play loud enough — the volume had to be loud enough to overcome people falling down, shouting out and doing whatever else they were doing.

Since then, I’ve played other places that are much nicer. I’ve played the Disney Hall here and Carnegie Hall and places like that. And it’s been very exciting. But I also noticed that sometimes the music that I had written, or was writing at the time, didn’t sound all that great in some of those halls. We managed, but sometimes those halls didn’t seem exactly suited to the music I was making or had made. So I asked myself: Do I write stuff for specific rooms? Do I have a place, a venue, in mind when I write? Is that a kind of model for creativity? Do we all make things with a venue, a context, in mind?

Okay, Africa. (Music: “Wenlenga” / Various artists) Most of the popular music that we know now has a big part of its roots in West Africa. And the music there, I would say, the instruments, the intricate rhythms, the way it’s played, the setting, the context, it’s all perfect. It all works perfect. The music works perfectly in that setting. There’s no big room to create reverberation and confuse the rhythms. The instruments are loud enough that they can be heard without amplification, etc., etc. It’s no accident. It’s perfect for that particular context. And it would be a mess in a context like this. This is a gothic cathedral. (Music: “Spem In Alium” by Thomas Tallis) In a gothic cathedral, this kind of music is perfect. It doesn’t change key. The notes are long. There’s almost no rhythm whatsoever. And the room flatters the music. It actually improves it. This is the room that Bach wrote some of his music for. This is the organ. It’s not as big as a gothic cathedral, so he can write things that are a little bit more intricate. He can, very innovatively, actually change keys without risking huge dissonances. (Music: “Fantasia On Jesu, Mein Freunde” by Johann S. Bach)

This is a little bit later. This is the kind of rooms that Mozart wrote in. I think we’re in like 1770, somewhere around there. They’re smaller, even less reverberant, so he can write really frilly music that’s very intricate — and it works. (Music: “Sonata in F,” KV 13, by Wolfgang A. Mozart) It fits the room perfectly. This is La Scala. It’s from around the same time. I think it was built around 1776. People in the audience in these opera houses, when they were built, they used to yell out to one another. They used to eat, drink and yell out to people on the stage, just like they do at CBGB’s and places like that. If they liked an aria, they would holler and suggest that it be done again as an encore, not at the end of the show, but immediately. (Laughter) And well, that was an opera experience. This is the opera house that Wagner built for himself. And the size of the room is not that big. It’s smaller than this. But, Wagner made an innovation. He wanted a bigger band. He wanted a little more bombast. So he increased the size of the orchestra pit so he could get more low-end instruments in there. (Music: “Lohengrin / Prelude to Act III” by Richard Wagner)

Okay. This is Carnegie Hall. Obviously, this kind of thing became popular. The halls got bigger. Carnegie Hall’s fair-sized. It’s larger than some of the other symphony halls. And they’re a lot more reverberant than La Scala. Around the same, according to Alex Ross who writes for the New Yorker, this kind of rule came into effect that audiences had to be quiet, no more eating, drinking and yelling at the stage, or gossiping with one another during the show. They had to be very quiet. So those two things combined meant that a different kind of music worked best in these kind of halls. It meant that there could be extreme dynamics, which there weren’t in some of these other kinds of music. Quiet parts could be heard that would have been drowned out by all the gossiping and shouting. But because of the reverberation in those rooms like Carnegie Hall, the music had to be maybe a little less rhythmic and a little more textural. (Music: “Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major” by Gustav Mahler) This is Mahler. It looks like Bob Dylan, but it’s Mahler. That was Bob’s last record, yeah.


Popular music, coming along at the same time. This is a jazz band. According to Scott Joplin, the bands were playing on riverboats and clubs. Again, it’s noisy. They’re playing for dancers. There’s certain sections of the song — the songs had different sections that the dancers really liked. And they’d say, “Play that part again.” Well, there’s only so many times you can play the same section of a song over and over again for the dancers. So the bands started to improvise new melodies. And a new form of music was born. (Music: “Royal Garden Blues” by W.C. Handy / Ethel Waters) These are played mainly in small rooms. People are dancing, shouting and drinking. So the music has to be loud enough to be heard above that. Same thing goes true for — that’s the beginning of the century — for the whole of 20th-century popular music, whether it’s rock or Latin music or whatever. [Live music] doesn’t really change that much.

It changes about a third of the way into the twentieth century, when this became one of the primary venues for music. And this was one way that the music got there. Microphones enabled singers, in particular, and musicians and composers, to completely change the kind of music that they were writing. So far, a lot of the stuff that was on the radio was live music, but singers, like Frank Sinatra, could use the mic and do things that they could never do without a microphone. Other singers after him, went even further. (Music: “My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker) This is Chet Baker. And this kind of thing would have been impossible without a microphone. It would have been impossible without recorded music as well. And he’s singing right into your ear. He’s whispering into your ear. The effect is just electric. It’s like the guy is sitting next to you, whispering who knows what into your ear.

So at this point, music diverged. There’s live music, and there’s recorded music. And they no longer have to be exactly the same. Now there’s venues like this, a discotheque, and there’s jukeboxes in bars, where you don’t even need to have a band. There doesn’t need to be any live performing musicians whatsoever. And the sound systems are good. People began to make music specifically for discos and for those sound systems. And, as with jazz, the dancers liked certain sections more than they did others. So there early hip-hop guys would loop certain sections. (Music: “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang) The MC would improvise lyrics in the same way that the jazz players would improvise melodies. And another new form of music was born.

Live performance, when it was incredibly successful, ended up in what is probably, acoustically, the worst sounding venues on the planet, sports stadiums, basketball arenas and hockey arenas. Musicians who ended up there did the best they could. They wrote what is now called arena rock, which is medium-speed ballads. (Music: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2) They did the best they could given that this is what they’re writing for. The tempos are medium. It sounds big. It’s more a social situation than a musical situation. And in some ways, the music that they’re writing for this place works perfectly.

So there’s more new venues. One of the new ones is the automobile. I grew up with a radio in a car. But now that’s evolved into something else. The car is a whole venue. (Music: “Who U Wit” by Lil’ Jon & the East Side Boyz) The music that, I would say, is written for automobile sound systems, works perfectly on it. It might not be what you want to listen to at home, but it works great in the car — has a huge frequency spectrum, you know, big bass and high-end and the voice kind of stuck in the middle. Automobile music, you can share with your friends.

There’s one other kind of new venue, the private MP3 player. Presumably, this is just for Christian music. (Laughter) And in some ways it’s like Carnegie Hall, or when the audience had to hush up, because you can now hear every single detail. In other ways, it’s more like the West African music because if the music in an MP3 player gets too quiet, you turn it up, and the next minute, your ears are blasted out by a louder passage. So that doesn’t really work. I think pop music, mainly, it’s written today, to some extent, is written for these kind of players, for this kind of personal experience where you can hear extreme detail, but the dynamic doesn’t change that much.

So I asked myself: Okay, is this a model for creation, this adaptation that we do? And does it happen anywhere else? Well, according to David Attenborough and some other people, birds do it too. That the birds in the canopy, where the foliage is dense, their calls tend to be high-pitched, short and repetitive. And the birds on the floor tend to have lower pitched calls, so they don’t get distorted when they bounce off the forest floor. And birds like this Savannah sparrow, they tend to have a buzzing (Sound clip: Savannah sparrow song) type call. And it turns out that a sound like this is the most energy efficient and practical way to transmit their call across the fields and savannahs. Other birds, like this tananger, have adapted within the same species. The tananger on the east coast of the United States, where the forests are a little denser, has one kind of call, and the tananger on the other side, on the west, (Sound clip: Scarlet tanager song) has a different kind of call. (Sound clip: Scarlet tanager song) So birds do it too.

And I thought: Well, if this is a model for creation, if we make music, primarily the form at least, to fit these contexts, and if we make art to fit gallery walls or museum walls, and if we write software to fit existing operating systems, is that how it works? Yeah. I think it’s evolutionary. It’s adaptive. But the pleasure and the passion and the joy is still there. This is a reverse view of things from the kind of traditional romantic view. The romantic view is that first comes the passion and then the outpouring of emotion, and then somehow it gets shaped into something. And I’m saying, well, the passion’s still there, but the vessel that it’s going to be injected into and poured into, that is instinctively and intuitively created first. We already know where that passion is going. But this conflict of views is kind of interesting.

The writer, Thomas Frank, says that this might be a kind of explanation why some voters vote against their best interests, that voters, like a lot of us, assume, that if they hear something that sounds like it’s sincere, that it’s coming from the gut, that it’s passionate, that it’s more authentic. And they’ll vote for that. So that, if somebody can fake sincerity, if they can fake passion, they stand a better chance of being selected in that way, which seems a little dangerous. I’m saying the two, the passion, the joy, are not mutually exclusive.

Maybe what the world needs now is for us to realize that we are like the birds. We adapt. We sing. And like the birds, the joy is still there, even though we have changed what we do to fit the context.

Thank you very much.


Infographics: Mapping the Social Web

A new map graphs the social web so that geographical landmass is equivalent to online activity.

social media map

We like mapping. We like visualization. We like social media.

Mash them all up and you have a recipe for success.

This is what Randall Monroe of xkcd has done, turning social networks and communities into countries and continents with geographical landmass equivalent to their online activity.

The xkcd map updates his famous 2007 map so that raw membership and traffic is no longer the measured metric. Instead, it’s actual activity gathered during Spring and Summer of 2010.

As the map notes:

Communities rise and fall, and total membership numbers are no longer a good measure of a community’s current size and health. This updated map uses size to represent total social activity in a community – that is, how much talking, playing, sharing, or other socializing happens there. This meant some comparing of apples and oranges, but I did my best and tried to be consistent.

Estimates are based on the best numbers I could find, but involved a great deal of guesswork, statistical inference, random sampling, nonrandom sampling, a 20,000-cell spreadsheet, emailing, cajoling, tea-leaf reading, goat sacrifices, and gut instinct. (i.e. making things up.)

Sources of data include Google and Bing, Wikipedia, Alexa,, StumbleUpon, WordPress, Akismet, every website statistics page I could find, press releases, news articles, and individual site employees. Thanks in particular to folks at, LiveJournal, Reddit, and the New York Times, as well as sysadmins at a number of sites who shared statistics on condition of anonymity.

Some of my favorite areas include the “Sea of Opinions,” “Spamblog Straits,” and the “Bay of Flame” which, of course, is bordered by a region of conservative and liberal blogs.

The map can be viewed at xkcd, includes a biggie version and can even be ordered as a poster.

Princess Leia Apprehended on Subway

As the Empire tracks down Princess Leia in the New York City subway, great joy erupts.

Two days ago Improv Everywhere, New York City-based culture jammers founded by Upright Citizens Brigade’s Charlie Todd, released this glorious contribution to subway theater.

Almost 1.7 million views, laughs, knowing nods and appreciative forwards later, it’s still going strong.

Star Wars Subway car is one of Improv Everywhere’s hundred or so “missions,” many of which you can watch over at the group’s blog.

For our latest mission, we staged a reenactment of the first Princess Leia / Darth Vader scene from Star Wars on a New York City subway car. The white walls and sliding doors on the train reminded us of the rebel ship from the movie, and we thought it would be fun to see how people would react to a surprise appearance by the iconic characters. We spread out the actors along the train line, staging it so they would enter the right car at the right time.

Star Wars and Princess Leia aside, the joy in this theater is the focus they give to passenger reactions as the scene unfolds.

Big kudos from this side of the Internets.

Is the Browser Dead?

As apps become increasingly lucrative will media companies jump the browser ship.

I write this in a browser, and read what I’m about to quote in a browser but that doesn’t make Michael Hirschorn’s rumination any less true.

We often note that the Web is moving toward an increasingly closed system.

I don’t like it but our media overlords continue pushing to make it so.

Back to Hirschorn:

All of this suggests that the era of browser dominance is coming to a close. Twitter, like other recent-vintage social networks, is barely bothering with its Web site; its smart-phone app is more fully featured. The independent TweetDeck, which collates feeds across multiple social networks, is not browser-based. As app-based usage climbs at the expense of the browser and as more content creators put their text, audio, and video behind pay walls, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Twitterverse and blogosphere, which piggyback on, and draw creative juice from, their ability to link to free Web content. If they don’t end up licensing original content, networks such as Twitter and Facebook will become purely communication vehicles. At first glance, Web sites like The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post will have a hard time once they lose their ability to hypertext their digests; on second glance, they will have an opportunity to sop up some of the traffic that once went to their now-paid rivals. Google, meanwhile, is hoping to find ways to link through pay walls and across platforms, but this model will clearly not be the delightfully free-form open plain of the early Web. Years from now, we may look back at these past 15 years as a discrete (and thrillingly indiscreet) chapter in the history of digital media, not the beginning of a new and enlightened dispensation. The Web will be here forever; that is not in question. But as Don Henley sang in “The Last Resort,” the Eagles’ brilliant, haunting song about the resortification of the West, “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.”

Head over to The Atlantic to read his complete thoughts.

The Facebook Backlash is On

As Facebook gets bigger and bigger they’re starting to become a punching bag over little things, like, you know, privacy.

Over the past week numerous sources pounded on a goliath-sized punching bag. It’s name, Facebook. The issue, privacy.

Let’s start with Wired. In a widely shared story, author Ryan Singel claims Facebook’s gone Palin. In other words, the social networking giant’s gone rogue.

Facebook used to be a place to share photos and thoughts with friends and family and maybe play a few stupid games that let you pretend you were a mafia don or a homesteader…

…Then Facebook decided to turn “your” profile page into your identity online — figuring, rightly, that there’s money and power in being the place where people define themselves. But to do that, the folks at Facebook had to make sure that the information you give it was public.

Singel proceeds with a litany of complaints: Facebook’s hired “Beltway privacy experts, it reneged on its privacy promises and made much of your profile information public by default.”

All that’s just in the first few paragraphs. There’s much, much more.

Gizmodo’s on the bandwagon as well, writing, “Facebook not only wants to know everything about you, and own that data, but to make it available to everybody.”

Privacy isn’t Gizmodo’s only concern. They list 10 good reasons people should quit Facebook, primary among them is a bait and switch ruse with users:

At the same time that they’re telling developers how to access your data with new APIs, they are relatively quiet about explaining the implications of that to members. What this amounts to is a bait-and-switch. Facebook gets you to share information that you might not otherwise share, and then they make it publicly available. Since they are in the business of monetizing information about you for advertising purposes, this amounts to tricking their users into giving advertisers information about themselves. This is why Facebook is so much worse than Twitter in this regard: Twitter has made only the simplest (and thus, more credible) privacy claims and their customers know up front that all their tweets are public. It’s also why the FTC is getting involved, and people are suing them (and winning).

Never one to let a good trend pass, The New York Times writes that younger people are growing more anxious about what private data sites like Facebook may have about them:

In the Pew study, to be released shortly, researchers interviewed 2,253 adults late last summer and found that people ages 18 to 29 were more apt to monitor privacy settings than older adults are, and they more often delete comments or remove their names from photos so they cannot be identified…

…But at the same time, companies like Facebook have a financial incentive to get friends to share as much as possible. That’s because the more personal the information that Facebook collects, the more valuable the site is to advertisers, who can mine it to serve up more targeted ads.

If Wired and Gizmodo make you want to leave Facebook, ReadWriteWeb explains just how difficult that may be to do. They also demonstrate the emotional techniques Facebook employs to stop those who self-impose social networking exile. Seems when you try to deactivate your account you’re shown images of friends you’ll no longer be able to interact with.

Can you believe that? How incredibly manipulative! And what claims to make. Facebook has undoubtedly made it easier to keep in touch with people than almost any other technology on the planet, but to say that leaving Facebook means your friends “will no longer be able to keep in touch with you” is just wrong. Facebook often says little things like this that read like it thinks it has a monopoly on human connection.

For a visual representation of Facebook’s ever changing privacy policies, check these infographics put together by Matt McKeon. Privacy settings for 2005 and 2010 are reproduced below. The blue wedges indicate with who and where your data flows.

Facebook privacy settings 2005
Facebook privacy settings 2010

Visit McKeon’s site to see these privacy evolution/devolution graphics in their full size.

Are Video Games Art?

What is it with video games. Can they be considered art? Does it really matter? What if they’re the root solution to saving the world?

I don’t write nearly as much about games as I should. Considering they incorporate the audio, visual and tactile sensory goodness I hold dear it’s more than an oversight on my part.

Perhaps there’s an intimidation factor to it all. There’s just so much there, there.

Fortunately, others do what I don’t and in a serendipitous confluence of RSS feeds, Twitter posts and Podcast episodes, all sorts of thoughts about games have come my way in the past few days.

First, Roger Ebert writes that video games can never be art. It’s an amusing read and erudite without being pedantic. His basic premise runs thus:

I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say “never,” because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

The article is, in part, a response to Kellee Santiago’s Tedx 2009 talk at USC in which she makes exactly the claim Ebert tries to refute. Namely, that not only can video games be art, but that like all expression, they follow a trajectory towards art that all other mediums have taken.

This is good, because earlier that year Cracked’s Michael Swaim not only claimed that video games could be considered art, he even created a top 10 list of games that are art

Like comics, video games are a bastard medium, perpetually trapped in the purgatory of “low art.” No matter how well-crafted or sweeping or gorgeous they are, they almost never get auctioned off to millionaires with paddles. But even comics have had some success: The graphic novel movement is giving them some art house cred, R. Crumb drew some parents boning their kids and got a freaking Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and I heard Jeff Koons grudgingly recognized them as “a conceivable medium for the conveyance of art-like imagery.”

Well, the next time you get cornered by the Beret Patrol, or just want to flex your gaming-snob nuts, here are 10 games that would be hanging in museums if flat screens weren’t so damned expensive.

I side with Santiago and Swaim on this one. If novels and film are art, so too the novel and filmic games that are creating a multibillion dollar industry.

And if that’s not good enough, I’m still wrapping my mind around Jane McGonigal who doesn’t talk about games as art, but does suggest they hold the key to solving world crises. If only we learned to play them more.

Just Like That, the iPad’s Jailbroken

Twenty-four hours after the iPad’s release a hacker claims to have gained root access and jailbroken the device.

Twenty-four hours after the iPad’s release a hacker claims to have gained root access and jailbroken the device. The video to the right shows you how he did it.

According to MobileBeat: “A well-known hacker of the iPhone, who previously defeated Apple’s restrictions on developers, has claimed in a video to have hacked the iPad. Just a day after release, the hacker, who goes by “MuscleNerd” online, said that he has gained root access to the iPad, a process known as ‘jailbreaking.'”

So the cat and mouse game begins. We saw this repeatedly when the iPhone was released. Hackers would jailbreak it, Apple would release a firmware update that bricked jailbroken phones, rinse and repeat.

Let’s see how far this one goes.

Is ChatRoulette the Best Thing to Come to the Internet?

The porn is watching us courtesy of ChatRoulette.

Clever piece of video coming from Current TV. The above rant tells us that because of ChatRoulette we’re no longer watching porn. Instead, the porn is watching us.

A little background comes to us from a New York Times Week in Review piece last month:

The social Web site, created just three months ago by a 17-year-old Russian named Andrey Ternovskiy, drops you into an unnerving world where you are connected through webcams to a random, fathomless succession of strangers from across the globe. You see them, they see you. You talk to them, they talk to you. Or not. The site, which is gaining thousands of users a day and lately some news coverage, has a faddish feel, but those who study online vagaries see a glimpse into a surreal future, a turn in the direction of the Internet.

Before you rush off to your computer to try Chatroulette, it is only fair to let you know what you’re getting into. Entering Chatroulette is akin to speed-dating tens of thousands of perfect strangers — some clothed, some not.

Or, as Sam Anderson at New York Magazine put it:

The first time I entered ChatRoulette—a new website that brings you face-to-face, via webcam, with an endless stream of random strangers all over the world—I was primed for a full-on Walt Whitman experience: an ecstatic surrender to the miraculous variety and abundance of humankind. The site was only a few months old, but its population was beginning to explode in a way that suggested serious viral potential: 300 users in December had grown to 10,000 by the beginning of February. Although big media outlets had yet to cover it, smallish blogs were full of huzzahs. The blog Asylum called ChatRoulette its favorite site since YouTube; another, The Frisky, called it “the Holy Grail of all Internet fun.” Everyone seemed to agree that it was intensely addictive—one of those gloriously simple ideas that manages to harness the crazy power of the Internet in a potentially revolutionary way…

…I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating.

Out For Blood; China’s Virtual Vigilantes Create a Real-World Ruckus

“The human-flesh search has unimaginable power.” China’s vigilante Internet has razor sharp claws.


The Point via Creative Commons/Flickr.

In China, with its population of more than 1.3 billion, no misdeed can escape the all-seeing eye of the human-flesh search.

Author, Tom Downey, tells the story of the Chinese digital dragnet In this week’s New York Times Magazine. Scouring the Web for clues, Netizens collectively mobilize to unmask, and harass pro-Tibet protesters, corrupt officials and alley cat husbands, who run afoul of social mores. Think of it as the ultimate in crowdsourced punishment.

“The human-flesh search has unimaginable power,” says Zhang Yanfeng, the lawyer of a man whose wife committed suicide after discovering his affair.

After the story of Jiang Hong’s suicide hit the Internet, her husband’s life was turned upside down by the human-flesh search. Before throwing herself from the balcony of her 24th story home, Hong wrote 46 short posts on her blog, “Migratory Bird Going North,” detailing the affair of her husband, Jiang Chang. The diary, which was reposted and widely circulated, churned the emotional incident into a firestorm.

One commenter, called Hypocritical Human, urged any reader who saw the pair to rip their skin off. Each new poster seemed to scream more loudly for retribution to be paid in blood.

“We should take revenge on that couple and drown them in our sputa.” Calls for justice, for vengeance and for a human-flesh search began to spread, not only against Wang, but also against his girlfriend. “Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.”

Accumulating evidence about the pair, the human-flesh search came up with an interactive map with the location of Wang’s parent’s home, the dry cleaning business that belonged to the parents of his mistress–even the license plate numbers for his brother’s car. His parent’s home was vandalized and, eventually, Wang and his mistress were fired from their jobs at Saatchi & Saatchi. The company said that the two had voluntarily resigned.

Downey says that the power and intensity of the human-flesh search demonstrates the difference between how the Internet is used by ordinary people in the U.S. versus China. However, the “vengeful populism,” as Downey calls it, is not new, nor is it limited only to China.

In New York City in 2006, a woman who found a cell phone in a cab and refused to return it to the owner felt the venom of the flesh and blood Web. In South Korea, a woman whose dog crapped on the Seoul subway was discovered and subsequently shamed after she refused to clean up in a well-publicized video.

When Downey spoke with Rebecca MacKinnon, visiting fellow of the Princeton University Center for Technology Policy, she compared the human-flesh search to a Red Guard 2.0, similar to the way Mao unleashed the rage of the masses to informally police corrupt officials. “It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials,” Downey says.

Beyond redressing the grievances of a totalitarian system, however, the human-flesh search is one way Chinese Netizens feel they can correct social evils, but the tyranny of the majority can get really, really ugly.

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