In the UK last week, a lady picked up a cat and threw it in a garbage bin on a quiet street.
One of the neighbouring houses had a security camera that captured this incident, and they posted the footage up on YouTube. It quickly made it’s way to other websites, including the 4chan bulletin board. The site’s users (a well established group of troublemakers) quickly identified the woman as Mary Bale, and published her details. As the story spread, more information was added – her address and phone number, her Facebook profile, her employment address, her boss’s phone number,
She received plenty of harassment, including death threats, and was forced into hiding. Her employer (a bank) came under pressure from outraged customers to sack her.
Jumping from user generated to mainstream press – there are more than 500 articles in leading newspapers and other outlets that are exploring everything from why she did it, to politician’s and community leader’s statements on the matter, to articles on animal cruelty.
All this in a week!
Compare this to the marketing techniques that were used for Blair Witch Project. In some ways similar, it started as casual postings online, which snowballed into a huge amount of free on and offline publicity. That, however, took months and months to happen. Today, a popular post on Facebook or twitter, through the power of friend networks, ‘Like’ buttons, and retweets, can be quickly pushed to 10s of millions of people.
The video was already a hit, before her personal information kicked the story into overdrive.This type of public detective work is called ‘Cognitive Surplus”’ by Clay Shirky.
His work basically says (this is my paraphrasing), why not stop watching TV, and spend that time creating useful things online? The hours that Americans spend watching TV in one year could create 2000 Wikipedias.
Up to you whether you define this sort of detective work (and the resulting harassment) as a useful activity.