Social Networks That Breed Anonymous Stupidity
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen is none too happy these days. As the New York Times reported yesterday in a front-page article, the inventor of the Web browser and co-founder of Netscape is miffed at the latest Silicon Valley fad: Anonymous sniping from within the tech industry.
Several new anonymous social commenting apps and startups -- with names like Secret and Whisper -- are generating lots of buzz. As it turns out, these new social networks have provided "a rare, unvarnished look at the ambitions, disappointments, rivalries, jealousies and obsessions of the engineers and entrepreneurs" of Silicon Valley, the Times reported.
Andreessen's complaints are valid. Combining the anonymity of comment trolling with social networking creates a greenhouse for sniping snarkiness. Anonymity may work well for whistleblowers, but in a small community of over-worked geeks, it might be creating some problems.
A debate on anonymous postings has long raged on the Internet. Comment trolls literally invented the playbook on how to wreak havoc, thwarting civil debate. It eventually was codified in "The Gentleman's Guide to Forum Disruption." David Martin's "Thirteen Rules for Truth Suppression," H. Michael Sweeney's "25 Rules of Disinformation," and Brandon Smith's "Disinformation: How It Works," are classic lessons on how to spot and thwart disruption and disinformation tactics. That such studies have become necessary reveals how far some people are willing to go to suppress the truth.
In one study, the Guardian found that less than 1 percent of all readers leave a comment. And of those comments, more than 20 percent come from a tiny subset -- the 0.0037 percent who try to dominate the discussion and shout down every one else. I have incorporated their findings into my own comment policy, which politely suggests you should "GYOFB" -- get your own blog.
As an example, consider our column last week. I wrote what I considered a rather objective and quantitative look at how financial market topsform. I spoke with Paul Desmond, a widely admired market historian and technician. I repeated his thesis that the facts don't support an idea of a top here and now, and offered up his data and analysis. While some of the comments on the column were well-reasoned, intelligent and evidence-based, way too many of them were the written equivalence of road rage (most of these were deleted). My columns on investing opportunities caused by climate change similarly begat a celebration of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance.
Buzzfeed -- one of the hottest media properties on the Internet -- has developed a clever response to the anonymous troll problem. They have replaced comments with "Facebook conversations" -- meaning people's actual names and identities accompany their comments. It is amazing how people become far more reasonable, moderate and open-minded when their real names are attached to their statements. The lunatic fringe simply goes elsewhere.
Let's hope this approach will catch on.
The Darwinian process of venture investing seemingly requires Silicon Valley to throw money at all sorts of silly ideas. Delivering 40-pound bags of dog food by mail (Pets.com), or delivering anything (Kosmos) are among the startups that crashed and burned. That is the nature of venture investing. It was only a matter of time before apps such as Secret and Whisper, as well as the pending app Libel, found funding, regardless of a business model that makes no sense.
All of these obviously lame ideas looked promising to someone in the heat of the moment. I am with Andreessen -- the last thing we need is a social network that encourages anonymous stupidity.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
(Barry Ritholtz writes about finance, the economy and the business world for Bloomberg View.)
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