The Power of Online Groups

social media toolsThe cost of sharing and coordinating has dropped substantially in the last decade, allowing unorganized groups to work together quickly and effectively through shared awareness. New social tools and methods of communication help ordinary people organize groups and events with little effort or planning. Shirky (2008) argues that the documentation of information is directly connected with the rate of group organizing. He explains that social tools (like blogs) allow people to produce permanent, public documentation by publishing information online at relatively no cost. Shirky elaborates on this point, explaining that to “speak online is to publish, and to publish online is to connect with others. With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly” (p. 171).

In addition to promoting social awareness, public documentation also creates new possibilities for action and change: “Whenever you improve a group’s ability to communicate internally, you change the things it is capable of” (Shirky, 2011, p. 171). As a result, groups can have both a positive and negative social effect. Shirky explains that the distinction between real and online life is becoming increasingly blurred, changing how we exchange information and interact with one another. The internet provides a space for people to meet other like-minded individuals and form groups without the need for social approval. On the other hand, this freedom also extends to criminal and terrorist groups, making it cc2d64f5-f050-408a-8e8a-d19daaf485c9-620x372easier for them communicate and organize. Shirky explains that social tools only amplify our existing capabilities and the receptiveness of a social tool depends on its value in comparison to existing practices.

This week’s reading made me think of a current news story involving the cancellation of two public discussions scheduled to take place at the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in March 2016, in Austin, Texas. According to the Washington Post, the SXSW festival is one of the largest technological conferences in the country. The cancellation of two panel discussions- one on gaming journalism integrity and the other on harassment in gaming- resulted from “numerous threats of on-site violence”. This occurred after the forums were linked to Gamergate, an online community known for harassing  women (game developers, users, critics)  involved in the gaming industry, using the hashtag Gamergate as a digital signature. Gamergate users have been accused of various acts of harassment including: posting misogynistic comments, publishing personal information (private phone numbers and addresses), as well as rape and death threats. The Washington Post describes the Gamergate controversy as “the undying culture war around diversity and inclusion in video games”. In a statement, SXSW event planners explained that to ensure the safety of attendees they felt they needed to cancel  the discussions. The cancellation has created a lot of public backlash, especially because one of the forums was based on digital harassment.

cyber stalkingOne of the panel’s speakers, Caroline Sinders, gave copies of her communications with SXSW organizers to the Washington Post which highlight the neglect of the event organizers. Sinders claims that the Gamergate community is well-known for online harassment and that event planners ignored her request for security provisions prior to the event’s cancellation. She believes the events could have gone on as scheduled if planners acknowledged the social impact of digital harassment and the need for organizers to take these matters seriously. Rather than confront the very issues leading to the panel discussion, SXSW decided to avoid the conflict by cancelling the forums altogether.

I think this article illustrates how online groups can use social tools for destructive purposes. Do you think the SXSW planners were justified in cancelling the panel discussions? Is it possible to manage online harassment without sacrificing anonymity or user freedom?


Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody. Penguin Books.


3 thoughts on “The Power of Online Groups

  1. dorothymn

    I think the decision to cancel the panel is subject to which outcome SXSW producers want to deal with. Cancel or not, positive or negative, they would still be dealing with negative feedback; whether from anti-harassment activists or from the harassers themselves. Shirky talks about flash mobs and highlights that because flash mobs are formed in advance, and attendees have cameras, it can’t break up the mobs without inviting the very attention it wants to avoid (2008). That being said, the cancellation of those panels, specific to gaming ethics, is going to bring unwanted attention from either people like Caroline Sinders or from the gamers who feel offended by the accusations.

    Bringing it back to your questions, I don’t think planners were justified in cancelling the panel discussions, and I don’t think it’s possible to manage online harassment without exposing anonymity or user freedom because of how much personal information people expose of themselves on the Web. You can’t be upset if people see your garbage when you leave it on the side of the road.


    1. I completely agree with you and was also disappointed SXSW’s solution was to cancel the forums. I found your statement: “You can’t be upset if people see your garbage when you leave it on the side of the road” very insightful because it addresses both the social and legal issues pertaining to online user anonymity and public content. Based on fourth amendment cases, regarding our expectation of privacy against warrantless searches and seizures, the law has made it clear that police are permitted to search our trash placed on the curb without a warrant. The Supreme Court reasoned in California v. Billy Greenwood and Dwayne Van Houton that a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding their trash that has been placed on the street because it is ‘readily accessible to the public’. It makes me wonder if this argument could be applied to cases regarding online harassment because we should not have an expectation of privacy to information that is posted publicly. Now I think user privacy is important for groups that rely on anonymity (AA- other drug and alcohol groups or groups that handle sensitive issues like rape, abuse, eating disorders) but I think in cases where there is criminal behavior (death/ rape threats) posted in a public forum with the intention of causing harm, a good case could be made that police have the right to identify these perpetrators without needing a warrant. I think if people knew they could be linked to threats made in a public forum, there would be considerably less online harassment. Thank you so much for your feedback- it definitely got me to think about aspects that I had not previously considered.


  2. I’m disappointed that they did cancel the panels under the threats, but I also understand that. As much as you want to promote education, no one wants people to come to harm at their events. However, if you always bend to threats, then your goal will be crushed.
    This reminded me of the threats against a Pokemon event in Boston. The event was threatened online, and so organizers brought police in who were able to find and arrest the perps when they arrived:
    Technology gives everyone the abilities to issue threats and terrorize others, but those same tools are in the hands of law enforcement. It is so important that people take online harassment to the police. The only way to stamp out its social acceptance is to throw the book at people who would terrorize others.


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