For several days after I signed onto Twitter I assiduously avoided searching for the #swineflu hashtag, this despite the ongoing pandemic scare and having a son whose school might possibly be canceled. For those who aren’t acquainted with the social conventions of the micro-blogging service Twitter, hashtags are search codes Twitterers embed in their 140-character “updates” so that people posting on the same topic can follow each other. Because of headlines like “Swine Flu Spreads Panic Over The Web,” suggesting that the flu outbreak was “going viral” on the Internet and inciting even more fear, I had been putting off searching for posts about #swineflu.
I felt slightly horrified by the notion of adding to the obsessing the media was already doing, both on and off the web. And I was, I have to admit, a bit scared of what I would find if I did look. What if people were saying terrifying things I hadn’t already heard? Then I would have to try and sort out what was true from what was false, and to control my own emotions. The whole situation made me want to take to my bed and pull the covers up over my head like when I was little. You know, read a good tearjerker like My Friend Flicka in the blanketed darkness by flashlight, just to get away from it all. At some point, though, being a cognizant adult, I began to realize, Oh, this is ridiculous! Why was I so frightened?
Upon reflection, I think we all have a basic, almost animal fear of this kind of crowd or group behavior. It’s probably a justified wariness, given the long history of vigilantism, especially in this country. And you could see that strain emerging in the anti-immigrant comments of radio host Jay Severin. Still, were the headlines justified in blaming the Internet for spreading panic? Certainly, the web and social media have made group coordination and communication easier. And as long ago as Freud, theorists have believed that people act differently in crowds than they do individually, with the “enthusiasm” of each person increasing in a group, so that individuals may become less aware of the morality of their conduct. Crowds have been said to foster anonymity and urge conformity, and crowd behavior has widely been blamed for the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe.
Interestingly, in recent years, commentators have taken a far more sanguine view of crowd behavior, and particularly of the kinds of group behavior that have emerged on the Internet. In 2004, James Surowiecki argued in his book The Wisdom of Crowds that groups are actually smarter than individuals. And group web-based projects like Wikipedia seem to support that position. However, I think we—most of us—still carry with us a subliminal distrust of the way crowds think, especially crowds of people who are scared. (Just consider that proverbial fellow shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.)
It was therefore with trepidation that I signed onto Twitter over the past weekend, searched for #swineflu, and began reading. What did I find? Well, jokes mostly. Apparently the main Internet response to fear is to tell as many rapid-fire jokes, puns, and punch lines as possible. “I’m hosting a global face-licking party!” one Twitterer quipped. “No more handshakes,” wrote another. “Elbow bumps only from now on!” And the comic hashtags proliferated: #aporkalypse, #hamdemic, #sowmonella, #smallporx, #epigdemic. “Bacon Lung,” someone sneered. Another asked, “When pigs fly? Who thought #swineflu?”
Apparently James Surowiecki was right. The Internet does make us smarter as a group. But what it makes us smarter at is telling an enormous quantity of bad jokes, as well as posting stupid and sometimes lurid comic photographs, and linking to funny or outrageous video clips on YouTube. Things got so bad at one point over the weekend that there was even a backlash against all the wisecracking, with the self-appointed Twitter Police upbraiding the merrymakers for using the #swineflu hashtag for yucks, when it was “supposed” to be a “serious” hashtag, they said, citing the CDC’s use of it for their Twittered advisories. And one plaintive voice came through while I was reading: “I’m from Mexico, and it really isn’t funny down here.”
So, where does this leave us? Is Twitter dangerous? From what I’ve seen over the weekend, probably not. The worst things I found were a couple of lame conspiracy theories and a “zombie” hoax that was quickly debunked and ridiculed. But I did learn this: Internet groupthink has the sensibility of an Ivy League fraternity party on a Saturday night, after all the boys have gotten drunk, ordered out for pizza, and started ranking on each other.