Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

As more web content is crowd sourced and crowd moderated, are we seeing only the wisdom of crowds? No, we're also seeing their prejudice. The Internet reflects both the good and ugly in human nature.

As more web content is crowd sourced and crowd moderated, are we seeing only the wisdom of crowds? No, we're also seeing their prejudice. The Internet reflects both the good and ugly in human nature.

Mob-erating the web Over the weekend I listed some stuff on Craigslist. Later an anonymous person wrote saying that I looked like a business and would be flagged in violation of the Craigslist terms of use. They said the fact that I accepted credit cards was a “bright line."

I wrote and said I was a brand-new customer of, a company that enables smart phone owners to accept credit card payments. Accepting credit cards today doesn't require you to be a business.

The next morning Craigslist sent me an e-mail saying my posting was deleted. Curious, I researched Craigslist's flagging policies and forum.

Craigslist has its own minimal requirements: no pet sales, no sales of illegal merchandise, etc. But anything can be flagged for any reason by anyone reading your listing.

For example, one man's listing for a low mileage 35-year-old car was apparently flagged because readers thought he wanted too much money for it. Another was deleted because, apparently, people objected to the merchandise, even though it was available at local stores.

I say "apparently" because no one has to disclose their reasons for objecting. The forum responders were often as uncertain as the deleted poster.

You might think that if someone asks more than we want to pay we won't buy it. But on Craigslist price vigilantes think you shouldn't even have the right to list it.

Craigslist personals You can also be deleted for who you are, not just what you sell. A non-peer reviewed study of Craigslist personals found that ads by men for men were significantly more likely to be flagged then ads by women for men.

The study isn't proof that crowd-moderators are biased against gays. But if people are willing to cut off someone whose price they don't like, it isn't hard to see them flagging a sexual preference as well.

CL's defenders said it took dozens or hundreds of flags before a post was removed, but I wasn't able to find any confirmation of this. Seems unlikely in sparsely populated northern Arizona.

The Storage Bits take Craigslist went to crowd moderation years ago because of the volume of their ads. Likewise, Google's page rank algorithm uses the link choices of millions of people to determine where your site shows up on a page of results.

Craigslist claims that 98% of the flagged listings are, in fact, in breach of Craigslist standards. If that were true - and really, how can they know? - out of 1 billion listings that is 20 million who are wrongfully deleted.

That's a lot of censorship, disguised by the impersonality of the web. Who knows if some retailers are paying to flag listings that compete?

Any system relying on people implicitly encodes prejudices as well. In a world where one politician with a call girl is forced to resign and another is handily reelected, there is no hope for moral or intellectual consistency in crowd-sourced or moderated content.

For example, Craigslist's adult services was targeted by several attorneys general. CL's defense noted that the same content could be found in many local newspapers, but to no avail.

That shows our freedom of speech is better protected when bought and paid for. The web is censored and manipulated in more ways than we know.

Comments welcome, of course. I reposted my stuff in Phoenix. No problems so far. BTW, here's more about the author of the Craigslist study. I also asked SquareUp's PR for a comment, but no response.


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