Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

Summary: 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.

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TOPICS: Banking
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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 SquareUp.com, 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.

Topic: Banking

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13 comments
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  • Reminds me of a couple of George Carlin quotes...

    "The IQ and the life expectancy of the average American recently passed each other going in opposite directions." and ""Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that."
    jasonp@...
    • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

      @jasonp@... The form of your statement is kind of stupid too. Learning is the key no matter the handicap in life. You might be talking about hypocrisy instead.
      dewittdale
      • Before you get too high and mighty

        @dewittdale
        JasonP didn't make those statements. He quoted, and correctly attributed them to, the late great George Carlin.

        Not only is learning key, but so is paying attention.
        use_what_works_4_U
  • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

    Writing from France: Craigslist's operations are a mystery to me. Posts which are obviously in violation of their terms of use pass through their automatic moderation (e.g., drug, prostitution and pornography in their personal sections, recurrent spams and overposting from identifiable sources), yet innocuous messages sometimes can't be posted (i.e., refused by their software).

    As to crowds, they aren't any different online than offline. (Virtual) lynching occurs there as well. Paranoia and rumors propagate online much faster than in the real world and can truly reach masses. And, in contradistinction to the "real" world, the "echo" never dies: once in the net, forever in the net. It is worth (re)reading Elias Canetti's "Crowds and Power" (1960...).
    LeMiklos
  • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

    AFAIK, CL's requirements for flagging are based on geography and how busy the site is. It seems every city has a different minimum; I do know that in some of the smaller locations, 3 flags will ban a post.

    Where this can be abused is if someone uses a different proxy for each occurrence...change the IP, delete cookies/flash/cache, change the time and screen resolution...viola, totally different computer.

    The ability to successfully mob-source is directly correlated to the intelligence and education of userland. Intolerance abides, especially in more conservative communities.

    We should all remember that CL staffs for what, 9 people? 9 people, billions of posts...something's gotta fail somewhere...maybe we're lucky that it runs at all? :)
    osgo
  • the tragedy of the commons

    I think I could live with them being arbitrary like that if there was some accountability to it. The big red flag for me is "you don't know why your post was deleted, you don't know who complained, you can't appeal the ban/deletion/complaint". I understand that craiglist(unlike their bigger, for-pay, competitor paypal) lets you post for free in most categories. However, by trying the wrong way to keep their venues clean, they just give more power to the abusers, and network being what it is, there's not that many alternatives out there.
    robibaroe
    • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

      @robibaroe That is a very good thought. There is a very good reason that the right to face your accuser is written into the Bill of Rights in the U.S.A. With out that right, the law would become a club in the hands of both mobs and special interest groups.

      The Internet IS a community and so is Craigslist. Just like any other community you can tell alot about it by the rules and mores the community live by. If Craigslist allowed people to challenge the deletions and know who is deleting them, you might see a different social dynamic arise.
      mr1972
    • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

      @robibaroe
      CL does let you repost if you feel you've been unjustly treated - or even justly treated.

      But I suspect they could improve the quality of flagging if they
      - limited the number of flags per account per week
      - hired a few people to go after the spam listers who seem to be able to publish on hundreds of sites with impunity

      Strong agreement with your comment on the network effect. CL is a natural monopoly. Some forum commenters say "go list elsewhere if you don't like it." But where else? The audience is on CL.
      Robin Harris
  • This applies to Wikipedia, too

    Just about every major point made in this excellent article could be said about Wikipedia, as well.

    Thank you, Mr. Harris.
    thekohser
  • RE: Mob-sourcing: the prejudice of crowds

    Another very good blog @Robin Harris Google?s page rank algorithm has turned internet advertising into a joke.Who would waste money putting a AD on a site with such odious flagging policies?
    cybursoft
  • Mob of one

    Dear Mr. Harris,

    I respect your article and would love to talk more. I'm of the opinion though that CL is far more complex that you paint it, and that there are some flaws in your argument. You immediately criticize the CL mob -ie everyone in the world-, yet provide no way for your readers to not fall into the same technical/biased traps which you claim are unfair. The technical/biased traps which are truly worth criticizing here are far less simple. And there really is room for optimism in this whole debate.
    1. You describe CS requirements as "minimal" - thus only dumbasses would missinterpret it - when the requirements total 9 pages single spaced when copied into open office from http://www.craigslist.org/about/terms.of.use
    2. We can't tell if you were following those so called "minimal" requirements - which only, again, a dumbass would not follow according to your rhetoric - when we cannot tell if you were in violation of either of these rules
    EX: You DO NOT POST
    l) that constitutes or contains any form of advertising or solicitation if: posted in areas of the craigslist sites which are not designated for such purposes; or emailed to craigslist users who have not indicated in writing that it is ok to contact them about other services, products or commercial interests.
    m) that includes links to commercial services or web sites, except as allowed in "services"
    We cannot tell if your craigslist post was indeed in violation of these rules. You clearly were making money - a commercial venture - and we have no idea if such a post was allowed in whichever CL section you happened to use.
    With that being said. I, as a reader, cannot tell if it was stupid to delete your post. Regardless of that unknown, even if you were fully protected under the CL terms of conduct, you might have violated some unsaid rules of conduct on the internet or on CL... or perhaps people did not know about this new tool you are using which enables you to accept credit cards without being an incorporated entity...
    my point is there are multiple, perfectly reasonable explanations to why your post was "apparently" removed, without assuming everyone using CL is "apparently" dumb or bad intentioned. To turn your argument a bit more on its head... I use CL, many readers her do, and apparently so do you... are all of us dumb?
    The issue bias you raise is huge! And the unfair censorship, in an ideal world, would be deplorable... but instead of building a weak argument against the horrifying injustice of 20 million "wrongfully deleted" CL postings... couldn't we also look at the fact that there are 980 million posts being globally broadcast for everyone to see? That's amazing!!! Sure CL and other crowd sourced services are flawed... but much can be accomplished with crowd sourcing. Much that might never have been thought possible before. It seems that the COMPLEXITY of CL terms of agreement would be the major problem here... not the stupidity of the masses
    I say, cheers to your efforts and I agree with much of what you said. Your argument would need some more polish before surviving a truly crowdsourced peer review :)

    - Edward T Hall III (Ted)
    TedwardHall
  • Mobs or people?

    Dear Mr. Harris,

    I respect your article and would love to talk more. I'm of the opinion though that CL is far more complex that you paint it, and that there are some flaws in your argument. You immediately criticize the CL mob -ie everyone in the world-, yet provide no way for your readers to not fall into the same technical/biased traps which you claim are unfair. The technical/biased traps which are truly worth criticizing here are far less simple. And there really is room for optimism in this whole debate.

    1. You describe CS requirements as "minimal" - thus only dumbasses would missinterpret it - when the requirements total 9 pages single spaced when copied into open office from http://www.craigslist.org/about/terms.of.use

    2. We can't tell if you were following those so called "minimal" requirements - which only, again, a dumbass would not follow according to your rhetoric - when we cannot tell if you were in violation of either of these rules

    EX: You DO NOT POST
    l) that constitutes or contains any form of advertising or solicitation if: posted in areas of the craigslist sites which are not designated for such purposes; or emailed to craigslist users who have not indicated in writing that it is ok to contact them about other services, products or commercial interests.

    m) that includes links to commercial services or web sites, except as allowed in "services"

    We cannot tell if your craigslist post was indeed in violation of these rules. You clearly were making money - a commercial venture - and we have no idea if such a post was allowed in whichever CL section you happened to use.

    With that being said. I, as a reader, cannot tell if it was stupid to delete your post. Regardless of that unknown, even if you were fully protected under the CL terms of conduct, you might have violated some unsaid rules of conduct on the internet or on CL... or perhaps people did not know about this new tool you are using which enables you to accept credit cards without being an incorporated entity...

    My point is - there are multiple, perfectly reasonable explanations to why your post was "apparently" removed, without assuming everyone using CL is "apparently" dumb or bad intentioned. To turn your argument a bit more on its head... I use CL, many readers her do, and apparently so do you... are all of us dumb?

    The issue bias you raise is huge! And the unfair censorship, in an ideal world, would be deplorable... but instead of building a weak argument against the horrifying injustice of 20 million "wrongfully deleted" CL postings... couldn't we also look at the fact that there are 980 million posts being globally broadcast for everyone to see? That's amazing!!! Sure CL and other crowd sourced services are flawed... but much can be accomplished with crowd sourcing. Much that might never have been thought possible before. It seems that the COMPLEXITY of CL terms of agreement would be the major problem here... not the stupidity of the masses

    I say, cheers to your efforts and I agree with much of what you said. Your argument would need some more polish before surviving a truly crowdsourced peer review :)
    TedwardHall
    • You're one of them

      @TedwardHall I bet you'd just LOOOOVE to flag this whole article and everyone in it wouldnt you? you seem like the type of smug SOB who thinks everyone should follow his own rules... maybe youre the one who posted the "everyone flag listings based on what i dont like" ad in the wrong section, dilweed<br><br>My point is - thanks for flagging my post about providing free landscaping help for elderly people who need it, YOU JERK
      DanteThaeman