Internet Hoaxes and Community Strength

Following the reveal of my students’ hoaxes from this semester, Yoni Appelbaum, a correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote a very interesting piece on the course itself and the lessons we can learn for why the 2008 hoax was more successful (seemingly) than the 2012 hoaxes.

Appelbaum’s piece focuses on the strength or weakness of various forms of Internet communities, arguing that Wikipedia’s community is relatively weak and opaque, while Reddit’s community is quite strong (at least at the sub-Reddit level) and very transparent. Further, Wikipedia’s community is extremely decentralized, while Reddit’s (again, at the sub-Reddit level) is quite centralized. Does that explain why the members of the serial killer sub-Reddit exposed my students’ hoax as a hoax in just 26 minutes? I think it’s an interesting idea and one worth exploring in more detail.

The other thing that I think is interesting is the comment thread on the article, largely because it’s been a while since I was called “pond scum.” A quick review of the 70+ comments just now indicates that about a half to a third of the commenters read the piece carefully and engaged with the issues Appelbaum raises. The other half to two-thirds were either just plain angry that my students created false histories and put them online for two weeks, or that my students had somehow vandalized Wikipedia. A more careful reading of the article indicates, as I wrote yesterday, that one of the ironies of this year’s class was that the Wikipedia entries my students created were 100% true. Two were deleted for lack of sufficient notability, but the third survives (as it should).

There is, to be sure, an important ethical issue to be considered with respect to this course. Were I willing to let my students leave their hoaxes up indefinitely, I believe that would be an ethical lapse. Further, were I willing to let them create hoaxes on any subject (medicine/health care, terrorism, living people were some of the off limits topics), then I think one could argue that we’d crossed the line. But a beer from 1812 or a man who died in the 1920s (and who shows up in no one’s family history on Ancestry.com)? I don’t think there were any real victims here.

I’m going to look forward to the further unrolling of this story over the next few days.

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2 Responses to Internet Hoaxes and Community Strength

  1. I suspect that some of the Wikipedia vandalism critiques are coming from people who hadn’t heard of your earlier exploits, so the fact that your students didn’t do it THIS year is largely irrelevant to them. As far as they’re concerned, all the damage you’ve done is worth talking about.

    I think it was interesting that your students managed to avoid outright fabrication on Wikipedia this time, but it doesn’t fundamentally change my view that this course and project are pedagogically and historiographically questionable, and feed into powerful and damaging misconceptions about what historical work involves.

  2. Mills says:

    Thanks Jonathan for your response. I’d be pleased if you would elaborate on what those “powerful and damaging misconceptions are” and how you see the course promoting or encouraging them.

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