The past few weeks have seen an impressive burst of political activism from nerd hive Reddit. Now they're talking about "destroying" senators. Oh jesus, this does not bode well.
It started in late December, when the domain registrar company GoDaddy voiced its support of the much-reviled Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Reddit launched a ferocious GoDaddy boycott campaign, and the company revoked its support. Since the GoDaddy victory, Reddit users have gone sort of power mad, talking now like digital Boss Tweeds. They want to ruin senators. "Let's pick ONE Senator of (sic) voted for NDAA/SOPA and destroy him like we're doing for GoDaddy," read a popular post.
Ultimately, Reddit decided to destroy Republican Wisconsin Rep Paul Ryan. It turns out they were completely wrong about him being SOPA supporter. But, oh well, Pullryan.com had already been registered! Since its launch, Operation Pull Ryan has held a Q & A with Paul Ryan's underdog Democratic opponent, Rob Zerban, and today we learn they've raised $15,000 for him.
Stories like this will make "the power of the Reddit hive mind" an inescapable meme of the 2012 race—replacing the old and busted "power of social media" trope. And it's true that networked communities of which Reddit is emblematic will have an increasing influence on politics in 2012 and beyond. Much of Occupy Wall Street's power came from its own, highly-engaged internet hive mind.
But as someone who once was at the receiving end of the Reddit hive's misguided ire, I am the opposite of excited about the prospect of mobs of excitable nerds dominating the political discourse, or of a haven of mens' rights enthusiasts and Ron Paul fanatics like Reddit being cast as some unstoppable force—"the Reddit Army"— before which we should all cower in fear.
While great for short bursts of fundraising or getting out a timely message, purely digital mobs like Reddit or the hacktivist collective Anonymous are not well-suited for thoughtful, sustained participation in the political process. Fuck the "Wisdom of the crowd." The thinking of the internet hive mind is shallow and frantic, scrambling from one outrage to the next. This is the same collective will once harnessed to hound a legitimate cancer fundraiser off the internet because she was thought to be a scammer, and where a post inviting users to voice their racist opinions actually crashed the site.
Sure, a week of Reddit freaking out forced GoDaddy to drop its support of SOPA, but the number of GoDaddy subscribers actually increased on the day of the supposed boycott, suggesting GoDaddy had played the hive for a cheap shot of publicity. A savvy candidate could easily do the same in the future. And of course there is the absurdity of waging an anti-SOPA campaign against Paul Ryan, who is a terrible politician but doesn't actually support SOPA.
There is also the fact that the tactics the hive mind engenders don't resonate with those in power. Clay Johnson made this point in an excellent post, "Dear Internet: It's no longer OK to not know how congress works." Reddit, for example, is great at constructing insulting memes out of your face and flooding your inbox and Twitter feed with "Die In A Fire" when you piss them off. Not the stuff that wins elections.
Anybody but Reddit, 2012.