Online “riots” or protests are not random, despite appearing to be spontaneous. They have patterns. One pattern is a set of emergent roles that individuals assume. People take on one or more roles based on the individual’s interest and skills/ability to perform those role(s) effectively.
Below are some of the roles that I’ve seen in online customer protests. I’m using examples from AmazonFail, since it was recent, but other protests show similar patterns.
1) Aggrieved – people injured or offended by the company. In most large-scale online protests, the Aggrieved are a class or group, not a single person. In AmazonFail, there were two groups: the impacted authors, and those who saw the situation as an attack against GLBT topics/people.
2) Spark – someone who gets the initial audience. A Spark has to describe the issue in a compelling way and have “enough” readers for the word to start to spread. The main Spark for Amazonfail was Mark Probst’s post. Sparking doesn’t always “take” (as this example shows.)
3) Town Crier – spreads the news — the “have you heard this?” folks. This role creates a full-scale protest. Twitter is an ideal tool for Town Criers. From April 11-14, there were thousands of #amazonfail tweets.
4) Roll Caller – posts/tweets about the news — not to pass along the information (since at this point, there’s already multiple posts on the topic) but to publicly demonstrate their support. People may feel social pressure to participate in Roll Call because *not* participating can look like they *don’t* support it.
5) Activist – creates online protest locations / petitions. Facebook Pages/Groups and petition sites are typical protest tools. Another example: a blogger that orchestrated a Google bomb around Amazonfail.
6) Joiner – people who sign up on the protest lists/pages. Like Roll Calling, Joining is an easy way for people to feel like they’re contributing to a worthy cause.
7) Investigative Reporter – researches the situation and shares results. Here’s an example where a blogger did a master list of books impacted by AmazonFail. Here a blogger looked at the books’ metadata tags.
8 ) Theorist – people who speculate about underlying causes. These speculations can be complex and often involve references to past events that are suspected of being linked to the current problem. One of the most popular theories on AmazonFail was this post about how AmazonFail might be the result of an online group of troublemakers called Bantown. Another example of a Theorist post here.
9) Paranoid – subcategory of Theorist. These posts show a strong suspicion of authority (incl. companies and governments). Tend to see everything as an intentional plot. This post includes quotes that tend towards the Paranoid view (“…Amazon is a bully….it’s all about sales…they want to be Walmart…”).
However: what looks like paranoia at first can start looking plausible, esp when there’s an incriminating data trail (example here, where a post that initially sounds paranoid starts sounding justifiable when you read the history).
10) Tinhat – subcategory of Theorists, but crazier than Paranoid. See the comments on this thread for tinhattery type comments (“…some unnamed company ((Apple)) is attacking Amazon over the online music market…”)
11) Contrarian – argues that the protest is off track — misinformed, overblown, etc. Here’s one example.
12) Troll – subcategory of Contrarian who writes an inflammatory opinion to exploit the emotionl/attention of the protest crowd. Blatant trollery is usually quickly spotted and warned against. More subtle trollery, like the anonymous coder who claimed to have engineered AmazonFail, take time to debunk (via Investigative Reporters).
13) Expert – subcategory of Theorists, the Expert actually knows something about the industry or company being discussed. The Expert provides background, context and explanations based on their specialist knowledge. Here’s a post by a person familiar with ecommerce architecture.
14) Insider – related to Theorists and Experts — people who claim inside knowledge (as in the stereotypical “I have this friend….”). Here’s a post and another from persons who cite conversations with Amazon employees.
16) Celebrity – a “name” who adds the weight of his/her reputation to the debate. Example: this post referenced Neil Gaiman weighing in on Amazonfail, as indeed he did. Clay Shirky commented in the aftermath here.
17) Professional – the mainstream news outlets — usually those organization’s blogs. Amazonfail was mentioned in various mainstream media outlets, including UK Guardian, LA Times, Washington Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ZDNet , Globe & Mail, Gawker, etc.
If anyone’s come across similar typographies for emergent roles in online protests — pls comment here or email me, I’d love to hear about it.
Useful articles on Amazonfail:
The New York Times has an interesting article on algorithms — how they’re both unthinking automata and also human artifacts that reflect human mental models and biases.
Church of the Customer blog gives a nice list of the many ways that Activists participated in Amazonfail.
Clay Shirky’s after-the-fireworks essay is here, in which he examines the mob effect of online protests.
B.L.Ochman’s “Lessons from Amazon, Domino’s Debacles” is here.
Other references re: online customer protests — books on related topics:
I can’t find any books or articles that are specifically about online customer protests — please anybody who knows of one, post it in the comments.
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky (2009 reprint). Awesome book — not about online protests per se, but an overview of how social networks change the power dynamic between individuals and traditional organizations.
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World by Matthew Frazer and Soumitra Dutta (2008). Similar to Shirky’s book, by a couple of guys associated with INSEAD.
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin (2008). How self-0rganizing groups form and grassroots leaders emerge.
Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory & Practice, edited by Martha McCaughey and Michael Ayers (2003) — a bit dated but still good.
Other links re: online protests:
List of WordPress blogs with “amazonfail” as a tag.
For one example of another large-scale customer protest with emergent roles, see Strikethrough 2007. Summary: LiveJournal (popular blogging platform) reacted to a complaint/threat about pedophilia on LJ (complainer was later discovered to be a small – perhaps single person – protest group). LJ hastily deleted a number of journals for “improper content/TOS violations,” in the process impacting a number of innocent groups and causing an uproar among its customers.