I spent a significant amount of yesterday listening to a live internet stream of the Boston Police Department's radio chatter. I'm not even really sure why; while I was following a couple of Reddit threads as well, I wasn't participating in any kind of information gathering, and I wasn't particularly interested in the rampant and frequently misguided speculation about the location, motives and identity of Suspect 2, aka "white hat".
I tuned out long before he was finally located and arrested, too; I'm astonished but relived the police managed to take him alive - both because I expected him to commit suicide when capture became inevitable, and because I didn't think any American police department has the kind of self control to restrain their retribution when tracking a suspect in the shooting death of a police officer.
In the aftermath, the contribution of Reddit, Anonymous and 4chan in providing information and data mining, both to the police and to the mainstream media (as well as fact-hungry rubberneckers like myself), is being pretty well looked at from every angle; the biggest misstep made by the internet's amateur detectives was falsely identifying Suspect 2 - he was later named by police as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but for a few hours he was accepted by the online participants to be Sunil Tripathi.
Which wouldn't have been so serious, except that Mr. Tripathi has been missing since March 16th and this additional attention probably didn't ease his family's suffering. It probably wasn't the kind of media attention they wanted for their missing son.
I think the problem is that, when you're watching this stuff unfold on TV or on your computer, even if you're from or in the town, city, state or country affected, you're separated and distanced from the reality and gravity of the situation. The way people were approaching the identity and location of the bomber, as if it was just a puzzle to be solved, reminded me a lot of the way you see communities tackle ARGs.
If, in the future, these online communities have the opportunity, willingness and drive to assist in this kind of investigation - even if it's purely for ARG-style puzzle solving - I hope they learn lessons from the aftermath of Boston. By all means help identify suspects, providing possible names if you can, crowdsource footage and photos and testimony from eyewitnesses.
But maybe leave the theorizing and speculation to the professionals. It's all too easy for a rumour on a Reddit thread or on Twitter to be picked up by a hungry CNN or Fox researcher - and once it's on the air, getting it off again is going to take a lot longer.
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