If you build it, they will spam


Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle have written an interesting opinion piece on recent trends in collective intelligence on the Web, something they and others have called Web 2.0. The article covers a lot of ground, touching on everything from medical imaging to politics to Twitter. It is a vision, and one that isn’t so far off: we can see the technological dots forming recognizable patterns. Emboldened by the success of Google, Twitter and Mechanical Turk, the authors call for similar engagement in healthcare, energy policy, and financial regulation, among others.

While what they describe is not exactly a technological Utopia, their picture is somewhat rosy. The authors don’t mention spamdexing, blog spam, mirror sites, sping, and a host of other spam tactics that are every bit as clever as the “virtuous” Web 2.0 technology, but designed to be subversive of the utility of the channels they exploit. Fortunately the stakes are low when my blog or Skype account is spammed, but they can be more significant if that disinformation affects some of the systems that the authors proposed. Even now, Twitter trending topics have been gamed, with hoaxes such as celebrity deaths.

Who cares if people think that Madonna died? you might ask, and you would be right that ultimately the stakes are still low. But what if these social consensus mechanisms are being used to game your healthcare provider or the SEC? When there is more at stake, the incentivesĀ  to game the system also go up. Possibilities for malfeasance range from highly visible pranks to manipulations forĀ  financial gain to political acts or even cyber-warfare. So while we should welcome the improvements in communication, collaboration and interaction that Web 2.0 technologies enable, we need to understand just how vulnerable these systems are to being subverted, and must learn how to mitigate these effects. In the long run, we will enjoy the benefits of all this communication only if we build infrastructure that is resilient to the darker side of human nature.