The Herd Effect
We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd. We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam. The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback. The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information. We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution. The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.
Following a part of the herd, I registered at Herdict.org a couple of weeks ago. I became member number 58. Herdict.org is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University. The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”. The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues. The first two are PC Health and Network Health. Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to Herdict.org with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems.
Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time. But it could also signal problems with the Network itself. Problems that go beyond the merely technical. For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced. This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon. As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.
But also other possibilities arise. These are not at once evident, but Herdict.org could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort. In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”. In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered. Herdict.org could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.
See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.