THE BLOG
04/20/2013 08:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Brother, Little Brother, Social Brother

A Story of Three Brothers

This is a story of three brothers. The oldest brother was known as a real control freak. He wanted to know everything about everyone. He knew what was best for his family and he certainly didn't trust them to make their own choices. Let's call him Big Brother.

The middle brother believed that everyone should do as they please, but not because he knew what was best, but because he felt family members should pull their own weight. He didn't want anyone freeloading off of his hard work and sweat equity -- especially not Big Brother. Let's call him Little Brother.

The youngest brother just wanted to have fun. He was not a very ambitious fellow. The youngest brother would get caught up in the schemes of Big Brother and Little Brother where he was courted as often as he was bullied. The youngest brother lived in relative poverty and didn't have the tools or dollars that his older brothers enjoyed and with which he could defend himself. Let's call this unfortunate soul Social Brother.

One day Social Brother found a genie in a pocket-sized magic lamp that had been created when Little Brother appropriated Big Brother's secrets and transformed them into a product to sell to Social Brother. (This was one of the reasons Big and Little Brother were always fighting -- Little Brother seldom thought of consequences and Big Brother thought of nothing but consequences.)

Now that Social Brother had a magic lamp, it made him nearly as powerful and Big and Little Brother combined. But Social Brother didn't know the traditions that kept genies from upsetting the balance of power nor did Social Brother have an agenda other than perhaps getting some Lulz or getting lucky.

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This week, starting with the tragic and sensless bombing of the Boston Marathon on Monday, through a riveting manhunt for two fugitive brothers, and ending in the death of one and apprehension of the other, Social Brother showed us just how powerful his genie (Internet+mobile+social+photography) has become.

Reddit Wanted to Help

It was exciting to see the adhocracy of Reddit self-organize and try to identify those responsible for the bombs. It was a page right out of Gertrude Chandler Warner's Boxcar Children novels. Four orphans flee a society that neither cares for nor wants them and setup an independent life in an abandoned boxcar where they proceed to solve crimes as young sleuths who can out-think the bad guys far better than the adults on the job. (Except that the Boxcar Children had a rich grandfather and didn't really need to run away from society in first place.)

Members of the Reddit (Social Brother) had the best intentions and showed tremendous selfcontrol during their quest to help the authorities (Big Brother). They poured through pictures, discussed theories, and scoured social network profiles and newsfeeds. It was, in point of fact, an awesome job. But a name was leaked and a missing kid was miss identified as a suspect on the run. Once that genie gets out of the lamp there is no putting him back.

I sincerely hope there will not be a next time but of course, there will. What can Social Brother do the next time he wants to help? Well, Social Brother isn't a person or an institution or even a group of people. Social Brother is anyone and everyone with an Internet connection and a computer or smartphone. Instead of castigating Reddit, 4Chan, or any of the other loose collections of individuals that make up Social Brother we just have to learn to follow our own advice: Just because someone says something, even if he or she believes it to be true, doesn't mean it's true.
The best journalist know that information has to be verified by multiple sources and the sources themselves have to be varied. We all have to be better journalists because Social Brother isn't a journalist. Social Brother is us.

Twitter Mucks It Up

It fun to "live tweet" an event that is happening in front of you, like a concert or a protest or a crime scene. You're letting the world know what is going on and shining a light on events that are important to the twitterverse (thereby rubbing some of that importance on to you). It's also fun to listen to a police scanner and get caught up in the world of first responders and police actions as they rescue victims and engage bad guys.

The Boston Police Department found the mixture of twitter and police scanners particularly noxious this week and had to ask Social Brother to stop tweeting -- ironically through tweets of their own.

Just as Social Brother can be the "good guys" he can also be the "bad guys." Nothing is stopping fleeing suspects from using Twitter to follow the progress of an investigation or even tweet misinformation of their own. There is a great scene in the original Matrix movie where Morpheus (Little Brother) uses a mobile phone to guide Neo away from pursuing agents (Big Brothers) in an office building. Somehow, in the illogical logic of the movie, the agents were not able to observe Neo as easily as Morpheus even though the agents seemed to be the system admins of that virtual world. In real life logic, there is no privileged point of view and we all have access to Twitter.
This is another case where we're just going to have to learn how to restrain ourselves and use good judgement before we tweet. It's OK to be Social Brother when murderers are not involved. Perhaps in the future we'll judge the social mojo of a person not by how many followers they have but by how responsible they are when tweeting.

Facebook Helps

Here's some good news: A case where Social Brother did his job and did it well. The Whalley Brothers spotted a photograph of their injured father at the scene of the bombing. But they could not communicate with him. They called the authorities (Big Brother) but because of a spelling error the authorities were unable to help. The Whalley Brothers didn't know what happened to their mother and father and turned to Facebook (and Social Brother) to find out.

The exciting thing is that it didn't take long for Social Brother to get back the the Whally Brothers with their parent's location and condition. The Facebook community can be compassionate as it can be cruel. We hear mostly about the dark side of Social Brother on Facebook, the kids bullied and teased, the con artists, the hours lost to consuming social drivel. But there is a very bright side where Social Brother raises consciousness, reunites pets with their loved ones, and raises money for noble causes.

Social Brother is Here to Stay

Social Brother, like Big and Little Brother is not good or bad. He just is. He can't be fixed because he isn't broken. But he can be accepted and understood. Don't except Social Brother to come to your rescue. We can't order him around like a personal army. We can't predict what Social Brother is going to take an interest in or make him like or +1 our blog posts and products. And anyone who claims to have the key to Social Brother's innerworkings is trolling us.

In a week where the courage and resolve of Bostonians was severely tested, where all Americans (Big, Little, and Social Brothers alike) rallied in support of justice and worked together towards a common goal, and where Anonymous raised $50,000 dollars to start their own version of The Huffington Post, we witnessed how the intersection of the Internet, mobile computing, social networks, and digital photography creates the news as much as it witnesses the news.

I hope Big, Little, and Social Brother continue to learn to get along.