Web Hostess Live: The latest from the Web

Apr 18, 2013

A weekly chat about the best ways to kill time online. Our Web Hostess, Monica Hesse, sifts the Internet so you don't have to, searching for meaning, manners and the next great meme.

Afternoon, everyone, and thanks for stopping by. We'll get started at 2.

Today I wanted to throw out a few questions related to the spread of information. As a lot of news outlets reported (here's a link to my own piece today), Internet communities including Reddit and 4Chan launched searches to find the track down the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombing. Volunteers pored over user-submitted photograps, searching for suspicious behavior. (My piece has links to the Reddit site and to the 4chan site, which you can click on for perusal).

What do you think of this kind of amateur sleuthing? Is is a positive use of crowdsourcing, or a gross invasion of privacy? Is it police assistance, or vigilantism?

Now. However you answered: How would your feelings change if perpetrators were apprehended using these methods? How would your feelings change if innocent people were accused because of these methods?

Further, on the questions of misinformation spread:

Which of the following rumors, related to the Boston marathon, did you see in the course of the last few days?

A) An arrest has been made. The suspect is being taken to custody.

B) Police are looking for a dark-skinned man who dropped off a backpack.

C) Police are looking for a white man wearing a baseball cap and gray hoodie.

D) An estimated 12 people died.


As a reader/Facebook follower/Twitter follower, which would you prefer? 1) To receive a steady stream of updates, including information that later turns out to be false. 2) To receive no information for hours, but to be assured that the eventual information is factually accurate.

And: Slate's guide to how to Tweet during a tragedy is pretty good, I think.

Monica, where are you!

I am here! Where are you? (Is this an existential question?)

I think it could be useful, with the understanding that if you found something suspicious you turn it over to the authorities and let them interpret it, track down the involved people & decide if it's a legitimate lead. I had only heard rumor A). I would rather get info that is almost certainly correct even if it takes longer.

Thanks. I'm curious to hear how you would determine what "suspicious" meant. Would you rely on gut feelings? (Not denigrating gut feelings; sometimes they're very useful). Would you wait for authorities to put out a description, and then only flag photographs of people that seemed to fit that description?

Cupcake, I follow quite a few blogs regularly, usually on the fashion-lifestyle end of the spectrum. I know some of the bloggers have views different than mine, from the "I believe" heading that links to the LDS website, to the content in some posts. It's never bothered me because, hey! a pretty chair is a pretty chair, right? Well, now with the gun control debate I'm starting to rethink my position. One of my favorite local blogs is written by a NRA lobbyist (its all over Google, despite her veil of "anonymity".) I have been horrified by the response and rhetoric the NRA hiding behind, and it wasn't until today that I questioned whether or not it was personally ethical for me to in a very very minuscule way somehow passively support this organization. Thoughts on whether or not I should stop reading? On one hand, its the NRA. On the other, "Oh! the pretty pretty handbags!"

I think you should keep reading it. The reason I think you should keep reading it is not because I think you should try to seperate bloggers personalities from political views, but rather because it's hard to argue against the idea of keeping lines of communication open with people of all political beliefs.

You no longer following or communicating with this blogger doesn't mean that she suddenly sees the error of her ways or changes her views on gun control. It just means that both of you have retreated a little further into your belief silos, surrounding yourselves with people who only think as you do, making it that much harder to understand other perspectives.

Other views?



That guy's reputation was ruined when he was pegged as the Atlanta Olympics bomber. (The real bomber was known crazy abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph.) That was before Twitter, Facebook, et al. He had never been charge in the incident, but to this day, people still associate him as the Olympic Park bomber.

A confession: When people first began referencing Richard Jewell in the context of the Boston events, there was a moment during which I had to pause and remember whether Jewell was the man who planted the bomb or the man falsely accused of planting the bomb. That's the power of those rumors, 16 years later.

A someone who believes "he never does anything wrong", I am not opposed to scouring all of the amateur images that were taken. At the very least, this may deter some future maniac. It might have helped in the Atlanta Olympics bombing (where the wrong person ws arrested, allegedly). The footage of the explosion in Texas may prove to be invaluable. On the other hand, those golf wackos need to stop.

Golf wackos?

I saw a tweet from a friend to a teenage friend of her niece. It was about this girl being bullied, pretty badly, in school, being told she should kill herself, etc. I started talking to the kid, asking her if she has told her teacher or parents, telling her that nobody has the right to talk to her that way. So what can/should a disinterested party do when we hear about bullying? I don't have kids, but I have plenty of little people who look at me as the cool cousin/aunt/buddy. So when they and their friends have problems like this, what can outsider adults do? I'd do anything in my power to help a kid who is under duress.

It sounds like you're doing it -- "It" being the most important thing you can do: make sure the kid knows that she has value that is completely independent of what others say about her, offer her your time and a sympathetic ear, consistently reinforce the message that, for most people, it does get better.


How geographically close you live might impact different levels of involvement you can have -- i.e. helping her get involved in confidence-building activities that have nothing to do with her classmates at school. And by confidence building, I don't mean "self-esteem classes," but even things like, "Hey -- I want to learn to ice skate. Let's go together and both be terrible but laugh a lot." Or, "Let's paint dishes and then go eat ice cream."


If someone is constantly being told that no one likes them, one of the more powerful antidotes might be a steady reassurance that people (i.e. you) -do- like them, and want to spend time around them.


I can't wait to see what other suggestions chatters have for this.

First question: I have no problem with civilians looking at pictures to identify something suspicious. It only becomes vigilantism if the civilians then decide to form a posse and go string someone up. That becomes wrong. Second question: A, B, C Third question: I would prefer to be updated quickly even if it turned out to be wrong at the beginning. however, after a while I just turned off all media on the day it happened and then looked again the next morning.

I think an interesting question might be to consider where "vigilantism" begins. True -- the online commenters might not be physically assaulting someone. But labeling someone as a potential terrorist on the Internet has very real real-world consequences. My point is, the actions might "become wrong" at some point before the official posse is formed.

I want accurate information and am willing to wait for it. I have NO earthly reason to need to know a suspect is in custody the exact minute he is in custody. In fact, you could have the guy in custody for weeks and not tell me and it does not affect my life. Really, why do people want to know things instantly? The immediate news coming out of these situations is ALWAYS wrong, and that was true in this case, as well as in the case of the poison letters. All sorts of unrelated incidents were linked to the main incident and the details of those peripheral incidents were usually wrong.

I'll be curious to see whether you're in the minority or the majority. My sense is that many newswatchers -hope- they can be like you, but find themselves clicking on rumors just the same.

Well, duh. Obviously I want a steady stream of factually accurate information immediately. Seriously, though, I've been trying to pinpoint the root of the emotional investment I have. I know that factual information will come out when it comes out, and nothing I feel about those facts will make any difference in them. I've never been to Boston, never run or watched a marathon, and I don't know anyone affected or potentially affected. So why am I constantly refreshing the pages of various news outlets, getting hopeful at a report (no matter how carefully phrased), then feeling betrayed when it turns out not to be true? I fully admit to being the demand side of this transaction. At least the news sources' motives make sense--their business is feeding that demand. Why the demand exists is more of a puzzle for me.

These are wonderful questions you raise. I can only imagine that you're motivated by a sense of outrage and empathy for the victims, and you want things solved, right now.

If you do not pronounce it correctly I will not stay. You can explain that to all of the group.

As opposed to what? Fan-dang-oh? I think I pronounce it wrong. But I am Midwestern. I'm just going to blame the prairie accent.

Your response to me is why you are the Queen of the Internet. You concisely and eloquently made the case for me to continue to read the blog in a way that makes me sound like a smarty pants. In the imaginary conversation I will have with a stranger who questions the ethics behind continuing to read her blog, I will use your answer and cite my references accordingly.

Well, and also, it sounds like she has impeccable taste, which crosses all party lines.

Sigh. Not sure where to start. In the olden days, only the rich/powerful had access to knowledge and books. They filtered what we learned and knew. Then we got libraries and pretty much anybody could read and learn. Still, the authors and libraries filtered what we learned and knew. Now we have the interwebs and access to massive amounts of knowledge, data, resources, etc. That means we must learn to filter for ourselves, and sometimes we're just not that good at it. We need to realize that not all of us are cut out to be analysts. While we can provide the raw materials, let's try to leave the analysis to the experts.

I think a worthwhile high school class would just be called "filtering." And that's all it would do: teach students to filter, filter, filter.

I saw David Sedaris last night, and he said that he wished that everyone would just shut up about Boston until they had news that had been confirmed, that all of the uninformed speculation is the worst part. I completely agree. And I had heard rumor A, and read about rumor D in a Washington Post article yesterday.

Really? Are you sure? I thought that it was only the NY Post that had reported the incorrect death numbers.

I will believe it. But get it wrong enough times, and I'll stop believing you. CNN, I'll forgive for now. NY Post, nope.

John King is on probation, eh?

Probably the golf fans that are disecting whether Tiger Woods took a legal or illegal drop during the Masters.

Ah. I would ask what an illegal drop is, but my lack of gold knowledge is probably already clear at this point.

I am very concerned by what I see happening regarding the amateur sleuthing going on. If the news stories I'm reading are correct (and that's a big "if"), these folks have been spreading bad information and fingering people as suspicious. Further, they may be endangering an investigation as well as law enforcement. Say the FBI is onto someone but plans to use the ploy of talking to them as a "witness" or use an undercover approach, where they pretend to be delivering a package in order to surveille the person. If the internets are awash with news the particular person is a suspect and his arrest is imminent, the stakes for the suspect go WAY up. Whereas he might have been tricked and taken into custody, now he's sure the end is nigh and may choose to go out in a blaze of glory, taking law enforcement with him. If folks want to look through footage they have and then send it to the cops and point out the suspicious behavior they see, okay. But for God's sake, please don't post it on the internet.

What you point out -- that the FBI might deliberately be -not- identifying suspects -- is the rationale, I believe, in why officials haven't yet released the Lord & Taylor security camera footage they've been looking at. If they don't have the right suspects, then they'll create an unnecessary witch hunt. And if they do have the right suspects, then they might be tipping their hands before they have enough evidence for an arrest.

Kind of regarding your first question, at least regarding amateur justice and sleuthing. I think this week's Good Wife episode covered vigilanteism really well. I think many of us are, in our hearts, ultimately on the side of the vigilantes, but sometimes they make it really difficult. They don't know when to shut up, or lay off, or leave well enough alone. But sometimes that is exactly what is necessary. Someone to not leave well enough alone and disturb the waters. Authorities have been telling us for years, "if you see something, say something." I think this is probably the natural progression.

And now that I have spent the past two months relentlessly watching Good Wife episodes, I know exactly the reference you speak of. The brain/heart divide is an interesting one -- i.e. agreeing with someone's goals or beliefs, but cringing at how they're going about it.

Starting with the misinformation questions... I definitely saw "A" on twitter, and feel like I heard/saw "C," but not clear on that one. As someone who is primarily on twitter to follow the baseball team, I've also followed a lot of WaPo people and restaurants. I didn't see a lot of the misinformation, but some definitely came across my feed. That being said, in a white/black world I'd prefer not to hear anything until it is fact checked. If a suspect was really arrested, how long do news organizations really think it will take to get the information actually confirmed? The police are going to be just as anxious to get that info out as everyone else. Additionally, in today's media environment is there really the same pressure to be first? Many news papers are going to a paywall online, so they aren't as dependent on clicks to make their money. There's also no such thing as an exclusive in today's world. Every t.v. based media outlet is going to have their camera's on the press conference, and every print newspaper is going to deliver the same information the next morning. If you must tweet about it, the qualify the hell out of your statements unless 100% sure. I'm a little squeamish about the vigilante photo sleuthing too. These people might find something, but let's face it... they're not trained and don't really know what they're doing. The likelihood is much greater that they will finger innocent people (NY Post), rather than find the actual criminals.

I think it's precisely because there is "no such thing as an exclusive" that makes news outlets so concerned with being first. If the idea is that you'll eventually be able to get all of the same information everywhere, then it's extra important to be the people who can deliver it to you first.

The only rumors you mention that I didn't see were the rumor about an estimated 12 people dead, and that the man in the baseball cap and grey hoodie was white. I either saw or misread that as a white baseball cap and grey hoodie. I think I can tell you I would rather have news organizations wait and get it right, but I am super guilty of refreshing my page over and over again and hoping that there is new info. Or checking all of my usual news sources, somewhat obessively, to see if there is anything new to know.

I'm really interested by those of you who would rather have factual information, but who admit to being constant refreshers (Me, too).

This brings back for me the sniper attacks in the DC area. Law enforcement had people looking for white vans and it turns out a while van had never been involved. Later, I believe they admitted that a lot of time was wasted chasing down those white van leads. It was just too vague a description and it turned out to be false in the end. Looking for a "dark-skinned guy with a backpack" or a "guy in a hoodie with a turned-around baseball cap" seems like the same thing to me.

Especially at an event like the marathon, where it was probably easier to spot someone who wasn't carrying a bag or wearing a baseball cap than someone who was.

I heard all 4 (arrest, dark-skinned man, baseball cap, & 12+ dead). I prefer to get correct information even if it is delayed. The problem is with today's 24-hour news cycle and the competition for ad revenue, everybody wants to scoop the other station. This is, INMNSHO, wrong.


The questions: Effective use of crowdsourcing, just that officials be cautious; A and B; and accurate information even if it takes hours or days. Now, with that out of the way: Have you seen the new video by PSY, which was recently banned by South Korea's public broadcaster? My take: Love the music, video  is very much derivative and formulaic. Despite that, 148 million views since its Saturday release...

Oh, I wondered if we were going to talk about the new Psy video. I don't like this new dance (exaggerated hula) as much as I liked the old dance (exaggerated pony).

In this case, I think I would define "suspicious" (although maybe that's not even the right word) as anyone with a large backpack, bag or whatever that might fit something bomblike. With the understanding that almost all of the flagged images would be completely innocent people. But at least it would narrow down how much stuff the police had to comb through.

Thank you.

AbsoLUTEly speak plainly to these kids, and especially if you're not related to them. Kids often think that their parents tell them what parents "should" tell them, but when an unrelated person tells it to them, it carries extra weight.

Agreed -- who ever believed what their parents told them?

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that the Washington Post was reporting the higher death toll numbers. I was referring to a couple of posts in Eric Wemple's blog about how far off the Post was compared to other media outlets, quoting an unnamed "federal law enforcement source". I had not heard the NY Post rumor until I saw Eric's blog.

Ah, I see. You read it in the Washington Post because the Washington Post was talking about how the New York Post was incorrect.

The part of the coverage that drives me nuts is the "bystander" interviews, where "bystander" comes to mean someone who had a beer in Boston back in the 90s. I think local news tends to use this tactic more often, but it still irks me that they're shoving a microphone in front of someone completely unrelated's face, asking their opinion of this tragedy - of course they're going to think it's tragic. What kind of positive info flow are you aiming for here?

Filling air space, filling air space.

i believe part of this, too, reflects our reality TV of everyone wanting fame and not just for 15 minutes. I believe many of these individuals want to be the hero who "finds" the culprit(s) for self-serving reasons more than for justice or comfort for the victims.

I'm not sure that's new, though -- I'm sure that people looking to nab criminals back in the 1920s were also only too happy to talk about how they did it, and absorb some glory.

I would prefer to get correct information, even if it's delayed. These types of events show the best AND the worst of Twitter... Meanwhile, Boston has shown it is as strong as ever. In case anyone hasn't seen the video of the entire crowd singing the anthem at the Bruins game last night (the first big event in the city since Monday), here's the link: it was such a beautiful moment <3

It was, wasn't it? I love when people sing in public. It's an act so filled with self-awareness and embarrassment for most people, that when average people do it, it really means something.

Heard on NPR this AM that PSY's new video is banned in his native South Korea because in one scene he kicks over an official orange traffic cone, which the South Korean government has deemed unacceptable behavior.

Fascinating that out of everything he does in that video, it's the kicked traffic cone that does it for South Korea.

With Boston & everything else I was really looking forward to a chat full of meme links or culture/"fluff" to cheer me and give me the oomph to end the week. I see the importance of the topics, but can you at least throw a fun link or two out for those of us who are at saturation for anything related to Boston? Thanks & GSTQ

Psy's new video didn't do it for you? Would you like to watch the New Zealand parliament all break out into song after they pass gay marriage? Would you like to read a completely deranged email from a University of Maryland sorority sister? What kind of happy place can we give you?

If the goal is "search for every image in which someone is seen with a backpack or large satchel" and then that subset of images is immediately handed over, do not pass go, do not collect 200 upvotes, then the motives are clearly to be helpful. If it's "acting suspicious" and then digging further then people's own biases will come into play and it sounds like vigilantism. As for the rumors, I heard all of them via the snark about their being debunked (or at least contested). Heh.

Posting. And I like the way you're thinking about the blurry lines between being helpful and serving prurient interests.

Thanks. If nothing else, let this be a reminder to parents to monitor their kids public social media. The girl I was talking to said she hadn't told her parents. If they read her twitter, they'd see her in pain. I just want to call her school and yell at the teacher who told her she couldn't change seats to get away from the boy who tells her to kill herself ever day. Oh, and the hang out idea is great for local kids I know. But it may seem weird when my 30 something self shows up at her house to pick her up. Good way to talk to the parents though!

That's heartbreaking. And now I think we all want to yell at that teacher.

When will they ever learn that Polaroids and VHS tapes can be found by others? Jeez.

Kids today.

Given the number of photoshopped pix online (mostly to negate some of the more grotesque wounds), how much faith can we really have in an "analysis" of online photos as a criminal investigation resource? I get that there are many people hoping for a quick and complete resolution, and a crowd-sourced crime-solving would hit many key emotional wickets, but, unless you're working with original photos, I've got to be suspect (sorry for the pun) of the result, which I think is a healthy level of skepticism for this kind of thing.

Thanks -- the photoshopped question is an interesting one. Though I'm hardpressed to think of reasons that anyone but the truly nefarious would deliberately alter images that way.

Wasn't that the original preface to "Lean In"?


If you submit a photograph or video to any website, you are inviting people to view it. We all (at least those who come to your chat) view a lot of completely mindless stuff (cat videos, anyone?) for its entertainment value. I'm assuming the perpetrator(s) didn't not record their own video of their actions and submit it. Even if they had, they've submitted it. No way is this an invasion of privacy. I suppose an argument could be made that the police would rather go through all this material themselves and keep some information private so they can determine if someone's confession is real or made up. But here we are, doing a lot of work for them for free, which they probably don't have the manpower to do, so I'm guessing they don't mind. But in any case, this wasn't your question. My answer would not change if the perpetrators were caught, and while it would be unfortunate if innocent people were accused, well that happens all the time anyway. I wish it didn't, and hope it doesn't, but it wouldn't change my mind about this.

Posting, for a perspective that seems a bit different than others we've seen.

Someone took the time to splice together cuts from Family Guy to make it look like Seth McFarlane had "predicted" the Boston marathon bombing.

Oh. That.

totally agree with that OP. I also dont' understand why local news affiliates feel like they need to send their own reporters to events like this that don't have a local angle. Here in Northern California, they are playing up the fact that a local boy was injured and it feels really shallow and opportunistic, the way they seem eager to claim "their" part of the big, important, national story. But for most places, there isn't even THAT tenuous link to local relevance.


That cracked me up. I would totally watch a one-woman show by that girl - she really feels passionate about something that does not matter at all. The thing that's amazing is that the letter-writer, while over-the-top emotionally, is at the same time coherent and uses correct grammar and spelling.

It truly is. She comes across as very intelligent -- you can even see some reasoning in her arguments -- while also coming across as nearly homicidal.

We are Americans and we pronounce words differently in different parts of the country,.

Thank you.

http://i.imgur.com/N10WUxV.jpg. Some of what I've seen has just been ridiculous. I also think the underlying current of internet sleuthing turns into real life vigilantism. I remember reading that somebody tackled a Saudi national and then the police raided his apartment and reporters hounded his roommate, all because he was "suspicious," which, in this case, meant running away from a bomb while Middle Eastern. I've looked at a lot of this internet sleuthing and really don't enjoy the most discriminatory where's waldo ever. I just don't trust people to be truly open-minded about this, and I really don't think the value of what folks are doing outweighs the cost. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of officers on this case and they're using tried and true methods and technology. I don't think the sleuthing is adding very much.

Click to enlarge these images. It's just worth it.

The sorority gal letter was delish.

I like that she is basically chastising all of her sisters for not being good at flirting and not caring about sports. Perhaps some etiquette classes on these subjects will be held soon.

How come when something tragic happens (Boston, a notable figure's death), people on my Facebook page race to be the first person to post about it? I don't get it. There's never anything insightful in the post, it's basically saying, "hey - I was FIRST!" And just to add, I'm nearly 40, so my FB friends aren't children (though I think FB makes them act like kids... and also kids don't even use FB anymore, do they?).

I validate your irritation. This speaks to impulses I do not have and cannot understand. Perhaps someone else here can?

HI Monica! I am hanging in the NICU with my three-week-old preemie. She's magnificent, especially for having been born at less than a pound and a half. Until she comes home, though, I spend a fair amount of time sitting in her room (either next to her incubator or while holding her) surfing the web in small bites. I'm totally caught up on Slate, WaPo, and Cracked, and I'm getting burned out on preemie/medical research. Any suggestions for some lesser-known-but-awesome websites that might lighten the mood?

Congratulations  on your gorgeous baby!

Are you acquainted yet with TheBloggess.com? I think perhaps you should be friends.

Thank you for confirming my lifelong prejudice against modern fraternities and especially sororities.

Why "especially" sororities? Seems an unfair differentiation.

As Woodrow Wilson said about academic politics, the battles are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Is that who said that? Been hearing that quoted for years.

Lonely people looking to connect and/or self-validate their relevance. Not that I'm a psychologist or anything...

Well, that.

I looked at the "suspicious" pics yesterday, and the reasons some people were labeled as suspects were ludicrous. My favorites? "Bag." "No bag." Each person who removed their backpack is now a suspect. Hrm. It's considered polite to remove a knapsack and set it at your feet when you are in a large crowd, on transit, etc so you don't thwack someone in the face. And now good manners can make you a bombing suspect. Wow.

I thought that, too. "Excuse me, Mr. Poster. You must be unfamiliar with crowd etiquette."

You're welcome. Gotta support my fellow Illinoians. I once heard a BBC interview with a British linguistics professor who said that the purest English spoken anywhere was in the midwestern U.S. As the phone lines burned up with indignation, the host asked, "But what about Oxford English?" Answer, "Oh yes, that's an interesting minor dialect."

I have been informed that I'm missing a WWE reference that Fahn-Dahn-gooo referred to. I cannot understand all of the references though. I cannot.

One also needs to cut off those who are declaring that "no one likes you." Give this kid the strength of mind to cut off or ignore the bullies, if that's possible.


That's all for today -- see you back here next week. In the meantime, email me at hessem@washpost.com or follow me @MonicaHesse on Twitter (where I usually alert when chat topics have been posted, for you early birds who want to be FIRST.)



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Monica Hesse
Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.

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