By now, you've heard about Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor from upstate New York who is enjoying a massive financial windfall thanks to a Good Samaritan from Toronto.
Klein was viciously taunted and teased, to the point of tears, by some Grade 7 students. Another student videotaped the little twerps, and put it online. It went viral. The Internet crashed down like Thor's hammer, subjecting the bullies to ridicule and giving Klein a giant pile of cash ($655,000 and rising as I write this).
This is the act of the invisible giant. It is sometimes kind and sometimes malevolent, and you had better not piss it off.
The thing about the Internet is that anyone might be famous and important to hundreds of thousands of people, and you might not know it. For example, have you ever heard of Mike Krahulik?
Paul Christoforo hadn't. In the winter of 2011, Christoforo, a small-time public relations guy working for a niche video game hardware company, got into a nasty email exchange with a customer. The customer forwarded the emails to, among others, Krahulik, who draws a web comic called Penny Arcade.
Penny Arcade has more than 3.5 million readers.
Krahulik fired back an email saying that the firm Christoforo represented wouldn't get a booth at the upcoming PAX videogaming convention in Boston.
Christoforo sent this masterpiece of spelling, punctuation, and grammar: "Were in 6 countries and you're not going to take my money for a booth that's a crock I can guarantee I'll get a booth if I want one money buys a lot and connections go even further. He's a native Bostonian from Little Italy . Who are you again?"
Oops. Krahulik pointed out who he was, and that PAX was, in fact, his show. (It stands for Penny Arcade Expo). Then he published the email chain, and the web gleefully kicked Christoforo in the teeth for a while, turning him into a meme and a byword for arrogance and poor customer relations. The company he had been working for practically broke the sound barrier putting as much distance between themselves and their former PR guy. They didn't do it fast enough to avoid a deluge of negative reviews for their products, most directly linked to "customer service."
I could dig out half a dozen similar cases: the recently ended Operation Bear Love Good, Cancer Bad campaign, which raised $220,000 for charities and emerged from a spat between a web cartoonist and a lawyer. Again in this case, the Internet sided with the cartoonist and jumped on the lawyer, who seemed oblivious to its power and reach as he added to an ever expanding list of targets for his lawsuit. The lawyer recently dropped the suit and declared victory in this bizarre episode, which eventually involved the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Groups like Anonymous have tracked down and publicly named people filmed abusing cats. Twitter users have managed to find everything from stolen cellphones to bicycles to cars by broadcasting the details of a theft and drawing thousands of pairs of eyes to the search.
There seem to be a few general rules to avoid incurring the wrath of the Internet. First, don't be a jerk. Yes, most trolls, halfwits, and blowhards go unpunished for their bad behaviour. Most is not none.
Second, don't poke people who are Internet famous.
Thirdly, anyone can be Internet famous. I know better than to get into a fight with say, John Scalzi, Wil Wheaton, or 4chan. Don't know who they are? Millions do, and those millions will jump to their defence if you are enough of a dirt-brained jackass.
The Internet's anonymity makes a lot of people into jerks. But it will also punish bad behaviour and reward the deserving. It's a capricious giant. Toy with it at your peril.