Terrorism and "ooh that's interesting"

Reading the various commentary pieces about Christmas Day's attempted terrorist attack it seems blindingly obvious that tightening existing systems and reinforcing existing approaches is unlikely to help us become safer. David Brooks in an interesting piece in The New York Times does a good job of exposing why current thinking doesn’t work but he fails to go the next step and imagine new ways that might work better. I reckon the social web holds potential to at least partly help.

I have written elsewhere about the collective “ooh that’s interesting” principle that I think is the most fascinating aspect of our new web technologies. Our ability to notice things is individually enhanced because, even if it is only Twitter, we have somewhere to write, somewhere to express ourselves, somewhere to “be interesting”. If we have done a good job then other people will go “ooh that’s interesting” and amplify or comment on our signal making it less weak. If enough people notice more, write more and comment more then our collective ability to know what is going on and do something about it increases.

This is true in so many situations but seems particularly so when dealing with the unpredictability of terrorism. Imagine if people who knew the terrorist, like is Dad, had expressed their concerns online, imagine if someone who read that picked up on the fact that the guy was flying on this particular flight. If it turns out to be true that the terrorist had managed to circumvent security in Amsterdam when boarding the plane, imagine those who saw this had tweeted it. Imagine passengers on the plane had been reading Twitter just before take off and noticed a reference to their flight number and became suspicious.

Yes all of this could be misapplied and one could easily imagine scenarios where it led to panic and possibly injustice. But even if we don’t want to rely on citizens being brave enough to finally take the action required to prevent the next atrocity don’t we have it within our grasp to weed the weak signals from the strong ones? To work out well enough who we trust and what is real quickly enough to at least help the authorities do the right thing?