Once upon a time, there was a coastal town stretched like strip along a sandy beach, with a shy creek in the middle. The inhabitants of this town were of mixed origins and various cultures, but the common denominator among them was their thirst for technology. They loved their gadgets and devices to the degree of worship, but they also craved the human connection. However, there's nothing the devices can't help you with. Sites, were you can display pictures and update ‘statuses’, were relied upon to provide that connection. Soon enough, a large contingent of the population were wholeheartedly immersed in the online networking experience. Updating, checking their friends' updates, chatting and typing furiously on their mobile devices wherever they were, and as frequently as they could, while the creek sat there heaving and receding with its shy tidal waves.
Capitalizing on the success of bringing people together, the active members of the online community sought to exploit this popularity by a number of different means, depending on areas of interests and common concerns. People who were crazy about shopping exchanged notes and pictures of display windows. Individuals who were compulsive eaters exchanged pictures and recipes. Banking services, statutory procedures and medicinal concoctions were rated, reviewed and analyzed, through updates and replies and, the more private and secure, direct messages.
One area of concern for the residents of this town was speeding camera. The traffic police, cognizant of the rising number of traffic accidents and fatalities, had deployed massive number of speed-cameras, mobile and stationery. The speed cameras, wicked devices themselves, reduced accidents and generated some revenue. But human nature is inclined towards speed and oblivious of the repercussions. When social networking websites had become as popular as they were ever going to be (with at least 50 percent of the population connected to, plugged in, wired in, hooked and tethered to the web one way or the other), one active mind on the social sphere had an idea.
What if we took advantage of our mobile devices to beat the mobile speed cameras? After all, knowledge is power. And there's nothing more efficient in beating the mobile radars than an army of volunteer, mobile informants. If you know for sure where the mobile cameras are, you can either avoid them or preempt them by slowing down well before location. The active minds came up with something called a 'hash tag'; a predefined common word after a hash symbol '#'. The whole concept relied on the reporting thoroughness. And, being the wiseasses that they were, the active minds understood that if everyone online was just a recipient of information, eventually no one would receive any.
So reporting was encouraged.
After the concept gathered momentum and popularity, the reporting breadth and extensiveness covered almost the entire town. There was not a single mobile radar that wasn’t picked up on the network and which location and malice was broadcast to the grid. It was an amusing case of rule-reversal. The law enforcement division responsible for revenue collection noticed the sharp drop. The policemen operating the radars noticed the drop. It was first thought that the radars are not being hidden well enough. but no matter how creative and surreptitious the placement was, no radar was able to pick up more than two or three speeding vehicles, before all those behind them fell to well below speed limits. Pretending to be the thoughtful, scrupulous drivers that they were actually not.
The hash-tag in question grew more and more popular. And the revenues suffered acute falls. But accidents also rose. Partly because people were now more distracted by the informative hash-tag while they were driving, and partly because mobile cameras lost their edge of surprise.
The hash-tag had become the talk of the town. Even to the point where drivers of public transport buses check it out on a frequent basis. Even passengers riding the metro had a quick look at it while on-board, to see if they could steal a glimpse of a policeman crouching with his radar gun behind a hedge on a road edge. It was celebrated, blogged about, even attempted to be made a global trending topics. After all, the netizens have won. They should consolidate their win by a TT. They even went to the extent of thinking about a dedicated account with a full time employee to collate info, but then they dropped the idea since it bellied the ghostly, dynamic and illusive spirit of the hash-tag.
But the popularity of the hash tag also meant it was impossible to keep it away from the knowledge of the authorities. The police were eventually made aware of it. Some of them even availed themselves of its services while off duty. But those were the minority. The majority of law enforcement officers were unnerved by it. It was virtually impossible to deploy radars all over town. If the hash tag wasn’t dealt with, there was going to be some unsightly consequences.
The creek heaved and sighed and rose and fell. And accidents kept rising.
A group of nervous traffic policemen brought the subject before the police commander-in-chief. A man who’s known for his calm and his acumen. He digested the problem and asked for a suggestion. One hesitant officer proposed blocking the website. But the chief was not prepared to do that. For he knew that such websites brought the good with them along with the bad. And besides, online groups like "Citizens For Preserving The Wilderness of The Internet", "Don’t Retweet if You Can’t Stand The Heat" and "Cyber Bullies United" were powerful enough to cause a public uproar in case of a block. He concluded the meeting by asking for a report to be prepared and sent to him, explaining the mechanisms and the workings of the social networking website in details. The officers were puzzled; here we’re telling him about a serious threat to our road safety, and he wants to learn how the website works?
But orders were orders. And soon enough a report was made. The commander in chief read it and then thought for an hour. He then called the head of his IT department and asked for additional tasks to be assigned to his 100 strong employees. Rotating shifts on 24 hours basis or even taking fully compensated overtime. The Commander-in-chief explained what he wanted them to do. A thin smile of recognition spread on the face of IT specialist on the other end of the line. He hung up and set his men to work.
The next morning something eerie and incomprehensible was unfolding in the cyber sphere. The social networking website was abuzz with activity. The speed cameras hash-tag much more active than ever before. Speed cameras were reported on virtually every corner of the city. And then denied. And then reported again. And then denied again. Traffic came to standstill at some places while drivers with gaping mouths started in disbelief at the unraveling drama on their little screens.
But better be safe than sorry. They stuck to speed limits for the day, leaving it to the active minds to pinpoint the flaws and sort out the problems of the dysfunctional hash-tag. Those proposed a new hash-tag, to be used with the start of business hours the next day. The bulk of online dwellers have been informed. Everyone slept happily with the prospect of a new, unblemished hash tag in their minds.
However, the next day was no different. Again, reports about speed cameras were far more than usual. The virtual image they drew was of a town with a network of roads with more radars studded on them than the there are trees in the amazons. And again, ‘peeps’ were deeply troubled by the uselessness of their precious hash-tag. They had no choice but to again stick to speed limits for the day. And this they did. Hoping the active minds would address the problem that was now more serious that it had first appeared to be.
But the active minds were more perplexed than their statuses would let on. They hypothesized, debated, argued with and cursed each other. They followed and unfollowed and threw hints left and right. Alliances formed and fault-lines emerged and groupism snuck its ugly face to the surface. The hash-tag was in a serious threat of a complete meltdown.
One such active member was keeping quite the entire day. Except for a silly line of poetry and a 4square check-in at a pub in the afternoon, he’d not joined in the whirlwind of discussion. Eventually, his absence was noticed and 'peeps' started worrying and asking his whereabouts and his advice.
The said active member, however, was hunched protectively over a bottle of fine European beer. Deep in thought. He had been analyzing the problem for the last three hours. Tossing ideas and testing them for loopholes and flimsy logic. Eventually, he concluded that the hash-tag, and all other and related future hash-tags, were gone forever. And for a simple reason.
The commander in chief was from a military background. He knew about the art of war. He knew his adversaries’ edge was their possession of information. And if you can’t cut off the flow, then you may as well resort to the oldest, most underestimated trick in the book: disinformation.
The commander had instructed his little battalion of IT technicians to inundate the now deceased hash tag with bogus information. Each one of them made up a dozen fake accounts and then worked on making them look normal, following each other back and forth, until they looked legit. Until they matched the criss-crossed, incestuous networking pattern of the larger community. And they were impossible to detect. All risqué updates and bios replete with words about guruism and entrepreneurship. Who was going to make them? Once they started their false reporting, the net of speed cameras was virtually spread all over town. And they were going to stay that way till eternity.
The half-drunk active member of the city's online community whipped out his blackberry from his back pocket. Some 3500 notifications told him he had as much mentions, direct messages and chat boxes active. He ignored them all and went to his status update box and typed the following short message and hit ‘Send’:
“for get it guys…. hash tag is fucked. Just stick to speed limits. Or take a mortgage on the house & go pay fines. OK?! #IDontGiveAShit”