June 21, 2006

Community Action or a Lynch Mob? [3:21 pm]

And can one ensure that one does not become the other? Tale of a Lost Cellphone, and Untold Static

Three weeks ago, Mr. Guttman went on a quest to retrieve a friend’s lost cellphone, a quest that has now ended with the arrest of a 16-year-old on charges of possessing the missing gadget, a Sidekick model with a built-in camera that sells for as much as $350. But before the teenager was arrested, she was humiliated by Mr. Guttman in front of untold thousands of people on the Web, an updated version of the elaborate public shamings common in centuries past.

The tale began when Mr. Guttman’s best friend Ivanna left her cellphone in a taxicab, like thousands of others before her. After Ivanna got a new Sidekick, she logged on to her account — and was confronted by pictures of an unfamiliar young woman and her family, along with the young woman’s America Online screen name.

[...] Using instant messages, Mr. Guttman tracked down Sasha and asked her to return it. “Basically, she told me to get lost,” Mr. Guttman recalled. “That was it.”

So he set up a no-frills Web page with a brief account of what happened, and posted the pictures of the girl and her family. Within hours of putting up the Web page, Mr. Guttman was fielding hundreds of e-mail messages from those nursing their own bitter memories of a lost cellphone, a BlackBerry or a digital camera that went unreturned.

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