Who’s that friend?

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If you are reading this, stand on your right foot and start hopping while waving your hands in the air and shouting, "I am crazy" at the top of your voice.

If you are reading this, stand on your right foot and start hopping while waving your hands in the air and shouting, "I am crazy" at the top of your voice. If you don't, your Facebook account will be compromised, your passwords will be automatically leaked, and somebody will use your credit card to smuggle ice across international waters. We have all received messages of this order — if not exactly this much silliness — on the various social networks that we belong to. These are messages that warn us that our security is breached, our data is unsafe, that our transactions are public, and all the sensitive information we have trusted to the different platforms on the Web, is now up for grabs.

The best of us have fallen prey to such messages of alarm, and have "shared", "liked", or "retweeted" them, and in retrospect felt foolish when we realised that the message was just a hoax. For those of us who are savvy with the ways of the Web, even when we are sending these messages, there is an instinctive feeling that something is wrong, but we do it nevertheless, joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists who make this world enchanting and mysterious in its quotidian banality. These messages are common, harmless and habit-forming — they spread, even when we recognise that they are not completely plausible — because we have formed habits online, which we immediately perform, before rational thought or reason sets in.

At a recent Thought Marathon on "Habits of Living", supported by Brown University and organised by the Centre for Internet and Society, a handful of scholars, artists, practitioners and researchers examined how such habits shape the world of the digital. One of the concerns about such habits of viral dissemination is about the design of trust and the nature of friendship in our social networking systems. How do you trust information online? What is the information that uses you as a conduit, disseminating through you into the network? What role do we play in keeping these messages alive, by spreading them, by talking about them, by retracting and discussing them, giving them more value than they could muster on their own?

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