An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #62: The Bad Man Lurking at Mountain Lake Park

A few weeks ago my attention was grabbed when a good friend and fellow parent forwarded an email to me. The email warned of a potential threat to kids at a playground a few miles from my house. I could tell from the variety of introductory statements and subject lines that the email had been forwarded several times before it reached my inbox.

The original subject line read: Bad Man Lurking in Mountain Lake Park. The email featured a photo of an ominous looking guy near a play structure and included the following message. I made some slight edits for purposes of clarity.

Hi Parents…Please help spread the word to people you know in this neighborhood. I have seen this man 2 times at the lower playground at Mountain Lake Park. He does NOT have children and pretends like he does and is there to do pull ups. He takes pictures of the kids with his phone … He looks for kids that don’t have caregivers near by … I personally believe that given the chance he might engage the kids and who knows what could happen…

My initial reaction to any mass-forwarded email is to assume it contains some misinformation or that it’s an outright hoax. But this was different. It had to do with kids in my general neighborhood. And social media makes the sharing of information so effortless that — in the moment — it’s often easier to share than to deliberate.

So I forwarded the message to another parent who lives a couple blocks from the park. He already had a few copies in his inbox. My wife told me she had received several as well.

For days, this forwarded email became the talk of the extended neighborhood. Every parent I spoke to had received at least one copy. There was certainly a sense of concern among these recipients. But there was also a lot of confusion about the original source of the email and skepticism about what to believe. The real world concern over anything that could threaten kids had run headfirst into the varied levels of trust each parent felt towards social media.

About a week after I received my first copy of the email, an administrator at my son’s school sent out a link to a story in the San Francisco Examiner. The police had been notified of about the email going around and had visited the alleged lurker. They determined that the guy posed no threat.

Police identified the man last week and visited his home Monday, according to a police update. He was “cooperative,” “unguarded,” and “surprised at being the subject of a police investigation,” according to a report from Richmond Police Station Capt. Richard Corriea.

“He allowed officers to examine his cell phone and his laptop computer,” the report said. “He stated that he hadn’t taken any photographs. He explained that he was looking at his phone’s screen while using the telephone’s stopwatch feature as part of his workout.”

What percentage of the parents who were warned about the “bad man” also received a link to the story in the Examiner?

I’m not sure.

Am I less concerned about a potential threat now that I’ve read the newspaper account of the police reaction?

No, I’m not.

If you take everything into a account from the safety of the children to the potential destruction of an innocent person’s character, did the forwarded email ultimately do more harm or good?

I don’t know.

After this experience, will I forward similar emails in the future?

I’m really not sure whether we were deputized or just weaponized, but yeah, I think I will.

This is a tale of the intersection of social media and journalism at a playground in Mountain Lake Park. I’ve talked to parents who are glad the community had their backs. I’ve also heard from those who think contacting law enforcement would’ve been a better first step than sending emails. Some think the guy at the park presents a danger, others believe he was wrongfully defamed. By the end, I was armed with a tremendous amount of data from parents, police and journalists and yet I was left not quite knowing what to believe.

So is this story a celebration or a condemnation of social media?

That’s a really good question.

What can I say? Forward it if you want to.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.