Saturday, March 07, 2009

Random Thoughts on an Unnamed Topic

1) I find it very funny -- in a dark, cynical way -- that persons insisting on their own secrecy and anonymity are loudly calling for other persons -- named, actual, persons -- to be "shunned." It's enough to make me laugh out loud when those anonymous persons refer to themselves as "real human beings" without an iota of irony.

2) Remember that associating with evil people means that you are also evil. In any way, at any time, for any purpose. Always and forever. Also remember that it's the person attacking you who gets to define "evil."

3) You can never be clean, no matter how much you scrub or wring your hands. You were born soiled, and always will be -- unlike the people on my side of the fence, who are perfect and loving and unjustly oppressed.

4) The Internet, like many other places in this world, is full of absolute screaming lunatics.

5) People accusing others of vicious, evil behavior nevertheless become completely shocked when they themselves are accused of doing nasty things. We're all the protagonists of our own stories, and nothing we do can be, by definition, wrong.

6) For some people -- such as those in my line of work -- Search Engine Optimization means becoming more prominent. For others, it's the opposite. Either way, it's a dark art and rarely works the way one wants it too.

7) Everyone wants to be a secret agent; everyone thinks that they're going to be Deidre Dare. (Or closer to home, Jason Pinter. I could name a name much, much closer still.)

8) I still have no clue what's going on, though I'm boggled that it still is going on.

9) My oppression beats your oppression. Nyah!

10) Politeness is a lost art.

Edit, March 9 @ 7PM: Please also see Wheeler's Postulate on Controversy, which may or may not be related.


Di Francis said...

Agreed. I thought this topic was gone too, and now it's back. Ug.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm surprised you've had nothing to say about the NYT adding three new bestseller lists: the 10 bestselling hardcover "graphic books", the 10 bestselling softcover graphic books, and the 10 most recent Naruto volumes.

Andrew Wheeler said...

kgbooklog: They don't seem to be "official" NYTimes bestsellers lists -- they only appear in the ArtsBeat blog, not as part of the normal bestseller list page -- so it struck me as just another gimmick. If they're still around in two months, with anything like the data on the "real" lists, then maybe they'll mean something.

I suspect this is the Times's way of admitting that Watchmen has sold a hell of a lot of copies over the past year, and that they haven't bothered to "track" it due to one or another of their odd little rules. Once again we see that the Times list is heavily gerrymandered -- but we knew that already.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Oh, and I forgot one:

11) If I attack someone, I can still demand the right to delineate the ways in which that person may strike back at me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's pretty random all right. I read the whole post, and the comments, and still have no idea what the hell you're talking about.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Anon: Be happy that it's unfamiliar to you; you're better off not knowing.

Ran said...

I find it all a strange and curious example of both the Internet's ability to allow unfettered communication, and the Internet's ability to make that communication as vitrolic and unpleasant as possible.

Dave Smith said...

By leaving the topic unnamed you clearly have no interest in having an honest discussion on it. However, I must say that in reference to point #1 that anonymity and pseudonymity are not the same. There are many valid reasons to use a pseudonym online beyond being a troll that to dismiss a pseudonymous individual as "not real" is disingenuous, especially when the poster has a verifiable posting history available to evaluate.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Dave: On the contrary -- by leaving the topic unspecified I hope not to be attacked by people who then demand to control the terms of any ensuing conversation.

You'll also note that I said nothing about trolling in my thought #1, and I'm not talking about trolling -- I'm talking about an attempted power imbalance, in which one side demands to be cloaked (because, they claim, they fear real-world consequences) at the same time as they agitate to cause real-world consequences to others, who are using known, public identities.

It's not just "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," it's that people complaining about pebbles shouldn't be launching boulders.

I'm agnostic on the possibility of harm to these pseudononymous individuals from exposure -- but, since I don't know and can't know the truth of their claims, I'm keeping their identities very secret here...which is what they've been asking for, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been watching the conflict since the beginning of this iteration, I have to say that this whole post comes across as incredibly condescending. Perhaps that's not what you intended -- I hope not.

Someone's decision whether or not to use a pseudonym has no real bearing on the rudeness of their behavior. A lot of people have behaved horribly and rudely, and they've chosen to do so under their own names. That's their choice. Outing someone who chooses to use a pseudonym is further rudeness. For people to call the outers on the rudeness of that behavior is hardly hypocritical.

To out someone after complaining about being outed? That would be hypocrisy of the worst sort. To choose to avoid someone who has outed other people, or who has allied themselves with the outers? That's just common sense.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Ellen: This is another one of those cases where the situation looks massively different from different people's POV.

From one side, it's "outing." From another, it's trying to figure out who is attacking you.

You seem to be claiming that one has to accept that pseudononymous individuals on the Internet are precisely who and what they say they are, and I don't think that's reasonable or plausible.

There are many, possibly thousands, of people on the Internet who are pseudononymous for malicious purposes. There are also many tens of thousands or millions of people who are pseudononymous for serious or frivolous or irrelevant reasons. But there's no way to tell from pure pseudonymity which is which.

When pseudononymous people get into fights online, being "outed" is a risk. That's just a subset of the general rule: doing anything potentially divisive online is a risk. (for some people more than others)

It's like Schrodinger's Cat -- if the pseudononymous person turns out to be malicious, then "outing" that person was justified. If not, then perhaps it wasn't justified. But no one on the outside of that pseudonymity box knows, and no one can assume that trusting the pseudononymous person is a good idea.

But my main point, again, is that if one is going to go on the attack, one should not be surprised if one is in turn attacked. Even if that attack comes from an unexpected direction. Even if it comes at the spot where one is most vulnerable. Or especially there.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for responding. But, in all politeness, how exactly was the person who was outed attacking those who outed that person? Either you really don't know what happened (in which case, I would submit, perhaps you shouldn't have posted), or you have very strange thoughts on appropriate internet behavior.

At this point perhaps I should simply link to Niall Harrison's sensible and eloquent post, which includes some of the most useful links.

Anonymous said...

I think my big takeaway from this fiasco is that my general policy of ignoring everything about Livejournal is, in fact, quite sensible.

Anonymous said...

Ellen C.: Thank you for pointing out that the person whose pseudonymity was compromised was not attacking anyone, but simply commented on public posts on the Internet in a way that the people making the posts and their friends didn't like.

Have you read the posts by the pseudonymous person that appear to have prompted KC to reveal his/her identity? I have. The posts are quite thoughtful -- while they are certainly not flattering to the people whose comments are being discussed, they're not attacks, intimidation, harrassment, or even flaming.

The "outing" is bullying. The people doing it aren't trying to figure out who this person is; they *know* who s/he is, and have for weeks, at least. They're exerting power over someone because they can.

Interestingly, the (white) person in question is being portrayed as the "Fearless Leader" of the alienated fans, and accused of inflaming them to attack TNH and PNH. This has the effect of denying the leadership and agency of the women of color who have poured hours upon hours of their time and effort into the debate. Instead, they're reduced to puppets of their white leader. This could not be further from the truth.

Sharon K. Goetz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Andrew: You said, "It's like Schrodinger's Cat -- if the pseudononymous person turns out to be malicious, then "outing" that person was justified. If not, then perhaps it wasn't justified. But no one on the outside of that pseudonymity box knows, and no one can assume that trusting the pseudononymous person is a good idea."

I would rather liken the outing to a witch trial, where the accused is bound and thrown in the river. If s/he floats, s/he is a witch, and is to be burned at the stake or otherwise killed. If s/he sinks, and therefore drowns, s/he is innocent and has been killed by good people who were only doing "God's work".

Either way, the accused ends up dead. Likewise, with outing, either way the outed ends up open to attacks, both physical and otherwise (identity theft, loss of job, physical and verbal harassment, et cetera). It's a very "Shoot first, ask questions later" sort of approach, which I do not find appropriate for a setting such as this, in which the issues at hand could be solved much better through actually addressing them.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Socchan: Please tell me you're not seriously comparing "some people on the Internet know my real name" with "I have been murdered by vigilantes."

It's that level of exaggeration and panic that's kept me -- and many others -- from wanting anything to do with this mess. (Particularly those of us who are willing to use our real names -- linked to our actual, real-life identities -- online, and who try to act civilly here as we would anywhere else.)

And no one is really anonymous on the Internet. It's always just a matter of time and effort to find out anyone's identity. If someone really wants to be secret -- if someone needs to be secret, for unnamed scary reasons -- then that person needs to avoid blogging and similar high-profile activities.

(That probably sounds like blaming the victim, I suppose. I tend to think that it's more akin to avoiding known felons while on probation, or keeping out of one's old career and city when in the Witness Protection Program -- limits on liberty, yes, but for smart reasons known ahead of time. I'm sure many people will disagree.)

"Outing," in this case, means "people whom I didn't expect learned things about me I wanted to control." That event is becoming ever more common in the Internet age. And it will continue happening, by accident or malice or curiosity. Information is ever freer and more widespread, and I don't see any chance that will start going backwards.

In any case, thanks for taking the time to reply civilly -- I might think your metaphor is vastly overblown, but I do appreciate the time and thought you put into commenting.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: Considering the potential consequences to having one's personal information available on the internet, particularly if one is not in a position of power, I believe I did just that. I had assumed from the way you maligned people who use pseudonyms that you were familiar with the number of people who disguise their identities in order to predate, thus making it that much more important for individuals to protect their own identity by whatever means they can. Time and time again the news has covered stories of people releasing private information to others they thought they could trust, and time and time again it is the people whose private information was leaked who are hurt.

In this case, it was people who chose to make such information about themselves available who also did the choosing for another person, without her consent. Since the argument will doubtlessly arise that anyone who chose to make their personal information available in any capacity, to personal friends they have known for years or behind locked posts and so on, obviously shares some of the blame, I will preemptively agree. However, to use another metaphor which you will likely call exaggerated (and I will get to that in a moment), it's the same level of blame as can be placed on rape survivor for walking home alone at night. In both cases, the responsibility is more on the part of the one who took advantage of the situation than the one who was taken advantage of. In other words, it is far easier to take advantage (or, easier yet, not take advantage) than it is to prevent advantage being taken, especially if you come from a position of relatively lower authority and/or power.

As to my exaggerated metaphors, I will bring up again the subject of predators who take advantage of such information. Some of them do go so far as to rape and kill. Some of them just inflict violence, especially against activists who fight unjust causes. Some merely steal that information to impersonate the victim online, financially and otherwise. If you choose to apply the fact that these people are, by far, in the minority, please also choose to apply it to those you would also out and endanger.

In this day and age, I find it appalling that one should have to refrain from expressing one's opinion in a public forum in order to remain safe, especially from those who might be spurned to rage against them due to fanatic notions.

Thank you as well for taking the time to reply, resent though I might your mention of tone. I respect your manners, even if I disagree with your opinion.

Anonymous said...

Belatedly, I would like to apologize for bringing up tone in the final paragraph of my previous comment. My reaction was both distracting from the original topic and rude. Having had time to think about it, and having also re-read your post, I am sure that I was reading more into it than you had intended. I hope you will forgive my kneejerk reaction.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Lydia: I don't think we're going to agree on this, but your comment made me smile for an odd reason -- it reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's "True Names."

But, unlike dragons, the true name of a human only has power if that human lets it.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Socchan: Thanks for continuing the discussion; I do think we're coming at this from radically different viewpoints, but it's nice to see that we can avoid completely shouting at each other. (And I should probably admit, as I haven't otherwise, that I do know, from SFnal circles, several of the people on the other side of this kerfuffle, and generally have had good opinions of them. I'd like to think that I can be unbiased in a particular case, but it may not be true.)

I'm not as interested in this particular fight/discussion as I am in the general attitudes that it's throwing into view -- that's one reason why I'm still thinking about it (I guess), and one reason why I'm not linking into the heart of it. What interests me is how this, like most similar battles, turns into a struggle over privacy and information management.

I do think your metaphors are strained. Part of the problem there, as I've tried to say before, is that no one on the outside -- no one who doesn't already know the secret -- can tell whether a pseudononymous person's demands for privacy are really driven by serious, concrete concerns or not. So perhaps it is the case that, if someone's name is widely linked to a particular LiveJournal handle, that some particular, known threat may become much more likely. But it's also possible that a pseudononymous person has a social phobia, and is in fear of purely psychological consequences. Or that said person is pretending to be a different person on the Internet, which is not at all uncommon. Or several other possibilities. I simply don't know, and neither does anyone else who doesn't already know the secret.

So then one's past experiences may come into play. I spent a lot of time on a message board in years past, and still spend time on Usenet. In both places, malicious pseudonymity is common, with a small number of people who are very wedded to particular ideas will hammer at them incessantly, often creating new identities to continue their arguments. So that's in the back of my mind when I see discussions of pseudonymity -- particularly those conducted at the top of everyone's lungs. (And I think even you would admit that there are some people involved more tangentally in this debate who have a very highly developed sense of the theatrical.)

Now, the culture on LJ is different. (And, I have to admit, that I've often found it annoying.) I have occasionally found myself clicking from LJ posts to friends lists to homepages, trying to figure out if some particular individual is anyone I know, or has any fixed "real-world" identity. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I'm pretty sure that, given the right set of skills and software tools, I could find out who anyone, on LJ or elsewhere, is. That's one of the things I meant, in my comments above, though I think I was unclear. I meant that no one has an expectation of absolute privacy on the Internet -- unless it's someone running very tech-savvy masking software and encryption, but maybe not even then -- and so making that assumption in the first place is a problem.

We might want to create a safe space on the Internet, but, because it is on the Internet, it's not going to be particularly safe to begin with. Again, I'm not speaking in terms of ought and should, but is. No one should be frightened to be themselves on the Internet, or to talk about whatever they want to talk about. But many are, and with good reason. (Though, again, I, or anyone on the outside, can't tell in any particular case if a fear is justified or not.)

Another thing that interests me is that defensive crouch, when someone on the Internet suddenly realizes that there's a bigger, less friendly crowd watching than was expected. (Compare the poor idiot who was talking up the "Open Source Boob Project" -- he got dissected, and was defended, in similar terms, though by opposite sides of that debate.)

This is already very long, but let me just throw out another analogy. I don't believe it's any more true than yours, but maybe it can serve as a counterweight of extremism.

Let's say the President claims that the country is in deadly danger from evil Muslim terrorists. All the evidence -- which he claims is copious and utterly damning -- is and must remain secret, he says, or else the evil Muslim terrorists will irreparably damage us in a way he can't explain. The only solution is to let him do whatever he deems necessary, under a complete veil of secrecy.

Now, I don't think that describes this particular case any more than the witch-hunt or lurking rapist metaphors do. It's just another example of how humans like juicy stories rather than awkward, complicated and contradictory facts. And when the facts are veiled, the stories proliferate. I'm sure the people on the other side had their own stories, which were equally as inaccurate.

So my interest in this is mostly about the flow of information and the stories people are telling about each other. It probably looks very bloodless and cruel to someone caught up in the middle of it, but I haven't been in the middle of it; I've been very far outside it the whole time.

Thanks for reading -- assuming you have read this very, very long navel-gazing piece -- and, again, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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