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Peer Produced Harassment

July 6th, 2006 · 3 Comments

Glenn Reynolds can’t grok how nouveau-Julian Dave Weigel, writing at Hit and Run, can escape the massive cognitive dissonance that, apparently, ought to be involved in believing both that it’s fine for The New York Times to name the town in which Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney vacation, and that it’s dirty pool for irate bloggers to post the phone numbers of the Times photographers who snapped pics of their vacation homes.

This does not exactly strike me as a tricky distinction to make. Two men already living highly public lives, whose primary residences are pointed out daily by tour guides, pour into the same town regularly with a caravan of SUVs. The danger here, presumably, is fanatical nuts who want to kill them, but their hatred is unlikely to be further inflamed by a Times travel section profile, nor does it give them any information that they couldn’t have gotten easily enough anyway. Blogging a phone number while you’re calling someone a traitor, on the other hand, is fairly clearly a way of inviting and encouraging harassment.

To put it in peer-production jargon, terrorism is an old-economy sort of task: It requires the intense commitment (and therefore powerful motivations) of a relatively small number of people who have to each carry out significant portions of the total effort. Harassment is modular and granular, and therefore well suited to peer production: The per-person investment is a few minutes of being an asshole. For sites with tens of thousands of readers, especially if they skew moonbattish to start, you’ll probably have at least a few score with enough latent pique and bitterness to motivate that. In other words, it’s like open source code: You can pull off the project with a large number of dilletantes doing small parts more or less for the hell of it, rather than a small cadre of highly motivated (i.e. paid) full-time coders.

Which, I think, points up the one ugly side of the distributed peer production that folk like Yochai Benkler (and, I should add, myself) are generally so enthusiastic about. Dispersed production means diffuse responsibility. At least potentially, the participants in a peer harassment campaign are like Derek Parfit’s harmless torturers: Each could be making a single phone call that, in itself, didn’t cross the line to harassment, yet whose cumulative effect is unambiguously harassing. And the instigating blogger(s) can at least make a sort of show of innocence if they don’t explicitly call for harassment, but count on the intrinsic moonbattiness of their audiences. You get some benign instances of this, like the infamous stolen sidekick which harnessed a smart mob to find and pressure some thieves. On the other hand, you have the shameful role of blogs in harassing a Jewish family that had the gall to complain about sectarian propaganda in their public schools, and the use of blogs as shaming devices in China. The larger bloggers may have to start recognizing that they can’t just fire off a “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” blog and then put finger to pursed lips in wide-eyed mock shock when the readers whose anger they stoke all day don’t play by Queensbury rules.

I note, incidentally, that since I started this post, Dave has gotten mixed up in a now widely-publicized spat on this very topic with the execrable Michelle Malkin. And since I’ve nothing to add on the distributed harassment front, let me just take the opportunity to wonder: Why do I know this woman’s name? Why does anyone? Sure, Ann Coulter has proven that being shrill and vapid is no serious barrier to success, but Coulter is at least sporadically witty and entertaining—she can turn a phrase, whether or not she uses it to say much of anything. Maybe that’s even enough to justify her existence. But Malkin? Malkin writes like a half-bright College Republican who finagled a column in some third-rate student paper. I understand bearing artless prose for sharp thoughts, and even the appeal of a bit of well-crafted nonsense. But you’d think one or the other would be a requirement.

Tags: Tech and Tech Policy



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moonbiter // Jul 7, 2006 at 4:17 am

    Re: Malkin; I’d suggest that a large measure of her success lies in the fact that she is an attractive Asian woman who loudly shares the views of her largely-male audience. Combine that with a bit of luck allowing her to get her foot in the door, and I think you have your answer.

  • 2 Bill Newman // Jul 7, 2006 at 9:48 am

    I think you may be missing something in your analogy to open source. A large fraction of the total valuable hours in open software development do seem to be due to small chunks of relatively dilettantish work, yes. However, I can’t think of a big interesting project which was produced entirely that way, and the interesting exceptions tend to be concentrated in obvious key parts of the project. Neal Stephenson described his reaction to Linux as (from memory) a Saturn V being constructed by hobbyists mailing parts to each other; OK, that’s not a bad mental picture. However, it’s not just a case of random machined bolts and flanges self-assembling. Among the hobbyists on most — perhaps all — projects which successfully fly are talented individuals who produce working prototypes of entire subsystems, perhaps analogous to someone banging out a working rocket engine or something. After someone produces a working prototype of a subsystem, it may be vastly improved by enormous amounts of incremental improvement by arbitrarily many other people, some doing only a few hours of work. But it seems to be largely impractical to get from nothing to a working subsystem by merging a few hours of work from each of dozens or hundreds of people; the usual pattern is that the first working prototype came from hundreds or thousands of hours of work by a very small number of people, typically only one person, and vanishingly seldom more than three.

    Therefore, the distinction between terrorism as “old economy” and open source as “new economy” looks basically incorrect to me. Effective terrorists — and, for that matter, armed insurrections in general, and more peaceful mass movements too — do typically get a lot of their effectiveness from small acts from many members of a very large base of mostly nonactive supporters, but that doesn’t free them from the need for some highly motivated people who do some key large acts. The movement may be enthusiastically described as a simple assembly of the large mass of supporters, but such descriptions may reflect observer bias rather than the facts on the ground. (The fall of South Vietnam was presented to me as a spontaneous mass movement, in no uncertain terms, when I was a little sprout. It came as a mind-blowing revelation to discover later that um, very sizable armored forces from North Vietnam were coincidentally on the move through the country at the time that people power overthrew the nasty dictatorship.)

    So too for open source, I think. If someone’s summary left you with the impression that open source software projects are built by spontaneous self-assembly of arbitrarily small non-working parts into a working whole (“like open source code: You can pull off the project with a large number of dilletantes doing small parts more or less for the hell of it”), it might be worthwhile poking around a little in some representative project to see whether the summary is correct. My impression is that open source may be a good counterexample to the old, old, old economy idea that formal professionalism and status are a stable reliable guide to competence and responsibility (so that guilds and such work well), and to the old, old idea that successful complexity requires and reflects overall top-down planning and implementation (which combines nicely with the status and professionalism thing to make dirigistisme self-evidently wise); but not so much to the idea that getting interesting things done tends to involve some sharp highly motivated people doing a lot of work on key parts.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jul 7, 2006 at 10:08 am

    “If someone’s summary left you with the impression that open source software projects are built by spontaneous self-assembly of arbitrarily small non-working parts into a working whole ”

    Uh, no, of course I don’t think that… I hope that wasn’t the impression my post gave.