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.