Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nuance dies when Internet anonymity is debated

If you knew of the Internet before commercial ISPs existed, you were almost certainly connected through a university. The typical (say) pre-1989 Internet user would be a member of a university (therefore known to the systems administrator), connected through a serial terminal to something like a DEC VAX that acted as the university's node.

(I remember the great excitement with which a university systems administrator showed off something to me, in early 1990: he showed a document directory on a computer in America! That demo was all that he was willing to show, since the teeny-tiny 56 Kbps connection to America (I think) was supposed to be doing serious stuff.)

In that kind of environment, and given the fair chance that any Internet user was known to a fair circle of other users … anonymity was at best an ambiguous concept. At that stage, it meant at best “someone too distant from me to know or care who I am”.

As a long-time member of one of Australia's oldest Internet mailing lists, Link at the ANU, I can attest to a lively debate in the 1990s, along these lines: “Is the emerging trend towards anonymity a good or a bad thing?”

It appears that Link's archives don't reach that far back, but one of its members, academic Dr Roger Clarke, considered anonymity to be an active debate in 1996, when he set down this paper:

Anonymity was not something built into the Internet from the start. It was a set of social behaviours that emerged later. And it's always been a topic that aroused opposing opinions for and against.

Right now, anonymity is back on the table, mostly courtesy of abusive campaigns that seek to silence the voices of science, political dissent – and quite often, women. Hence when Julia Baird writes an article like this, she cops insults for pretty much one paragraph:

"Surely much of this could be solved if Twitter insisted people use their real names, as Facebook tries to do. Why allow the violent and cowardly to hide?"

(I disagree with this, by the way, but it's not all she had to say. Nor will I reprise the abuse she copped).

Internet anonymity is a work in progress, people. 

It took years for people to think the Internet was a place where anonymity was possible (the famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” cartoon, in 1993, documented the start of the debate, not its end). In more than 20 years, a consensus hasn't yet been reached.

It's disingenuous to pretend that there ever has been a consensus surrounding Internet anonymity.

It would be nice to have a mature consensus emerge – but that requires debate.

A legitimate component of that debate is: how to deal with chronic abusers of anonymity?

A couple of more points and I'm done.

  1. While not a survey sample, in my timeline, only men took an abusive attitude to Julia Baird. Well done, gents, now go and knock your heads on the table until the dimwit falls out.
  1. In a twenty-paragraph article, Julia mentioned a “real names” policy in one par, near the end. Rising up in a spitting fury over that one detail … well, it suggests to me that you're uncomfortable with dealing with everything else she had to say.
  1. What of the target's freedom of speech? In what way does a general freedom to troll outrank someone's right to publish under their own name?

Today, protesters standing up in their own skin are getting shot in Venezuela; for them, anonymity is moot.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The sneers of the savvy don't help

If you didn't notice, Twitter got enthusiastic about a small show of solidarity for SPC Ardmona. In spite of various contradictions, the #SPCSunday hashtag took off.

Punters posted pics - “here's what I bought” or “here's what we made”, others posted recipies.

Beneath, however, there was the sneering undercurrent from those more concerned with “savviness” than enthusiasm. They boiled down to:
  1. I don't like the product anyhow, and Italian tomatoes are better.
  1. You bought the product from Woolworths or Coles, and they're part of the problem.
  1. You do know that SPC Ardmona is part of Coca-Cola Amatil, don't you?*
To the last two, I offer no argument; to the first, I'll just remark that you might want to run “Italy tomato mafia contamination” into your search engine and get back to me later.

The objections boil down to “if you want to change the world, you're doing it wrong”.

Yes: there is a obvious contradiction involved in going to Woolworths or Coles, buying a product from a Coca-Cola subsidiary, posting the results on a US-owned social media platform – all in a gesture of solidarity for farmers and workers in the Goulburn Valley.

I'd even bet that a fair number of people who ran with the #SPCSunday hashtag are actually smart enough to perceive the irony.

But ahh, the savvy: a habit of thought that transcends notions of right-or-left, because it's about the dull, grey, humourless gaze-down-the-nose at the folly of the masses. It's how I imagine a Catalan knight may once have looked at peasants having fun.

It's just another condescension, “shut up and leave the adults to talk.”

I address myself now to the savvy of the left: just how well did your strategy work in, oh, the 2013 Federal election? “Miserable failure” is how I'd describe it.

There is a fairly general agreement that “voter disengagement” is worth worrying about.

But it's not “voter disengagement” that's the problem – not directly. It's people disengagement. Get people interested, excited, and by the way having fun, and I'd guess it's a damn sight easier to bring their votes along with them.

What happens when the savvy see people engaged, interested, excited, and having fun? They put on the po-faced frown of the expert: “you're doing it wrong.”

No, we're not. You are. The savvy is the stealer of the soul of politics, the enemy of engagement, the excluder of the outsider.

During England's catastrophic Ashes series of 2013, the incomparable Kerry O'Keeffe, a fine analyst of the game, looked at the English high-performance coaching and risible dietary requirements, and lumped it under the heading “the one-percenters”.

His argument was that the Australian coach, Darren Lehmann, took a low-performing team and focussed on bowling, batting, and fielding. Only someone at the very top of their game, he said, had the luxury of focussing on extracting an extra one-percent of performance by exotic practises. England coach Andy Flower, he believed, was working on the one-percent of performance when the team was having trouble with the basics.

To the savvy of the left, I say this: your research and focus groups – the one-percenters – are no use to you right now. You need the basics: getting people interested, excited, having fun.

Sneering at an obvious success doesn't mark you down as intelligent, knowledgable or knowing. 

*It's been pointed out to me that CCA is majority locally-owned: how much difference this makes, I will leave to the reader.