Beware of geeks bearing gifts

You might be a geek if you know what this means

I have been following with growing interest the online debate between Lily Allen and Techdirt with regards to file-sharing and three-strikes. If you are unfamiliar with the debate, here is a brief introduction. You may have heard that Lord Mandelson has put forward proposals to have our own version of three-strikes legislation in the UK which will disconnect repeat file-sharers from the internet (the proposal is much more complex than that, so forgive the crass over-simplification). Several musicians disagreed with the strategy enough to form a coalition to protest against the proposed measures, while others have come out in favour of disconnection. Of those in favour of disconnection, the most vocal and eloquent has been Lily Allen, who wrote a MySpace post against piracy and in favour of Mandelson’s three-strikes proposals.

The ensuing keruffle is destined to be one of those Internet events that make or break careers, even though the number of people involved is relatively small. In one of her posts (now disappeared), Ms Allen copied and pasted in its entirety a Techdirt blog post to try to make her point. Unsurprisingly, Techdirt found this rather amusing, and pointed out that what she had done was copyright infringement. Allen apologised and claimed that it was not her intention to plagiarise, but the point had been made. Then some enterprising people online uncovered the fact that Lily Allen’s website offered a series of mix-tapes from early in her career, where she had copied and distributed songs by artists she liked and admired. Techdirt was also amused. The heat eventually got too much for Ms Allen, who announced that she was erasing her blog because the abuse was getting too much, and now seems to have announced that she is quitting the music business altogether as a result of the incident.

I actually feel sorry for Ms Allen. She is clearly too young to know her copyright wars history, so she probably did not know about Metallica. During the Napster era (gosh, 10 years already!), Metallica came out strongly against file-sharing, which seriously tarnished their reputation. Here was a band that sold itself as head-banging-anti-establishment-hard-rock, yet sided vocally with said establishment when they saw their livelihood threatened. Needless to say, it took a while for them to shake the impression that they were money-grabbing hypocrites. So, is Lily Allen the new Metallica? I think that what bothered a lot of people is that here was a hip and trendy artist, also selling herself as sort of in-your-face-girl-power-anti-establishment icon, once again siding with the status quo when the chips were down.

The reason why I feel sorry for Lily Allen is that she was completely unprepared to face the wrath of the Internet. Yes, the collective web is one angry beast, prepared to pounce on the unsuspecting celebrity like a pack of hyenas on a gnu. The Internet reacts like a wasp’s nest, once disturbed it will not settle until its victim has been thoroughly stung. I think Ms Allen believed that the Internet was similar to her MySpace and Twitter followers, and completely underestimated the anger of a geek scorned.

Did she deserve the abuse she allegedly received? Probably not, but this brings me to a similar incident. Our very own panGloss has had a bit of an issue with the collective mind-hive, which she thoroughly documents in this post. Apparently, some people suspected that the use of xkcd’s map of the online communities as a book cover had been unauthorised, and voiced their concerns in a Reddit thread on the subject. Lilian says:

The usual reasons that get cited as to why people react to a technological society badly are a combination of ignorance, fear of change and media manipulation. To these I would add that geek culture – and much of web 2.0 culture – is a product to a large extent of the Asperger’s spectrum and leans towards the tactless, rude and pointlessly combative. This is fun when you’re in your teens and twenties, less later on when life is already too full of the stresses of work, mortgages and parking fines to want to get a blast out of a right-on hardcore flame war in your leisure time. Politeness and forethought become the new anti-authoritarianism.

I seldom disagree strongly with Lilian, but in this occasion I think that I must defend geek culture. I have been involved in online forums for quite a while now, and I am familiar with the various unsavoury aspects of the cyber-obsessives, the trolls and the serial sock-puppets that emerge in this environment. There are a lot of repressed people out there, and for them the Internet is just a place where they can vent their frustrations. I am a big fan of Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory, which teaches us that anonymity and an audience can bring out the worst in some people. However, it has to be stressed that this behaviour is a minority, a fact that we tend to forget because of the troll’s strident nature. I was amused by the posters in the Reddit thread cited above, who kept complaining that their own communities seemed small on the map, they truly believe that 4chan and Reddit are bigger than they actually are! The truth is that troll havens are inhabited by the same dysfunctional minority that then goes forth and contaminates other forums. Lilian’s error was to give these people any credit by posting there, you cannot reason with trolls. In my experience, the Internet troll tends to be a lonely and dysfunctional individual that uses the Internet as a means to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy; probably having been bullied in real life, they then become cyber-bullies. But again, this minority does not represent geekdom as a whole! The geek community is much larger than that, and many do not care much for the troll-infested islands. Most self-identified geeks I know do not even know about 4chan, and those who know it stay well away.

However, one good advice in an online environment is to grow a thick skin. Having an online presence has its advantages and disadvantages, but one should be prepared for the more unsavoury aspects of it. Both Lily Allen and panGloss seem to have been surprised by the virulence of the web’s underbelly, I suspect that it is different when it gets personal, but  I am a bit of a cyber-cynic, and I always expect the worst of people online.

As the saying goes, if you cannot stand the heat, stay away from the flame-thrower. .. err… did I get that right?

Update: How could I forget the famous Troll Slayer xkcd?

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