The Summer of Blogospheric Meltdown

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This has been some month: a month that, far in the future, bloggers will clink tumblers of scotch over while shuddering in horror at the recollection. While live-posting to their blogs via direct, wireless connections from their brains.

Yes, the month of July, 2006, may rank with October, 1929, in the annals of History with No Sense of Proportion. The month everything changed: the month of innocence lost, of reality biting back, of lawyers gaining a long-sought-for toehold and of chickens coming home to do what they do best.

If you are over 40: Do you remember when you realized that hitchhiking was absolutely insane? Our society has just crossed a similar turning point.

Blogging ain't what it used to be.

Having been at this hobby in various guises for over three years and seeing a lot of good ones come and go and mutate, I know everything in the blogosphere changes. (It would be an interesting project to write an obit-list with "cause of death" for all the departed). But July of '06 may well be the time we look back to and say, "Do you remember how it was before that?"

First, I'll note a passing change, one like many others before - a blogger who has switched media. Regnum Crucis is no longer a blog. This was - in my opinion - the best Web site on terrorism and the War. The writer was a youngster but extremely plugged-in. He has managed to have his blogging history expunged from google's cache as well as the Wayback Machine, which seems no small task, so if you want to learn about him you will need to do some serious digging, including clicking that link and reading Italian.

This one is not a scandal of any type, but it does signal the end of an era. His flow of inside information has moved to a private group. Posting everything one knows for all the world to see may be becoming a thing of the past.

Next, the meatier stuff.

The Greenwald affair in itself is a bit of a chuckler. On one level you want to say: "Sock puppets. What a doofus."

When you read the whole story, though, you realize there's quite a lot to it. You can spend some time digging down through that link. Very enjoyable time, I might add.

The fallout, moreover, has been impressive. More here. Ace is a seriously good blogger, smart dude and wonderful writer. Wizbang is one of the blogfathers at very least. The dirty bomb of this controversy has poisoned the landscape and it will be interesting to see how/if all the affected parties manage to climb back into their chairs.

(You can read some of the lead-up to that mess here.)

Finally, the Frisch-Goldstein imbroglio took the penultimate turn by jumping from the funny papers to the front page. Some background here from Ace - although I will not even attempt to collate this story because I do not have an attorney on retainer. You're going to have to research that one for yourself.

The upshot is, some folks have been forced to lay low in real life because of communications that took place on the Web. There's a lesson in all of this, and while I can't formulate it with total accuracy just yet, I can say it has to do with treating everything you say on the Web just like you'd treat a speech before a town council meeting. That goes for posts as well as comments on blogs.

Here's why this represents a major change: From the 1980s on, computer-based discussion has enjoyed a near-impermeable cloak of radical secrecy. Anonymity is a big part of the deal. Whether on a BBS or Compuserve message board or newsgroup or chat room or IRC channel or forum or blog, an Internet person has always been able to don an incognito. You can say all kinds of crap and get away with it on the Internet: That's one of the coolest things about the Internet. This unique, identity-masked arena of completely coherent communication has no parallel in the real world.

And now, our little boy-in-the-Web-bubble conceit has been unmasked. When we sit at the keyboard and type, we may well need to assume our photo will accompany every message and our every message will be displayed on the 100-foot screen overlooking Times Square. Our cool little secret geek world has been uncovered.

It's no longer just a boy (or girl) and his (or her) keyboard.

Wherefore, then, the incognito? I still believe there is a place for it. I still intend to practice it: though not here, obviously.

I know people who contribute great things to the Internet only because they can do so anonymously.

But a simple rule arises: Watch, very carefully, the personal attacks on people whose lives are otherwise private. If you hit someone, they have a right to hit back. If you, anonymously or incognito, launch a personal attack against a real person by name, said person might get a wild hair and decide to track you down. If you're blogging or commenting on a blog, think of yourself as George Will. You're a commenter, but you must be a responsible commenter. Don't enter into areas that George Will wouldn't enter.

For example: If I call myself Joe Shmoe, and criticize Jonathan or David or the head of the ACLU on their statements about some issue related to gay marriage, we can probably have a civilized debate. But if I start to criticize their personal lives, they may feel impelled to find out who this Shmoe character is.

I may go on other blogs and make up a name and trash politicians or celebrities or terrorists, and that's ok. They're already public figures and getting hammered in the press. But I'd hesitate to hammer the guy who lives down the street or some other blogger on the basis of personal information I might have, unless I was willing to stand behind the statement 100%.

For this reason, I don't think a blog is a great medium for national-enquirer-type exposes unless the blogger is either fully disclosed, willing to be disclosed, or EXTREMELY well-hidden. The latter condition can be met, but those who attempt it need to really cover their tracks.

Enough of my sermon. But on a closing note: Doesn't our own local "scandal" (more here and here) seem, in retrospect, absolutely quaint?

UPDATE: More here and here. No comment from me.

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charles said:

I've always assumed that everything I ever did would come back to haunt me. So I simply use my real name, and let the chips fall where they may -- at least I can say I wasn't trying to hide.

I can still find things on the web that I wrote back in the 80s. Not anything interesting, mind you, because they USENET groups I posted to weren't "important enough" to get placed where Google would still see them (I had literally 10s of thousands of lines of writing in places like "sci.skeptics" for example, that I really wish I could get to).

Wow, USENET in the 80s! You are a grandaddy of the realm. I got involved in the early 90s and considered myself one of the early ones. For me it was mostly geek stuff and arguing about sports. I think google groups cuts off around 1996, though, so that's all gone for now. I have to think it's sitting on a server somewhere.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man said:

I know where you live

Don't toy with me, General Gozer. You may have tracked me down, yes. But I also have contacts in a little cable TV company, and they tell me the population of Ann Arbor contains surprisingly few giant Sloars - SURPRISINGLY few.

I'm amazed you can type with those huge, puffy, poorly defined fingers. But I am certain you cannot dismantle your cable box with them, and this shall be my trump card. It's just you, me and Uncle Sam.

zimzo said:

Well at least my sock puppet can still sleep at night (if it did sleep at night).

Once again Joe you've left out a teensy-weensy part of the whole controversy. The chickens coming home to roost part. Jeff Goldstein, as I have pointed out before and you denied, which made me think you have never actually read his blog, specializes in pretty disgusting personal attacks on people who disagree with him, some of which is laid out here:

Though Deb Frisch is certainly a nutcase, the way the right-wing blogosphere went after her was arguably a bit of overkill. After she made her disgusting remarks on Goldstein's blog her boss's contact information given out over the Internet, who was then harassed by right-wing bloggers demanding she lose her job (she resigned). They also made sure that any future employer doing a search of her name would find out about the controversy. Clearly, she was already mentally disturbed and suffering from paranoia but to have the entire right-wing blogosphere descend on her and ruin her life could not have been the best treatment for her mental problems.

Michelle Malkin is, as you know, no stranger to similar controversys. She gave out the home telephone numbers of the members of a group called Students Against the War, who were then the victims of death threats by her readers. Malkin not only refused to apologize, she posted the numbers again!

One of the people Malkin attacked for not expelling the members of Students Against the War was UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton, who committed suicide a few months later.

Finally, the whole silly "sock puppet" controversy arose because right-wing bloggers were attacked for their hypocrisy in criticizing the Left for not condemning Frisch strongly enough (though many were unaware of the controversy) and at the same time not condemning the call by one popular blogger Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler for the lynching of Supreme Court Justices. After Greenwald wrote this piece the right-wing blogosphere began attacking him personally. They questioned whether his claims on his resume, they pointed out that he was gay and made homophobic remarks about him, they pointed out he spent half the year living in Brazil (because his boyfriend is Brazilian and unlike a heterosexual couple he can't get papers that allow him to stay here, just one of the many indignities gay people suffer because they do not have the same rights as straight people). They threw everything up against the wall in their attempts to destroy him personally because he dared to criticize them. In the end all they were left with was the sock puppet thing and the only casualty was one of their own bloggers. Pretty ironic, really.

zimzo said:

One more link about Malkin from Reason magazine:

Zimzo, nice try and, yes, I'd expend buckets of time if I felt obligated to become a Goldstein defender.

Readers, figure that out for yourselves by reading all the material in the links. Whatever you decide is fine with me.

Greenwald got nabbed for sock puppeting in a most humiliating manner. That's all I'm saying. He could be the King of Siam and I'd still say he made a fool of himself.

Frisch? Heh.

Also, I'm sorry if I am missing the connection between my post and Michelle Malkin; I don't follow her very closely so I can't really say anything about what she did or didn't do. I skimmed the Reason post and agree it makes her look bad, but I imagine there are two sides to the story. Thanks for referring me to it, in any case.

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