The Bungle Affair

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Arthur C. Clarke postulated in his third law that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

While Clarke was writing about speculative fiction I feel that this bears upon Julian Dibbell’s article, A Rape in Cyberspace.

I was reminded of accounts from the first screenings of The Great Train Robbery, the first narrative film. In a climactic scene, the audience is presented with a close up of a gunman who fires directly at the camera.  Early audiences, who had never before encountered such technology, responded by ducking under the seats or “running out of the theater screaming.”  We can laugh at the quaintness of such a response today. We have become so desensitized to such effects that 3D technology can’t even begin to recapture that natural terror.  However, we cannot deny that the emotions and response felt by those audience members were, for them, extremely real.

Likewise, the participants of LambdaMOO were engaged in an emerging technology which had never before been possible.  They were not simply playing roles, they were creating pseudonymous identities and living within a community.  Those experiences were a form of reality for them.  The joy, laughter, ecstasy and pain experienced there was real for the participants.

What conditions created the Bungle Affair? Some would argue that an anonymous environment inspires behavior usually censured by the community, The Punch-in-the-Nose Doctrine.  These arguments typically focus on the idea that people are freer to say the outlandish and hurtful things that in real life, (RL) would result in a bloody nose.  However, that perspective also ignores the positive and healthy behavior that also benefits from anonymity.

The user known as “legba,” the Haitian trickster god, hoped perhaps “to tast[e] in imagination a deity’s freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh.”  The same free society that permits insult and assault permits its members to interact outside of gender, race, and class.  It is also worth noting that destructive behavior is possible in RL whereas such freedom from stereotyping is not.  Additionally, while not capable of administering the bloody nose, Bungle did have to deal with the censure of his community. Anonymity cannot bear all of the blame.

I would contend that the Bungle Affair has more to due with the RL aspects of rape culture than it does any technological advancement.  Technology is only relevant in that it was used in this case to commit a crime as old as human existence.  It was the medium, but not the motive.

As Dibbell asserts, one of the primary interactions that existed on LambdaMOO was cyber sex.  Additionally, the majority of participants were young people of university age that this bloggers dares to suggest might have perhaps been relatively inexperienced in RL sex.  I speculate that a great deal of the interactions would most likely then be generated from portrayals of sex from other media, such as film, television and pornography where the rape culture is frequently portrayed as normal.

So is it any wonder that a young student at NYU under the name Mr. Bungle might act out the messages in preexisting media in terms of sex and violence in a community where sexual fantasy was a large part of the interaction? While these communities offer an escape from the hegemony of our culture, we all as individuals carry our own baggage there. Mr. Bungle’s identity was an artifact of those messages and given enough users was an inevitable occurrence.

The trauma experienced by these women was very real.  But the source of that harm cannot be found in LambdaMOO.  It is in all communities, whether “real” or “virtual.” In all honesty, the community of the MOO responded to the victims in an impressive act of unity that is not often seen in my own RL community when the subject of rape is introduced.  In that I am both impressed and hopeful.

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Web Justice

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The web is often compared to the wild West. A vacuum of control and policing creates a culture in which mobs and vigilantes run riot.

Internet Justice?

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, author Clay Skirky examines the case of the stolen sidekick and the internet vigilantism of Evan Guttman.   After his friend’s phone was left in a cab, the victim discovered pictures and emails from the person who found the phone online.  After attempts to recover the phone were met with refusal, Evan started a website Stolensidekick.com which quickly gathered an audience and community to help get justice for this event. The community provided information in terms of detective work, legal advice, insider info from the NYPD, and the kind of attention that made this minor event into a global topic. Eventually,  the young woman who had possession of the phone was arrested and the phone returned. (NYT Article)

Skirky voices some interesting questions surrounding events such as these.

“Who defines what kind of cause is right?”

In this case an affluent white professional adult was able to prosecute a sixteen-year-old single mother who refused to return lost property.  Not a crime against humanity by any stretch of the imagination, yet thousands of individuals joined the cause to restore the phone to it’s owner.  No doubt similar events occur every day and the sense of anger for an injustice that many have also experienced fueled the response.

In this case I would say that the group defines the merits of the cause based on the attention they give it.  Individuals could unite in a shared sense of disgust at a value they felt had been breached. Similarly, in the case of Dog Poop Girl, Koreans united to deride a young woman who had shown a lack of care towards her fellow commuters and insulting the elderly by her failure to clean up after her dog.

“Do we want a world in which a well-off grown-up can use this kind of leverage to get a tennager arrested, as well as named and shamed on a global platform, for what was a fairly trivial infraction?”

Personally, I don’t think we have much of a choice.  That is the world in which we have always lived.  Since time immemorial when communities feel that a core value has been broken they have united to shame and correct the perpetrator. Scarlet letters, public shaming, scapegoating; all these have long traditions in society.  While not every person who committed a crime would end up in stock in the town center, the ones that were caught served as a warning to others to conform. Typically those caught were not privileged members of the community.

These online campaigns to shame serve similar function today, though the access is broader and the community larger than ever before.  While ostensibly justice in the communities of times past was supposed to be blind, that ideal is no more true now than it was then.  Privilege will always play a part in justice and the internet is neither the source nor the solution to this problem.

“Why should Evan have been able to browbeat the NYPD into paying attention to this of all lost property?”

The fact that the victim in this case was upper middle class and white no doubt played a role in their ability to conduct the campaign as well as the attention it received.  No doubt there are cases in which far more damage was done to the victim, yet those cases did not make headlines or receive such a following.

However, once you start arguing that there are more meritorious cases it becomes impossible to pursue any cause. Why save the whales when there are people starving in the developing world? Why help those in the developing world when their are people starving in our own communities? And so on. It becomes an argument that diminishes the value of any cause. Similarly, why complain of the attention garnered over the privilege in media attention for lost phones, when there is such a terrible history of media representations of lost women based on race?

There is little to no control on how these ad hoc communities form.  If a case is presented that draws in an individual based on their values a community of those with similar values will form, no matter how big or small the infraction.

A Counter Example

Recently an online community rose up against an individual who had been targeting them for almost a decade.  A man using the screen name David Mabus has been targeting online atheist groups and high profile bloggers since 1993 with hateful, violent speech, and Depeche Mode videos.

While initially his rants were just confusing and crazy, overtime they escalated in tone and number.  He wrote spam scripts with which he would flood emails and online communities with his rants and death threats. One of his most frequently targeted bloggers was PZ Myers an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the blog Pharyngula.  He recently blogged about what he experienced as a result of David Mabus’s fixation.

“Every morning when I get up and get on the computer, the first thing I do is delete the pile of spam from Dennis Markuze, each of which is usually cross-posted to 50 to 100 other people. Every time I fire up Twitter, the first thing I do is clear the garbage Dennis Markuze has left there; yesterday I blocked and reported spam from over 25 Markuze accounts, amounting to several hundred messages.”

Rutherford Mansfield also blogged about some examples of Mabus’s threats:

“I’ve been getting emails from him for about 3 years or so, ever since I started my website http://whatstheharm.net and James Randi mentioned it in a blog post,” said Tim Farley, whose blog challenges people to think critically. “I have almost 60 screen shots of DIRECT death threats he sent to me.  Stuff like “I am going to execute you, fucker… The police will not save you… we’re going to beat the fuck out of you, u lying little sack of shit…. and so on.”

Markuze appears, ironically, to be on some kind of extremist Christian bent, attacking the journalists for their defence of science against creationism or their beliefs in the separation of Church and State. One blogger who prefers to remain anonymous provided the following quote, which was left on a July 2010 article about Galileo: “We have orders to EXTERMINATE you and your entire family if continue to talk about GOD and RELIGION the way *you do* do you got the msg, you stupid little fucker?”

The identity of David Mabus has been known for years now.  He is Dennis Markuze of Montreal Canada.  Over the years many have contacted the Montreal Police, the RCMP, and the city officials about the actions of Markuze.  Canada has a law criminalizing death threats on the internet.  However, for years nothing was done as these threats were considered of no consequence.  Internet communities had to grow accustomed to ignoring him and his threats as there seemed to be no recourse.  Many mocked him for his crazy ramblings and tried to dismiss him.  Markuze then began attending conventions and conferences getting in physical proximity to those whose heads he had threatened to cut off and at whose expense he enjoyed making references to “crystal night.” Within the community many feared that this man was similar to Anders Behring Breivik, the mass murderer responsible for the Oslo shootings this summer, who began by making threats online that escalated into violence.

Yet these communities had little ability to protect themselves.  Until Kyle VanderBeek, a San Francisco-based engineer received threats via his twitter account and decided to do something. VanderBeek works with Change.org, and he set up a petition on that website.  Every signature resulted in an email sent to the Montreal Police public relation’s address.  After the petition has received over 3,000 signatures the Twitter account of Montreal PD tweeted that they were looking into the case and posted several requests to stop. Then local media began to pay attention.

Subsequently, Markuze was arrested and charges are still pending as he receives mental evaluation.

As a counter example to the case of the Stolen Sidekick, here is a small marginalized online community that was targeted by a single individual.  It took years of abuse before they were finally able to be heard and stop the abusive threats of an online terrorist who had targeted them as a group. Legislation that criminalizes online death threats should act to protect individuals, however, it is still difficult for an entire community of victims to find justice if they are small and on the margins of society.  So in answer to Shirky’s above question, sometimes the Police need to be brow beaten for justice to be served.

Twitterpated

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I am new to tweeting.  Like Stephen Johnson, back when twitter launched I was highly skeptical about the character limit and how useful the medium could be.  Instead of focusing on the limitations of a news bite chunk of text I should have seen the benefits inherent in a fast and minimalist platform.

Early in the adoption of twitter, I recall being annoyed by its inclusion in televised news broadcasts.  They would interrupt the experts in order to read random snippets of thought from their feed.  I see the value presented by Johnson in his #hackedu example.  An ambient conversation can enhance an event with a great deal of added content.  (Much in the way that a student chat can add to a lecture.) However, as it was implemented at the time it seemed more of a distraction from the event as someone who was not part of that other conversation.

Brevity is highly valued online.  I learned quickly that long screeds would be glossed over by less committed members of my audience.  Tl:dr, (too long, didn’t read) was not a critique I was used to but I quickly adapted.  Communicating in concise language has become more highly valued in our culture, in part because another voice is just a click away.  Recently, in helping a high school student apply for scholarships, I was stunned to discover that many universities are eliminating the entrance essay in favor of a more concise model.  SMU asked for a 200 character description of the student’s goals as part of their requirement.  A well drafted response resulted in a full ride scholarship for this student.

The most valuable aspect of Twitter I have so far discovered is as supplement to my RSS feed.  Previously, I only followed a blogger’s blog.  With twitter I not only can read recent posts, I can also enjoy what articles they are reading and linking via twitter.  I can eavesdrop on conversations they are having, or respond myself.  It adds many more layers of content which I can enjoy. The abbreviated links that twitter has implemented allows sharing at a fast and furious pace.  This creates many more connections that can facilitate viral communication and help a blogger find an audience.  It also adds diversity. as I find value in other topics that the authors I find interesting, find interesting themselves.

I plan to explore twitter’s capabilities this semester.  I have already become slightly obsessed with monitoring the Trends feature as a peek into our collective unconscious. As a side note, I  found an great online tool, If This Then That which automates some of my favorite tools online and is useful for cross pollinating my online accounts.

 

Anonymous artist supports Scotland’s libriaries and arts

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A "Poetree" left at the Scottish Poetry Library

A mysterious artist has left paper sculptures all over Scotland to support the Arts and Letters.  These beautiful creations have been secretly left in places with charming supportive notes for the institutions they were given to. Interestingly, the note accompanying the first was addressed to the library’s twitter account:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.…
… We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.…
This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

Did the artist gain inspiration for their “Poetree” from this twitter name?  Regardless of how it began, many others started popping up all over Edinburgh. The National Library of Scotland, (@natlibscot); The Scottish Storytelling Centre, (@scotstorycenter); and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, (@edbookfest).

Given the artist’s statements concerning supporting libraries and the arts, the decision to use twitter usernames in their art and notes is an intriguing idea.  Media attention on the Guardian and STV highlighting this art brought these twitter feeds to the attention of the news audience.  Any followers generated through this coverage will become aware of their projects and more likely to help support these events and venues.

What then is the greatest value in this anonymous gift? The beauty of the art? The recognition of the unappreciated libraries and venues offered in an artistic valentine? Or the increased awareness and community generated from the mystery of anonymity, which may serve the interests of these institutions for years to come?

More images and info can be found at thisiscentralstation.com, who has been following the artist and their works.

Generation Web 2.0

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An anonymous middle school artist

On Monday, my husband was greeted by a lovely meme doodle on his desk.  He teaches middle school art.

The astonishing thing is that this kid was most likely still in garanimals when this meme was created and hardly able to drool on a keyboard.

Also amusing: this masterpiece was left anonymously. Life imitates 4chan.

So what is this about?

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Upon starting this blog I received many questions about what it would be about from many friends and well wishers.  What is the topic, how am I going to write it, and who is my audience?

In response to Rettberg I offer my father’s response to this puzzling query, “I hesitate to articulate in fear that I might deviate from the true course of rectitude.”  In short, I just don’t know.  An answer, that from google, I realize he learned from the Corps at Texas A&M. Though it made my childhood more difficult I can tell you. Ask your dad for a puppy and get that as a response and see how you react.

I do not intend for this blog to be a kind of personal diary or confessor. I intend to be topical while inserting a healthy dose of personal perspective. While I love metafilter, I intend to include more than the dry dose of an internet link with a summary.

I hope that over time this blog will evolve into whatever special entity it will become.  For a long time I hesitated in joining the blogging community, outside of commentary, due to my lack of focus.  I felt that I needed to have that focus prior to beginning. Yet, if I look at some of my favorite blogs, such as Allie Brosh’s hyperboleandahalf I find that across their history, they allowed themselves the time to grow their voice along with their audience with great results.

My thoughts turn now to Rettberg’s questions on whether or not blogging is a medium or a genre.  I lend toward the medium end of the spectrum.  The artist chooses their palate, the colors and medium which form the frame in which they work within.  Genre, to my mind, is more of an aesthetic choice which is bound by stylistic conventions rather than the confines of a medium.  The hallmarks of the Weblog is its place within time and it’s personal nature.  These are the confines of medium.  The taxonomy of blogs into personal, filtered, and topical would be their genre within the medium of blogs.

Unlike Rettberg, I see this no more problematic than an artist that chooses the medium of oil or watercolor, to portray the genre of portraiture, landscape or surrealism. The crossover that he anticipates is no more problematic than placing the portrait within the landscape, or the landscape within the surreal.  Indeed, the crossing of genres is the watermark of our post modern era.

Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan, the founders of blogger.com  were cited as identifying the triangle of “frequency, brevity, and personality” in blogging.  While compatible with many blogs, I believe that this ignores the implications of the rhetorical triangle, “writer, audience, and context.” All of their triangle is found within the writer.  The beauty of the blogosphere is in the robust interaction between author and audience in their temporal context.

Today, we experience the anniversary of 9/11.  A tremendous historical event experienced by people the world over: America Under Attack and the Sleeping Giant Awakes.  Looking back on those posts which occurred that day, I am struck by the interaction between author and audience, all within the historical context.

I remember that day of my own personal tragedy, within the larger framework of the online community.  I remember searching my forums for members in the NYC area and trying to check the status of my NY bloggers to see if they were safe.  The moments were made more real and personal from my interaction with people directly effected.

That was a coming of age moment for me.  My own experiences, (my father and only parent passed away that day of cancer) were just a drop within the larger personal experiences the world over.  As I grieved for my own family and country, I read the experiences of others; the man in New Jersey who lost his sister and gained his niece and nephew as family members, the French gentleman who expressed his response to the Vigipirate campaign in 1995, the hysterical people in middle America who screamed for blood and nukes, and the peaceful liberals that pleaded for reason. I was able to speak to all of them and more importantly – listen.

For me, web 2.0 brings us closer to the ideals of the dialectic.  Many voices bringing us closer to truth.

Hello Interwebs

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My name is Gina Garner, except when it isn’t.  I am a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington, pursuing my undergraduate degree in English Lit with a minor in writing.

Current writing projects include:

  • My first great American novel, Cancer Lottery
  • A non-fiction examination of the flora and fauna of the internet, The Logic of LULZ: Trolling as a Rhetorical Act
  • An as-of-yet unnamed Biblical fantasy novel, But Let’s Just Call Him “Bob” For Now.

My home is in Fort Worth, TX in the near south side historic district of Fairmount. I live with my husband and two dogs. We were crazy enough to buy a 1919 Craftsman Bungalow, so every day brings a new renovation project or domestic emergency.  Yet, being steward to a home older than my grandparents is a joy and an honor.  I am fascinated with green sustainable living choices and how to pair that with historical preservation and restoration.

I love my neighborhood and recently joined up with an equally crazy group of like-minded community members to show off our city.  We formed PCX- The Panther City Exchange, whose goal is to promote independent artists and local businesses in Fort Worth.   We work as community partners to create events that show off the best of what our city has to offer in terms of food, music, art, artisans, and venues.   Recently we helped support a memorial concert, Davestock, to raise funds for a scholarship to The School of Rock. Another recent success was the Fort Worth Rock Assembly, a classic rock rodeo which randomly paired 18 awesome local bands with inspiring cover challenges for a three day festival.  The only profit our rag tag group of neighbors wants is love and the enjoyment of helping cool and worthy events happen.

In addition to my real life community, I enjoy belonging to virtual communities.  The internet has an amazing capability to unite individuals with common goals or interests from all over the world.  The lack of gate-keeping online has fostered a level playing field which has empowered the voices traditionally silenced in our culture. I also enjoy being exposed to the beliefs of others and having my ideas and ideals challenged.  I believe that the best type of learning is achieved through dialogue, thus online communities can help individuals achieve their full potential. My favorite haunt online is like a truck stop at the edge of the universe where flame warriors, heroes, and trolls go after reaching enlightenment.  Unfortunately, no one ever links to them.

I also am currently learning to play the ukelele.  I like ice cream, hate June bugs and am afraid of giant land crabs.

If you want to learn more about me, follow my blog or join in the comments section.