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January 12, 2008


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Jeff asks: I can’t help but wonder whether sock-puppetry and astroturfing inherently more abhorrent than say, simple verbal cruelty?

They're both abhorrent, but in different ways. Simple verbal cruelty, merely picking today's victim and eviscerating them with words for no apparent reason, would be absolutely reprehensible and indefensible. That has not occurred. Even if it had occurred, it would have been direct, simple, empty, boundless, and easily read for what it is.

It is not anonymity itself, was the uses of supposed anonymity in the recent episode that were problematic -- the use of anonymity to conduct actions not consistent with widely accepted ethics standards or the stewardship of the public trust. It can't be considered cruel to look behind the mask when the very question is: why and how has a mask been used to manipulate and mislead? To ask people not to look behind the mask in a case such as this is to ask them to look the other way so that questionable behavior can continue to occur, so that others can be taken advantage of, so that it becomes a standard operating strategy.

Had the principal asked any other sort of question - the best brand of snow-seal for boots, what breed of dog makes the best pet in my city apartment, how should I handle my wife's infidelity - there would have been no reason whatsoever to examine the asker's identity. Those kinds of questions, and far more sensitive ones, are asked daily on the site. There is no interest in or effort put toward figuring out who most askers are; that would indeed be ridiculously cruel. But when a mask is being used at the people's expense, an effort to find facts doesn't strike me as at all cruel.

I wonder if the terms 'sock-puppetry' and 'astroturfing' are part of the problem. I think they may sound like just another instance of internet word-salad slang, just more 'friending' and 'SPAMming' and 'flaming' and 'handwaving' and other online behavior. And everybody knows stuff that happens on the internet must not be that big a deal. Right? It seems clear, though, that if standards for fraud and libel already in existence in the print and broadcast media apply, some behavior that employs sock-puppetry and astroturfing as a technique may constitute fraud.It is not the use of masks in itself that is problematic, in other words.

I was interested to read about another recent episode involving allegations of identity theft through electronic media: Was this unmasking defensible? More detail here.

The complaint alleges that Jide Zeitlin sent a Fortune magazine article from CNN's Web site in October 2006 to two of American Tower's institutional investors using the e-mail address of James Taiclet, the Boston company's chairman and CEO. Mr. Zeitlin allegedly forwarded the article with the message "fascinating" and didn't indicate it was sent by him. Instead, Mr. Zeitlin typed Mr. Taiclet's e-mail address into the "sender" line so it appeared that the e-mail was sent from Mr. Taiclet, according to the complaint....American Tower says it discovered the e-mail because when one of the recipients replied to the e-mail, the response was directed to Mr. Taiclet at American Tower....After discovering the e-mail, American Tower says it undertook an investigation. As part of its probe, American Tower filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts state court in which it subpoenaed a technology provider to CNN's Web site so it could determine the e-mail's origin.American Tower says that it traced the email to Perry Capital LLC, a New York hedge fund where Mr. Zeitlin had been using office space. American Tower says just prior to a scheduled deposition of Perry Capital, Mr. Zeitlin acknowledged that he used Mr. Taiclet's e-mail address to send the article.

I'm sympathetic to the idea that an unwarranted exposure of an innocent person to inflict cruelty is bullying and might even constitute a campaign of character assasssination. And I would deplore such an activity. But clearly, there are instances in which masks can be used for unethical and illegal purposes. In those cases, is the public suppposed to be more concerned with the personal discomfort that may come to the mask-wearer than with defending the ethical and legal standards that we agree to live within?


"In those cases...." I agree, Michelle, it comes down to cases. Cases and precedents and careful parsing of context. In the case we both have in mind, the guy did "tag the police station." If you want a good example of what not to do, that would be it. I hope we can keep the conversation in this thread on lessons learned, as I have tried to do in the post. The specific embers may yet be so hot that they might scorch or flame up. In the aftermath, though, some of us have been trading email after email with this theme: "Be careful, the bullies will get you." Having cooled off enough, I felt it was time to make clear that bullies are not tolerated here, much less encouraged. A similar statement might be made by the owners and operators of any good community site. The absence of such a clear statement by owners, moderators, and thoughts leaders of a community in the aftermath of a mob action by members of a community would be a blemish on a community's record, and an indication that further mob actions may be expected from those who may feel that they tasted blood with impunity.

I call on anyone who heads up a large online community to make clear their stance on crowd control. I am interested in structural solutions: How can we as owners or community builders put systems, policies, procedures, technology, and people in place to prevent or restrain outbreaks of cyber-bullying or mob violence? Speed bumps.

Let's show we can police ourselves. None of us want to let things slip so far out of control that the courts are the only recourse for those who are wounded in a crowd sourced attempt at justice. What will come out of the legislature or the courts may be laws and rulings that may be draconian. Self policing is best, starting with us each policing ourselves, and then those who respect us, or are members of a community we own or moderate.

My record is not perfect. I can do better and vow to try. I appreciate any assistance others might give, when things get too heated here. I do get heated sometimes, and when I go too far, I try to cool off and apologize, either by email or online, to restore congeniality and mutual good will. Not always easy, but necessary. I appreciate it when others do the same. As they say on one community site I know, "Everyone needs a hug."

Michelle, your comments on Gifthub help me rise to a higher plane, they really do. In writing the stuff about Maenads, I almost emailed you to ask if you, as someone who works in a museum, knew of a good painting of Bacchantes tearing a malefactor apart. I am sure it is a common theme in painting and allegory. Whether the king they tear apart deserves it is one question. Whether we want Bacchantes running lose is another.

Jeff Doyle

Michelle - I hope you don't think I was suggesting the unmasking Holden Karnofsky was cruel. I think it was the right thing to do. I think he was asking for it.

Let's not argue about whether or not that occurred in the Holden Karnofsky case. These are serious questions. None of us should allow our responses to be dictated by a desire to justify our positions re: Karnofsky vs. MetaFilter. We are all prepared, I trust, to change our opinions upon deeper reflection. (It wouldn't really qualify as reflection otherwise.) Let's imagine that it happened in wholly unrelated circumstances. How would you feel about the malefactor being publicly unmasked?

My questions are quite general:
1) What other online behaviors justify unmasking?
2) Who gets to decide?

To which I would add a third question: once the unmasking has occurred, where do we go from there? And how and when do we stop?

You seem to be suggesting that verbal abuse is only cruelty if the victim is torn apart "for no apparent reason." I would say that cruelty was the deliberate infliction of pain or suffering on others, especially when accompanied by an indifference to their distress. Motive has little to do with it. Are you suggesting that it isn't cruelty as long as the person doing it feels that they have good reasons?

What are the appropriate parameters and limits of the right to privacy on the internet? What are the limits of acceptable online behavior? And once, again, who gets to decide? Is it simply a case of 'home rules' or are there over-arching standards that no community or individual can opt out of?

Consider, for instance, that schools are required to report evidence of abuse (including verbal abuse.) The courts having rightly deemed that, in certain cases (including verbal cruelty), the "right to privacy" has limits. And that it the prerogative of society, and not the family, to set those limits.

Esther's Sunny Moment

It's hard to keep an open mind


1) I think it's not specific behaviors that need to be unmasked, but whether the behavior is employed for purposes that are unlawful or unethical (where there are codes of ethics which apply). Whether this occurs online or offline is not of much importance. It's illegal to sell drugs, troll for underage sex, steal identities, and trade music files. If you engage in those behaviors offline and are caught, any false identity under which you did it is not a protection. Why should it be so online? Anonymity necessarily ends where accountability for wrongdoing begins. For instance, if you visit a brothel in Nevada and use a false name and character and pay in cash, you haven't committed a crime and it's unlikely no unmasking would happen. When unmasking happens in those instances, we do call it 'cruel.' But if you visit a brothel in New York State and use a false identity and pay in cash, and are caught doing it, the first thing to happen would be an attempt to establish your real identity and place charges. No matter how many false IDs or credit cards presented, aliases used, layers of anonymity, there will be an effort toward unmasking with a view toward accountability. Similarly, you can walk into a music store and buy CDs under any sort of false identity or persona you care to wear around. No problem. But we have seen instances where music traders online have been sued by the RIAA despite their use of handles and attempts to obscure identity. I'm not sure why this is such a confusing area. There is a unified legal self behind all online activities, no matter how many personas are in use and where.

As for 2) who gets to decide? I'm not sure I understand the question. We all decide, every day, whether or not to pursue uinmasking as a project. If unwarranted, then yes, it would be silly and childish and cruel. But when an event transpires in public, and affects the public, and all the surrounding information is public, there is no reason the public should not become interested in the matter.

Jeff Doyle

Michelle - Somewhat to my surprise, having thought about it, I can't come up with a lot of cases where 'unmasking' seems like the right response beyond the sort of shilling practiced by Karnofsky.

Some, but probably not all, people would say that hypocrisy is an analogous case. (Like outing an in-the-closet gay politician who bashes gays publicly for political advantage.) And conceivably cases of anonymous cruelty where the power relations between the parties was drastically skewed.

And finally cruelty so catastrophic that it caused lasting psychic damage. And of course anything illegal, as you cogently illustrate with the Nevada-New York example.

Aside from the criminal and catastrophic, all of the other circumstances that I could imagine (personally) condoning the unmasking of anonymous malefactors seemed to have a shared feature of fraud or hypocrisy. In other words, it wasn't so much the magnitude of Karnofsky's mischief that justified the unmasking, but something about it's very nature. Something having to do with 'poetic justice'. (Those that live by the mask, die by the mask?)

In any case, despite appearances, I don't think that there has been a lot of dispute over whether Karnofsky should have been unmasked. The dispute really centered on how shocked and outraged we all should be by his behavior. On that question, I think, responses were all over the map.

Some were shocked by the quantity of vitriol released, and the lack of tolerance some participants showed towards any divergent opinion. Others thought that the response was measured and appropriate, considering the gravity of Holden's offense. This difference of opinion is at the heart of the debate over "bullying" and "mob rule" vs. "elitism" and "laxity". I think it might boil down to the irreconcilable question of whether one is more afraid of the few or the many.

I'm not proposing that we try to resolve that question here.

Jon Husband

I think people don't like to be fooled by masks when there's nothing they feel they can recognize of their own behaviour in the fooling to maybe chuckle or wince knowingly at.

That might be the issue in the GiveWell case .. it's petty fraud but a betrayal of what is probably a norm for most online communities. It's one of the reasons, I think, that a similar situation a couple of years ago involving BzzzAgents and Creative Commons caused a relatively brief furor. Creative Commons did the right thing, publicly admitting its error and backing out of the commercial relationship right away


Would you ever unmask someone who had an abortion whether it was legal or illegal in the jurisdiction in question?

Are we all cops? Are we required to report any illegal activity we see whether or no we think it should be illegal?


it wasn't so much the magnitude of Karnofsky's mischief that justified the unmasking, but something about it's very nature. Something having to do with 'poetic justice'. (Those that live by the mask, die by the mask?)

I disagree. The other thought I woke up was that the parameters for masking are defined by the relationships we have willingly entered into. We are all involved in many such relationships at once. First, with the government: unless we're stateless, most people are members of a governed society, which will have its own set of philosophies about whether false identities are tolerated and when. Here, we're subject to federal, state, and local law that considers the physical body the seat of the self and administers jurisprudence accordingly. Next, upon accepting employment, we enter in another set of relationships. That may carry its own set of staff policies and approved codes of ethics or simply silent conventions, and the employer may set parameters on the use of alternative identities. Third, our voluntary communities, which will have different levels of tolerance for such behavior because they're all wildly different. Some have governing bodies and stated policies on members' uses of identity (the Masons, the Tour de France, Boy Scouts) others only convention. Our families and personal relationships will also carry expectations or understandings of how identity is used, and woe be to the one who misunderstands the expectations. We are all part of organizations all our lives, from the day we're born to the day we die, and the organizations of which we are members provide the structures within which the use of identity is negotiated.

Would you ever unmask someone who had an abortion whether it was legal or illegal in the jurisdiction in question?

Would I? Heck, no. If abortion were illegal in my jurisdiction, I'd oppose that law through advocacy and support those doctors who felt they should provide that service in their civil disobedience. But could I argue that it's not a law? No. As long as it stands in law, a person who was caught would be identified for the purposes of settling charges. If I did it and were turned in, I couldn't claim the shelter of anonymity.

Are we all cops? Are we required to report any illegal activity we see whether or no we think it should be illegal?

Absolutely not. You'll have to let your personal morals be your guide in whether to look the other way, for whom, and when. But then of course, we're responsible for that choice; 'just following orders' being no longer much of a defense. This is where your loyalties come in, and your sense of personal honor and/or mission. Some people are very laissez-faire with regard to the actions of others, some prefer active attempts toward order.

I think the important part is to recognize that we're almost never acting 'statelessly,' or acting outside of organized relationships which have some structure, spoken or tacit, around the use of identity.



Thank you for staying so focused on clarifying these issues. (My comment here is out of phase with the thread which is moving fast. I am responding to the thoughtful comment that you wrote on Jan 13 at 12:01 am) We have reached a point where that is possible, thank heaven. I agree with your analysis above. And I want to extend it, ok? Pick up where you left off, and address the issue of "who decides," or due process, even when someone is guilty on the face of it.

Let us say that petty fraud involving egregious self-promotion is perpetrated under a mask within a community that has clear rules again self-promotion. Does that community have the right and the obligation to rise up against that violation of its code, and the violation of ethics, and some would say the law? Yes, of course. Granted with both hands. Not only do they have the right, they probably have the responsibility to self-police like that. Let's call that the "neighborhood watch phase," and agree that is a good thing.

Now, let us that that the community in question then leaves its home, and leaves the specific wrong-doer and goes out into the world, as a high spirited, one might say, manic group, almost in the spirit of the Bachantes and begins to intimidate, bully, unmask and threaten others, whose relation to the central wrong-doing is tangential or non-existent?

In the first instance trouble finds the community and they deal with it. In the second the community is mobilized to go in search of additional wrong-doers. It is that second step that I am trying to draw to the surface.

I am saying that moderators from such a community and thought leaders and its owners have a moral and perhaps legal responsibility to moderate the righteous ardor that overtakes people in the heat of the moment, when in a group setting, they taste blood in a good cause. This is as much human nature as it is the nature of monkies, dogs or wolves. Jubilant war parties go back to prehistory.

To close this matter out, and let us write finis, under the lessons learned, to give us closure, as they say, it would be helpful to hear a policy statement from the community as to moderation, bullying, and "community outreach," where the outreach involves foraging in a high spirited group for wrong-doers.

The record of a particular historical case is extant. Reviewing it would lead, I think, to the conclusion that things got out of hand in the community outreach phase and that more could have been done all around to moderate. That insight should be, I think, clearly expressed. Thought should be given to scale of community, policy of community, job description of moderators, and staffing thereof. Likewise, here at Gifhtub, I have to think about crowd control issues so that I can do my part when and if a similar situation arises to keep things under control. More on that in a second, let me drop into some touchy subjects first. Bear with me, please.

We are a low volume site whose commenters are friends going back years; we were not prepared for an influx of strangers whose righteous indignation and accusatory, dismissive, or bullying tone were directed at us. Nor were we prepared when that boiled over into trying to out what proved to be a totally unrelated third party, then spoofing of an innocent third party, and then an aliased note to her which she took as threatening, and wrote to me asking to set the record straight. All that got cleared up honorably, but it took hard work behind the scenes, and should have been a joint project. I felt pretty lonesome. And all the while back at the community in question, I was being reviled by some, supported by a few (including you, I thought, Michelle) and said, by others, to be fraudulently concocting the very problem I was desperately trying to address, a boiling situation on the edge between just talking and something uglier, with me praying that this did not issue in a cop call or attorney letter from the third party. There are ironies here, for sure. I hope it is clear from every sentence of this post and my comments that I am focused on the future, not finger-pointing, nor assessing blame. We have much to learn and take to heart all around. We are learning for ourselves and for our comrades all over the net who will face similar episodes from time to time.

What needs to be done at Gifthub to make it a better, and more responsive and responsible open space, I honestly don't yet know, but I can see many things that need to be re-considered. The use of masks when things gets heated can produce a flippancy that can infuriate. And that fury can lead to a behaviorial sink. I am thinking of specific examples, where it was the GH crew who did that. I saw it happen, knew the effect it would have, and was not prepared with a policy, or a pre-rehearsed emergency management strategy, that could go into effect under real time conditions. Plus, my own emotions were engaged. Shutting a thread is almost an admission of defeat. Like shutting school not for a snow day, but to avert a riot. In ten years that is the first thread I have ever closed.

I mean my questions above (about the responsibilities of owners, moderators and thought leaders when things get hot, and outsiders are involved) not as polarizing, but as questions that apply to any of us who function as community owners, moderators, or leaders. The rules of thumb, or mores, would apply all around, as we evolve our culture on the net.

Thanks, for your willingness to debrief like this in a spirit of community policy and governance, if you will. No two communities are identical. Then again, policies and shared expectations seem to be evolving on the net out of specific high profile episodes. We are developing a kind of group memory, that is changing how each of us behaves and how we acculturate others. How we moderate the momentary madness of crowds is a topic that came up with Mean Kids and Kathy Sierra, and with that Facebook case where spoofing led to a suicide of a young girl. Both of those were specific cases. Each takes on a tabloid quality. I would like to keep our discussion more general, because only then can we really see past the names, dates, places, and personalities, to the evolving "general rules." Things do get out of control, people do get hurt by bullying, and the net may be on a rendevous with evolving case law or government statute. Better that we self-police and build up our own internal systems than have a wave of new laws criminalize the usual bad behavior, or make site owners legally liable for harms done by their members through intemperate speech, threats, bullying, etc. In the Kathy Sierra case she apparently called the cops. That is exactly what we do not need more of, episodes that reach that level of hurt. Given the goodwill that has evolved here, among us, this could be a good time for us to set a high example, and lay down understandings that might help others, when their day comes, and their site "goes hot in real time."

And, thanks again, for your, well, friendship, if I may presume. At least I would love to have you as a node on my network of people who "get" giving. What I would really like to be talking about with you is philanthropy and the three sectors and how we can collaborate for a better world. This other stuff, unfortunately, is duty-driven. We might as well clean it all up, before we move back to more upbeat topics.


Next, upon accepting employment, we enter in another set of relationships. That may carry its own set of staff policies and approved codes of ethics or simply silent conventions, and the employer may set parameters on the use of alternative identities.

I should add the employer and governing bodies within the field, as there are many professional codes of ethics which may apply to employers. The Independent Sector has a large selection of them available for viewing and adaptation/adoption.

Jon Husband says: That might be the issue in the GiveWell case .. it's petty fraud but a betrayal of what is probably a norm for most online communities.

Please note that the online community completed its administration of the violation of its stated norms almost immediately, which was all it could do. It became bigger because there also exists a larger set of parameters, legal and ethical ones, that pertains in the nonprofit world, which these actions betrayed. Some who cared about those parameters spoke up on those grounds.

Josh Millard

Would you ever unmask someone who had an abortion whether it was legal or illegal in the jurisdiction in question?

There's folks who feel so strongly negatively about abortion that they'd be inclined to unmask anyone who had had an abortion, given the opportunity.

There's folks who feel so strongly about privacy issues that'd they never, ever unmask someone who had had an abortion, regardless of the circumstances.

I'd say most people don't fall into either camp. I'd need some pretty compelling knowledge to mitigate my inclination toward privacy on the matter -- I don't think an abortion, legal or otherwise, is really anyone else's business (but then I'm pretty stolidly against anti-abortion legislation...) -- but ever? Would I ever unmask someone who had an abortion? Sure. Give me the circumstances, I'll give you the exceptional behavior. What circumstances would be required for different people is going to vary, obviously, out to and including those extremes sketched above.

I deal with the prying vs. unmasking question daily, in a much more low-stakes context than the above hypothetical; the monster-of-the-new that is Google is a part of what I do, hopping down this rabbit hole or that to vet some strange bit of mefi-related behavior.

Nine times out of ten (or more?), I come back with nothing but a shrug. No leads, nothing weird, user x turned out not to have a shady history of behavior z or any troubling cross-site or self-promoting pattern of linking to site q. I don't keep a journal of the stuff that I find along the way, even the stuff that makes me double-take; it's back into the ether, forgotten as soon as I'm on to other things because there aren't any circumstances where it's my business. Because I agree: it'd be cruel to just cherrypick random details about a person, found a-googlin', and throw 'em out for public consumption for no reason.

So what's been said in some recent discussions, about privacy being something that's given rather than an inherent, is very much in play, daily. The tact and respect to let something overheard at a party lie; the good sense to disregard all that info that's so easy to come across with a search engine.

No: we don't need to be cops, we don't need to share everything that's knowable or findable about a person just for the sake of outing them. Making that decision of not only when to look but whether to reveal what you've found will always be a case-by-case thing, a matter of context and judgment. But whether one person's judgment there will strike another person as cruel may have more to do with their differing perspectives than it does with any inherent cruelty metric. We can probably agree on the principle and disagree on the deviling details.


Strategically, I think I erred in this post by beginning with a quotation from Jeff Doyle about masks. That is an important issue, and we are discussing it here. But the issues in the post, the ones with numbers, are the new stuff now.

On masks and law. Eventually you will come to the question of civil disobedience and whatever similar term would cover covert violations in a good cause of overbearing and overreaching corporate or organizational policies. We are on the net living in what sometimes feels to me like what is left of true civil society. We can feel the law, homeland security, id cards, and corporatized governance of all of our life, 24/7, coming. We here call that world Wealth Bondage and we have a saying, "There is no outside of Wealth Bondage." So, we sometimes keep Carnival, or hold a Charity Masquerade Ball, to turn the world upside down in imagination and retain a little slack in the system, a little part of ourselves that does not have to ask, "Please Mistress, Candidia, may I?" One saying is, "The law is harsh but it is the law." It is important to realize, though, the provenance of that glum saying, Rome under the tyrants. Our theme at gifthub is the role of civil society in creating a better world. We won't give up art, for the literal. For art is a bastion of freedom. There is more, as Michelle, might aver to a museum than the rules that constitute it. It is also a place where acts of the imagination, often in the face of established rules, are displayed and honored. So here.

This is a different topic, though, than the issues raised in my prior comments about crowd behavior and the responsibilities and liabilities that accrue to us as owners, moderators, and thought leaders. With both Josh and Michelle engaged here, I hope we can continue to pursue this set of questions, along with the question of sockpuppets, aliases, handles, artistry, satire, mimicry, carnival, festival of fools, and civil disobedience.

If we keep talking long enough, we may all see that these two sets of questions have common roots. Carnival seems to me the most benign form of masked riot. "First Carnival, then Lent," as we say here.


the net may be on a rendevous with evolving case law or government statute

I think not only 'may,' definitely 'will.' Other media are regulated, and it would be unimaginable for a body of law touching on the net not to develop.

Phil, I can agree with or at least accept a lot of what you say about your experience running this site and how these events have appeared to you. But I would encourage to you to think about whether it was harmful or healthy. Your site suddenly drew a lot of attention from the public, and this time it happened to be via MetaFilter. But it might not always be so. It could be through any number of channels. You weathered it absolutely beautifully and were able to shape a very productive and interesting dialogue with some lasting effects. You may decide to run your site differently based on this experience, and maybe not, and may deplore some of the behavior you saw, which I would understand. But ultimately, I see no lasting harm in the conversation that has taken place here. Of course, I don't know the details of the 'threatening-note' incident, but you do, and will know how to weigh them in your considerations. What's certain is that the mask game contributed to the incident, which suggests to me that perhaps the public shouldn't be able to participate in the mask game. The whole thing slides back to the fact that the internet is a public space. Anyone can type your URL into your browser. You might have found yourselves with far worse, less controllable visitors than those you got. The discussion here has been really pretty calm and I think most everyone is OK. Your site and the world you write about are better known now, and your points of view in wider discussion. You've handled it ably, no matter what changes in moderation you wish to make, and I like the way you consider your responsibility in thinking about those changes. Other sites' moderators will decide where their responsibilities begin and end in many ways, as many ways as there are sites, most likely. None of that should stop you from cultivating your garden.


I get the art thing completely, phil, and it would be fun to discuss. We don't disagree. I think, though, that as long as people keep referencing the recent incident, we're going to get dragged back into rehashing it. The rest of the post did not appear to be a question for discussion, but a manifesto, and I read it as such.


All good points, Michelle, with regard to Gifthub. The uptake on the other site - how do you assess it as a thought leader?

On the "threatening note," etc. My position there is that the stuff is over. My sense is that someone had a bad day. They apologized, and apologies were accepted all around. That is good. But we did get too close to the edge. I am looking for a plain statement to that effect from others. I may not get it, and can't demand it, but when so much energy has gone into unmasking and so much energy has gone into calling the management and Board of Givewell to account, it would seem that even more energy should go internally to a community into assessing the performance of its own policies, moderators, and members when members of their community spoofed an identity and did stuff that is admitted all around to be unacceptable. The specific incident is closed. But the postmortem will not be complete until the owners, moderators and thought leaders reflect on their responsibilities and lessons learned internal to their community. I believe that conversation has taken place or is taking place internally. All the better. In the end the improvement opportunities we can effect best are those closest to our own noses.

Can you, Josh, or Matt H., summarize the lessons learned in the community that served as home for those who came here? I don't mean lessons learned about what Phil Cubeta could do better, or Givewell. I mean lessons learned about how your community as wonderful as it is, might yet be improved? Is it ok to ask that? I assume so, but if it is a sensitive subject, tell me.


Yes, a manifesto, but carrying as many such documents do, a payload. The payload is delivered overtly in the questions with which my comment just prior to this one ends.

Can you, Josh, or Matt H., summarize the lessons learned in the community that served as home for those who came here? I don't mean lessons learned about what Phil Cubeta could do better, or Givewell. I mean lessons learned about how your community as wonderful as it is, might yet be improved?

Care to step up to the mic, or want to pass? I feel better to have gotten the question asked. I will feel even better when it has been answered, as I am sure it will be, thoughtfully and with the tone that comes when a call to conscience is taken to heart.

I feel that we are on a high wire, across a gorge. I am trying hard not to bounce the wire, and hope others will refrain. From a single wire can come a permanent bridge. That is the goal.


I am looking for a plain statement to that effect from others.

Speaking for myself, I'm totally unable to evaluate it, because I don't know what happened.

As to 'lessons learned,' some of that was talked about at MetaTalk. No policy changes have been advertised. I can't speak for the site moderators. Also, I'd be wary of calling MetaFilter a "home." It's just a forum and not one that is used exclusively by its members - most participate in a wide variety of experiences across the net as well and I don't have the sense that it's widely considered a 'home' site.

I do think if you want to argue for any changes at MetaFilter, you should do it from within MetaFilter in the forum given for that sort of discussion.

Jon Husband

We are developing a kind of group memory, that is changing how each of us behaves and how we acculturate others. How we moderate the momentary madness of crowds is a topic that came up with Mean Kids and Kathy Sierra, and with that Facebook case where spoofing led to a suicide of a young girl.

yeah, it's kind of like we are all getting so use to the brief and rapid summarizing analysis brought to us by the CNN and Fox networks of the world .. when something happens that is perhaps out of the bounds of mormal ordered liberty, or is a new and unusual behaviour, we are told very quic=kly what it means .. we want to know what it means, and pronto.

The combination(s) of many voices from many interest groups, atomization and mass customization of life activities, the appropriation of language for political use (whether by the standing government or the honourable would-be opposition - you can just tell I'm Canadian, can't you ;-), along with a slow march to the point where there's a common acceptance of homogenization (or a desire by important parts of the populace for reduction of ambiguity when faced with massive and ongoing change .. what a lovely polarity, eh ?) ...

All this means that there is great pressure to identify clearly "the rules" ... how things should and will work ... right while we are somewhere in the middle of really massive latent sociological changes due in no small part to this new set of webbyish interconnected conditions.

As Phil has pointed out several times, it's becoming more and more apparent that it's case by case, community by community, and context and content are both of great importance. This is a perfect recipe for what has been called in the org dev arena "situational leadership" - good for adaptability but fraught with pitfalls if there are not some absolute and agreed-upon moral principles for a group or groups to reference.

We had an agreed-upon frame fo reference "before" - the hierachical institutions and hierarchical roles that were accepted and trusted in our society ... many here and there on the blogosphere (and in newspapers and magazines) mourn the loss of some moral absolutes in today's toing-and-froing. Our (my) generation was brought up to believe that our societal leaders (presidents, senators, mayors, police chiefs, preachers, and so on) were women (few) and men one could look up to, could trust as wise and solemn and trust-worthy people.

The last twenty years have put paid to that. There have been too many betrayals, too many scandals, too much dismissal and rough treatment of the common people - even the populism several of today's candidates trumpet is viewed interpreted with skepticism and / or outright cynicism. Money / wealth is what counts now, and that has been becoming clearer at the same time that "the rules" about how organizations and organized activities function. In a societal hierarchy or an organizational hierarchy, why pay attention and why obey the higher-ups (except under fear of losing one's job or other form of reprisal) when you realize or believe that the hierarchs care more about juking the reporting so that they get their bonus, or so that the big campaign donors and lobbyists make out OK.

It's been moving fast .. and people want "certain" rules about how to behave because that's where we came from, and what we used to reduce ambiguities .. but we're in much more prismatic (or atomized and atomizing) conditions today, with only more spectra and more intensity and frequency on the horizon.

I dislike pimping online work that I have done, so please note this is not a call to have anyone read it, etc. but a couple of years ago I riffed on McLuhan's famous aphorism "the medium is the message" by writing a short and over-simplistic essay titled The Medium Is the Meaning We Consume And Create Together.

It was an attempt to note that because we each necessarily operate in our bounded contexts but also now in these fragmented but connected environments, we will necessarily face the daunting task of coming to terms with the strong drive to reduce ambiguity, and all we have as tools to address that challenge are the conversations, discourse and dialogue in which we participate. If we participate by only watching television, we will get the soundbite-and-propaganda solution .. if we participate online but in echo chambers, we will get a thin, feel-good (perhaps) but ineffective and one-sided solution that does not solve any of society's complexities, and we probably bemoan the hard work of conversations like this one that now has stretched out over two weeks or so because, well, it's hard and there are no rules other than working hard at groping together, civilly one hopes, to establish shared meaning.

Boy, I sure do hope the above makes some kind of sense to someone other than me;-)


The whole thing slides back to the fact that the internet is a public space. Anyone can type your URL into your browser.

I don't want to indulge my tendency to be pedantic, but this is not entirely true. Authentication and identity are technical as well as social issues. Competent use of the technology can fully mask the "real" identity of a person, and you can have pretty high pragmatic level of deniability.

On the other hand, you'd have to be a fool to rely on an unsinkable mask on the identity sea. There are many icebergs. I wouldn't try it, and I probably have the technical knowledge to do it. As Michelle said in a much earlier post, it is too much work and expense to maintain a high quality mask for any length of time. Just ask Vallery Plame.

Josh Millard

Can you, Josh, or Matt H., summarize the lessons learned in the community that served as home for those who came here? I don't mean lessons learned about what Phil Cubeta could do better, or Givewell. I mean lessons learned about how your community as wonderful as it is, might yet be improved?

Well, let me give it a shot. First off, though, I think there might be an issue of framing language -- maybe just a matter personal style, maybe that we're actually looking at it from two fairly different perspectives.

You say lessons learned, and I don't really think of what happened between Gifthub and Mefi very much in those terms. I think of it more as Iteration n, or "here we go again", if you will: the details are different, but I've seen this sort of cross-site interaction play out dozens of times, very occasionally where mefi is involved, usually external sites. There's stuff to take from this, it's been educational, but (and this may be precisely what so took another person so aback, when I said this on mefi) it was not a new or fundamentally eye-opening thing. Perhaps that's just because mefi is much larger and busy, and has had more opportunities (both actively and, moreso, passively through close observation and discussion of events elsewhere) to test and become acclimated to these things? I don't know.

But framing aside: what have I taken from this, what observations and reminders about how the site and its community function, as one of the folks with administrative responsibility for Metafilter?

1. Many people commenting in Metatalk don't really think of it as a place where non-mefites are going to be reading -- even in the rare case where outside readers are a likelihood. They remain chatty and casual about their snark, which makes for a less-welcoming, less-palatable read for a lot of folks who might be reading from outside the context of the site than a lot of us would like. That putting on a nice face for the outside world isn't a natural priority for Metatalk isn't likely to change, but this may be a reminder to those of us over there who are bothered by it that we should try to speak up sooner and more clearly when a rare thread seems like something that might bring in visitors.

2. Cross-site interactions can be a headache. Matt's explicitly discouraged that sort of thing over the years, commenting in Metatalk threads that have some cross-site angle to ask people not to stir things up elsewhere, and even, rarely, to avoid linking and quoting comments from a couple specific communities that have shown a tendency to just go nuts when provoked. (Again, I'll note the question of scale here; when Michelle says "You might have found yourselves with far worse, less controllable visitors than those you got.", she's not kidding or making excuses. What you, Phil, describe as "get[ting] too close to the edge" falls so, so short of the kind of genuine rampant mobbery I've seen that I feel from that that our perspectives may be pretty different on this.)

In this case, we could have encouraged people to not be so active or aggressive in their interactions over here. I came late to the initial Gifthub thread -- I saw it early on, but didn't come back to it until the Rachel stuff had largely gone down, and so I'm still unclear on the details -- but had I been watching it more carefully, I think I would have said something in the Metatalk thread to encourage some reining in, just to avoid undue acrimony on either side.

However, unlike other rare one-on-one cross-site interactions we've seen in the past, this wasn't something that was built primarily around a Mefi-meets-Gifthub foundation: this was an interaction in the greater context of Mefi-meets-Givewell, Holden-meets-the-Internet multi-blog event; so too stern of a prohibition against having a part of that discussion over here would be to me a very weird thing to issue. "Discuss it with anyone but Gifthub"?

There's a distinction between how strongly we moderate behavior on and within the site and how so for behavior external to the site. What someone does off-site is largely their responsibility; insofar as they mention or invoke Metafilter, it's their responsibility to not oversell their role as a mouthpiece for the site (they rarely are). It's annoying and embarrassing to me when someone does so while behaving badly, and I'm glad to talk about it.

But in general, what people do offsite is not something that translates cleanly to administrative action onsite; I don't hold any sway over how people choose to conduct themselves, nor do I want to presume that kind of influence. If someone's offsite behavior is so bad, or implicates metafilter badly, it may be something that'll lead to onsite consequences, but I can't remember the last time anything like that happened, and (again, barring some clearer-cut explanation of the Rachel situation) I'm not clear that it did here, either. I saw some obnoxiousness from both sides, some cultural headbutting, some bad language and unkind assessments -- some unflattering behavior that I'd discourage if I could travel back in time, and will keep fresh to mind if I see something similar brewing in the future -- but not a meltdown, not a stark violation-by-proxy of mefi's basic social contract.


Josh, thank you very much for straightforwardly addressing the issues. The part that most reassured me is that Matt H is on record as discouraging raiding parties. The part that did not reassure me so much is the lightness with which the whole thing is taken. I would say that had the innocent third party who was spoofed here by a Mefite and who received the "threatening email" not been someone with a thick skin and good sense, this could have degenerated into a call to an attorney or the police. I don't know how much closer to the edge we can get, short of a suicide. Thank you for creating a cordial opening for me to get this said. It is the "elephant in the room." Thank God, we are discussing hypotheticals here and lessons learned, not dealing with a legal aftermath.

Surely, this episode should be a wakeup call, and not allowed to pass as more or less normal for MeFi? I see the beginnings of a potential legal defense - "We are not responsible for what members do elsewhere when they leave our site as a group and identify themselves with our site and go back to our site to whip each other up some more, and we don't restrain them; plus, other communities are worse." But whether a defense like that would hold up in court, who knows. The law is being settled it seems case by case. I don't want to get famous in that way. I am sure you don't either. The wiser course might be to tighten up that social contract you mention.

Now, with regard to your job function: If Matt H. made it your job to prevent another mob outbreak, in concert with the other mods, would you and the other mods have the tools and skills to do it? Are you so outnumbered that you could not moderate a tough situation even if it was your job? Are you in a position where when things get hot, you have no choice but to "let it roll"? If so that is a staffing and supervisory issue. You may not be able to raise it with Matt, but I would be happy to do so on your behalf, if the opportunity presents itself.

Thanks for staying with this, Josh. All among friends.



The reason I am reluctant to raise these issues of moderation and the madness of crowds in the thread you mention is easy to imagine. My experience there was unpleasant. I was the object of "geek rage" is how it was described to me by a friend who is a member there. In other words, the very mob behavior I deplore and wish to discuss, wish to prevent from happening to others, was very much in evidence there with me as its repeated object, not for a minute, or an hour, but over several days. (You, Michelle, were a calming force, and thank you for it; Josh lent a hand from time to time, as did Jessaymn, but it was touch and go for a long while, if the standard is reasoned conversation among friends.) For me to go there, raise difficult issues, and subject myself to further bullying would make me rueful. Why go for a beating by raising the subject, "Are beatings allowed here under house rules?" I am looking to discuss the policy on beatings, not take one.

And, yet, what the heck. I am sure as this plays out I will indeed be back to MeFi and hope that you and Josh will join me in spreading sweetness and light. How about we hash things out here in this low volume quiet Sunday Morning thread, and then go back together to MeFi with a sense of common purpose and mutual good will? That would work for a happy ending and ongoing friendships.


And god forbid you were to take on a mask and satirize it.


Well, Gerry, next time I will call for backup one way or another. The Happy Tutor is warming up in the Dungeon.


Bravo, this is the kind of discussion at MeFi Metatalk that would be helpful, I think. Happy to present my issues in that forum.  If we end up with a bifurcated discussion on this, let's see it as two ends of a bridge towards mutual understanding.


Well, I can't take on a campaign for 'sweetness and light,' because those aren't things I value most, and because the nature of MeFi is so very large that I can't always guarantee I'll feel sweet and light toward other individuals there. You have experienced one or two discussions in the narrowest part of the site, with only a fraction of the site's membership involved. There are thousands of people active there and threads on a vast variety of topics. While I might find myself aligned with one user one day, the next we might be diametrically opposed on another issue. It happens all the time.

I'm sorry your feelings were hurt by your experience in MetaTalk. You are not alone. A lot of members have experienced something similar. I have. I don't regret it - I'm much more confident and at the same time more cautious about what I say because of rigorous call-outs and simple dismissals and verbal slights. It's all right. We recover. We might even get smarter or better at making a case. We might understand the strength of the opposing viewpoint better. Or we might determine that the opinion of the person on the other side is nothing but a personal opinion coming from a sense of inadequacy or deep-seated anger having nothing to do with us. If nothing else, it's good practice at sloughing off the words of people who don't understand or appreciate you, a life skill we can all use. I "subject myself to further beating" every time I open my mouth. The important thing, in my mind, is making the distinction between MeFi proper and the individual actions of people within it. IN every discussion, you're likely to have supporters, detractors, praises, insults, roses, and thorns. Spend time on other parts of the site. See why the MetaTalk ethos has evolved as it has. Listen. Watch. Make suggestions, but perhaps not demands, until your understanding of the site is more fully developed. I think you may become much more comfortable with it at that point.

I understand you're fearful that online interactions could create terrible real-world repercussions. But as far as I've seen, this site-site thing has been very, very far from that edge. I'm not sure where else you spend time on the internet outside philanthropy blogs, but really, this hasn't been the cesspit that you suggest. If the Rachel individual feels there is anything actionable, I suppose it's up to her to go in that direction, but I'm just not at all sure what, if anything, happened, because it transpired privately.

Thank you for the welcome to your site, though. Good luck and I hope you feel this next discussion will be productive. I would be delighted if the focus on MetaFilter could move over to the appropriate places on MetaFilter, so that your blog could continue to do what it does best - but you get to determine all the content here, so if you find it interesting, I suppose it will keep turning up. You'd certainly be entitled to carry on a long conversation about MetaFilter here on your blog if you want to.


Michelle, I did take your cue and am now on the Metatalk thread. I will follow your contributions there with interest, to the extent you participate.

Maureen Ward Doyle

It sounds like Michelle and JJ agree with what happened in the meta-discussion but don't have a problem with it. I also hear Michelle 's cue and think that it wise for the conversation between Mefites about MeFi's rules of conduct to be contained within MetaTalk. I won't be participating in that conversation, because I don't accept the premises for the discourse on MetaTalk. Participation seems like a slippery road to "conformity":
I don't buy the argument that on-line behavior doesn't translate into "real" world behavior. I've seen evidence to the contrary in my personal life and don't have that much faith in the power of a human to resist social pressure.

Maureen Ward Doyle

Excuse me JJ, I meant to say Michelle and Josh.


Maureen, good decision. Another benefit of my going next door is that maybe this site stays a little more sedate. I hope you feel at home here. You certainly add to the pleasure I take in it.


on-line behavior doesn't translate into "real" world behavior.

I don't think I said that. In fact I've tried to consistently say that I think online behavior is real world behavior. If you look back you'll see that I say Phil feared that this online action would lead to real-world repercussion, but that this interaction was very, very far from what he feared.


I stand corrected.

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