Inconvenient Truths

Introduction.

This post is about ten-times longer than a typical post on this blog. It didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started out as some notes that I knew would never make it onto this blog — sorta like when you write a letter to someone and then throw it away before mailing it: you just want to get something off your chest. I wrote this post Tuesday night. I decided not to hit the publish button then. It started out as an attempt to balance some personal outrage with an appeal for rational, reasoned sanity. But somewhere along the way, this post exploded. Somewhere along the way, this post became a book. And frankly, I don’t really like the book that much. Especially, the characters and the plot and the ending. To be honest, I don’t know why I’m pushing the publish button now, 24-hours later. I guess I still just want to get this off my chest.

Chapter 1: John Seigenthaler, Sr. & Kathy Sierra

Something about Kathy Sierra’s post the other day regarding the harassment and threats she’d received and my reaction to it has made me think of John Seigenthaler, Sr. I live in Nashville and have admired John Seignethaler for three decades, I felt sickened when I learned from a now-famous editorial he wrote in USA Today in December, 2005, that someone had maliciously libeled him in an entry on Wikipedia. Shortly after that editorial was published, I lamented such an attack on the character of a noble individual like him. Yet I thought then — and have said in several public places since — if Seigenthaler had not amplified the libel, it would have been seen by a dozen or so people, tops. Because he chose to make it a cause, it will go down as one of the most famous wikipedia entries of all time — and one day will be an unfortunate lead item in his obituary despite a career of great journalism and public service. For rather than raise the concern of people with the downside of Wikipedia, Seigenthaler raised the awareness of Wikipedia. Indeed, last August, I heard Jimmy Wales claim the Seignethaler controversy increased the traffic to Wikipedia three-fold. Sometimes, you just have to learn how to ignore the bozos of the world. (Again, I am in no way suggesting Seigenthaler’s decision to use whatever means he had to defend his honor was wrong — I can’t say I would have followed my own counsel to ignore the crap on Wikpedia.)

On Monday, my post about Kathy Sierra was the first “discussion link” to show up on techmeme, as this “version” tracker on techmeme.com shows. Since then, the list of blog links discussing Sierra’s post and its aftermath have grown to a length I haven’t seen on anything not about an Apple product. Why the escalation is response from outrage to hostility to, as I’ll mention later, possible vigilantism? Here’s my theory: Sierra is an extremely popular tech blogger (I’m a big fan) and she chose to name-names when she got mad as hell and decided to not take it any more. The names she named were of people who are known personally by many influential members of the tech blogosphere. Kathy, in effect, unleashed her legion of fans on a few individuals whose names were associated with the websites on which the threats and attacks were made. Her fans wasted little time in looking for rope with which to lynch the people named. She unapologetically knew what she was doing when she named names. To get a taste of what happened after that, read Nick Denton’s description of the immediate assumption by some that Chris Locke (aka Rageboy, aka Kat Herding) was the guilty party, pointing to Locke’s quick rejection of the accusations (more on this later). Still later, there were reports of what can be described only as vigilante actions against certain individuals associated — some, apparently, very remotely, if at all — with the website where the threats appeared.

Chapter 2: Mobs vs. Choruses

The out-pouring of Kathy’s fans — especially the outrage directed at the named names — smacked of “mob” mentality to some people. Dave Winer said, “enough already with the ‘mob of well-intentioned do-gooders.” Dave (and Nick and many others after them) have made great points about “innocence until proven guilty.” No doubt, there are individuals getting caught in the crossfire and others who thought they were supporting some form of conceptual art that turned out to be nothing artistic, just pathetic. I want to get this straight: I don’t think it’s a “mob” reaction just because a lot of bloggers have the same response and sentiments to something — and then all post about it in unison. A response in unison can be a chorus, not a mob — but I’m not here to debate metaphors. The fact is, something about this issue immediately touched lots of people. And a lot of people with blogs felt compelled to post some words of support and words of encouragement and words of outrage. Me included. In some respectful repartee in a comment thread on his blog, Dave Winer suggested that I was used by Kathy when she, in effect, called out the dogs on her perceived tormentors. I confessed that he was probably right. Sure, I barked. But, as I told him, part of the foundation my reaction has come from observing people torment him — indeed, some of the same people who have tormented him.

But I agree with Dave, to a point. While I don’t consider that initial outpouring of concern and rage a “mob” — I do agree that what then occurred, the “let’s go get these people” turned very dark, very fast.

Chapter 3: Self-doubt

What is about to follow is why I came close to hitting the delete button on this post. I’m getting something off my chest — but I doubt seriously what I say from here on out will do anything but piss off everyone on all sides of this issue.

Chapter 4: The constitution does not extend ‘innocent until proven guilty’ into the court of public opinion.

If Sierra’s situation did not involve such a heinous, possibly criminal, set of threats, I would be a blogging tonight about a lesson that can be learned on how not to amplify wackos, malcontents and Asperger Syndrome sufferers (see update below) who think they are being witty when they spew envy-feuled loathing towards “the popular kids.” And Kathy is definitely a popular kid. As I blogged at SXSW a couple of weeks ago, you would have thought she was a rock star (or, at least, a Guy Kawasaki) as the thousands attending her keynote presentation overflowed into a second room). And she was great.

And that would be the point at which this post would stop. If the threats were not so heinous, I would say something like: as with Segenthaler, Kathy Sierra has taken something no one would have seen, and given great amplification to it — so much so, that people are coming unglued and jumping to irrational conclusions and strategies. If this were a situation in which I could maintain my thoughful and rational self, I would end this all by saying something like, “I hope we learn something from this, like how to not act like mobs and jump to conclusions and declair people guilty without a trial or hey, let’s not victimize even more people.”

Unfortuantely, as much as I want to be saying, “call off the dogs, Kathy,” I can’t do it. I can’t because Chris Locke just won’t let me.

I don’t really know Chris Locke, but I read his writings for a long time about seven years ago. Despite my desire to explain him to a larger audience by recounting a decade or more of his gonzo tactics and obsession for being the Hunter Thompson of the web, he gives me little room to defend him. A few years ago, after following his Rageboy act for several years, I had to unplug all subscriptions to his writing as it saddened me to watch someone standing on a train track screaming obscentities at the approaching train. As a reader of his, it became too confusing to me to understand where the act ended and where the real person began, so I walked out of the theater.

I haven’t heard aboiut Locke in years, but when this all blew up Monday, I guess I jumped to the same conclusion several others did. I figured some grownups would step in and explain the Rageboy schtick. But then, yesterday, Locke made it impossible for the grownups who usually come to his defense, to step in. (One grownup has stepped in to defend another of the accused.) I know he flushed any hope of me saying, “you’ve got to understand, he’s like Borat,” when he added this coda to his denial of perpetrating the threats and harassment — this is how he chose to end his defense against his involvement; this is how he defended himself at his first shot in the court of public opinion:

“I did write two comments on the “Bob’s Yer Uncle” site, which I am happy to repeat for the record: 1) “Kathy Sierra is a hopeless dipsh*t.”; and 2) “The only ‘passionate users’ I know are crack heads.” I do not like Kathy Sierra. I like her even less after her post of Monday. If she is waiting for me to apologize for something I did or said, she is going to have a very long wait.

Now, if you’ve followed the Rageboy persona for a few years, you may cringe, but think, okay, Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce, somewhere in there some expression of art is happening and, blah, blah. But if you want to attempt, once again, to explain him away as some conceptual artist, you might as well throw in the towel. “He’s just doing his Rageboy act,” is not going to fly this go-’round. If in light of what was coming down on him — and he’s someone who has used mobs to carry out his antics, so he knows well the workings of the web — he felt it more important to continue the Rageboy act than turn things around. It’s as if, after years of being ignored, Chris Locke found himself once again in the spot light. And he couldn’t help but moon the audience.

Chapter 5: Chris Locke and Pacman Jones and why people jump to the conclusions they do.

In my hometown of Nashville, we have an NFL football player who has a proclivity for always being around when bad things happen. After the sixth or seventh or tenth time, no one is left to give this player the benefit of the doubt when he is charged with another felony. And despite the fact that using $80,000 of his own money to rain down on strippers can be argued to be conceptual art and fully legal, in the court of public opinion, if a shooting takes place during the “rain,” forget throwing yourself on the mercy of the court.

I’ve blogged in the past that this player is innocent until proven guilty (granted, my defense of him may have more to do with his punt returning abilities than with my principles of justice). But he gives me no room to prove how high-minded I can be when it comes to pre-judging individuals. Pacman Jones is constantly around when bad things happen, but he is never responsible, he argues. And okay, he has a $13 million contract, his mother was in prison when he was a kid, so let’s give him the ninth (or is it tenth?) break. But as much as I may want to defend him, he’s depleted any logic or rational thought I can conjure up. I’ve come to the conclusion that he may not be guilty of any crimes, but he has convinced me that he’s incapable of understanding what happens when you live your life outside the bounds of civility and decency. He doesn’t want me to come to his defense.

Chris Locke, Rageboy, Kat Herding, is the Pacman Jones of the tech blogosphere.

As I am a fan of a book Locke co-authored, I have tried to be his fan, also. We have met. We have talked. He would not remember either, nor should he. He may remember that a magazine I publish did a big interview with him when the Cluetrain Manifesto was published, but it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. I will say, however, the magazine gave him such coverage because I believed what he had to say was important and that his voice was unique.

However, somewhere along the way, his wit went from acerbic to toxic. To me, it seemed to do so as he discovered how to turn conversational tools of the web into weapons of ridicule and intimidation. In my recollection, he went from provocateur status to mere bully status when he discovered how to use Amazon.com reviews or Wikipedia entries to fully explore the darker urgings of his Rageboy persona. At first, I thought he was an intelligent and amusing satirist who could use “cluetrain” approaches to puncture holes in the egos of the pompus. But then, I grew uncomfortable as I observed him head down the Andy Kauffman hole.

VII. Closing

Really, I want to jump in and say, “innocent until proven guilty.” I want to say, let’s don’t give into a mob mentality here. But as I write this wanting to say those things, I could only get to the point where it concerns “legal” issues. In the “court of public opinion,” Pacman Jones and Rageboy have been spending years honing their outlaw personas. In the court of public opinion, the guilty until proven innocent approach was lost when Chris Locke chose to use his response to Kathy Sierra to scream explitives at the train heading towards him.

I can argue vehemently that we shouldn’t throw someone in jail without a trail. I will argue, when and if anyone is arrested in this situation, that they deserve the best defense possible and all of the protection the legal system allows.

But I can’t come up with the logic that leads me to conclude that the metaphor of “due process” extends outside the legal system into the arena of public opinion if the “accused” has spent years doing everything he can to be that guy who is always there when bad stuff happens. When and if a trial comes, I’m all for protecting the accused. And I’m hoping that Chris or any of the named names won’t end up needing the protection of the literal due process. However, at this point, Chris Locke is begging the mob to bring it on.

Update: See Jeff Beckham’s comment below about Asperger’s Syndrome for his objection to my reference to Asperger’s Syndrome in context in which I used it. Of course, he is correct and I apologize. The reference was a far too inside and nuanced reference to Kathy Sierra’s use of Asperger’s in some of her discussion of software development. Perhaps her usage is correct, but my riff on it was very inappropriate.

  • I’m glad you shared this. I found your insight clarifying.

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  • Hi, Rex,

    Yours is one of my favorite blogs and this post has some great points in it, but I’m going to take great issue with one small passage.

    At the beginning of Chapter 4, you refer to “wackos, malcontents and Asperger Syndrome sufferers”. Asperger’s is a form of autism – a developmental disorder – and to lump those who are affected by it in with “wackos” and “malcontents” is unfair and misleading, and quite frankly, insulting. Substitute “diabetics” or “leukemia sufferers” for “Asperger Syndrome sufferers” in that sentence and you’ll see what I mean.

    I understand your point – those who attacked Kathy anonymously are cowardly and mean. But don’t lump those who deal with Asperger’s every day into that group.

  • Rex Hammock

    Jeff, you are very correct and I have struck out the reference and added an update to apologize.