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Saturday, 8 September 2012

Blurring the Lines

Ah, the Internet.  The first time I "experienced" it was in the mid-80s, although I don't remember anyone calling it the Internet back then. Whilst the technology and interface from then and now is vastly different, the Internet, in my view, has changed little apart from a much greater number of people using it.  This is a gross oversimplification, but hear me out.

Around 1982 or so, my step-uncle had an Apple IIe, if I recall correctly; my immediate family was much too poor to even own a colour television at the time. He was about four years older than me and, looking back, I have the impression that he barely tolerated my presence when we came over to visit. Even so, on rare occasions he invited me up to his room where he kept the Apple computer and he would play games whilst I watched.  He never let me play any games, which is the only thing I wanted to do back then.  So, yeah, he was a bit of a dick.

A few years later my step-uncle sold his IIe and upgraded to the Macintosh. I suspect it cost a fortune. He spent more than a little extra to get a 100 baud modem, and it was on this rig that I first became aware of what we now call the Internet*. My step-uncle still didn't let me touch the computer, but he liked to brag and show all the stuff it could do. So for my benefit, I suppose, he put the telephone receiver into the modem's cradle and dialled up a local "bulletin board."

(*Technically, the film War Games with Matthew Broderick introduced me to the concept of networked computers, but even a naive twelve-year-old understood that a film was a work of fiction. Computers did not talk!)

Just making the connection to the board took ages.  I mean that. The bulletin board computer's line was busy for about an hour. When at last the connection was made and the initial handshake completed, my step-uncle tapped on the keyboard for a time, and navigated through the system via some arcane series of command line instructions that I was unable to follow. He then located some sort of file to download. It was probably around 10kb if that.

By today's standards, it was a tiny file that would take no time at all to download, but back then on a 100 baud modem, it took close to forever.  We waited.  And waited. When forever finally passed, the downloaded file probably looked a little something like this:

So there you go, that was my introduction to the wild world of on-line computing. The very first thing I ever saw on-line was an ASCII representation of porn.  I was 13-years-old.  As you can imagine, the Internet has hardly changed.

But this post isn't about porn. It's about people using the Internet and what it has always been like. In other words, trolling.  So let's fast-forward about a decade to the time of Internet Chat Relay, or IRC.

IRC is very much in use today, but in the early 90s before the web, it was the protocol of choice (for me, anyway) to connect to other computers and to chat with others. In the 80s, you typically connected to individual computers, which were rarely connected to anything else.  But IRC made real-time chatting with people all over the world very easy with its thousands of various public chat rooms, or channels. The details of how IRC works don't matter, suffice to say that it was (and I presume still is) an "anything goes" kind of place.

Every channel had its own rules and etiquette, which often would be displayed on screen when you first joined a channel.  Almost every channel suffered a multitude of people who would come in and disregard the etiquette and rules just for a laugh. We called them trolls.  The popular channels nearly always had several moderators called ChanOps (Channel Operators) who could "kick" and/or ban users from the channel.  Moderation also could be done automatically with the use of bots -- programmed scripts that look for keywords typed in the channel. So, say the wrong thing, and you got booted or kicked. Get kicked often enough and get banned.

But bans could not keep the trolls out. It's the easiest thing in the world to change your name or "nick" on IRC.  And it was always fairly easy for some dedicated trolls (or anyone) to spoof their IP address.  Trolls persisted, they were relentless and nasty, and it was common enough that you became inured to it, barely noticing it unless they directed their attention at you. If the trolls' target left a room and joined another, the trolls would follow him automatically and continue their harassment until he quit IRC.

There were channel invasions, too -- a small or large group of IRC users with the sole purpose of taking over the channel for their own use, trolling everyone until they left the room, and then once that job was done, taking over the channel and preventing anyone from joining, or just shutting it down. Whatever suited them.

On a good day, IRC was a fun, social place where you could chat with like-minded folk about whatever topic, trade files and programmes, learn some new code or hear about some new tech from the geeks in the know. It was a place to hang out on-line.  But there were always trolls, and they were often particularly nasty.  The worst of them would try to hack you (they weren't really hackers, mind you) and if they succeeded, your PC might become an expensive paper weight requiring a complete wipe and reinstall of everything. Backups were vital.

I haven't used IRC since about 2000, but I doubt it's changed much.  IRC changed me, however. It opened my eyes to see parts of the world I did not know existed. It was a place where both the best and worst of humanity coexisted. But for all of its flaws, for all of the trolls and hateful bastards out there in the world, it was a simple matter of disconnecting from IRC to make the bad stuff go away. Conversations in the channels did not persist.  If and when you came back, all the bad stuff said was gone and you could start over.

Nobody forced you to use IRC. You always had a choice, and a choice of channels to use. You could always make your own channel.  And you could avoid trolls easily enough.

But a few years later the world wide web changed how we use the Internet. What was once temporary had the ability to become permanent. Web pages could persist indefinitely for better or worse.  Creating your own web page was relatively easy and you could write anything you wanted, about anyone (good or bad) and it would stay up for as long as you wanted, with all of the consequences one could possibly desire.

Well, you know the story of the web, but the point of my long-windedness above is to explain that hateful trolling is nothing new. I've dealt with enough of them that it doesn't faze me. Words are only words. Only you can give them power to hurt you.  But lately, suddenly everyone is saying we need to do something about trolls and on-line bullying, as if it's some huge crisis on par with dealing with a four-mile wide asteroid heading straight for earth. And it just ain't a crisis. Hell, it doesn't even class as bullying. 

For instance, Wayne Carr weighs in here about celebs using passive-aggressive retweets to incite their fan base to attack their critics, or flat out asking them to go on the attack.  He's basically saying that celebrities ought to behave better than your average Joe Schmoe on Twitter, because they are celebrities, with fans, all of them stupid and mindless drones, I guess.  Also, that people use Twitter as support network and that they have somehow been harmed by the trolls.

Look, if you use Twitter as a support network, may I suggest you step away from the computer and go outside and make some real friends?  Obnoxio The Clown wisely points out the fallacy of using Twitter as a vital social support network (emphasis in original):

But for all that, I have a major, major, bone to pick with the author:
Twitter was a vital support network for her.
Er, no.
Twitter is not a vital support network for anyone. Twitter is an open platform for people to say things on and it's quite clearly a place where unpleasant and unkind things are often said. Choosing to use twitter as a support network means that you are also going to open yourself up to things that are not supportive and the consequences thereof.
That's exactly the point. You choose to use it. At any time, you can choose to stop or switch off.  If you are being trolled, you can walk away and ignore it. Twitter is not a vital anything. It's at best a marketing tool with limited social features. It can be entertaining at times, or useful for networking with people who share interesting articles, etc. But it's not vital, and it's not a support network.

I'm not going to lie to you, I hate how Twitter is used by some people to give us all up-to-the-millisecond updates on your life's status. I'd rather people attempted to bully me; that would be far more entertaining. Who gives a fuck what you're doing at any moment of the day?  I don't. If a tweet is about someone's shitty train journey, I ignore it and move on till I find something that does interest me. If someone is cluttering up my timeline with incessant inanity, I unfollow them.  To be fair, sometimes I will have a short and public conversation directly with people on Twitter that is of a more personal nature, but I presume that anyone who follows me ignores those tweets, as I tend to ignore others when they do the same. 

See, my capacity to ignore stuff I don't like is almost limitless. I have to choose to engage with something or someone, and the stuff I cover on this blog I've chosen to engage with in some way. Given my ability to choose what to pay attention to, it's quite impossible to bully me on Twitter or elsewhere. Words have no power over me unless I choose to give those words power. And I'm not gonna do it.

I'm not oblivious to what's happening around me, though. I can see that there is a push to sanitise everyone's on-line conduct, to make the world, both on-line and off-line, as inoffensive as possible. To which I think: Well, isn't it human nature to be nasty to others? It's the one thing our species does incredibly well. The second thing we do well is complain about what others are doing. And the third thing we do well is try to force one group's beliefs onto another group who wants no part of that belief system.  Then we're back to being nasty again.  That about sums up 75% of the human experience.

Regardless, we're blurring the lines of what constitutes abuse, bullying and harassment. Particularly in the on-line world.  People who dare to criticise others are being called trolls, when in fact it's merely criticism. There's a world of difference between criticising and trolling. Sometimes criticism comes with colourful language and other opinions, but that doesn't make it abusive or even trolling. It's not harassment, either.

In the case of this blog, it's just me writing about people who are deliberately interfering with my life because they think they know what is best for me and everyone else. They don't. That's why I write.  Nobody is forced to read what I write. You as a reader make a choice to do so. And you can stop reading it at any time.  If you do read it and don't like what I said, you have further choices to make.  But you haven't been bullied, and you haven't been abused, and you haven't been harassed by me.

I do not contact people in the tobacco control industry, although I sometimes do tweet to a few people who support tobacco control industry policies for brief debate (or in a few cases just to be silly, which they understood it for what it was and replied similarly). I do not e-mail to TCI or their supporters. I avoid tweeting to anyone in TCI. I do not follow them on Twitter. I keep to myself to myself. I am the furthest thing from a troll. I don't even hate the people I write about.  I don't like them; I don't like what they say or do, but I don't hate them.

When someone who works with ASH followed me on Twitter, I sent these two messages:
  • Hi [redacted]. I have a rule that I don't follow anyone from ASH or other TC groups. Mainly it's to avoid antagonising each other on Twitter...
  • I won't block you, though. Your tweets are generally fair, and you don't seem rabid to me. Anyway, follow away if you like. :)

The reply was "no bother, not the antagonising sort" and then we had a silly banter about both of our lavish lifestyles that neither of us have, you know just a little piss taking. And that's how it should be. Treated with respect and humour. Who can complain about that? We disagree very strongly on tobacco control, but we are still people, not unthinking worker bee errand boys for the cause.  I'm absolutely certain he and I could sit down over a few pints and have a laugh amicably debating the merits or demerits of tobacco control.

Unfortunately, it's not like that with everyone.  And not everyone is capable of understanding that we're just ordinary people, not on anyone's payroll to write our opinions.

If you say anything at all publicly, you must expect to get criticism.  This fact is too often lost on those in tobacco control, who must truly believe that they should be immune from criticism by dint of their profession in the Public Health religion.

The Internet is the greatest equaliser in the fight against all forms of tyranny and oppression that we ordinary folk have ever seen. It's awesome in its power, for both good and bad.

It's why many governments seek to control it. It's why certain mainstream media outlets call for greater regulation. It's why some people believe it should be censored, so that they can stifle their critics and attempt to weaken any opposition to their views. It's because they fear us, the everyday common people who can think for themselves, who may or may not choose to be anonymous (although we're never truly anonymous) and write about those who we believe are damaging our societies. They create sites that, should they prevail in their quest for eradication, have no other purpose than to permanently and maliciously brand those who had disagreed with them. They attack us because they are afraid. 

Of us.

We are the faceless human beings, sitting before a keyboard and screen and writing, people who individually have no power, no political influence, and no desire to control anyone.

And they call us bullies and trolls?  Please.