That Feel When You Think of Something Funny to Say 10 Minutes Too Late

February 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

we're dealing with a feel

And/or that feel when two weeks after you publish an article, you realize you should have argued a different thing using different evidence. In this case, my argument about Reddit and internet “free speech” o’er at the Awl (article here) would have been so much stronger if only I’d pulled from Brian Pfaffenberger’s classic “If I Want It, It’s Ok: Usenet and the (Outer) Limits of Free Speech” (1996). That I did not really yanks my chain; life is so unfair. Because it’s not like I just stumbled onto the article (I’m teaching it in tomorrow’s Hacker Culture class). I read the damn thing over a year ago for my PhD exams — manic, exam psychosis-enduced synopsis here — but apparently forgot. I guess I can’t be too surprised, on account of no one remembers anything from their PhD exams. Still — this was a missed opportunity.

Because hot damn! Although Pfaffenberger is talking about the early days of Usenet, you could easily replace “Usenet” with “Reddit.” Like Reddit now, Usenet then valued “collaborative egalitarianism” (or what passes for “collaborative egalitarianism,” as this is a deeply idealistic position that usually doesn’t exist as much as serve as an imaginary Holy Grail); like Reddit now, Usenet then touted its anti-beurecratic organizational structure (despite the various technological and administrative hierarchies that suffuse/d both); like Reddit now, Usenet then was overrun by the refrain that DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO/FREE SPEECH. At the very least, talking about Usenet — and the tensions therein — would have provided an interesting precedent against which to compare contemporary discussions about Reddit. Consider this quote:

Increasingly, free-speech-minded users saw Usenet as a right, not a privilege, and deeply resented any attempt by system administrators to impose order on the network’s growing anarchy. The mentality, as one system administrator described it, was, “If I want it it’s okay” (Von Rospach 1990a).

And this one:

One thing became clear to sysadmins: Anyone trying to impose order on Usenet would be seen as imposing censorship, and there would be a stiff price involved: vicious opposition, manifesting in a mailbox full of angry and even threatening e-mail as well as vilifying, ad hominem attacks in Usenet newsgroups.

And this one, which was taken from one Usenet sysadmin’s retirement announcement:

Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea — massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it” (Spafford 1993b).

There’s even a counterargument to the push for order, namely that “Usenet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” — a quote from John Gilmore that essentially throws up its hands because, hey, even if you try to censor something, it’ll just pop up someplace else, so why not make like a cool permissive parent and let your proverbial teenagers proverbially drink in your proverbial basement, because you know they’re going to anyway and you might as well give them a safe place to do it?

And consider this gem, which would have been a useful thought to kick around the old mind-grapes:

[regarding the legality of online censorship] Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told a telephone interviewer that freedom of speech is uppermost among Usenet values—within limits. “In order for this forum to function as a freedom of speech forum, it can’t be destroyed. What you have here is the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons — a single user so abusing the commons that it will ultimately be rendered valueless to everyone” (Campbell n.d.).

Finally, in his conclusion:

Although one can find wide-open discussion on Usenet concerning virtually any conceivable subject, the consensus formulation—ignoring abuse on the ‘Net in favor of eradicating abuse of the ‘Net—creates an umbrella for harassment of women and religious or racial minorities. Such harassment commonly occurs (Herring 1996, Tadore-Shimony 1995), and what is more, the sanctions that previously functioned to sanction harassers (such as critical e- mail or complaints to sysadmins) are no longer as effective, thanks to anonymous mailers, a rising tide of cleverly forged posts, and rogue sites. Also within the umbrella are pornography (increasingly posted for commercial purposes), as well as hate speech from organizations such as the Institute of Historical Review, an organization that denies that the Holocaust occurred. The Institute has reportedly targeted Usenet as an ideal area in which to promote its message (Hipschman 1995). These are difficult issues to resolve, to say the least, and dealing with them may require a broader political consensus that Usenet’s excesses are a price worth paying for the freedom of its discourse. With so many negative press reports concerning Usenet’s content (e.g., the flawed Time article on “cyberporn”), that case will be difficult to make.

And what could I have done with these discussions? Again, Usenet provides an interesting precedent; though regulation was always a contentious issue, the majority of the sysadmins (and some end-users, though generally end-users are the most vocal proponents of laissez-faire moderation, since they have the privilege of not having to see, and more importantly, not having to care, about how the content-management sausage gets made) agreed that some regulation was necessary, if only to ensure the survival of the platform. I would argue that the same holds true for Reddit — let on site behaviors get too out of hand, and at some point you’ll encite the wrath of even higher higher-ups, either at the investor or governmental level, who (from their perspective) have no choice but to impose even stricter regulations. And wouldn’t that be worse than telling pro-pedo and women-haters to fuck right off?

In conclusion, I would like a time machine please.



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