By now, the fact that Scott Adams used a sockpuppet to defend himself on MetaFilter has been plastered across the internet. Mr. Adams himself wrote a blog post about it, trying to pin the blame on MetaFilter. The mods have had their hands full dealing with PR fallout from the whole mess, especially over on Reddit.
The basic story went like this: There was a post on MetaFilter about Scott Adams that drew a lot of criticism for the comic artist. Adams jumped into the thread under the pseudonym “plannedchaos” and defended himself. The mods noticed the subterfuge, and offered Adams a choice: either he could walk away from the thread and continue participating in good faith in other parts of the site, or he had to tell people who he really was. Adams chose to out himself, then complained that the mods violated his privacy rights.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of backlash against MetaFilter about how the situation was handled. I’ve seen a lot of comments about how MetaFilter should’ve been grateful that someone as genius as Mr. Adams would deign to participate in our petty community. I’ve also seen a lot of comments, particularly on Reddit, asking why what Mr. Adams did was not okay, looking for specific clauses of the (non-existent) Terms of Service that was violated, and spitefully accusing the mods of being totalitarian in revealing Mr. Adams’ identity.
This entire saga offers a really revealing narrative of people’s expectations for internet interactions. Outsiders trying to make sense the situation are putting the blame for the whole fiasco on MetaFilter’s murky concept of “culture”. Since MetaFilter offers more of a credo than a ToS to new users, it’s true that sockpuppetry shenanigans aren’ ever explicitly banned. Lurk moar, MeFites say. Go screw yourselves, the internet responds.
The thing is, MetaFilter doesn’t really have a very skewed or unique expectation of culture, not at all. MetaFilter merely expects that its users treat each other the way they would in real life: with good faith and civility. Unfortunately, the default standard for communicating with people on the internet has been pushed so low that MetaFilter seems haughty and arrogant in comparison. Even Reddit, which is tame enough that mainstream celebrities regularly make appearances on it, seems confused by MetaFilter’s expectations that its users not mess around with each other.
And that’s a little messed up.
Think about it. If this had happened offline, would there be this much debate about whether or not what Mr. Adams did was permissible? Imagine you were sitting in a coffee shop with a bunch of friends, discussing the latest Dilbert comic strips, as you do. It’s a friendly neighbourhood joint and people join and leave your conversation all the time. You and your friends aren’t really fans of Dilbert–it’s just not your thing–but the conversation has by and large moved on. Then a stranger comes along and vehemently defends Scott Adams, calling you and your friends idiots for not understanding his genius, and declares the entire coffee shop a cesspool.
Then you find out that this angry stranger is, in fact, Scott Adams himself. Would there really be any doubt about who was in the wrong, in this situation?
The analogy is flawed, of course. On some level it makes sense that you expect the standards of behaviour on the internet to be spelled out in great detail in Terms of Services. There are too many variables that change from site to site to reasonably expect the concept of “courteousness” to have the same meaning everywhere. But when there is no such explicit explanation of expectations, is that really an excuse to fall back to the lowest common denominator?
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone, but it’s still a little saddening how low the bar really is. Cesspool, indeed.
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