He Called Us a Cesspool :(

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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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About Phire

I go by Jenny, Jenn, Phire Phoenix, or Phire. I can usually be found wasting time on MetaFilter. In my spare time, I blog.

28 Responses to He Called Us a Cesspool :(

  1. GospelX says:

    This has little to do with right or wrong, the way I see it. If he really thought he had a leg to stand on with his point and how he was presenting himself, he could have been straightforward about it instead of hiding behind a sock puppet account. Anonymously defending himself and trying to entice others to side with him through that means suggests to me a lack of confidence in not only his stance but his personal brand.

    • thelastcpa says:

      Adams argues that he wanted to be judged by the content of his posts, not automatically based on who he is. This argument would have resonated more with me if his content had not included so much about his “certified genius” status.

    • AnonymousAtLarge says:

      It’s possible he just didnt’ care that much, but he cared enough to say something.

      For example, at my place of employment, I have to deal with a lot of assholes, 24/7. This is rather common and most people can relate to having to deal with assholes of various stripes.
      Sometimes I will have an issue with one of my asshole coworkers but I don’t necessarily want to go through the rigamarole of formerly having a confrontation and making an issue out of something… because it just isn’t that important, not important enough to go through the trouble of starting shit.
      However there still is the issue of my emotions, or my frustration or whatever.

      So the easy solution is that you simply talk smack about the person who is annoying you under your breath/to someone else and don’t give a flip if they hear you or not. This accomplishes your goal (venting your emotions) without requiring all the effort and potential long term commitment of confronting that person and hashing out an issue properly.

      Sometimes it’s worth it to confront a person and own your shit talk. The issue is important. The conflict is going to be long standing and you want to clear the cobwebs or state your boundaries or what have you. Usually this is not the case, and usually it is way too much effort / consequences to sign your name to the ranting.

      Clearly this was a case where Scott Adams didn’t want everyone know know he was pissed off, but he still wanted to say something… so he did. Why doesn’t Scott Adams have the right to weigh in anonymously? Everyone else on that forum is anonymous. It’s not a serious issue, who gives a crap if he didn’t have the guts to sign his name to his comments. Really, this is not a big deal. It’s very trivial and that’s precisely why Mr Adams just made a fake name and spouted off. He didn’t want to have a serious discussion with these tools, he just wanted to vent and so he did.

  2. Pastabagel says:

    There is no other site of Metafilter’s size and breadth that has as civilized a level of discourse as Metafilter. (Hi, phire!) I wouldn’t call it haughty or arrogant, though I can see that other people might, especially if those are the kinds of people accustomed to making well-honed arguments like “ur a fag,” which is not uncommon on places like Digg, reddit, etc.

    That said, I’m not sure that the mods forcing Adams to out himself was a smart move. The point should be that who you are doesn’t matter, it’s the substance of your statements that matters. It doesn’t matter if plannedchaos was Adams, what matters is whether what plannedchaos was saying made any sense as defense of Dilbert.

    But Adams is equally wrong from wanting to hide behind a sockpuppet account. Why not simply come in under your own name? The trolls will run and hide, and it gives you the ability to explain why Dilbert is the way it is, what the forces are in the publishing industry that lead it to be as anodyne as it is, etc. But he shoukld welcome that opportunity as well, it allows him to step out of the echo chamber that his very successful personal and professional life may have become, and hear some refreshing, spirited, and possibly legitimate criticism.

    • Dan Dravot says:

      The important message isn’t whatever particular argument the sockpuppet is making; the message is the illusion of greater public support than he actually has.

      That’s why it’s a sockpuppet, and that’s why it’s wrong: He undoubtedly does have public support, but if he had the kind of public support that involves people defending him on MetaFilter as energetically as he would defend himself, they’d be doing it without him.

    • Phire says:

      I agree that the substance of an argument should by and large outweigh the identity of the person making the argument, but I also think that what the mods did is fairly consistent with how MetaFilter approaches conflicts of interest otherwise. Given the strict rules against self-linking on the front page, it’s become part of the culture to disclose associations you have with the subject of the post, whether that’s in joining the discussion in an FPP or answering a question on AskMetfilter. This basically rests on the assumption of good faith: we assume that you’re not hiding behind a veil of anonymity to advance a particular agenda, you assume that we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt if you’re forthcoming with us. And again, by and large, that’s worked out well.

      The problem isn’t so much that Adams was hiding behind a sockpuppet account (which, as the mods have said, would be fine in other parts of the site), it’s that he was using the pretense of a third-party supporter to give his arguments more credence than the arguments perhaps deserved, and furthermore, that he was explicitly trying to “pull one over” the other members of the site. That just isn’t in good faith, no matter which way you slice it.

    • thelastcpa says:

      I disagree about Reddit – the beauty of their system is that the upvotes/downvotes usually banish the worst comments (by definition of the voting community) and encourage quality posts. Not that I’ve spent a lot of time on Metafilter, but I would say that Bestof, Depthhub and similar subreddits have some of the best quality comments/discussions to be found on the internet.

      • Jerboa says:

        The upvote/downvote system is good at promoting reasonable discussion. However, in my experience it’s equally good at promoting groupthink and retarded cults of personality.

        • thelastcpa says:

          Which successful communities do not promote groupthink and cults of personality?

          • Jerboa says:

            I think this place is doing pretty well so far. A lot of people here have a mancrush on Alone, myself included, but aside from that things seem to be going well.

    • statelymulligan says:

      Man, you guys at MetaFilter take yourselves way too seriously. MF is not really the last bastion of anything.

  3. Dan Dravot says:

    If there’s no ToS saying Adams can’t create a sockpuppet, well, by the same token there’s no ToS saying they can’t out him for being one. When he complains, he’s saying “You should comply with certain generally-accepted standards of behavior in dealing with me, even if we don’t have an explicit contract.” But he’s just doing whatever he thinks he can get away with. WTF? Besides, ethical behavior for an entity like MetaFilter has to include imposing sanctions on people who abuse the place, or else the S/N ratio goes to goatse hell and it really is a cesspool. I kinda doubt that MetaFilter is the one exception to that rule, in all the ages since USENET began.

    Quite aside from issues of truth, justice, and forum maintenance, Adams must have known he was behaving badly. ToS or no ToS, if you know it’s wrong, don’t do it. “I only did it because I thought I wouldn’t get caught” just compounds the offense. What could’ve been excused as an episode of weakness begins to look more like a character flaw.

    But, whatever, Dilbert’s still really funny, and entertainers are all screwed up anyhow, so what do you expect.

    MetaFilter was very gentle with him, if they offered to quietly let it drop. Better for him to be a horrible example to others.

    • CubaLibre says:

      Yes: Metafilter may have violated some kind of ethical or social rules (or it may not), but certainly they did not violate Adams’ privacy “rights.” He didn’t have any.

  4. JohnJ says:

    Fine, I’ll be the devil’s advocate this time.

    The theory is that Adams was doing this to create the illusion of public support. What if that’s not why he was doing it? Would another intent justify this?

    What if Adams simply wanted to inject ideas into a conversation that he felt were being overlooked? And he only adopted an anonymous identity in order to circumvent the group bias? If his intent were merely to promote the discussion of ideas about him that he felt were being overlooked,would that justify this behavior?

    And what if Phire is really Scott Adams?

    • blithelyunaware says:

      The problem isn’t that Adams was anonymously defending himself. The problem is that he was ludicrously self-aggrandizing and condescending to anyone who deigned to disagree with him.

      If he wanted to clarify his position anonymously he could have done so graciously and with civility and I doubt he would have been unmasked. It’s almost like he wanted to be caught. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if a minor scandal might ultimately benefit Adams.
      A week ago I couldn’t have told you who the author of Dilbert was. At the very least I’m sure he’s getting a lot more traffic at his website. Maybe this is a lesson in marketing courtesy a certified genius?

      • JohnJ says:

        That sounds just like something Scott Adams would say using an anonymous pseudonym.

        • blithelyunaware says:

          You’ve found me out. All of my chaos was planned.

          • JohnJ says:

            So you admit that you are Scott Adams?

            But Scott Adams wouldn’t admit it so easily, therefore you can’t really be Scott Adams.

            Unless you knew that no one would believe it because you admitted it too quickly. That’s exactly what Scott Adams would do!

            But that’s too easy. You must have known I would figure that out and realize that you are Scott Adams despite your attempt to throw me off by admitting you’re Scott Adams. Therefore you can’t really be Scott Adams.

            Unless that was a ploy too, a plan so brilliant that only Scott Adams could conceive of it!

            Except… that’s a dead giveaway, isn’t it?

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  6. sunshinefiasco says:

    Let’s go back to the fact that MF didn’t actually force Scott Adams to do anything.

    The mods said: you can participate honestly in a discussion about the merits of your own work or, you can step off and take your little fake account to another thread. Not only is this their site, their perogative (and let anyone with an issue take their ass somewhere else), but they were being completely reasonable. Even if you disagree with them, running a site that maintains some reasonable level of discourse involves judgement calls, and funny thing about those, you ain’t gonna agree with all of them.

    The point: Scott Adams actively chose to reveal his identity, in the hopes that the cracked-out rabid duck thing that these boards devolve into ever so quickly would change the story from: is Scott Adams a shitty comic artist? or, is Scott Adams a giant douche for posting about how awesome he is under a fake name? to OH MY GOD THE INTERNET IS SUPPOSED TO BE HELD TO A HIGHER (lower?) STANDARD.

    If Scott Adams wants to pretend to be one of his own fans so that people can talk about how great he is the way he always wanted them to, and he absolutely doesn’t want anyone to take issue with it, let him go argue with the folks on 4chan, where he can be as Anon as he wants.

  7. ThomasR says:

    I may be wrong, and am perfectly willing to be corrected, but this post seems a little out of place on this website. I come to PartialObjects to read interesting perspectives/explanations/deconstructions on culture, society, etc. An interesting post could certainly be written about this topic, but this is not it.

    A biased argument in defense of some website’s posting policy does not interest me.

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  9. foxfire says:

    I guess I really don’t see a problem with what Adams did.

    Of course, I tend to assume that anyone I converse with online is a slightly retarded 14 year old guy masturbating in their parents basement while accidently hitting keys that through sheer luck actually corrispond to words in the English language.

    With a default assumption like that, the burden of proof is squarely on the poster to prove that are more than that.

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