The evanescence of pseudonymous online identity

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2011

Charlie Stross:

Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It’s nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it’s to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they’re pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it’s not a real identity to them: it’s a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won’t magically induce civility: the trolls don’t care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.

That’s a brief aside from a longer post in which Charlie joins the (largely unopposed) chorus of people trying to make Google aware of just how dickish they’re being with this whole pseudonyms business*; worth reading for the borrowed list of programmer assumptions about human names alone, though it’s all good stuff.

[ * For my part, I’m more astonished by the Big G’s uncharacteristic tone-deafness on the issue than by the issue itself (which is simply a hallmark of contemporary concerns about identity in the network age); they’ve responded faster and better to much smaller outcryings in the past, which lends a certain weight to the suggestions that this is a push to monetise enforced canonical identity… a push that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”; after all, if that really is the plan, they must have known there’d be a push-back against it, and that resistance would only increase with time. But again, it seems very out of line with the usual corporate character on display from Mountain View… so, if it’s the mask slipping, why is it slipping now? ]


A Silk Road from a sow’s ear

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2011

Beyond the more ardent libertarians, anarchists and cryptography wonks, responses to the Bitcoin story were largely indifferent – it’s a currency for nerds, so what? But give that currency a demonstrable use, and all of a sudden the “human interest” angle leaps right out: OMFG ANONYMOUS DRUG TRADING ON THE INTERTUBES!

Silk Road, a digital black market that sits just below most internet users’ purview, does resemble something from a cyberpunk novel. [[ Right, of course – and what *doesn’t* resemble a cyberpunk novel these days, Wired? ]] Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics — and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon — if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.

In a nutshell: obscure (and probably regularly-changed) URLs, access only permitted by users running the TOR anonymiser, all transactions made using the untraceable Bitcoins. The ultimate anonymised storefront, in other words, complete with an eBay-esque reputation system. Cue tabloid moral panic in 5… 4… 3…

Most interesting of all is watching the schisms open up in the strata of geek libertarianism, though:

… not all Bitcoin enthusiasts embrace Silk Road. Some think the association with drugs will tarnish the young technology, or might draw the attention of federal authorities. “The real story with Silk Road is the quantity of people anxious to escape a centralized currency and trade,” a longtime bitcoin user named Maiya told us in a chat. “Some of us view Bitcoin as a real currency, not drug barter tokens.”

Maiya’s right about the “true story” there, but that last sentence is priceless – the cognitive dissonance of being in favour of a decentralised and anonymous currency but wanting to restrict what people can trade with it is really rather spectacular.

Wired‘s coverage there is pretty measured, all things considered; watching this story plough into the mainstream media is going to be a textbook demo of escalating hysteria. *fetches popcorn*


Dead[media/drops]

Paul Raven @ 01-11-2010

Today I’m mostly decompressing after meeting a major deadline over the weekend (which may be of interest to readers and collectors of high quality limited edition genre fiction books, which I presume includes a few of you), and as such I’m struggling to do The Clever*.

So to tide you over until NEW FICTION later in the day (oh yes!), here’s a couple of items from my newsfeeds that chimed together:

At least a couple of story ideas and talking points in the collision of those two chunks of news, wouldn’t you say? So just for a change, I’ll shut the hell up and you lot can think out loud in the comments. Go on – it’s Monday, after all, and even your boss is probably slacking with a Halloween hangover…

[ * No change there, then. ]


Cash for crime: monetizing anonymous street-art

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2010

Sweeping maid stencil graffiti by BanksyPity poor Banksy for a moment. There can surely be no better icon of the noughties Zeitgeist in urban art… but how to convert that incredible reputation and kudos into decimal places that will pay the rent? Banksy and his street-art contemporaries are trapped by their medium, because it’s hard to sell off your work when it happens to adorn a fundamental structural component of a building that belongs to someone else. And harder still when any random guy with a sci-fi webzine can freely republish a CC-licensed photograph taken by someone else that just happens to feature your work… oh, Monsieur Derrida, what have we done? [photo by unusualimage, art by Banksy, wall by uncredited building contractor]

If you’re thinking “well, I’m not sure money was Banksy’s motive”, then bravo – and I’m inclined to agree, given how hard he’s worked to stay anonymous (and how easy it would be for him to coast to fame on a brief cash-in and flee once the tide turned). But not so, perhaps, for the hordes of his imitators, and the other career street-artists who first rose to visibility and pseudo-respectability in the wake of the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture, and other creators whose work inhabits the interstices of law; whatever you may think of their methods, motives and legal transgressions, these are real artists doing real work… and they want to make a buck from it, too.

They face a similar problem to that of musicians in the internet age, in that they can’t control the distribution of their actual creation (albeit for very different reasons – musicians suffer from the economics of superabundance, while street artists are at the mercy of a type of scarcity), and so similar business models apply – you sell emphemera and scarce goods connected to the work rather than the work itself. For a street artist, that’s posters and prints, maybe clothing… whatever you can come up with, really.

Seems obvious enough… but unlike musicians, street artists (or at least the ones with any common sense) are obliged to remain anonymous lest they be prosecuted for vandalism. So putting up a URL to your webstore is a bit of a no-no… if the council are willing to email concert promoters who flypost in order to serve notices of prosecution (and believe me, they are), the anti-graff office will be all over your WHOIS records and server logs like a rash once you’ve got a profile big enough for people to want to buy your stuff. What you need is a middle-man who’ll collect your takings and pass them on, but who won’t blow your cover to The Suits.

There’s an old dawn-times saw about the internet that says it has a tendency to destroy middlemen, but if anything, the opposite seems to be true – the internet enables at least as many new middlemen business models as it destroys. Sure, it gives everyone with access to it an unprecedented ability to communicate directly with most of the world, but who has the time to do that if they’re busy writing novels, recording albums, weaving anatomically-correct crochet models of mammalian brainstems, or sleeping late so they can prowl the city streets at 4am with some stencils, a balaclava and a carry-all full of Krylon? You’re too busy creating your work to market it, so you let someone else handle that side of things for you, and give them a cut of the take for the privilege.

What other forms of work – more legal, or less – could benefit from this sort of anonymous clearing house/stock exchange system? Or are middlemen only flourishing temporarily in this frontier-esque era because the tools to accomplish the necessary tasks aren’t easy for newcomers to get to grips with?


Tales from the slush

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2010

Mmmm, tasty slush...Short fiction writers would be well advised to follow the Apex Book Company blog, as I think I’ve mentioned before; they have lots of guest posts from writers, editors and other niches in the fiction food-chain, containing plenty of sound advice. Like this post from submissions editor Maggie Jamison, for example, which offers a little hope and solace for those of you who fear the anonymity of the slush pile:

Believe it or not, a submissions editor can remember your name, particularly if you wrote something she liked, even if she passed on it. If you pay attention to rejection comments (if she gives any), and keep working to hone your understanding of her market, chances are your next attempt will be closer to what she wants.

And here’s the funny thing (though maybe it’s just me): we want you to succeed. Of all the other submissions editors I’ve spoken to, the vast majority would much rather send an acceptance letter than the typical form rejection. Heck, even a personal “This was so, so, SO close!” rejection is more fun than the form. I think most magazines want to be the one that nabs the first few publications of a great up-and-comer, and I’ve always enjoyed the vicarious excitement when a manuscript from my slush pile is accepted and bought.

I know that’s the attitude Futurismic‘s very own hard-workin’ Chris East takes to the slush pile… if we didn’t want to publish good stories, we wouldn’t offer $200 per story and throw submissions open to all and sundry! [image by misscrabette]

Maggie makes some sound points about rewrites and re-submissions, too:

Unless I’ve specifically asked you to tweak the story and send it back, DO NOT resubmit the same story. The only other way it might be acceptable is if you rewrite the story so completely that I can’t tell I’ve read it before. But then, it wouldn’t be the same story, would it?

As a submissions editor, I do try (when I have time) to give suggestions for what might make a rejected story just a little bit better. I do this so the author knows and can utilize this information to avoid the same issue in her next story submission, not so the author can tweak her story and send it right back to me. If I want to see a rewrite or a reworking, I will be very, very clear.

Of course, all this advice follows on from the basic rule of making sure you read the submission guidelines carefully for the venue you’re sending your story to. As Chris has pointed out here before, a great many of the stories we reject aren’t bad per se, they’re just not the sort of stories we publish. Researching your market is a great way to lessen the chance of the dreaded “thanks, but no thanks” response. 🙂


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