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? ]


Spectaclegate: should Google police bad businesses?

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Nothing grabs attention and raises ire like a story of shameless bad business practices, which explains the popularity of this New York Times piece on a charmless chap by the (delightfully meme-ready) name of Vitaly Borker. To boil it down, Russo actively cultivates a negative image for his online eyeglasses sales business because all the incoming links from complaints by disgruntled customers boost his site’s search rankings.

Stories that give people a reason to have a pop at Google and its perceived monopoly are also popular, and the saga of Borker has plenty of people thumping pulpits and claiming that the Big G should be managing its search algorithms to prevent scumbags like Borker from profiting from malpractice. The thing is, if Google were to do that, they’d actually be strengthening the perceived monopoly that these people like to complain about in the first place. Jeff Jarvis lays it down:

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

[…]

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

I can’t help but feel there’s a subtle mirroring of the Cablegate issues here: information itself doesn’t make us free, but it enables us to take responsibility for our own freedoms. Google’s algorithms likewise provide a powerful tool for anyone fortunate enough to have access to an internet connection; as tempting as it may be, we can’t blame them for our own failure to use it to the fullest. Caveat emptor, indeed.


Vote late, vote often: last few days to choose Phoenix Pick Award nominees

Paul Raven @ 11-10-2010

Hey! I was going to shut off the comments for Futurismic‘s nominations for the Phoenix Pick Awards today, but there are only three replies. Three.

I mean, come on – I know for a fact that more than three of you regularly read the fiction we publish here. So show a bit of support for the writers, why not? And, yes, for Futurismic as a fiction venue as well: Chris and I may run this site predominantly for the love, but it’d be nice to feel that people cared enough to mention which story they liked best. Thirty seconds of your time, that’s all we’re asking here.

So please, go check the list of eligible stories, and leave a comment with your choices. You’ve got until Thursday evening, UK time, to make a short fiction writer’s day… and to make two editors feel they haven’t been wasting a lot of time and money for nothing.


An open letter to Scott Messick, president of the Media Mayhem Corporation

Paul Raven @ 01-10-2010

Edit, 31 Oct 2010: Mister Messick has since paid the full amount that was owing to Futurismic, and offered many apologies for the confusion and miscommunication that led to the following post.

Hi Scott, me again;

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve removed the Media Mayhem ad-block code from Futurismic, as I informed you I would do last week. I realise that this is technically a breach of the contract I signed with you guys – but then again, pretty much any behaviour other than sitting patiently waiting for the money I’m owed is a breach of that contract on my part. Interestingly, late payment on your part isn’t a breach of contract; were I was less naive, perhaps that would have rang an alarm bell with me earlier on.

I’ve been patient, Scott; I really have. I understood from the outset that Futurismic was small fry compared to some of the other names on your roster of ad publishers, to the extent that I was quite astonished and flattered when one of your employees solicited me directly about hosting your ad units. Oh, I’ve had plenty of people offer ad deals to Futurismic, but you guys were the first one that wasn’t obviously a gang of link-farming hucksters. I mean, the same company who run ads on Tor.com? And you want to run similar ads on my little site? Well, colour me stoked. It seemed almost too good to be true.

Ninety days, Scott. That’s how long I was supposed to wait before revenue from the ads I was running started to come through. The ninety days passed long ago, didn’t they – given that I put the ad-block tags into the site theme on 17th February? So I started making polite enquiries as to what was happening around the end of June. First of all there was the line about the accounting department all being away on vacation (can it really qualify as a ‘department’ if the entire team can be away at the same time?), and then it was a change in payment terms enforced upon you by your advertisers, which would have the knock on effect of delaying the passing through of those payments to us publishers.

Then there was the possibility of sending out a cheque, but no one seemed able to tell me whether the change of mailing address I’d informed you of back in May had actually been registered anywhere, and I’d been told that electronic payments would be fine when I signed up with you (what with me being UK-based, and hence unable to cash a dollar cheque with ease). But there’s an authorisation problem with the company’s PayPal account (or it’s empty of funds, or possibly both), and you’ve never had to look into sending funds via bank transfer before, and, and, and…

A week ago, after I told you I’d be yanking the ad blocks at the start of October, you assured me that you were working on the PayPal problem, and thanked me for understanding. Well, Scott, I’m afraid I don’t understand.

You see, understanding is rather dependent on having information to base that understanding upon. I can’t understand if all I get are hollow reassurances. So I’ve ended up doing what a science fiction fan does best, and extrapolating a narrative from a few observable facts. Facts that include:

  • The notice on your website that says you don’t deal with sites that pull less than 100,000 page views a month; why, then, did you solicit ad spaces from a media minnow like Futurismic?
  • The mysterious mass absence of the accounting department, followed by the revelation that only you – the company president, no less! – can authorise and send payments; sounds like the accounting department’s job to me, really, but what would I know?
  • The fact that for the last three months or so the ads running here haven’t changed from dull plugs for MySpace; minimum revenue space-fillers, and hardly the exciting media promotions that are, according to your website, your stock in trade.

Can you see where those plot points might be leading? Maybe I’m just too used to the pessimistic narratives of contemporary science fiction, but I’m not expecting a happy ending.

I really wanted to believe in you guys, Scott; your customer service was excellent when we had some problem ads appearing in the stream, and Media Mayhem gave every indication of being a legitimate and above-board ad broker company, right up until the point when I started asking about getting paid. Indeed, I suspect that for most of its history it has been… and maybe it still is, when dealing with its bigger publishers rather than the sub-100,000 minnows.

All I know for sure is that Media Mayhem owes me money, and that when I get in touch to find out what’s happening about me getting paid, all I get are excuses (if I get any reply at all). And so I’m using the only leverage I have; without publishers like me to run those ads, you have no business. Currently, you’re taking money from someone somewhere to publish ads on my property, but you’re not passing my share of that money on. Maybe a small site like Futurismic isn’t a priority, and slips through the administrative cracks; maybe you really have run into every conceivable obstacle in the course of trying to pay me (and very kindly decided not to bother me with trivia or keeping me informed of what might be happening with my account). I just don’t know for sure… and I’m afraid my speculations at this point are less than charitable.

So, your ad blocks are gone. I realise that this effectively breaks our contract, and probably means you are no longer obliged to pay me the money I’m owed… but you know what? At this point, I’m not entirely convinced you’ve ever intended to.

Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here? I guess I am… but hey, it’s my face, and while my pockets may be empty I’ve still got this stupid sense of pride to cling on to. And I’m working on the theory that, should there be any other smaller sites out there on the internet who are running ads for you and wondering when they’re going to get paid, perhaps they’ll realise that there’s something amiss, and that they’re not the only ones getting the run-around.

I’m kind of sorry it’s come to this, Scott; some might say it’s not very professional of me to go public with an issue like this, and perhaps they’re right. But some might say it’s not very professional to string along a client that you yourselves solicited advertising spaces from, and to offer nothing but excuses even when they’ve been waiting for well over twice the stated length of your payment cycle.

Naturally, I’m not expecting you to lose any sleep over this – heck, that contract means that even if I could afford a lawyer, it’d be pointless hiring one – but I’m damned if I’m going to lose any more sleep of my own. I consider the contract between us null and void from this point; I hope that money comes in handy for you and the company.

Yours…

Paul Graham Raven, Publisher


Not-so-new ‘zine on the block: InterNova

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2010

Via the tireless Charles Tan* at the World SF Blog comes news that international sf magazine InterNova has relaunched as a webzine for your free-to-read enjoyment. The new issue includes fiction from Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Croatia, Germany and the UK, two Italian classic reprints and a couple of non-fiction pieces. Get clickin’.

[ * Seriously, the dude’s a force of nature; he’s either the pseudonym of a team of three or more, or has had some sort of elective surgery to remove the part of his brain that tells him when to sleep. ‘Nuff respect. ]


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