Electronic embarrassment by mattsteinglass
June 29, 2010, 3:17 am
Filed under: Internet

My thoughts on Dave Weigel’s resignation are here. The affair has me thinking about the first time I realized it’s possible to say too much in an electronic message. It involved belly dancers, but I can’t remember how.

Back in 1994-7, I was a member of Echo, New York’s first popular electronic chat messaging environment, founded by the visionary Stacy Horn. Echo was the New York equivalent of The Well in the Bay Area. At some point in what I believe must have been 1997, I was online chatting about the budding Silicon Alley scene when someone mentioned a lavish party that had been hosted a few days before by the web-design outfit Razorfish. At the time, my roommate was dating a woman who worked at Razorfish, and she had told him something about the hiring of belly-dancers for said party that was in some fashion mildly scandalous. I literally cannot remember anymore what the issue was. It may simply have been the fact that the belly-dancers were paid for by the firm; perhaps that was in some way untoward. Or there may have been a feminism-related complaint. Or something. I have a feeling that the issue itself was so inoffensive that if I could recall it, the whole affair would seem ludicrous.

In any case, I noted in a comment thread on Echo that I had heard that…whatever it was about the belly dancers. Within half an hour, my roommate’s girlfriend was on the phone. Had I posted that information on Echo? Yes, I had. Did I realize that everyone at Razorfish had seen the post, and was asking who’d leaked that information? What the hell was I thinking? Suddenly I realized: I was an idiot. I used a screen name, but some people knew who I was. Some of them might know who my roommate was. Some of them might know he was dating the girl who worked at Razorfish. If somebody figured all of that out, she could get fired.

And so I went back onto Echo and started to lie. I introduced some deliberately inaccurate information into the rumor, in response to others’ queries, to make it sound like I’d heard it fifth-hand rather than third-hand. I let slip some faux-offhand misleading hints to the identity of the person who I’d heard it from, in the course of saying that it was just some weird rumor I’d heard from someone who had no reason to know whether it was true or not. I tried to make it sound like this was just something circulating in the Silicon Alley gossipsphere. I also coordinated my story with her, to make sure it seemed believable and to reassure her that I was doing everything possible to cover the tracks.

I did this because I had a responsibility to this girl not to let some stupid piece of information I’d unthinkingly disclosed get her fired. Had I done something immoral by disclosing this information? Not exactly, I don’t think. I had failed to think out the potential consequences of revealing a certain piece of moderately juicy information in an online forum. Had she done something immoral by disclosing this information to her boyfriend? I think not, or at worst, perhaps very slightly. Had he done something immoral by telling me? Again, at worst, he’d failed to think through the potential consequences, or had mistakenly relied on me having the good sense not to post it online. The person who might have done something wrong, if anyone, was the Razorfish principal who’d done whatever it was involving the belly-dancers. But I’m not even sure whatever that was had been “wrong”, as opposed to “moderately scandalous”. I can’t remember what it was.

The point of tension was simply this: the principal relied on his employees not disclosing embarrassing information. I hadn’t been careful enough with some embarrassing information that had come into my hands on a confidential basis. And as a result, I was now busily and actively telling white lies on the internet, which, arguably, was immoral, in order to avert the clearly much greater harm of getting somebody fired.

It worked. Nobody at Razorfish knew who the Echo member who went by the screen name “steiny” was. They didn’t figure out who my roommate was or that he was dating one of their co-workers. She kept a p-p-poker face for a few days, and then the whole affair slipped into the mists of time. By now the very posts involved are probably unrecoverable due to the mercies of incompatible archives.

Thirteen years later, that margin of anonymity, the space you have to recover from such errors, is almost gone. While I’ve been typing this post, the Zemanta widget on the right of my window has already called up images of belly-dancers, New York parties, and the Razorfish logo. The internet already knows who I am and what I’m writing about. If I’ve made a mistake by writing this post, it may be too late to rectify the damage, even before I’ve hit the “publish” button. What’s our response? Do we log off and go live in log cabins? I think not. I think we get cagey, we get ambiguous, we don’t talk about anything juicy that isn’t at least 13 years old, and we get ourselves some thick skins. And communication strategies change, and older people have trouble keeping up, and younger people don’t realize what can happen to you if you say something unwise until they’ve done it a few times, and that’s life.

Amazingly, Echo appears to still be functioning; the discussion groups are not on the web; and it seems to still be possible to telnet into the servers and engage in old-fashioned text chat. I may try it one of these days for nostalgia’s sake. I wonder who’s still out there?


2 Comments so far
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[…] blowout that defined the insanity of the late 1990s dot-com era still haunts one man: Freelance writer Matthew Steinglass, who used his True/Slant blog recently to muse over how disclosing something on the internet can, very suddenly, define you. […]

Pingback by Worst Office Party Ever? Razorfish Still Remembered for Infamous "Bellydancer" Blowout of 13 Years Ago | BNET Advertising Blog | BNET

The broader point of society and culture changing is great…that said, I fail to see how turning off Zemanta has any similarity at all to going to live in a log cabin. My broader point being just because it’s there and new doesn’t mean the value proposition is positive.

A second but related point: With some modern amenities log cabins are pretty damn nice too.

Comment by Marcus

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