Why I am less often an asshole than previously by mattsteinglass
August 24, 2010, 10:51 pm
Filed under: Internet

Doo dee doo, nothin’ to do on a Tuesday night, wife’s away visiting heroin junkies in ethnic-minority villages on the Chinese border. She has all the fun. Guess I’ll just google myself then. Well now lookee here! DougJ at Balloon Juice said something about me on August 6.

Krugman is the only major pundit I enjoy reading—because he enjoys being a rude asshole when rude assholery is called for, as it so often is. This brings me to another question I have for Erik: why are the vast majority of writers for official publications (such as True/Slant) so excessively polite to one another? Why is everything “I have great respect for Jeff Golberg” and “Megan makes a great point here” and “Matt Steinglass makes a good point about Noah Millman’s rejoinder to Jim Manzi”? Why isn’t there more of “so-and-so said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of this writer”?

Hm. Actually I’m pretty sure people often say “Matt Steinglass said something really stupid, here’s why it’s stupid, and sadly this kind of stupidity is all too typical of Matt Steinglass.” I encounter this pretty often when googling myself, anyway.

But speaking for myself: I blog in two places, and in theory True/Slant was actually supposed to be the blog where I was free to call people assholes. (Now that’s this blog here, since True/Slant no longer exists, and DougJ won’t have to worry about people being polite to each other there.) What I’ve found, though, is that when I meet people with whom I radically disagree, I tend to get along reasonably well with them. This isn’t surprising; I live in a country full of Communists who don’t believe in multi-party democracy, and yet I manage to get through most days without telling them they’re all evil morons.

I’ve also found that, when you write a whole lot, you’re going to make some mistakes. This is extremely embarrassing, because the mistakes you make are then engraved in pixels eternally for all the universe to see. If you expect any forbearance from other people who write a whole lot and with whom you disagree, it behooves you to have disagreed politely with them, rather than to have told them how to do themselves six ways till Sunday on multiple occasions.

Then there’s the question of money, as some of the commenters on DougJ’s post suggest. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t an influential factor. In my case, it’s not so much a question of possibly needing a job someday from someone you’ve insulted as it is the possibility that some of the editors at a publication you work for may take an uncongenial view of the kinds of spats you’re getting yourself into on your other blog. That’s actually never happened to me. I’m not kidding, it never has. But I’ve worried about the possibility. I mean, I could see being turned off myself by some of the more intemperate things I’ve said, in a reflective moment. So I wouldn’t be surprised if another editor felt that way.

But what this gets into is a complicated issue: the problem of coherence in your self-presentation on the internet. This has all been discussed to death by brighter minds than me, but basically, in private conversation, there’s space available to slag off one of your acquaintances in private to your other friends. In blogging, this can’t be done. All of your blogs are simultaneously in view of each other, and they’re all in view of the blogs you’re slagging off. Add that to the fact that in all likelihood, if you met that guy you’re slagging off in person, you’d probably get along with them, and you start to think twice about how you’re slagging people off. It’s as much a matter of your sense of self, your responsibility to cohere with yourself, as it is a matter of social fear. Though to be sure, the two are related, just as they are with in-person public self-presentation.

Anyway, I’ve wound up being more polite than I used to be. I think a lot of people are moving towards a less dismissive and confrontational stance in blogging, and that may actually end up opening up space for more substantive dialogue than once took place in the blogosphere. There are, however, variants of this politesse that tick me off. In particular, consistently writing “that’s an…interesting observation” when what you mean is “that’s completely wrong” doesn’t work. It comes across as evasive, supercilious and squirrelly, and I find it actually makes me much angrier than stating a position head-on would.

That said, I’m glad there are still blogs like Balloon Juice around, as that’s a blog aesthetic that needs to be out there too.


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?

CNN and the ethics of Vietnamese dissident interviews by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2010, 3:48 am
Filed under: democracy, Internet, Media, Vietnam

Last week CNN International ran a segment on Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, the Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name “Me Nam” (Mother Mushroom) and spent 10 days in jail last August after she criticised Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam. CNN correspondent Andrew Spencer interviewed the affecting Ms Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. In a followup article on Thursday, CNN’s Pamela Boykoff wrote that before Ms Quynh drove her motorbike down from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City for the interview, the blogger emailed to ask: “Can you sure filming is OK and safe for us?” I’m curious what CNN’s response was.

It should have been “no”. Dozens of dissidents have been sentenced to multi-year jail terms in Vietnam over the past three years, usually for “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” For many of those convicted, the fact that they gave interviews to foreign news organisations has counted as evidence against them. The US and European governments protest the arrests of democracy activists, but foreign intercession has never prevented the conviction of a Vietnamese dissident, except for a few who had foreign citizenship. (I’m aware of just one case in which a jailed Vietnamese democracy activist with close ties to American institutions was released without a trial due to US pressure.)

As for news organisations like CNN (or the ones I work for), we can do nothing to protect the dissidents we interview, apart from running critical reports on their arrests and convictions. The Vietnamese government largely ignores such press coverage, and foreign media don’t usually pay much attention either. It’s just one small story among many. The fact that Ms Boykoff’s article consistently misspells Ms Quynh’s name doesn’t give much reassurance that CNN is paying focused, long-term attention to the issue of Vietnamese democracy activism. Nor does the televised report’s use of a file-footage establishing shot of the old National Assembly building in Hanoi, which was torn down over a year ago. To a Vietnamese spectator watching the report, the use of that shot says: we don’t follow Vietnam very closely.

What responsibilities do news organisations have in these circumstances? Does Ms Quynh know what she’s getting into by going on CNN to criticise the Vietnamese government? Is she under the misimpression that the publicity will help protect her from arrest? I’ve interviewed a number of people like Ms Quynh, ordinary citizens rather than public figures who have fallen into dissident status without entirely meaning to, and who, having grown up in Vietnam’s cloistered information environment, may be strikingly naive regarding the nature of the Vietnamese state and the ability of foreign governments or organisations to intercede. I’ve also interviewed highly educated, self-conscious dissidents who knew precisely what they were getting themselves into and had a reasonable sense of what strategies were likely to be effective.

I’m happy to report the statements of this latter sort of dissident. Moreover, I’m obliged to. They’re political activists who are making news. My job is to report the news. They’re acting quite deliberately, and they can take care of themselves. With the less sophisticated dissidents, however, things get complicated. I sometimes feel that these are people who have been pushed over an emotional edge by the unfair treatment they’ve received, and are lashing out in a fashion that, in the end, will only hurt them. By running interviews with them, you’re essentially exploiting and to some extent egging on their self-destruction.

I’m not saying CNN shouldn’t have run the interview. It’s their call. But I hope that when Ms Quynh asked whether CNN could ensure they would be “safe”, they told her very clearly that they couldn’t, that what she was doing was not safe at all.

Some say we're "on the side of tyranny." But at Microsoft… by mattsteinglass
March 31, 2010, 3:46 am
Filed under: China, Human Rights, Internet, Uncategorized, Vietnam

we prefer to call it “advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate.”

Google has done  a lot over the past two weeks to earn my goodwill. Yesterday they did another thing to earn my goodwill.

We believe that malware is a general threat to the Internet, but it is especially harmful when it is used to suppress opinions of dissent…
This particular malware broadly targeted Vietnamese computer users around the world. The malware infected the computers of potentially tens of thousands of users who downloaded Vietnamese keyboard language software and possibly other legitimate software that was altered to infect users. While the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes. These infected machines have been used both to spy on their owners as well as participate in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against blogs containing messages of political dissent. Specifically, these attacks have tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country.

Here’s McAfee CTO George Kurtz with the details.

This is a blog post about self-referential blog posts by mattsteinglass
January 28, 2010, 3:47 am
Filed under: Internet

The main thing I conclude from comparing this very funny self-referential blog post to this very funny story from 1990 is that the internet has made our attention spans much shorter.

Why my writing mistakes give me confidence in the internet by mattsteinglass
October 4, 2009, 10:57 am
Filed under: Economics, Internet

Noting that Tyler Cowen had mentioned the post below on Marginal Revolutions, I had a sudden shock of regret at the way I wrote the last two sentences. Those two sentences expressed my skepticism of Arnold Kling’s post with a confidence and dismissiveness that I shouldn’t have pretended to. Obviously, Tyler Cowen is a really smart economist, and I’m a layman who doesn’t really have the authority to be dismissive in that fashion. I really am skeptical of the view Arnold Kling expressed in that post, and of Tyler Cowen’s embrace of it, but I shouldn’t be dismissively skeptical of it.

But this kind of experience is a good example of the aspects of internet-based discourse that I think are much more positive and responsible than older broadcast media. And that’s why I remain dismissive when people like Michael Gerson write posts attacking the incivility and irresponsibility of some internet discourse without, as Thomas Friedman does, acknowledging the other kinds of internet discourse that are far more civil and responsible than, say, the writing of op-eds tends to be. When I see my post cited or countered by someone with access to greater specialized knowledge than myself in the area I’m talking about, i.e. in this case Tyler Cowen, I feel a sudden sting of conscience: did I have good grounds for saying what I said? Did I express my response in a fashion which I would be comfortable with, if I had said it directly to his face? Because, in the blogosphere, you are always potentially speaking to someone’s face. And if your name is attached to what you said, that omnidirectional regard is a powerful force disciplining people towards civility and making sure they can back up their claims.

Frankly, I make mistakes of tone all the time, and I say things I don’t have adequate support for. And I’m not going to claim that I will try to eliminate all of them; sometimes a mistake of tone is the price you pay for trying to say something sharp and original, and enough of those bets pay off that it would be unwise to forswear all stylistic adventurism. And on the factual-support count, I think if I really made a commitment to only make claims I had adequate footnoted evidentiary support for, it would be a form of dishonesty. Part of the function of a blog is to air our snap reactions and our generalized rough convictions about the universe, and a lot of that is stuff we couldn’t produce solid support for on the spur of the moment even though it’s clearly true. All of this is partly to say that I wish I had acknowledged in the previous post that, if you’re talking about government support to industries that are on their last legs for structural reasons, like most of the US auto industry, then Arnold Kling’s description of the situation does make sense.

Thomas Friedman, on the other hand by mattsteinglass
September 30, 2009, 2:45 am
Filed under: Internet, Uncategorized

…is an establishment old-media journalist who has a perfectly solid summary of what the advent of the blogosphere does to political discourse:

a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world.

Was that so hard?