Disclaimer: Wired Magazine's former presence in Second Life was established by a competing company.
Counter-disclaimer: I have a subscription to Wired and enjoy reading it every month, as well as occaisionally online.
Additional disclaimer: The overwhelming majority of members of sites such as SomethingAwful, /b/, and 4Chan are indeed just looking for funny things online. Only a small percentage actually perpetrate "griefer" acts as described in the Wired article. Groups like PN are different in that their stated goal is griefing.
(If you don't care about my comments about Wired Magazine in general, please skip down to the section "Griefer Madness")
My Love Hate Relationship with Wired
I have a love / hate relationship with Wired. I love and hate Wired because they are both ahead and behind the trends. Maybe that's the nature of print, nowadays, in that one issue per month might already seem stale. That's why they are online, as well, right?
I was ribbing a friend the other day on Twitter when he mentioned the remixed "Philip Rosedale is Hitler" video on YouTube - because it was 2 days old by that point. So, a month? November's cover was "Manga Conquers America", to which I thought ... "about 2 - 3 years late on that one". And yet I remember reading about things like Nexus Diamond labs years before "Blood Diamond" came out in theaters or anyone was considering manufactured gems.
Wired's coverage of virtual worlds has also been a source of my love-hate relationship with them. 2006 and early 2007 show a lot of articles featuring virtual worlds, especially Second Life. It's no coincidence that Wired entered Second Life in October of 2006 courtesy of developer Millions of Us. And so it should be no shocker that when Wired pulled out in July 2007, their coverage of Second Life also turned.
Wired Tastes Sour Grapes?
But rather than tone down the press, they started being less kind.
First, probably the biggest negative article, "How Madison Avenue is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life". The article chooses three poorly executed corporate builds as examples, and the title pretty much speaks for the tone of the whole article. It's one-sided, and there's no attempt to try and contact one of the many companies who did well in Second Life.
Soon after, Chris Anderson from Wired blogs about "why he gave up on Second Life", and reveals that Wired's leaving Second Life directly impacted his choice to commission the snub piece. Sound like a serious accusation? It is, and it's from his own words.
"But I have now been flushed out by a flurry of controversy over our story on the failure of Second Life as an advertising vehicle, which is something I personally commissioned.
Why did I turn on Second Life, after not only paying to build a Wired HQ in-world, but also doing a book signing and interview (shown) there, and even being nominated for a National Magazine Award for our "travel guide" to SL?"
Or, to simplify, he "gave up" and "turn[ed] on Second Life" and "personally commissioned" the "story on the failure of Second Life as an advertising vehicle". Sour grapes? Mmmm?
Many people chimed in on the comments, including virtual world developers, and, oh, none other than Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us. And, well, he pretty much ripped Chris a new one: "At the end of the day, the success or failure of your presence is your own responsibility (for example, Frank Rose could hold a panel on his article at the WIRED office. . . .) and you haven't done that."
Moving On, More Mixed Coverage
I let it be, back then, choosing to think Wired got done with sour grapes, and moved on.
Next month, two more SL related articles. The first on the collapse of Ginko and the need for regulation. It was a story worth printing, of course, and recently we've seen Linden Lab take action. The second article was a gallery of a virtual museum mirroring a real one in Dresden. This was a positive read. I'm thinking Wired's moved on.
Then in November, Wired interviews CNet writer Daniel Terdiman in an article about how entrepreneurial success in virtual worlds is hard to come by. Ironic, considering Terdiman's recent book is "The Entrepreneur's Guide to Second Life". (Buy it, it's good.) Spin from Wired, a bit?
But these would pale in comparison with the article I read in January.
(aka this section will get my blog listed under a lot of bizarre web searches)
And then I got February's issue of Wired two weeks ago. Ho boy. The article online is entitled, "Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World". However, it should be known that the print edition's title is "Griefer Madness". The author is Julian Dibbell, most well known in the virtual world circuit as being the author of My Tiny Life, (available free now) a story based on his experiences witnessing sexual harassment and griefing within the community LambdaMOO, about ... oh ... fifteen (15!) years ago.
Firstly, before I dissect the article, some good points. I've had a lot of conversations with many of my contemporaries in the past two weeks about this article, and I've done a great deal of thinking of it. One very strong good point, to paraphrase Eric Rice, is that this article's subject is sorely needed to be discussed.
The general population, even the pretty-well-informed-about-tech part of the population, does not really know that organized griefing exists, let alone with pretty frequent regularity. People don't know about 4chan, or /b/, or Something Awful. The general impression that the public has on hackers and griefers is that they are loners and don't organize. How wrong they are.
Secondly, I'd like to compliment Julian on terrific storytelling. Dibbell clearly has a knack for it, and his writing is engaging. The article's description of the events kept my attention and elaborated on the details fairly well.
Julian, however, treated a subject that should have been treated with some respect, and made it out to be a joke. Apparently, everything is funny to Julian, including name-calling the subjects of his article, calling them sociopaths from the very beginning.
My first read through, the article seemed benign enough. However, as I read through a second time, I discovered more and more of how subversive the article really is to the reader, and how pro-griefer the article really may be.
"Griefer Madness" is, of course a play off the early 60's conservative fear-film, "Reefer Madness". The film has become such a joke and symbol of post-war paranoia that when re-released in 2004, it included a humor commentary by Michael J. Nelson, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
So what conclusion is the reader supposed to make from the title? That the whole theme of the article is "Chill out, it's not as bad as people feared."
Funny, that's precisely what the griefers interviewed said. Wouldn't making the title indicative of an interviewee's comments, with no further clarification, be an endorsement of their view? I believe so.
The Internet Is Serious Business
That's a motto of the Something Awful folks as well as "/b/tards", as noted in the article. It's ironic, and means "that nothing on the Internet is so serious it can't be laughed at, and that nothing is so laughable as people who think otherwise." as Dibbell writes.
While this is true, Dibbell fails to point out that laughing at someone and launching an attack at them are two different things. Comedians get up on stage and make fun of races, politics, public figures, cultures, you name it, but they do it on stage to an audience who is seeking comedy. The idea is that someone's property (whether it's on the Internet or real life) is not the place for another person to be vandalizing. Free speech ends where private space begins, a captive audience, or where it causes damage. Anyone who's done some basic research into journalism knows this.
Now, it's not Dibbell's job to state the counterpoints, but if Dibbell wants to claim to be a journalist, it is his job to interview people who have differing opinions.
Pulling a "Fox News": The Straw Man
And who were Julian's two choices for differing opinions?
Were they experts on virtual and/or Internet law?
Was one a member of a cyber-crime unit of a police force or security agency or anti-virus company?
Was either an official from Linden Lab or other virtual worlds?
Instead, Julian chose two victims of griefer attacks. And not only two victims, but people who are portrayed so ridiculously that they serve as an obvious Straw Man that can be brushed aside and told "Take the Internet less seriously". Do I smell a tactic ripe from Fox News?
Victim Number One: The Gorean Roleplayer
Nothing says, "Don't take me seriously" than a person who likes to pretend to be a BDSM Conan-eseque barbarian or a scantily clad babe in a fantasy setting where the whole world is a chauvinistic wet-dream.
from the article:
"And at the Gorean city of Rovere — a Second Life island given over to a peculiarly hardcore genre of fantasy role-play gaming — a player named Chixxa Lusch straddled his giant eagle mount and flew up to confront the invaders avatar-to-avatar as they hovered high above his lovingly re-created medieval village, blanketing it with bouncing 10-foot high Super Mario figures.
'Give us a break you fucks,' typed Chixxa Lusch, and when it became clear that they had no such intention, he added their names to the island's list of banned avatars and watched them disappear.
'Wankers,' he added, descending into the mess of Super Marios they'd left behind for him to clear."With this vivid description of a surreal environment, Dibbell has completely separated his readers from any sense of real life issues. Griefing someone is now something that happens in a fantastical setting completely foreign to the reader and utterly devoid of any ground in which the reader could base a level of empathy. Dibbell chose a subject whose fantasy role-playing activities are so far out of the mainstream that readers would never find a way to connect.
But wait, it gets worse / better:
Victim Number Two: Prokofy Neva
Clarification: "victim" is the portrayal, but Prokofy was very clear to me when I chatted with him online that she was not a victim. (And to use his avatar name and gender.)
Online, Prokofy Neva, has earned a widespread reputation as being everything from a successful land entrepreneur, to a vanguard in promoting privacy rights for avatars, to a widespread annoyance who regularly writes seething personal attacks riddled with inaccuracies.
First of all, it's hard for most people to empathize with someone who runs a virtual real estate office, especially following a year of 2 million American homes being foreclosed and the real estate market being so sour.
Second, Dibbell should have known Prokofy was an avatar rights / privacy activist, and that sort of skews him out of a general demographic that can be related to. (Not many of us actively go around promoting the rights to privacy for virtual representations of ourselves, as logical as that may be.)
And while the general public may not know Prokofy's antagonist reputation, he doesn't fail to give him usual round of hyperboles that somewhat overstate the situation. (Which, of course, he'd deny.)
Then there's Prokofy's gender, and while I happen to enjoy playing female characters in video games like World of Warcraft or The Longest Journey, the general public doesn't quite get "gender-bending" in online virtual worlds when you have a choice.
Choosing Silly Quotes
Quote 1: "no amount of humor or creativity can excuse what she sees as 'terrorism.'"
A reader educated with cyber-law will know that foreign crime syndicates are behind most spamming and child pornography rings, and might have a nuanced understanding of "terrorism" to include certain griefing activities.
For the general public who are used to "things blowing up and killing people" as the general meaning of "terrorism", this first quote from Prokofy immediately sets up Prokofy to look like a person who is histrionic and unreasonable.
Quote 2: "Fuck, this is a denial-of-service attack ... it's anti-civilization ... it's wrong ... it costs me hundreds of US dollars."
This quote is a double-edged sword, so to speak. In one sense, Prokofy is right-on calling Second Life "swarm" griefing techniques what they are: Denial of Service attacks. When a person intentionally overloads a web server (of which Second Life is no different) with excessive scripts or programs or data to the point where it impacts performance or even shuts down the server - well, that's a denial of service attack. Duh.
At the same time, Dibbell included the end of the quote "it costs me hundreds of dollars". For someone shown as a "well-known Second Life real estate entrepreneur", this seems to trivialize the damage to a small amount. The fact is that the damage to Prokofy's customer base and reputation is probably a great deal larger, and much harder to measure in terms of dollars and cents.
The Pictures Say 1000 Words, and 4 of them are: "Don't be so serious"
I spoke with Prokofy in world at length about the article, and an important item she pointed out is that he did not choose which picture of her was placed in the article. He claimed to me that the Wired photographer pulled the old "take lots of photos and do the one you want at the end" trick. That's where, after taking lots of nice pictures that are flattering and show you as a human being, the photographer then says something to the effect of, "Say, can we try out just one more shot?" and makes it like that photo is unimportant, when, in fact, it's the one they want.
Prokofy further asserted to me that the photographer asked him to put on a looser shirt. That would, of course, show his typist in a less flattering way, physically. He also claimed to have outright refused to pose "behind a gate" with her face through the bars. Nice one, Wired!
And now, less-than-scrupulous tactics aside, look at a comparison between Prokofy's picture and the griefers. (I'm linking to them rather than posting in line not because it wouldn't be fair use, but just to avoid the hassle of someone whining at me and me having to deal with explaining it.)
Gee. A bunch of apparently fun loving young men having a good time versus some old grumpy woman facing away from the camera in a physically unflattering shot.
Who would you root for?
"Oh, boys will be boys" comes to mind.
Griefers Love When Their Work is Publicized
And then there's the 2-year-old images of the flying, wobbly penises CNet event. Not only is this a way for griefers to get kudos from their peers, (alright! my penises got in Wired!), and not only is this stale news, but Dibbell fails to mention how blatantly CNet messed up in the security department. A few settings change on the estate would have prevented that, and a whole *one* person on duty dedicated to security and answering guests' technical questions would have probably avoided that.
And then there's the fact that, gee, it's flying penises. How more sensationalist can this be?
The Article's Conclusion
Perhaps the most blatant clue that this article is slanted is the ending.
"To those who think the griefers' handiwork is simply inexcusable: Well, being inexcusable is, after all, the griefers' job. Ours is to figure out that caring too much only gives them more of the one thing they crave: the lulz."
However Dibbell may have intended this, here's how I interpret it:
1. Griefers have a valid place on the Internet.
2. People do care too much about things on the Internet.
These are Dibbell's words, not the griefers. The two attitudes are out of line with mainstream thinking, especially considering how much coverage cyber-bullying has gotten in the media over the last few years. MySpace has changed their policies, YouTube has pulled hate-speech filled videos, and there's even a US law specifically against online harassment. How Dibbell ends with these conclusions is almost unimaginable for mainstream media like Wired.
Dibbell Didn't Do it Deliberately
It was after my second reading of Dibbell's article that I noticed probably the most important single clue in the article to unwravel Dibbell's intentions: (emphasis mine)
"But Second Life represented a new frontier in troublemaking potential. It was serious business run amok. Here was an entire population of players that insisted Second Life was not a game — and a developer that encouraged them to believe it..."
Dibbell tips his hand when he calls Second Life's population "players", rather than "residents" or "users" or "members". Clearly Dibbell does not agree with Linden Lab "that encouraged [players] to believe [Second Life was not a game]".
And why would this be?
ZOMG It's Just A Game!
Well, for one, a great deal of the rest of Dibbell's article deals with other games, such as Eve Online and Star Wars Galaxies. In the description of the attack in Eve online with the "$10,000 Spaceship", I have to say - if you're in a MMOG and buy some enormous super-battleship that's supposed to be invincible, expect to be attacked. That's part of the game, and Eve Online's game gods not interfering reinforce that. Virtual Worlds are entirely different from online games in this respect.
Secondly, early in the article Dibbell examines why griefers like "Patriotic Nigras" (PN) do what they do. When explaining why one griefer organization is overtly racist: (again, emphasis mine)
"It's only one element, he insists, in an arsenal of PN techniques designed to push users past the brink of moral outrage toward that rare moment — at once humiliating and enlightening — when they find themselves crying over a computer game. Getting that response is what it's all about, the [Patriotic] Nigras say."
That was Dibbell's words, not a griefer's.
Conclusion: Dibbell is living 15 years in the past
Julian Dibbell recently made his book "My Tiny Life" free online. The book was written about events that occured in 1993 in lambdaMOO, a small online community. Unlike Second Life and other modern virtual worlds, there are some glaring differences that Dibbell clearly doesn't acknowledge:
1. No economy.
2. No IP protection.
3. No attempt at protection of real life laws.
4. Cyber-law basically didn't exist back in 1993.
But the bottom line:
5. LambdaMOO was always meant as a game. Modern virtual worlds are not. They are meant as a platform, or a tool, or as a toy. This is something you can play with, sure, but its use is entirely based on the intent of the one using it. Just like the rest of the Internet.
Dibbell's perspective is entirely based on this. How can I be so sure?
Prok's blog of the chat between her and Julian Dibbel, posted here.
The "You" is "Prokofy Neva": (Again, emphasis by me)
First, Dibbell has done so little research into Second Life that Prokofy has to explain "Auto-return", which is a basic feature any landowner knows about.
"[22:33] You: so if you don't have autoreturn it starts to pile up and then crashes the sim
[22:33] You: I get a sim crashed about every day by griefers
[22:33] Julian Dibbell: and what exactly is autoreturn?"
And later in the conversation, Julian reveals that he:
1. Believes SL is very similar to LambdaMOO
2. Wrote the article and tried to write an article for another magazine specifically to discredit Second Life's perceived "hype".
"[0:14] You: Why don't you study Second Life more Julian?
[0:14] You: there is so much to study here, I hope I have given you that sense
[0:14] Julian Dibbell: ha. it's too much like LambdaMOO.
[0:14] You: that's why I'm here
[0:14] You: oh surely it's more complex
[0:15] Julian Dibbell: i wrote that book already.
[0:15] You: it has an economy
[0:15] You: well you sound like you can't get beyond that
[0:15] Julian Dibbell: yeah it has that. but i wrote that book too :)
[0:15] You: this isn't game gold and it isn't just a rape in cyberspace
[0:15] You: although I've had tenants raped by goons
[0:15] You: and it is not fun
[0:15] You: well but this is different
[0:15] You: you're just not seeing it
[0:15] You: and why do you have to write an entire book?
[0:15] You: it will only get out of date
[0:15] Julian Dibbell: what am i not seeing?
[0:15] You: a magazine article would do
[0:16] You: the complexity of how people make communities and groups and how they lobby for change
[0:16] You: how the game gods wreck havoc
[0:16] Julian Dibbell: well it's tricky
[0:16] You: I mean this is the making of the Metaverse
[0:16] You: it's all being laid down ehre
[0:16] Julian Dibbell: i spent much of this year working on an article for New York magazine sort of about all that
[0:16] Julian Dibbell: Philip's pretensions to replacing NYC with SL and so forth
[0:16] You: well they might rather have more of an entertainment piece
[0:17] Julian Dibbell: yes that's prolly why it got killed in the end
[0:18] You: Why did you come to the Metanomics seminar to speak if you feel there is nothing new under the LambdaMOO sun?
[0:18] You: seriously we have to overthrow you game journos to get this story out it's maddening
[0:18] Julian Dibbell: i'm being flip, Prok, i'm sorry, obviously this is a big deal
[0:18] Julian Dibbell: but the hype issue is a real problem at this point"
And so, Dibbell becomes Wired person #2 to state that they specifically were behind an article to discredit Second Life. But, to Dibbell's credit, he did it out of the lack of any real understanding of virtual worlds today, and not out of sour grapes.
One Final Note: It is Real Life, Too
Let's forget all of my previous arguments for a second. Let's assume for a moment, as a hypothetical, "it's okay to get lulz on teh Internets" and "nothing on the Internet should be taken so seriously that it can't be laughed at". Prokofy and many others have been harassed in the real world as well. But the only descriptions of real life threats in the article? Against the griefers and their families.
Ending with questions:
Can Dibbell reply and defend his article, and perhaps shed some counter-arguments to mine?
Was the article so one-sided because of:
(a) Previous bias against virtual worlds?
(b) Intentional snubbing of virtual worlds?
(c) Lazy reporting and failure to hold to journalistic standards?
(d) Desire for a shock-value article in Wired?
Doesn't Dibbell owe the public some explanation why the article was so pro-griefer?
Doesn't Wired owe the public some explanation why they allowed such a one-sided, poorly researched article that was pro-griefers to be published?
List of a few other blogs replying to the Dibbell article:
(send me an IM or comment if you'd like me to add your article to this list)
"Anatomy of a griefer" by Gwyneth Llewelyn
"A Celebration of Good Sense" by Sophrosyne Stenvaag
Metaplaces creator and MMOG designer Raph Koster's take.
"griefers" by Alan Jacobs
p.s. I thought about naming this blog entry "Reporter Madness", and while that was kind of cute, it wasn't descriptive enough for my RSS feed.
errata: My apologies to Prokofy, who requested his avatar name and gender be used. My sincere desire was to illustrate that there are indeed real people affected behind griefing, and not as any sort of antagonism. I've corrected an earlier version of this post that has the old name.