The perils of publicness

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the benefits of publicness and transparency. This week also reminded me of the perils.

This was hardly the first time I’ve suffered a personal attack, nor will it be the last. Although I will say that it made for a particularly awful day – bad taste in the mouth, unsettled feeling at the pit of the stomach, vulnerability, disappointment – I’m certainly in no position to seek sympathy. I’m a blogger who has done my share of snarking. I spent years as a critic and got poison-pen responses from fans and actors. I know I’m being blunt with my opinions about journalism because I think that’s both necessary and working, but I also know it rubs some people wrong. So be it.

I was gratified at the support of friends. But I was more bothered than anything that I got email from my parents wondering who this Ron Rosenbaum was (and why was he attacking their son). Even bloggers have mothers.

This isn’t about my publicness. It’s about the next person who hasn’t experienced this before and comes online to create or share and gets stabbed. What happens to her willingness to open up in public? If she reverts to her shell, what do we lose? What impact does this have on the quality of the conversation? What impact does that have on the reputation and value of the medium?

My stock answers to these questions – coming always from my optimistic defense of online conversation – have been: Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff, pay attention to the good stuff. And: We all can tell who the assholes are. And: Don’t judge the medium by its worst. And that’s all fine and true until you are reminded what it feels like to get that dull blade from behind.

I happened to see PR man Richard Edelman yesterday and so I asked for his high-priced advice on what to do in these circumstances, which he gave. No surprise, he advised not to stoop to the level of the sniper, which is exactly what I did, responding in kind, because I felt like it. Edelman said to respond with the facts and to return to the principles, which, of course, is just what I should have done (and will do with another post later). “You must stay in character,” he said. “You must not rise to the bait. You have more to lose.” Actually, I didn’t need to go to a PR expert for that. It’s what my father always advised.

Edelman acknowledged differences in media and time. On Fox and MSNBC, one does respond in kind; the one who’s loudest wins. In years past, PR people might have advised clients to ignore and hide. But that doesn’t suit the blogosphere, he said.

There’s an old social norm at work here that is, I think, an extension of old media, which says: You put yourself out there, so you put yourself at risk for getting attacked. This implies it is almost your fault for getting attacked. This is a basis of the public-figure defense in libel, the presumed right to go after people in the public eye. Once you become public, you give up the cloak and protection of privacy.

But now we are all public. Does that norm still hold online, when 180 million people have started blogs and countless more put videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr? Are they all, should they all be targets for the snipers and snarkers? Well, they all could be. But what’s our attitude about that? Is there a new norm emerging?

Online has developed one system to deal with attacks, and it came into play this week: Someone will remind the participants not to feed the trolls. Feeding the trolls not only encourages them but degrades the conversation and, again, devalues the medium. The trolls and their followers hurt the internet. So don’t feed them. Another system, also in play this week, kicks in when someone tries to get the discussion back on track to talk about the issues and ideas that are being ignored. One norm that has developed is that it’s proper etiquette to link to responses to an attack (note that Rosenbaum has not granted even that simple courtesy). Finally, there is humor.

Other systems don’t work. Sites are forever looking at automated means of getting rid of the dross. Where is the troll algorithm? And I hope we don’t revert to suing for libel, for that will put a chill on conversation and, as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response (which I took).

I wonder whether more new systems will emerge. I’ve argued that violating one’s own privacy with beer-party pictures will become less important thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation. That will become more and more the case under Zuckerberg’s Law, which decrees that “…next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.” We’ll all be vulnerable. In the company of nudists, no one’s naked.

The conversation is well worth the trouble. I am the obnoxious optimist. I do trust the wisdom of the crowd, the market, the public and I believe that we will all benefit the more that we are all public and the more our institutions are all transparent. But I fear losing the conversation and wisdom and contributions to it from people who get the shiv in the back once too often (which for some will be once). It’s one matter to read stupid attacks and gather around them as entertainment. It’s another to be on the wrong end of them and I need to be reminded of that as I was this week.

Maybe that’s what happens: We all get attacked once and become wiser for it. Or we all get attacked and become nastier for it; that’s the fear. There were always be trolls, fools, idiots, and assholes; there are in life and so they will be here on the internet. That doesn’t ruin the internet any more than it ruins New York. The question is whether and how we can see and protect the value of the internet. Optimist that I am, I believe we will.

: LATER: By the way, I see I’m being baited by another person who only attacks people and only to get attention and links. I’m not even watching what he says; I stopped watching him two years ago. Just a note: This is why I love Twitter. I blocked him. And now my world is free of this troll. It feels good. And, no, I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a link, either.

  • Well the boss is one of the few poeple I guess who has been through the ‘publicness’ thing himself a few times like you. I guess the only thing I would add is that even on the net the majority are always silent and watching and coming to their own conclusions privately and that’s why how you say what you say is sometimes as important as what you say. Don’t be put off from shining your light anywhere by this, but please do drop the “assholes” language. You don’t need it.

  • Thanks…but how to explain this to my 10 year old, whom I found sobbing and heartbroken slumped over her Macbook yesterday. She had saved up her pocket money to open a Stardoll account to play paperdoll dress-ups, like a child, with other children. Then, out of the blue, a person calling themselves “Indian Slut (in a child’s game!) launches an unprovoked personal attack, slurring insults at my child’s appearance, calling her a poser and a ladyboy…once again…she is 10! and whipping up a hate campaign. Before yesterday, my enlightened “good-with-the-bad” philosophy would have been in line with yours…but I think tolerance is same as good men doing nothing and evil thrives. In my daugter’s case…she voted with her pocket, and instead of feeding the troll…she stopped feeding the Stardoll business by terminating her subscription. Its bad for human beings and its bad for business.

  • David,

    I use “assholes” generically. I have found that my prior wording, “Bozos,” does not cross borders. “Twit” isn’t right or strong enough.

  • I’m not religious, but there’s some good stuff in there:

    Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.

    Bible, 1 Corinthians xv. 33.

  • Annalie,

    You raise an important issue: protection. It’s impossible to protect everyone from the, um, trolls. But it is necessary to protect the children. My daughter was differently crushed when her very safe community of American Girl fans was shuttered by Mattel. Protection was expensive, or at least not sufficiently profitable.

    Communities do need maintenance and policing. I learned the online version of Rudy Giuliani’s broken-glass doctrine: If you leave a can of spray paint by a blank wall, it will be used. But if you give the community the tools and support to police itself, it will, so long as its members value that community. Grownups can be expected to help do that. Kids should not have to. Stardoll, it appears, left the spray paint can out.

  • I’m not sure I’d trust advice from Richard Edelman, he of the fake Walmart blogs and other tricks of the PR trade.

    In fact after that little stunt he was forced to (sort of) apologize, what with him being a big proponent of “ethics” in his field.

    Jeff, the thing that you have going for you (so far) is that nobody is paying you to push a point of view. If you lose that then you will just be another hired gun.

    It’s the willingness to take your lumps by posting under your own name that is the key. You may be right or wrong in your opinions and even facts, but at least they are yours. This is one of the benefits of working in academia and it is one of the many modern-day tragedies that this independence has become damaged by those who take money from backers and then do their bidding.

    This is true of many academic economists and political scientists, but has now spread to medical researchers and other areas of “pure” science.

    If you want to get into a spat with critics that is your prerogative, that’s the benefit of owning your own (virtual) printing press.

  • Rest assured, your optimistic sentiment is shared by many.

    Trolls lurking with intent to mar the quality of our online world won’t be stopped, yet they can, as you said, be starved.

    Your thoughts on the evolution of global vulnerability are valid. I feel this vulnerability has promoted a closer group of communicators who come out of their own shadow to expose emotions, ideas, and change for the better. The essence of this paradigm shift, I believe, has put a damper on the old-school flaming and opened the door for collaborative encouragement.

    While the redundant iterations of information can become tiresome, I have noticed the comments being left in most circles are usually positive, even if it is a basic post on something covered 10x over within the blogosphere. If nothing else, self confidence is being built in bloggers who are beginning to learn the power of their voice. It can be heard. It will be heard.

    Just be prepared to hear the voice of those in opposition and respond with integrity.


  • Dan

    There’s an Old School news-media attitude toward critics that always struck me as disingenuous, even as I was practicing it: The Above-It-All-And-Mildly-Polite-But-Vaguely-Smug pose. It was condescending, and it was essentially a statement of asymmetrical power: “I’m not going to respond to the substance of your ‘attack’ because my employer buys ink (or pixels) wholesale and you are merely a trumped up whack job.”

    In practice, this attitude was so prevalent that you could get in trouble with your bosses for responding honestly and directly to over-the-top critics. But it’s another example of a low-bandwidth artifact that doesn’t translate into a high-bandwidth era.

    And here’s the rub: It turns out the proper response to this kind of criticism has to begin BEFORE IT OCCURS. Because if you’re writing (or broadcasting — whatever) with that traditional institutional smugness and then responding with personal inflection, that simply doesn’t scale. Your critics will hate the initial condescension, and the lurking audience of people who are watching the food fight and trying to decide who has the high ground are unlikely to be moved by a sudden appeal to personal humility or outrage.

    In other words, your response to Rosenbaum attack violated classic (Edelman) PR edicts, but it “worked” because you were in character as Jeff Jarvis, a smart guy who is occasionally a snarky asshole. You passed the Dave Winer integrity test: “Be What You Appear To Be.” It also worked because it showed you to be a vulnerable human being.

    When I was a city editor I used to tell my reporters that the dividing line between wisdom and hackery is that hacks are emotionally invulnerable. I hate being criticized — I can obsess over it and fly into rages, etc. — but I try to console myself with the thought that if my emotions are a canary in the hackdom coal mine, at least I haven’t become what I hate. Yet.

  • The more removed from direct face-to-face interaction our communication with others becomes, the more cavalier people grow with their criticism and lack of empathy. People are more likely to write harsh things on a blog about a person they’ve never met much more readily than they would if they had met them in person, or if they had to say those words out loud to room full of people. Ironically it’s the shift from old-school journalism with phone-calls and face-to-face interviews to the more common practice of email interviews and blog conversations that may have sped this process along.

  • tom coscarelli


    1. Being human means it is ok to get pissed off.
    2. More people value your open insight than oppose it.
    3. Taking risks makes others nervous.
    4. Market transformations – steel, auto, newspapers – are upsetting esp. if you happen to be in one. Easier to attack than to accept a life’s career is over.
    5. Pioneer’s are the ones wit arrows in their backs.

  • Regarding: “as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response

    I’ve posted this before, the last time this topic came up:

    It is my deeply-considered view, after many, many, years of observing this issue, that the discussion becomes somewhere between absurd and cruel. It is not “conversation” when one person speaks to ten, hundreds, of thousands, and the target may have some obscure response off somewhere read by a few friends and family.

    Some people don’t believe in libel law as a matter of principle – they say it’s the province of the rich who don’t need it, that the little guy who might need it can’t fight back anyway, if you’re smeared, just “take it” because attempting any sort of defense will only make the situation worse. That’s one general point of view, and it has nothing specific to do with blogs or Internet.

    Alternately, if one does believe in libel law, then we know (“Power Law Distribution”) that there are vast, enormous, audience disparities, which apply to blogs and the Internet as well as other media. It’s a mathematical fact, and denying that doesn’t make it go away. Some “bloggers” are for all intents and purposes the same as a mainstream media syndicated columnist. How many times have you heard some boast like “I have [huge number] readers, that’s more than [media outlet]!”. And we can’t all have a zillion readers, again, that’s just a fact.

    Sometimes disputes take place between relative equals. On occasion, a weak target can become a cause-celebre. But that such cases exist does not invalid that there’s plenty of situations where a person who is libeled has no EFFECTIVE means to reach any sort of comparable audience. To rebut the idea that it *could* happen, individually, we all *could* win the lottery – but almost all of us won’t.

    Again, there’s an argument that libel law is more harm than good. But for heaven’s sake, don’t tell the Great Unread, who make tiny mostly-unheard squeaks compared the booming megaphones of A-listers, that they can eat cake.

  • rick

    Let’s lock up all the trolls for a few months of re-education camp!

  • Jeff,

    On the bright side, controversy is a time honored way to get attention—HipHop battles, Pro Wrestling vendettas, political elections—verbal battles are entertaining to watch (if not always to be personally engaged in). So when some hater hates on you and you come back at them, it brings you more attention. And that expands your influence. All the better if there’s some substance in the exchange. And you did deliver on that.

    Look forward to checking out your book.

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  • invitedmedia

    mni- $1.50 per share

    lee- $1.25 ~.01

    gm- $3

    iar- .20

    and you’re worried about being attacked for your take on “the future”?

    i’d say mean old mr. market is telling you you’re on the right track.

    hang in there.

  • “[Y]our response to Rosenbaum attack violated classic (Edelman) PR edicts, but it “worked” because you were in character as Jeff Jarvis, a smart guy who is occasionally a snarky asshole. You passed the Dave Winer integrity test: “Be What You Appear To Be.” It also worked because it showed you to be a vulnerable human being.” Couldn’t have said it better.

  • Seconding Seth that the idea that libel law can be thrown out is flawed to say the least:

    “It is my deeply-considered view, after many, many, years of observing this issue, that the discussion becomes somewhere between absurd and cruel. It is not “conversation” when one person speaks to ten, hundreds, of thousands, and the target may have some obscure response off somewhere read by a few friends and family.”

    But besides that – I’ll say what I said elsewhere (and sooner or later when I get a chance to post it to my blog) – that Slate piece was trash.

    Your response was perfect as well. Other people, dealing with similar situations, who do not have your voice, might need other means to fend off such viciousness, but you did the right thing for you Jeff.

  • Frank Black

    I can’t help but recall a journalism conference a colleague (the assistant sports editor, of all people, and myself, then a part-timer) and I attended back in ’97, in Salem, Oregon. We devoured all the Internet-related seminars we could, begin heavily interested in its future possibilities. When we returned to the office with full folders and buzzing brains, we were summarily deflated by the main editor’s attitude toward the ‘Net. “He’ll be sorry one day,” I sniffed. Years later, he is. So why do I feel no vindication? Why, instead, do I feel sick to my stomach?

  • AnnB

    Oh for goodness sake, Ron Rosenbaum is not a troll. And callng him a troll — or anyone else you disagree with just because you disagree with them — is the ultimate in trollish behaviour.

    I like this blog alot but Rosenbaum raised many valid points and he was also right when he said that your summary of his points was inaccurate. Not to mention your silly follw-up name calling.

    That said, I don’t think Rosenbaum did himself any favours when he played the I’m-getting-lots-of-emails-agreeing-with-me card.

    So far, neither you nor your staunch defenders have addressed the substance of Rosenbaum’s arguments, but I suppose if he’s a troll, anything he says is just trollishness.

    And they say women are catty. Meow!

  • bigyaz

    So…anyone who disagrees with you and/or criticizes you is a troll?

    Talk about trying to shut down your vaunted “conversation.” You’re acting pretty childish here.

  • Your insights into new media are quite valuable, and I read your blog constantly. But you were too defensive and unwilling to concede that Rosenbaum had a point. Yes, Rosenbaum was snarky, not very well-informed about what you do and obviously looking to provoke a snappish response. I reread his column after reading your response, and his intent is clear.

    But there is a bit truth in that snark, in that the new media triumphalism should be leavened with more sympathy for those losing their jobs because of forces mostly beyond their control. For those thrown out on the streets by newspaper executives who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to changes, posting about visits to lavish forums while they worry about health insurance doesn’t sit well.

    Your blog provides some of the tools to help journos adapt, but the tone may grate on those who get bitter and cling to their newsprint. :-) So some friendly guidance is always appreciated. Acknowledging the human cost of the transition, and that we don’t have all the answers, would go a long way.

    Your best defense against critics is to continue posting valuable information, graciously recognize when they’re right, and not get distracted by being baited into an intemperate response to an unbalanced rant.

  • Mike

    Jeff, you should stick to TV Guide… that’s what you’re the expert at. Tell us what’s gonna be the next hot TV show etc. Leave future and predictions and other important stuff to people who are actually competent.


  • Well, that sure added to the conversation. Thanks so much for stopping by. I bet you’re a hit at all the parties you’re invited to.

  • I’m now instituting the rule using sparingly before: If all you do is come to insult, I will kill the comment. Say anything you like in strong disagreement about issues, great. But drive-by snipings add nothing. If you did it at my home, I’d get you off my property. This is my home. So Mike, good-bye.

  • Jeff

    I was the ‘winner’ of a cruelly sarcastic blog award in the UK recently (no link obviously). Here are the lessons I learned:

    Get your retaliation in first (I linked to the award when I saw I was shortlisted in anticipation of some new visitors).

    Accept that these things are a backhanded compliment. I was genuinely flattered to be shortlisted amongst some blogging luminaries from the worlds of journalism and PR (I’m reluctant to say so, but you were among them).

    Get over it quickly. I know there’s a long tail for information, but if newspapers quickly fade, blog storms tend to rise and fall with the speed of people’s RSS readers.

    Keep up the good work – which I mainly consume via your column in the print edition of Media Guardian. Ha!

  • Usually in human nature when one spouts I have been thinking it is the opposite case as they thought about thinking but have no idea what the act of thinking might be.

    You actions speak somewhat loudly on that issue. Following SHel Israel’s advice?

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