August 04, 2003

Why getting front-page trashed as a troll bothered me so much

Given some of the comments suggesting I was overreacting to being trashed as troll by John Gilmore on the front page of Lessig's blog, I should explain myself more. I understand where these comments are coming from. Indeed, superficially, I see where I might appear as someone who can dish it out but can't take it. Or that I brought it on myself by repeatedly going on about Gilmore and trolling. The moral equivalence is that calling powerful people on trolling, gives them the right to trash you in response.

It's not a matter of suddenly throwing a fit out of the blue. In general, I've long been bothered by a sense that I'm playing politics out of my league. That my "level", in terms of audience and press-reach, is way too low for the things I'm trying to do. And then that the implication of this underpowered/overmatched situation, is that I'll always end up with a negative result, personally, for anything I do.

Note this isn't saying the result might not be positive for the world. Indeed, here, I take heart that several people remarked that they found my arguments insightful and convincing. But they didn't say that to an audience anywhere near the numbers which heard me just being dumped-on. So the overall outcome runs, for me, I estimate

500? people hear the positive
10,000? people hear the negative

Whatever the precise numbers, I'm sure the negative outweighs the positive by more than an order of magnitude. I wouldn't be surprised if it's two orders of magnitude.

Someone with a comparable 10,000? reader audience - e.g. a popular blogger, or net journalist - can fight back. They can BE HEARD replying. Typically, I can't. And moreover, that number of people hears them all the time, so they generate comparable positive reputation. Almost nobody hears my efforts so that work doesn't generate anywhere near the positive reputation necessary to withstand the tearing-down from something such as the above. Yes, a few hundred people hear it, but they are a very atypical sample.

Now, abstractly, this may be tolerable when it's just name-calling. But my censorware activism constantly causes me stress concerning its legal risk and the possibility of a lawsuit. Yes, the work may be good for civil-liberties, but it's bad for me. For about the whole time I've been doing it, I've been deeply worried by the thought that if I DO get sued, I'll just be facing a prospect of overwhelming smears and attacks which I'll never, ever be able to counteract. In part because of the pounding I get from the result of this process of being portrayed so negatively. And given the CIPA decision, said thoughts have intensified, and which interacted deeply with this event.

The answer seems to be, don't do any of these things. NOT, do only those things preached to me as worthy. Just get rid of it all. This bothers me.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on August 04, 2003 11:58 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Hmmmmm. As someone who took part in the debate on Professor Lessig's blog (and followed it elsewhere) I think you looked better at the end than you did in the middle. I found myself much more on your side than that of Mr. Gilmore - who should have protested: 1. directly against the government and not a company 2. without inconveniencing so many other innocent people - who might have needed to make connecting flights for important family events. Regrettably, he was thinking more about himself than others - which is inappropriate if his point is to represent the average citizens he claims are being hurt by the government.

In general, I agree with the communication mismatch you speak of. I think those of us who do not have megaphones to use must choose our words and deeds much more carefully than those who do. Perhaps you might have had the same initial position that you did, but chosen your words more carefully - since you might not get the chance to make a clarification later on if no one hands you the microphone again.

So don't be silent! Just be sure to invest more in each word you do say.


Posted by: Ed Lyons at August 5, 2003 10:49 AM

I've been following this at a remove, because Gilmore's silly stunt (which I guess nails my opinion of it) is way outside the set of library-related issues I deal with.

Setting aside issues of tone, nervousness about possibly-unrelated areas, etc. ("setting aside the earth and the sun"), what strikes me is that Lessig abused his bully pulpit by giving Gilmore direct "front page" space while relegating yours and other disagreements to the comments. But of course it's Lessig's blog, and he's entirely free to be as biased and unreasonable as the rest of us.

I can empathize with your ongoing fears relating to doing censorware work; I don't think they're unreasonable fears. I agree that you don't have the reach of some others. On the other hand, you do have influence: Note that I've changed from "filters" to "censorware" in most of my writing on this topic--and it's noteworthy that my all-CIPA special issue ( has been downloaded by more than 2,800 people, twice as many as the usual issue. That's not the 63,000 I reach in American Libraries, but I suspect it's a pretty good share of the library people who will be making decisions in this area.

I can't tell you to keep up the good fight: It may not be worth it to you. I can tell you that the work isn't entirely unappreciated.

Posted by: walt crawford at August 5, 2003 12:07 PM

Thanks for taking the time to explain this, Seth. I understand why you are concerned, now.

Posted by: James at August 5, 2003 04:41 PM

I'm going to weigh in here to disagree.

First of all, John Gilmore's referring to you as a troll is hardly "being trashed". By use of the term, he is simply claiming that your purpose is simply to stir up contraversy, not to argue a point you truly believe in. And from the discussion and followup, I can tell that the claim was clearly wrong (ie, you are NOT a troll).

And in MY not-quite-so-humble-as-it-outta-be opinion, YOU are wrong about Gilmore also... he seems to genuinely believe what he is saying. I would say that he is not taking actions (like refusing to remove the button) just to provoke a reaction, but rather to prove a point, and force a debate about an issue of civil liberties.

And in the end, I find myself agreeing far more with Gilmore's position than with yours. Suppose the individual had been wearing a button reading "Member of the Islamic Party"? Surely NO political statement (threats of violence are not political statements) should be grounds for preventing one from traveling.

And I completely fail to buy into your argument about the difference between saying "troll" on the front page and saying "troll" in the comments. If more people read Lessig's blog than yours, then perhaps it is because more people find the points he makes worth reading. And perhaps (as in this case), you will find yourself better heard if you attract people to YOUR blog. After all, I had never read your blog before today. However, it's MY choice which to read, and you have no business griping if I choose to listen to Lessig (and those he puts on the front page) more often than I listen to you.

Posted by: Michael Chermside at August 5, 2003 06:07 PM

Walt: Thanks for the kind words. But note, the issue isn't about being entirely unappreciated - it's about being too little appreciated for the costs and risks involved. That is, once more, the result of my activism work is good for civil-liberties, but it's personally bad for me. Logically, if there was no tension here, there wouldn't be a problem in the first place :-(. I'm getting a feeling I had some years ago, which is roughly, sure I can keep pouring out effort to The Cause, and trying to be heard but MOSTLY ignored, and playing dances-with-lawsuits, yet never getting any gain for myself ... Or not. And I'm just not protected and supported enough to keep on. In sum, that's the issue here, not the Gilmore name-calling by itself.

Michael: I've said my piece many times on what I think of Gilmore's actions, and I don't think it helps to repeat it all. I did note his sincerity. It's the troll-pattern, of provoking, then crying "censorship", and playing WHAT-IF and DEFINE-IT and I'm-hip-you're-not, and so on, which I think makes the term relevant. I know he thinks he's being a crusader, but so does everyone with an axe to grind. Even the trolls often think they are serving a useful purpose by making life a little more surreal. As to the difference between the front page and the comments, you can argue the morality, but arguing no large difference in numbers is absurd. And I believe I do have a (social) right to discuss my reaction, especially in my own poor blog.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 5, 2003 06:46 PM

Seth writes: "As to the difference between the front page and the comments, you can argue the morality, but arguing no large difference in numbers is absurd."

Absolutely true... I didn't intend to suggest such a thing.

Seth writes: "And I believe I do have a (social) right to discuss my reaction, especially in my own poor blog."

Of course! That's the best place for it, which is why I made my way here to continue the conversation.

As for your main point: "[Gilmore's pattern] of provoking, then crying 'censorship'", I see your point, I just disagree in this case. I feel that the charge of "lousy, even dangerous airline policy" is warrented for an airline that identifies dangerous by the political statements they make.

Posted by: Michael Chermside at August 6, 2003 12:10 PM


I think you're absolutely right about Gilmore trolling. He got what he wanted when he was thrown off the plane. And he has a long tradition of taking stands on issues that have very little to do with common sense or helping people, such as running an open mail server at On the other hand, he's also done a lot of useful stuff, such as setting up the EFF.

What I see here is something which really annoys me: "internet activists" being more concerned with establishing a reputation and cred among their supporters, even if this involves bashing people like you who are fundamentally on the same side on a lot of issues.

You're doing good work. Don't let the detractors and naysayers get to you.

Posted by: Peter Clay at August 7, 2003 10:30 AM