Were we a mob? March 30, 2001 11:19 AM   Subscribe

were we a mob?
posted by rebeccablood to MetaFilter-Related at 11:19 AM (36 comments total)

I just got a note from a fellow who forwarded to me a note that is apparently sweeping europe this afternoon: a plan to flood the whitehouse with emails in support of the kyoto treaty. (I wish it would work.)

I'm interested in jason's perspective. I'm wondering how what metafilter did yesterday is different from the campaign I just mentioned (except that the campaign I mentioned includes a pre-written note to send) or to, say, an advocacy group planning a letter-writing or email campaign in support or against an issue.

this is one way citizens have communicated with the US government for ages. this is one way citizens have put pressure on business to change their corporate practices (although usually boycotts are more effective in the latter case.)

is there a difference between these things? is the speed with which yesterday's "campaign" was mounted the defining factor that changes it from a "campaign" to a "mob"? obscenity? (I'm sure US senators have gotten their fair share of obscenity-riddled phone calls and letters through the years.)

where is the line drawn, and what makes one different from the other, if indeed there is a difference?

posted by rebeccablood at 11:20 AM on March 30, 2001

Mass identical emails to politicians are usually ignored, for one. The MeFi Mob consisted of people making actual individual efforts to change something they considered to be wrong. The latter is much different, and infinitely more effective.
posted by aaron at 11:37 AM on March 30, 2001

Two observations: Are we ever not a mob? The word mob is so ugly, and yet there are many instances of mob action everyday, both destructive and constructive. Setting aside the implied issue of whether MeFi acted as a violent (or obscene) mob, I wonder if people are sensitive to the idea of being part of a mob, because its suggests a loss of individuality. Standing up for group identity, and group interests happens, often automatically, in "real life".

Also, on the Internet, would there be any other way to act than as a group? For MeFi, we really can assume that the Internet is a sphere apart. MeFi-the-group doesn't have a real-world existence. In this context, there is already a loss of self; communication is transient, contingent on bizarre rhetorics (as opposed to handshakes, lawyers, institutions); the individual is merely a blip, 1 of millions. Can there be any other form of organization that actually works in the self-contained world of the Internet, besides a deluge of e-mails, DoS attacks, etc?
posted by rschram at 11:42 AM on March 30, 2001

I wonder if those mass mailings to the president would contain the same level of vitriol and profanity reflected in the copies people posted to that thread.

Also, I think it could be argued that while most people have some sort of stake in the outcome of the passage or denial of the Kyoto treaty, or any other political issue, no one but Matt was harmed by the use of his design. Nevertheless, most people seem to think that they were harmed, and behaved in a way to exact threatening revenge.
posted by crunchland at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2001

I wonder if those mass mailings to the president would contain the same level of vitriol and profanity reflected in the copies people posted to that thread.

Oh yes, a large minority of them every day. I have a friend that used to manage the email of a US Senator's office. He said he came across at least several dozen deeply disturbing messages every single day. Nothing in our thread came anywhere close.
posted by aaron at 11:55 AM on March 30, 2001

If those mass mailings were to the president, then the tenor of the messages would likely change. That's not very surprising. However, these messages were sent to a private corporation involved in blatant design theft. Apples and oranges.

Yes, Matt was ostensibly the only person harmed here, but MetaFilter is also composed of a whole lot of people with a big stake in how web design is understood, received, and treated. So when they see one of their own get reamed, it's not too far off the mark to see themselves getting similarly reamed. To respond swiftly and angrily to see that that ugly head gets beaten down, never to be seen again, is, in my opinion, not an unreasonable response. I also hope that Matt sees it as a good thing that we, as our own little community, feel some sense of propriety over the site itself.

I don't see anyone in the metafilter community letting you get away with this.

I looked at the thread again, and this was the closest thing I could find that matched even remotely with "behaved in a way to exact threatening revenge." And I don't even think that's what the comment implies. Responding with outrage to shoddy business practice is not "threatening revenge."
posted by Skot at 11:58 AM on March 30, 2001

I think we were not only a mob, we were a vigilante mob. In an entirely justified cause, of course, but still... I think Matt said 'call off the dogs' at around post 60 or so, but my impression is that the mailings went on quite some time after that.

After 123 et. all realized they'd done something with consequences, (admittedly something they should have realized LONG ago) it was probably good enough to let Matt handle the situation as he saw fit.

In the mean time, we went to their houses (virtually), broke their windows, and basically ran them out of town.

There area a lot of things that could have gone on at 123 et al. Some of them evil and bad, some just confused. They probably learned their lesson well before posting 100.

On the otherhand, often times killing the scapegoat can be effective therapy ;-). And let's face it, 123 is hardly the only site to rip off somebody else's design...
posted by daver at 12:00 PM on March 30, 2001

I was really irritated by Kottke's post mainly because it read to me like contrarian grandstanding. Jason, you know where Metatalk is. Raise your problem here. Props to Skot.

And about the "calling off the dogs"; internet time versus real time applies. They could handle a week's worth of angry emails regardless of content based on what they
did. This damn company's actions were against Matt's work which also happens to be our community, which geeky as this sounds, happens to be important to me and to all of us. Call off the dogs, indeed. I'm going to go write another email as soon as I'm done with this.
posted by norm at 1:05 PM on March 30, 2001

Well, I look at it this way: Metafilter is a great community in general. Some people find certain aspects to be lacking, and more will as more people join. But overall, this group has a tremendous amount of respect for Matt and all the work he's put into building this community.

So when Matt posts to the front page, essentially, "Hey, these guys stole my design! Email them and tell them what you think!" You'd better believe that a lot of MeFites are going to do just what he asked. I mean, he linked right to the contact page.

I don't think sending hundreds of mean-spirited, nasty emails is a bad thing in this case. I certainly think that stealing a design warrants such "punishment." And I certainly don't think Matt was wrong in what he originally posted.

So, no, I don't agree with Jason's assertion that we're becoming a mob. Certainly the variety of points-of-view here encourage more measured discussion and reaction, much moreso than Slashdot and some other online communities.
posted by daveadams at 1:13 PM on March 30, 2001

no one but Matt was harmed by the use of his design. Nevertheless, most people seem to think that they were harmed

Everyone who designs websites is harmed if we go around allowing this kind of thing to happen.
posted by daveadams at 1:14 PM on March 30, 2001

I won't say I didn't bring it all on. Some of the ugliest threads here have been started by me, when I'm in a really bad mood. If I were a more concerned or level-headed leader (or person), I'd count to ten and think before I post. I definitely goaded people into action, because I was so pissed at the time. I've seen in a handful of other cases, where a misplaced "fuck" or "shit" or angry question I started a post off with ends up setting an ugly tone and quickly taints an entire thread.

Having said that, and now that it's all died down, when I can look back, there seems to be a weird sense of happiness in the demise of the guy who stole the site, and that's perhaps what jason is concerned about, and it's what made me question the whole thing. It's just a general mood, and I can't point to a specific post, but people seemed really happy to flame the guy. I think that's where the word "mob" comes in. The group had done its job, but continued to talk about how great it was, and for me, that's a little icky, especially because I started it and actually asked people to join me, in the name of the site. I essentially created a mob to do my bidding, which it did, and then everyone was happy, and I felt maybe it went too far, and it was a tad icky (I can't think of a better word, it's not shocking or horrifying, or creepy, it's just a tiny bit of that, and that seems to be the word "icky")

I'll take responsibility for creating the mob mentality because my original post definitely did just that, but if I had to look back and point at what I didn't like, it'd be slight joy the mob felt after the fact.

If it matters, the guy emailed me saying he's been getting a string of somewhat disturbing theats, and phony credit card orders since yesterday, and I can't help but feel kinda bummed I started it all.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 1:53 PM on March 30, 2001

To directly answer Rebecca's question (with assistance from Webster's):

mob n[L mobile vulgus vacillating crowd] (1688)
1: a large or disorderly crowd; esp : one bent on riotous or destructive action
2: the lower classes of a community : MASSES, RABBLE
3: chiefly Austral : a flock, drove or herd of animals
4: a criminal set : GANG

I'm gonna consider these backwards - I watched attentively as this whole affair unfolded (hit refresh, read new comments; hit refresh, read new comments; etc) - and number four just doesn't apply. The only criminal thing that happened was the design theft. Apologies in advance if this offends any Aussie MeFiers, but I'm ruling out number three because I know most of the alleged "mob" weren't Australian. Otherwise, it could very well apply. Number two I'm not even going to touch. Number one, however, is where things get interesting. Large? Yes. Disorderly? Definitely. But how riotous and destructive was this incident? The damage Matt mentions above (phony orders and threats) is indeed a regrettable consequence, and, with any luck, will taper off quickly, leaving them humiliated and possibly forcing them to invest in more security software. I guess you could argue that we destroyed the plagiarized site, but really, they brought that on themselves. At best they were dupes, at worst, laughably bad thieves. So, I'm gonna say No, Rebecca, we weren't a mob. At least not the bad kind (Does anyone else remember the Simpson's where Dr. Hibbert tells the townspeople "We're giving the word "mob" a bad name.")

I think the word we're all looking for here is "posse". For real. Look it up.
posted by varmint at 2:04 PM on March 30, 2001

well, *I* was happy when the site went down; same as I wuld have been if I was part of a letter writing campaign that persuaded baby bush to commit to the kyoto accord or to persuade a corporation to pay their workers living wages or whatever.

have you established who exactly was to blame for the design theft? was the site duped?

threats and fake credit cards are not cool, I agree with that.

you might post something in the sideblog and original thread asking that all mefi dogs go back into the doghouse.

the next question is: how *should* it have been handled? in retrospect do you wish the community had sent a copy of a pre-written note to the site? do you wish you had sought legal counsel and not made it public at all?

I think the most useful exercise now is to figure out how a situation like this one would best be handled in the future.

posted by rebeccablood at 2:07 PM on March 30, 2001

Matt, when you talk about this in terms of that "icky" feeling, I'm starting to understand what you mean. And I also see where Jason was coming from. There was, and is, a weird happiness in the demise of the guy.

We should all count to ten before posting, I suppose, and remain civilized even when there's something to be legitimately upset about. Disturbing threats aren't helping anyone.
posted by sixfoot6 at 2:14 PM on March 30, 2001

"Now we have laws, and they are difficult and they have to be enforced, and it's right that they're enforced. But we do not strut...ever." -- Leo McGarry, The West Wing, "Shibboleth"
posted by bradlands at 2:14 PM on March 30, 2001

Matt, you must use your mob creating powers only for goodness, never for evility!

Seriously, I don't think you can take the blame for the threats and bogus orders - or rather I think you can accept the fact that you are in a position to influence others, and act accordingly - but in the end there's a big difference between suggesting that folks express their displeasure and recommending that they harass or threaten. I mean, come on. Rebecca is clearly the jackbooted thug in this scenario. I saw her lighting torches over by the old mill...

Seriously, seriously. There were certainly aspects of the thread that icked me (my email to them was basically a "We see you. Not cool, dude." sort of message), and I'd probably have been more open to a discussion of the MeFi community behaviour if it weren't for the fact that Jason's writing style completely pushes my buttons. I don't blame him for it, I'm sure it's just that my Kottke-parser is miscalibrated, but when I read what he said, my first instinct was to totally blow him off. That's not good either. Actually, if there was a part where I thought we behaved badly as a mob, it would have been the part where we jumped on Jason. His interests, like mine (and Matt's and probably most peoples) are in the continued healthy life of Metafilter. He didn't deserve the wilding he got.
posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 2:15 PM on March 30, 2001

have you established who exactly was to blame for the design theft? was the site duped?

The guy still says "it was a friend" and he wouldn't say who, but someone else emailed me their story of similar dealings when their site was also stolen (so the guy has definitely done this before, whether or not there exists a "friend" is still unknown).

the next question is: how *should* it have been handled? in retrospect do you wish the community had sent a copy of a pre-written note to the site? do you wish you had sought legal counsel and not made it public at all?

Well at the least, I shouldn't have essentially said "everyone plese help me in telling this person to fuck off and die." I was going to just post it in metatalk, then just on the sideblog, but I was so incensed with rage that I thought getting everyone's attention was the best choice (looking back it seems to be the wrong choice).

In a perfect world, I would have emailed the guy, read his response, and if it didn't meet my satisfaction, I would have then announced it somewhere on metafilter, perhaps in a quieter place than a front page thread.

And I should make one thing clear: I never wanted to bring legal anything into this. The guy broke the law, yes, but suing someone in this country is about the biggest waste of time and effort imagineable. I doubt I would have ever recouped my loss of time in trying to chase this person down and get money from them.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2001

What Matt said.

And to add slightly to what he said, I contend that the situation could have been amicably settled with one email from Matt rather than having to use the "dogs"...but we will never know that for sure because he didn't try that option first.
posted by jkottke at 2:27 PM on March 30, 2001

interesting, because I would have thought that the legal option was the preferable one. (ideally) it forces the thief to pay some penalty for his wrongdoing, it all happens in an orderly, reasoned way, and it leaves out the mob entirely. the whole point of the rule of law is agreed upon rules, applied equally in a dispassionate way.

the one email/response addresses your concern, but it provides no disincentive at all to the guy, who will just go out and steal another site design pronto. (am I understanding that this same site had previously stolen from a different site?)

it seems to me that a legal action would, by creating disincentive to do it again, provide some protection for the web design community.

it's your call, of course.

posted by rebeccablood at 2:35 PM on March 30, 2001

Demise? There is no corpse. Someone might have to look for a new job, oh dea. I've been doing to same since Dec., so what.

Seems like the people have a hair-trigger guilt button. Why feel icky about when other people over do it a bit? I disagreed with Jason and tried to state it plainly without insulted the man. People like Skot decided to take it a bit further. I don't feel responsible for that nor should I.

Woe to the person that sets such high standards as to never let their emotions mix with their posts. If I'm wrong I'll admit it, if I was irrational I'll apoligize, but we all screw up from time to time.

MeFi just is. I don't care to know if it was better before or whatever. I know how to use it. I know what I want from it. I filter out the rest. I stand by the formula that I get out what I put in and it tends to hold true.

Yeah, I'm in one of those fuck all moods...I think I'll go outside for a walk now.
posted by john at 2:41 PM on March 30, 2001

it seems to me that a legal action would, by creating disincentive to do it again, provide some protection for the web design community.

Legal action should do all that, but I think back to a guy in philladelphia that I actually created mockups for, counseled about his site launch, and after sending the previously agreed upon bill, refused to pay. Trying to fight it legally turned out to be a big waste of time, since I lost hours of my time dealing with him, and the guy still owes me a few grand.

feh. the law sucks.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 2:55 PM on March 30, 2001

For posterity, when I saw the site, it was about the most delightfully humorous thing I've ever witnessed on Metafilter. Well, Tunak...

But anyway, it was at least worth the laughs and comic disbelief to post it on the front. Also, getting caught in the act is the law of cause and effect in action, and nothing seriously bad has happened to this guy. You steal somebody's stuff, and you end up in a certain atmosphere. Not to defend ill will, which has its own effects.

The quippish "how blatant can you get?" and inbox explosion was entirely in order. Everybody had so much fun because it was so obvious and silly.

posted by mblandi at 2:55 PM on March 30, 2001

I'd like to point out that not all of MeFi was part of "The Mob" (the MeFi Mafia?). Even if it was one-post-per-person, it's still only 250 members who were part of it, which is what, 5% (my maths is bad)?

So before everyone on MeFi is lumped into the mob category, let's be a little cautious. "We" are not turning into a mob.

You are.

-Neale (a one man mob)
posted by Neale at 3:26 PM on March 30, 2001

Neale, all generalizations are wrong.

(I'll wait... it's a bit of a joke grenade... takes a few seconds for anything to happen.)
posted by mathowie (staff) at 3:51 PM on March 30, 2001

Um. The people at STAND put a lot of research into their campaign tactics, precisely in order to avoid appearing like a Slashdot-esque mob. You had a primary "adopter" for each MP, who'd send the long-form fax, and a few more people from the consituency to say, more or less "What he said." It does the trick.

Mobs are fun. Mobs are exhilarating. Mobs make you feel you belong. And then you regain your senses, and there's blood on your hands after such a bacchanal.
posted by holgate at 4:00 PM on March 30, 2001

Now this is a mob.
posted by lagado at 6:36 PM on March 30, 2001

No, that was a prank. But thank you for unwittingly providing a perfect example of what I'm talking about in another MetaTalk thread.
posted by aaron at 9:39 PM on March 30, 2001

No, that was a mob, really.

Maybe you should give your hobby horse a rest for a while, aaron.

There's no use use flogging a dead one.
posted by lagado at 5:14 PM on March 31, 2001

A bit after the fact here, I know, but here are my thoughts.

I came into the 123cheaphosting thread at about post 192, well after the main events were well over and done. I laughed my butt off, felt some pride in the way the MeFi community rallied around Matt when he asked them to, and was not in the least surprised by the "we sure showed them!" mentality that prevailed for the next few days. It's human nature, pure and simple. But the continuation of the thread well after the site had come down and the spillover into a separate "were we a mob?" MetaTalk thread opens up some interesting points.

First, yes indeed. A mob mentality prevailed. How many people sent borderline vulgar emails to 123etc.? How many sent emails after Matt asked us to "call off the dogs" because he'd received a response to his complaint? How many sent emails not out of any great desire to see an injustice undone, but simply to be part of the fun? I'll admit that if I had checked in earlier in the day, I probably would have sent an email. Since it was after 8:00 (est) and it was clear the situation was well in hand, I considered it overkill. But I felt a small degree of disappointment that I wasn't in on the ground floor of the event.

The fact is, Matt was pissed off, rightfully so; he asked the community he fosters to help him out, and part of the community did. And then it took on a life of its own, as these things tend to do, and individuals made decisions and performed actions not warranted by the original wrong, for fun, or to grind their own ax, or just because they felt like it. Accounts of mob behavior over history show that a legitimate cause for action often spawns unrelated responses - the French Revolution, the Rodney King riots, hell, even a power outage. What happened here is nothing out of the ordinary, although much less destructive than the above-cited examples.

The question is, does that make it okay? Some of us, including Matt, feel a little "icky." My own personal opinion is that the MINUTE Matt asked the community to lay off the emails, that should have been the end, right there. And no vulgar language or veiled threats should have been expressed. Not only was it not requested, it is unnecessary and it damages the credibility of the group as a whole, making the recipient less inclined to treat Matt or MetaFilter rationally and with respect, as they are not being treated with respect. Some may argue that anyone who would so blatantly rip off another's intellectual property doesn't deserve to be treated with respect, but the fact is, none of us knew how that came about - whether the company did the stealing themselves, or were hoodwinked by a company they had hired to design their site. And until that was known, no one had any right to assume that they knew and just didn't care. That's where the "innocent until proven guilty" part of our justice system comes into play. I for one would feel pretty much like an a**hole if I found out they had paid someone to design that site, and were just as much a victim of this incident as Matt himself, with the added indignity of having PAID to be reamed.

So, to answer the question: were "we" a mob? Sure. Was the initial response appropriate? Probably. But then the mob mentality took over. It's certainly been entertaining.
posted by jennaratrix at 11:53 AM on April 1, 2001

I'm having trouble seeing this as a mob response. A mob occurs when one person or a small group of people incites a large number of people to act destructively and unthinkingly. The unthinkingly part is important. Yes, I did what Matt originally asked for and sent them a pointed message. But before I did that, I looked at their site and persuaded myself (not difficult) that they had in fact stolen the MF design.

In the mean time, we went to their houses (virtually), broke their windows, and basically ran them out of town.

Please. Virtually doing anything is a long way removed from doing it. No one's houses were invaded, nor were windows broken. And as to running them out of town, they were breaking the law, they have apparently broken the law before, and they deserve to be stopped. Besides, the responsible person(s) will probably just do the same thing with someone else's design, if he/they haven't already.

You're dealing with a recidivist thief of intellectual property here. Does anyone really think that a single email from Matt would have stopped them? A loud, angry response is probably the only thing that would have gotten their attention.

Ok, it looked like a huge attack. Now stack it alongside the attack that happens when the NRA or the Sierra Club calls out its members. Perspective, people.

posted by anapestic at 12:17 PM on April 1, 2001

It was a prank. And facing reality is rough sometimes, eh lagado?
posted by aaron at 12:43 PM on April 1, 2001

BTW, Matt never asked anyone to do anything. All he did was post a link to the site, attached to the question, "MetaFilter is a hosting company now?" All actions taken be MeFites as a result of that post were of their own volition.
posted by aaron at 12:47 PM on April 1, 2001

Actually, Aaron, I believe an earlier posting did ask people for action.
posted by jennaratrix at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2001

Jennaratrix is right -- Matt edited his posting at some point to remove his request that people join him in protesting the plagiarism.
posted by rcade at 7:52 PM on April 1, 2001

Ah, I stand corrected. Damn ephemeral web.
posted by aaron at 10:44 PM on April 1, 2001

Just as an FYI, this is not the first time this has happened on MeFi, and because I was in the front line of that one, I opted out of this one. Do you remember the one and only Mark Spansel from dealermotors.com who spammed MeFi? Do you remember what we did? Yup, we flooded him with hate mail.

Matt - I couldn't find the original threads--they should be around 8/20-8/21 in 2000, but it seems that The Ministry of Truth has expurgated them.

Oh, and just for grins, I read it as "math owie".
posted by plinth at 7:44 AM on April 2, 2001

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