The Best Defense, I Suppose

I have found something original and thought-provoking to say about Freedomain Radio and Liberating Minds (instead of just reporting and spinning events for my own amusement), and it has nothing to do with families or politics. But first, I have to report on myself. I now have a trippelganger: Another karenm77 has surfaced eerily close to home (she is also from southern California), this time at the TripAdvisor website for a Las Vegas hotel. Turns out there’s a Luv Tub room at the Imperial Palace and she and her boyfriend had a lot of fun in it. She didn’t post any pictures, so I dug some up.

and

What is the difference between a sleazy lawyer and an indignant chicken?

What is the difference between a sleazy lawyer and an indignant chicken?

Your tax dollars at work! Maybe I should consider going; Dr. Scott C. Fraser is headlining. But I have a feeling that I don’t have the public defender attitude. It is a very good price for a three-day conference, however, and the room rates cannot be beat. Last time I priced Las Vegas (albeit three or four years ago) rooms were a lot more than these group rates.

So now that we know where the best defense conference is, let’s examine whether or not the best defense is a good offense–the Freedomain Radio/Liberating Minds part of our program.

Folks at both places were kept busy by the recent uproar surrounding the Guardian article to which I am officially tired of linking. (Besides, if you are reading this, you read it already.) There has been a lot of Stefan Molyneux criticism from a variety of sources, primarily the crowd at Liberating Minds, who provide a forum for the Stefbash and the manpower to post remarks in various and sundry online libertarian neighborhoods. Well, Molyneux finally had enough of not dignifying their remarks with a reaction and reacted up a storm, with a lengthy diatribe against the posters of Liberating Minds (“LiMi”) He set out to kick ass and take names, and then he started naming names. He lists a bunch of posts and credits them to screen names, but then he goes out of his way to provide the real life name of one poster in particular. It’s pretty shocking to see someone’s real name on display like that, and it feels like a gross betrayal of some confidence, or some insidious personal smear campaign. It took this confrontation to a whole new level, I think, and it raises some troubling questions in my mind about identity and privacy.

Molyneux and The Named had corresponded in the past; Molyneux announces on his Feedback page that he will not divulge real names without permission. Where it gets tricky is that Molyneux and The Named were both members of some Google group, and The Named used his real name there. Therefore, as Molyneux explains in another thread on Freedomain Radio (“FDR”–I like these nicknames and will use them henceforth), he wasn’t violating the privacy of the email because he learned The Named’s name from a public place. Other FDR posters chime in and identify other websites where The Named goes by his real name. So to some extent, The Named is an online public figure. Being named on a website shouldn’t be a big reveal at all.

But it is. I was appalled. But it isn’t. He was already out there.

But out where? Liberating Minds is a forum started by Conrad as a direct result of his experience with FDR. I am assuming that Conrad was his name at FDR, too, because there is a lot of implied continuity when I read some of the posts–especially the thread that lists people at LiMi who have been banned. People identify themselves as who they were at FDR, probably so people can easily find them in the forum over there and read all the offensive posts that got them banned. Plus it’s an easy way to identify each other when they arrive. Why change names? Heck, I’ve seen some of the same people on other websites, and I’ve kept the same screen name across websites myself. (No, karenm77 isn’t it.) So the FDR Conrad who becomes the LiMi Conrad is the guy that Molyneux is attacking. Contrary to popular belief, the Internet is not yet real life. Molyneux and Conrad are not enemies in real life because this isn’t real life. (Sorry, folks. It’s not.) This is a battle of the personae, but Molyneux went the extra step and made it personal.

Conrad chose for a specific reason not to start this forum under his real name. He developed the identity of Conrad for the FDR conversations, which became the LiMi conversations. He distinguishes his real life self from his LiMi self. Does it matter if he posts under a different identity elsewhere? Should those identities be collapsed into one identity by someone else? It’s as bad as outing a gay person without their permission. There is this expectation that your multiple identities are not related, and to link them taints them all. There are very good reasons for separating the personal and the professional (everyone knows by now, I hope, the stories of kids turned down for jobs because of their Facebook and MySpace pages). It is no one’s business who else you do business as, and interfering to the degree that Molyneux has interfered in Conrad’s identity management (OED: You saw it here first!) is ugly business.

That said…

How on earth did we get this expectation that our public faces were our private business? It’s strange. If Conrad was really worried that his Conrad identity would negatively affect The Named identity, why did he admit to both? I mean, I get why he had that expectation and I probably would have had that expectation a few years ago, but after some book club discussions of books about blogs, and regaling of tales about people getting laid off and sending nasty emails around, I’ve had some righteous fear pounded into me about the ironic permanency of digital information. Was Conrad just being careless? Was it really an open secret? Is he just mad that Molyneux–of all people–said his name? And yet, to harp on my own point, there is the blunt vileness of seeing The Name in print. Let’s say Conrad was completely stupid to have this expectation that no one would use his real name without permission. (I don’t know that at this moment in time it is a completely stupid expectation to have; a few years ago, no one would have dreamed that a personal name belonged to anyone but the person and a few years from now no one will expect any privacy at all. We are in a transitional state and still not quite sure what the Internet is for.) So let’s go with the extreme supposition of completely stupid. Stupid, stupid Conrad! What were you thinking? Now that that’s out of the way, I have this to ask: Why did Molyneux reveal the real name? What was his motivation for that? It wasn’t a slip of the tongue with unintended consequences. This was a deliberate act, to reveal to the world what a terrible person The Named is–by name. He went out of his way to name The Named, and he did it with ill intent–TWENTY TIMES. (Loud enough for ya?) He even marks a place where The Named is posting online from work. Why? He then starts a thread on his own website (linked to above) in which he names the guy again. Why?

You may choose to point out to me that Conrad has done a lot of calling Molyneux by his personal name, but Molyneux has set himself up as a public figure, and he encourages people to be familiar with him. People throw his name around all over the place, to the point of referring to him to each other as “Stef.” His face is everywhere, and he self-promotes his materials at his own website and other places online. He’s got a YouTube channel. He has branded his name, and it wouldn’t make sense not to use it. That he chose his personal name to be his brand is all his doing. It is not the same thing. You may choose to point out to me that Molyneux is trying to defend himself from people who aim to disrupt his livelihood, but that doesn’t excuse the distasteful way he is doing it. The Named is not hurting Molynuex’s business (if anyone is); Conrad and Liberating Minds are hurting his business (if it is being hurt, and if it is being hurt by them, and I don’t think enough time has passed to determine that anyway). Whether or not virtual privacy can exist, Molyneux is going out of his way to violate it.

I wish out of pure (well, instigative) curiosity that I had access to that Google group so I could see the messages, but they really are incidental details. What fascinates me is how fluid the idea of privacy is between these two groups, especially when they start directly interacting with each other. For a while, now, the LiMi crowd has been reading the FDR crowd (until people started getting IP banned) and commenting on it, and then the FDR crowd started reading the LiMi crowd and commenting on it (until the posting in both places bannings), sometimes at each other’s forums. There is a particularly striking example of this in a thread at LiMi called “JC Molyneux: The Cult in Action.” The FDR member who gets quite freely discussed shows up to say that she feels uncomfortable to find herself being discussed at a rival website and later that she doesn’t want people at LiMi discussing the sensitive details of her past for the purposes of slamming FDR. That is certainly a valid request to make, but seriously–how sensitive could the details of her past be if she is writing detailed descriptions of them in at least two online places (FDR and her blog)? These are not private, invitation-only forums that were leaked to the larger public. Why is it OK for some strangers to read and react to it but not other strangers? Why are some strangers’ reactions comforting and other strangers’ reactions discomforting? When you put something out on the Web, shouldn’t you expect people to remark on it? And this is a problem that authors have struggled with since the idea of publishing got started, but once a text enters the public sphere, do you have any right to adjudicate its reception? Once told, you lose control of your story. And to have your personal story discussed in detail is the whole point of writing it, right?

(I am perfectly aware that I am also engaging in the publicizing behavior of someone else’s story. But that story has already appeared in three different public places, courtesy of its author, who invites people in each place to her blog. At this point, my comments are no more scandalous than making a VHS recording of an edited version of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective on Saturday afternoon cable TV.)

Yet this FDR member clearly had an expectation that her wishes about intended audiences would be respected. She invites people to read her blog, but then tries to limit from afar where people respond to it, and then criticizes her audience as indecent for not responding to it in the right place or in the right way. She doesn’t realize that she lost the right to control her story the minute she turned it into free product for public consumption. It’s the 21st Century version of not buying the cow. And then she’s the one posting pictures of her kid and naming her kid on her blog! That’s just asking for trouble. Why are people still doing things like this? I’m not trying to be paranoid or to fearmonger, but if it is upsetting that people can (and will) take your story and use it for their own purposes to prove their own point, why hope that they won’t and get mad later? Privacy isn’t sacrosanct anymore. It’s one thing to protest when institutions and agencies claim the right to comb the Web for places you’ve been, but it’s another thing altogether to comb your life for details to exploit for an audience–and then to complain about who you attract.

Finally, what I find the most obnoxious is the FDR reaction to the Guardian article in which they lament loudly, frequently, and indignantly about how much of a violation of poor, poor Tom’s privacy it was for the newspaper to run that story about him. How could they do that to Tom? We feel so bad for Tom! How dare Tom’s mother use him that way? Tom this, Tom that… if you are so concerned about Tom, why do you keep drawing attention to his name? Why does everyone chime in to remind the heretofore unknowing public about how Tom just wants to be left alone and here’s a link to the phone call he has with Stef in which he expresses his sad feelings that you had no right to write about! Tom deserves his privacy until we need to expose him for the benefit of our own community.

(I am ranting, I guess. Sorry. When posts go too long I lose control of my thoughts, but I won’t be editing tonight. Too lazy.)

So the point is that privacy has many meanings, and it is a construction and a tool for making statements and not at all a sign of respect. The message we get from FDR is that it is OK to violate privacy (or capitalize on loopholes in the definition) so long as you need to in order to make a negative point about someone else. We also learn, in direct opposition (from the same forum, not the same people) to that lesson, that sometimes what is public is actually private, and you can get mad at people who don’t know the difference. We also learn from Conrad that multiple online identities will eventually catch up to you, and it is maybe naive to think that they won’t.

Which makes me worry a little that my own personal online worlds will collide. If they do, I’m planning to harness that explosive power for good. If I can’t, I’ll settle for evil.

I’ve already said too much. But trust me–it’s one hell of a plan.

Oh! The chicken clucks defiance.

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  • By The defining of Liberating Minds « on June 30, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    […] Second update (12/01): Mr. Molyneux, stung by criticism regarding the “outing” of Conrad’s real name, amended his article to demonstrate why he believed the action was justifiable. Once again, independent blogger Karen brings a unique perspective to that reasoning in “The Best Defense, I Suppose.” […]

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