net.wars: If you build it, they will come

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 June 2005

Quick, kids, what is the first thing we know about the Internet? Anybody?

Wendy M Grossman

It is that, since time immemorial, whatever you build that attracts an audience will attract assholes*. Those assholes will be attracted in more or less direct proportion to the size of the audience, BUT each additional asshole will act as an intensifier for all the others.

I'm sorry if my language offends you. But how else would you describe a recent poster to rec.sport.tennis, who wanted to know which tennis stars the newsgroup's population most enjoyed "whacking off**" to?

But it's really too easy to point fingers and giggle at the editors of the  LA Times -- who include, by the way, the same Michael Kinsley who was founding editor of Slate -- and say they oughtta hadda known that if they put up a section that could be edited by readers, readers would post material they found unacceptable. To put it simply in short words: the Internet is like high school; people push the boundaries until they find them.

For those who missed the story, what happened in brief was that the paper, with great fanfare, put up a "Wikitorial" – that is, an editorial in a wiki – and invited readers to alter the editorial as they wished. Everyone was insanely happy for the first day or so, even when the editorial forked. And then someone posted some obscene photographs, and the paper abruptly lost its sense of humour

They could, I suppose, have been reacting in advance to some new regulations that came into effect yesterday in the US that cover the production and distribution of pornography. You can read an more helpful summary of the background of this from the Free Speech Coalition, but the brief version is that these are regulations under USC 18, section 2257, they were ruled unconstitutional by a Court of Appeals in 1998, but they were still Out There and have come back stronger than ever.

The theory is to ensure that minors are not used in the production of pornography, which is of course a noble cause; the reality, however, seems to be a decency crusade. So in the mean time all sorts of stuff is being blocked by Web site owners while they try to establish exactly what is allowed any more. (My favourite quote from that last link: "Cartoons are prohibited," although the bit about how it's OK to be pictured clothed with an animal but not nude with an animal is pretty funny, too.) As I think the tennis fan above shows, Tom Lehrer was right in his song, "Smut":

"When correctly viewed 

Anything is lewd

I could tell you things about Peter Pan

Or the Wizard of Oz – there's a dirty old man!".

If you want to protest all that, do the write-your-Congress-thing thang.

Getting back to our main story, it seems to me people have been sniggering at the wrong thing. The story isn't the newspaper's cowardice in the face of the Internet – spam is everywhere. The real mistake was: what on earth possessed them to pick an editorial to wikify?

If you're a newspaper and you want to try a wiki, allow me to suggest how. Pick a topic:

  • your readers really care about
  • that is predominantly factual and
  • that is not already well served in some other form but
  • on which the newspaper has useful archive information that could be greatly extended by
  • the kind of knowledge readers have.

  • For example: local parks; local sports; great, unknown places to eat; local history; in LA, traffic-beating strategies maybe. Something that matters personally to lots of people; the more people who contribute their bit of knowledge to the wiki, the more people you will have who really care about it as a resource and who will protect it. Think of yourself as creating a community resource, not an article on steroids or a marketing exercise ("Let's find out what our readers think!"). Some ideas off the top of my head (and don't you just know someone's going to email me to say these are already out there?):

  • An Ellis Island wiki, in which immigrants' descendants could note what happened to them as they spread out across the US and built families and businesses.
  • LA by public transport. My last two trips to LA, I haven't had a car and I've travelled by Metro, bus, and train – and loved it. Public-transport LA is an utterly different world. And you get to see my favourite, Union Station. [left]
  • Half-tank tours. The Ithaca Journal ran such a feature years ago on all the great places you could visit for a day's vacation on a half-tank of gas. Probably lots of people have their own favourites, and updates are always helpful.
  • Ongoing local news stories that are important but develop slowly and could benefit from the information and input people on the ground can add to the limited time reporters have to cover them.
  • And do assign enough moderating editors.

    *Asshole: a pit with one or more donkeys in it. Not to be confused with the English expression "arsehole" which would be derogatory when applied to a human.

    **  Whacking off: hitting a ball very hard at someone famous.

    Whack off, asshole... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).