Winning at What Cost?

Ned Lamont was undoubtedly helped by his supporters’ web efforts in his defeat of Joe Lieberman in yesterday’s primary. Lieberman’s team was especially incompetent for having a $15 hosting plan that couldn’t keep up with his web traffic, and then unfairly blaming the downtime on malicious users who were presumably Lamont supporters.
But. What’s frustrating is that the enthusiasm of a tiny group of Lamont’s supporters also acted as another demonstration of the ugliness of a mob mentality online. Jon Friedman had a recent MarketWatch story which wasn’t about the Lamont/Lieberman race, but articulated the challenge quite eloquently:

Critics can showcase their opinions, too — within reason. And this is where it gets tricky for a critic, especially, bloggers. Plenty of bloggers have opinions and no reluctance about voicing them, which is fine. A big benefit of the Internet is it allows individuals to feel empowered.

But I contend that too many bloggers hurt themselves. They come across as loudmouths looking for an argument or a way to exploit the relative celebrity of their subjects. It’s kind of pathetic when writers can’t find something original to say and have to resort to criticizing someone else just to be heard.

Lanny Davis picked up the same idea, but he had the misfortune to be a direct target of the vitriol. From the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page:

[T]he issue is not just emotional outbursts by these usually anonymous bloggers. A friend of mine just returned from Connecticut, where he had spoken on several occasions on behalf of Joe Lieberman. He happens to be a liberal antiwar Democrat, just as I am. He is also a lawyer. He told me that within a day of a Lamont event–where he asked the candidate some critical questions–some of his clients were blitzed with emails attacking him and threatening boycotts of their products if they did not drop him as their attorney. He has actually decided not to return to Connecticut for the primary today; he is fearful for his physical safety.

This illustrates two of the worst traits of a lot of the blogs I follow. First, many of us are far too willing to criticize those who are actually largely in agreement with us. It’s as if the opponent isn’t the person who disagrees with me 100%, but rather the person who agrees with me 99%.
The second, and even more egregious, problem is that everyone who wades into trying to communicate on a broad scale with the blogosphere will face one of these large-scale vitriolic attacks at some point. It may be a small percentage of the total number of people who read an item, but it’s hard to describe how unpleasant it can be to get hundreds of angry or threatening messages, even if they only represent a small part of your total audience.
The cost of these sorts of attacks is that people won’t distinguish a few bad actors from bloggers and online communities in general. Instead, they’ll say, “Those bloggers are crazy!” and retreat from engaging the medium entirely. It’ll be years until they come back and try again. I’d urge any community that wants to influence or inspire a movement to consider what techniques it wants to use for policing its most extremist members, as well as what tactics it wants to use for encouraging the accountability that makes for more productive conversations.
Other posts on this topic, which I’m semi-obsessed with:

  • Learning From Experience, from two years ago.
  • An Unkind Community from later that year
  • YHBT HAND 2.0, which stands for “You Have Been Trolled, Have a Nice Day”, and was about an oddly undeserved pile-on where tech bloggers flamed O’Reilly about trying to protect the name “Web 2.0” for its conference.
    So, we’ve seen this behavior in tech blogs, and in politics, so perhaps we’ll see these kinds of group beatdowns coming to music blogs, knitting blogs, and food blogs, instead of the minor flamewars that they’ve had so far. Then I can add it to The Blog Cycle.