July 26, 2011
Experience running an anonymous site

There has been a bit of recent discussion on comments and anonymity on the web. See Anil, Tim, Caterina, and Anil again. Good stuff for the most part, but I have a bit to add from my perspective.

For several years, I ran a site called Anonyblog. I've taken it down now, so there's not much to see now. You could probably Google it or find it on archive.org if you are really interested.

The premise was simple. I made a weblog and posted the username and password to allow anyone an anonymous way to post on a weblog and "get it off their chests". I was enthusiastic about blogging at the time, fresh from inspiring SxSW conferences and watching traditional media adapt to the influence of bloggers.

My plan was simple, let people post whatever they wanted, stand back and let the good times roll. I was quite naive.

At first, things went as I intended. Posts on all types of issues from work, relationships, politics, police departments, other bloggers, and even requests for advice. Occasionally there were posted that I found distasteful, but in the name of 'freedom' I didn't censor anything.

At one point someone starting posting NSFW photos. Being that I was checking on the blog from home, I didn't want my children seeing NSFW photos while I requested that people not post NSFW photos. This was the first rule I made.

Things were OK for a bit more, and then a group of posters appeared that appeared to already know each other. They posted inane stories about stuffed animals and racist stuff, and appeared to encourage each other in this. I really didn't like it and considered deleting it all, but ended up leaving it alone. "It's just words." I said to myself.

Fairly quickly a contingent of readers started pushing back and complaining about the stories. The frustration on both sides escalated and soon I was dealing with users deleting and revising the posts of others. Some users were even posting fake posts from their 'enemies' to make them look bad.

Suddenly, I was in moderation overdrive trying to maintain some sense of order. It was a pain for me, but I did it because occasionally someone would post something that I felt worthy or that gave someone that was hurting a way to relive their pain.

I worked on ways to auto-approve posts to prevent editing by others and free me from having to individually approve each post. I spent many hours trying to solve the now communities' problems.

The group of stuffed animal story people soon invited yet another friend to post. This person was obsessed with coprophagy (Google it yourself, I won't link it). Multiple posts, images, and all sorts of disgusting stuff way over my personal limits for freedom. I pushed back hard, deleting stuff and banning IP addresses.

Soon I was in a war with the shit poster. He would use scripts to auto-post hundreds of posts via proxies. I would script deletions, use anti-spam software to filter words he used frequently, and even started tracking down the person via IP in an attempt to dox him.

I posted to the community about the issues so people knew what was going on. A few cheered, but many harangued me over my censorship. WTF? I'm the guy who built the Anonyblog in the beginning and did a bunch of work to keep it running. How dare they question me?

At this point, I knew the end was near. I started to feel anger and hate toward users. At some point, the blog software broke due to either the external attacks or my defense modifications. No new posts were possible at this point.

I could have fixed it, but I didn't.

Why? Well, people could still post in the comments, so they did. And it just got worse. Terrible stuff, fighting, and everything bad that occurs in online communities when the brakes are removed.

For a couple years, I agonized over what to do. I talked to a few people I respected as having wisdom in blogging community expectations. More than once I was ready to relaunch the site, but just couldn't since I knew it would bring ever more drama and frustration into my life. I felt bad, since I knew there were many people out there suffering that could use an outlet for their pain.

In the end, I wiped the site clean. The web is a better place without it.

What did I learn? Two things really.

First, people do need anonymity. There is pain, secrets, desires, worries, successes, failures, and prayers that people have and need to share in a way that they feel safe. Going to an all 'Real Name' internet does not help many people.

Second, complete anonymity and anarchy leads to the worst in people. Even a tiny group can poison a community, creating divisiveness and bad feelings all the way round. Without fail, this is what I saw on Anonyblog and in other communities on the web when anonymity reigned.

To make Anonyblog work would require many of the things Anil mentions in his post. I just don't have the time, energy, of desire to build all that to support what would be needed to prevent a site like Anonyblog from becoming a sewer once again. But the need for it remains.

Posted by michael at 09:56 AM
July 07, 2011
The Alpha Geek Echo Chamber

I posted a tweet on a whim and got a few good replies. My full response if longer than 140 characters, so I'm going old-school with a blog post.

Cruftbox: Eating lunch at Jack in the Box helps remind me that most people don't care about Google Plus, IPOs, retweets, or Klout.

tara @Cruftbox don't you think the nextgen will though?

Cruftbox: @tara No. Most people aren't innovators or early adopters. My teens aren't. People need to be aware if they are in an echo chamber.

tara: @Cruftbox I disagree. 72% of American households play video games. Points, rewards, etc. are a known quantity. It's an easy transition.

derekdemoro: @Cruftbox They care about their phones.

It's no doubt that I'm a geek. I've been one since I was a child rewiring telephones and playing with chemistry sets.

In my career as a technologist, I've been lucky enough to meet many of the brightest people in big companies such as Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, etc. and true innovators that helped build the web and invent many of the social technologies that seem commonplace now.

As a result, some of my social circles are the alpha geeks that invent what the world will be seeing as commonplace in the next 10 years.

My tweet was a poke at the intense focus and emotion these circles can have about topics and new concepts that have no relevance or significance to the rest of the world.

The valuation of startups is interesting to a tiny population. Most people don't know what the startups do, let alone if the valuation is wrong. And to be honest, why should they care?

Google Plus is nice, but the whinging over invites is a bit over the top when you take the long view. The demand for immediate satisfaction and full understanding is a sense of entitlement I dislike in others and myself. People demanding things over Twitter/Facebook and creating boycotts based on a single link of information is the norm these days, and I believe it's not helpful.

In other words, calm the fuck down, relax, and take a deep breath. Don't complain so much.

As far as the future, the next generation will be more technically adept than previous ones, but they won't fundamentally change into a generation of early adopters.

Tara and Derek are right that today's youth play videogames and love mobile phones. Both of those technologies are 30+ years old. The penetration levels of video games and mobile phones 30 years ago was tiny compared to today. In those days, both were the domain of the alpha geeks of the time.

For people today to get so seriously wound up about new ideas and make grandiose predictions is silly, IMHO. Pundits, especially social media pundits, are so profoundly wrong about everything it is amazing that anyone still listens. If they were right, they'd be rich. Ever seen a rich pundit?

I've been to many conferences where the future was explained to me. Let's see, at first, individual blogs would kill media companies. Around then auctions were announced as the way all companies would buy supplies. Then Creative Commons would kill copyright. Next, Open Source would kill Apple & Microsoft. One year the future of music was Myspace. Next year, Facebook apps were the future of the internet. The next year, apps on the mobile phone were the future. Recently, location based apps were declared the future of commerce. Oh wait, now social buying is the future of commerce.

The only thing that has proven correct is that speed of change is increasing and not much withstands change.

Hate the new version of software that just came out, don't worry, the next next patch will make it better or their competitor will come out with a better one. Sternly worded tweets don't do anything.

Google Plus hasn't even been out a week and already the alpha geek echo chamber is whining, ranting, pontificating, and snarking about every aspect. All I'm saying, it STFU for a bit. Use what's new, talk with friends about their ideas on it, pause to think a bit, and run that cycle a few times before making up your mind.

I'm not saying shut up and don't ever complain. I'm saying think, consider other points of view outside your echo chamber, offer suggestions and compromises, and try to be helpful rather than hurtful.

As far as the next generation, I don't know what they will be using and thinking is cool, if I did, I'd be rich.

But I can tell you what they won't think is cool.

They will think of Facebook and Twitter the way many today think of AOL and Compuserve, relics of a previous age that only stubborn old people use.

They will think of email the way many think of faxing, an antique method used by rule and tradition bound industries like medicine and law.

They will think of debates about digital music and video and copyright the way many think about the arguments about CDs and DVDs killing the music and film industries, silly debate over an obviously better way.

But 20 years from now, there will still be a small group of alpha geeks, inventing super cool stuff, that most people won't understand or worse think stupid. And I have no doubt there will be people complaining about stuff because it doesn't fit their exact desires.

Posted by michael at 02:31 PM