From Renegade Blogger to Sociopathic Pond Scum

Back in 2007 I had the temerity to suggest that H-Net’s days might be numbered. That suggestion earned me, among other things, the title “renegade blogger.” Now, it seems, I’ve made the transition to “sociopathic pond scum.” As I told some teenagers last night, I suppose that means I’ve finally arrived on the Internet.

A few samples from the emails I’ve begun receiving in response to Yoni Appelbaum’s article on Atlantic.com about my course Lying About the Past are instructive of the level of “debate” going on in my inbox. I say “debate” because it really isn’t a conversation. Rather, what I’m getting is lots of bile from around the world.

Chris Sherlock of Sydney, Australia writes, “You are nothing more than a vandal, officially sanctioned by the university. This makes you an unmitigated bastard.”

Staton Richardson writes, “You seem a little sociopathic, according to the article. Fix history, don’t make it worse.”

A.S. writes, “Please, stop vandalizing Wikipedia for the sake of vandalizing. What’s the point?”

The lead comment on the Atlantic site reads: “This professor and his brood are pond scum.  They are worse than parasites and deserve all the scorn society has at its disposal.”

And in a very wide-ranging discussion on MetaFilter, an unknown user writes, “Wow, I didn’t know you could major in douchebaggery.”

I’ve been reading these comments and it seems to me on first blush that the two nerves my students and I touched have to do with the general idea of falsifying history for educational purposes (good idea? bad idea?) and the sanctity of Wikipedia issue. Much of the anger directed my way is based on the supposition that my students vandalized Wikipedia this semester–a thing they didn’t do. Their entries, as I wrote yesterday, were 100% true and based entirely on actual historical sources.

Given Appelbaum’s take on the weak nature of Wikipedia’s community, I think it’s worth thinking for a minute about why anything that seems to have sullied the sanctity of Wikipedia would elicit such vitriol?

The other question I’ll be thinking about is the larger question of how the free speech space that is the Internet creates a venue for a relatively low level of discourse. Back in December 2011, Claire Potter wrote a very interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the dangers of being a feminist blogger. The issues that Potter grapples with and the level of trollery she faces are obviously much more important/much worse than what’s come across my screen today. But her take on what happens when one’s ideas–controversial ideas–find their way into the wilds of the Internet is, I think, well worth thinking about.

The comments I’ve received (not all were bad) also brought to mind a recent column by the Ombudsman for The Washington Post in which he discussed a new commenting policy at the washingtonpost.com website that will, it is hoped, reduce the trollery there.

Is it a bad idea to limit the speech of the haters? In general, I fall on the side of John Stuart Mill and argue for virtually unfettered freedom of speech. How else can controversial ideas be aired, debated, and refined? On this blog I’ve published a number of comments that have been very sharply worded attacks on me or my ideas. What I have not published are ad hominem attacks on others, leaving it to the haters to find other venues for those thoughts.

For now I’m going to order up some baseball hats that say “Sociopathic Pond Scum.”

[Image source]

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10 Responses to From Renegade Blogger to Sociopathic Pond Scum

  1. Bjorn says:

    It is abusing the good faith of a community that makes people unhappy. The actions of your students is at best pseudo-sociology or psychology. I imagine these hoaxes contribute less value than cost given the damage they do. Any random individual on the internet can lie, it takes one who abuses his academic credentials and responsibilities as an academic and educator to do real, lasting harm. Now your name is forever associated with hoaxes and acts of vandalism on a community that strives hard to do good works for free. Wikipedia at its best is not just the gift of human knowledge but also kindness, and you at best are an admitted detractor with shallow ethical mooring.

  2. Paul Halsall says:

    I am afraid I agree that what you are doing does make you pond scum.

    Of course students should be taught to evaluate historical sources, but your efforts at defacing Wikipedia are an abuse of good will.

  3. Mills says:

    Thanks for the comments Bjorn and Paul. I must ask, though, did you read the story in the Atlantic carefully, or the post above? The reason I ask is that both texts make it very plain that my students specifically did not vandalize, deface, or otherwise harm Wikipedia in any way. What they did was create three entries, all three of which were 100% true and none of which linked in any way back to the hoaxes they were creating. Two of those entries were deleted for being insufficiently “notable” under Wikipedia’s notability test, but they were not deleted because they were vandalism, fraud, or anything else untoward. If you want to quarrel with the premise of creating online historical hoaxes, I think that’s fine. But please, everyone, note that Wikipedia was not vandalized by my students.

  4. Dragonfly Sixtyseven says:

    Don’t be disingenuous, Dr. Mills.

    *This* batch of your students didn’t vandalize Wikipedia by submitting hoaxes to Wikipedia. But you’ve had your students do this before, and you’d have them do it again if you thought they could get away with it.

    “Vandalizing Wikipedia is like masturbating. It’s fun for the people who do it, but afterward there’s a big mess of garbage information that has to be cleaned up.”

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  7. LocalMadman says:

    You are a cancer on the ass of humanity. Thanks for making the world a shittier place.

  8. Amanda says:

    Whatever you do, don’t get rid of this exercise in future classes. With so many students relying on Wikipedia and other sources of information on the internet, this exercise teaches them a valuable lesson in determining credibility of information–something that one always hopes when they read a textbook or other history book, but which they rarely comprehend. Only by involving them in an exercise of this sort do they actually realize what a slippery slope history is – the creation of a specific person or people, with specific agendas or objectives (conscious or unconscious), in a specific moment in time. As an example: what would you tell a student who turned in a paper to you with 5 citations all linked to the Fox News website? Or a citation to a Wikipedia article that linked to those 5 citations, but nothing else? You need to teach students to evaluate things using multiple sources, and in my experience, just talking about that gets you nowhere.

    Also, just a thought: this particular idea of a hoax really isn’t that different than when people start rumors on Facebook or Twitter (history or otherwise). Has anyone here ever heard of snopes? At least in this case your students did actual research on their topics.

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  10. Robin says:

    I didn’t know that Wikipedia had any sanctity to violate. I’ll have to look harder for it. Perhaps it is very tiny and I missed it.

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