If you’ve signed a petition telling the PM to resign, chances are that you’re a fuckwit

There’s a petition out to tell the PM to resign. If you’ve signed it, you’re in all probability a fucking idiot. This is why.

For starters, we already have a mechanism for kicking Prime Ministers out of power. They’re called elections. True, they only come along every 4-5 years, but then democracies can only function with some continuity in administration. If you don’t want to wait till next year to cast your vote, then fucking tough, and count your blessings you live in a country where the citizenry can vote leaders out of power.

Second, you’re missing the wood for the trees. Gordon Brown’s premiership has been nothing short of a disaster, but it’s been very much a team effort. It isn’t just the man at the top, it’s the whole bloody team around him. Darling, Mandelson, Smith, Blears, Geoff fucking Hoon. Not to mention the old guard of Blair, Clarke, Blunkett, etc. setting it all up. The whole lot of them are responsible for the miserable idea-starved philosophy of New Labour, with its craving for power, its thrall for made-up wealth and its authoritarian managerialism in every department.

Third, what comes next? If Brown resigns, then Harman or Miliband or possibly Straw or some other New Labour apparatchik takes his place. A PM resigning does not mean a change in the ruling party, or even an election, and you don’t have to go that far back in history (Wilson, Thatcher, Blair) for examples. If you’re not happy with the current government then you really should be making a case for what the next one should be bringing (and fuck knows, the current Opposition need every bit of help in that department).

Finally, you’re a fuckwit because you’re a petition-signing fuckwit. Petitions have some very good uses – raising awareness of a previously unknown issue, or for co-ordinating action for the disadvantaged and disparate, or to help lobby for changing unjust laws. But these don’t account for many of petitions on the Number 10 site. Many of them are just ways for the inarticulate and incoherent to vent frustration at something they dislike, and petitioning the Prime Minister to resign is the stellar example. It has no hope of changing anything. It advocates nothing positive whatsoever. All it is is another way of childishly wailing “I don’t like you” to someone who doesn’t give a fuck, just so you can congratulate yourself with the delusion that you are sticking it to The Man. Well done, you must be so proud. Fuckwit.

Footnote: That was a bit of a rant, and I’m not normally this grumpy so here’s something to cheer you up. Have a looksie at the rejected petitions, some of which are terrible and some pretty good, such as this one which Tom heartily recommended.

Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre

My presentation at this weekend’s SocialMediaCamp London 2009 – entitled “Shouting ‘LOL’ in a crowded theatre: trolling, griefing and Web 2.0 dickery” – is now available over at Slideshare:

This was meant to be a lighthearted, last-one-before-the-beer presentation, but it turned out to be a lot more serious and thinky than I initially intended. What follows is my recollection of what I spoke, which in some cases doesn’t match exactly what the slides say – I did improv this a bit based on thoughts I had during the earlier sessions (who says you have to be prepared for these things?).

We kick off with a definition of trolling, that the point of trolling is to evoke an emotional response in the rest of a community. As these emotions vary – from anger, to fear, to genuine upset and shock, the methods used by trolls vary. In return, communities have their own tactics for telling what trolls are, and so in effect it becomes one big game. The topic doesn’t matter – politics and religion get their fair share of course, but then so does canoeing. So why do they do it? Is it because people are deep-down bastards (the misanthropic explanation) or does the Internet have some perverse transformtive effect on us all (the Luddite explanation aka John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). I try to steer a middle line between the two. Judith Donath’s theories on identity online prove a useful pointer – the Internet allows people to explore facets of their personality, and these can be both good or bad. Nothing to say they can’t be both.

Combined with a wealth of material to shock or delight people, and we end up adopting multiple behaviours that differ from environment to environment. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we all do the same – I adopt a different tone and stance on my own blog to when I am on someone else’s blog commenting, as the former is my space and the latter is someone else’s. I reveal different facets of my personality when on Twitter (a geekier audience who don’t necessarily know me) as opposed to when on Facebook (people I have met IRL). You do the same too, even if you don’t realise you’re doing it. Turns out we’re not so different from trolls after all.

But does this really matter? A few anonymous trolls on a BBS is hardly concern is it? Don’t we deal with it the same was as we can with spam? Well, perhaps it used to be like that. But now with a wealth of Web 2.0 tools available for collaboration, the rules have changed. 4chan isjust one example of what happens when the mischevious come together, and while it’s given us the Rick Roll, it can also be supremely dickish, as in the case of Mitchell Henderson.

The barrier between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ has come down, and what happens online can now very easily spill over into offline. There is no inherent morality within Web 2.0 – tools can be used for good or evil. Trolls are now their own separate problem within themselves – they allow efforts to be distributed to many human actors over a variety of technologies, and collectivised to any particular end, over a mere matter of minutes, hours, days or months. It’s a different problem from spam (mainly bots) or hacking (mainly individuals or small groups) and as the social web gets ever more ubiquitous and less distinct from the ‘real’ world, it’s only going to be more of a concern. Successfully fighting against them is a distinct concern – but at the same time let’s not get obsessed by it; letting it stifle innovation would mean the trolls truly have won.

Update: There’s some video here: the sound’s a bit off and I speak way, way too fast (it’s only after watching myself on video do I realise how bad it is) – it also covers some of the interesting conversations from the floor from Terence, Ryan and Lucia as well:

Millennium People

Random, insomniac thoughts follow… sorry. I’m coming from the point of view of someone who has read his novels more than his short stories, incidentally

This part of a chat between JG Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi from 1971 caught my eye the other day:

[Ballard:] Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish. In fact, Eduardo and I in our different ways are already gathering this kind of information, but we are using the clumsiest possible took to do it: our own hands and eyes. The technology of the information-retrieval system that we employ is incredibly primitive. We fumble around in bookshops, we buy magazines or subscribe to them. But I regard myself as starved of information. I am getting a throughput of information in my imaginative life of one-hundredth of what I could use. I think there’s an information starvation at present and technology will create the possibility of knowing everything about everything

Wow! JG Ballard must have loved the Internet! Or did he? He didn’t seem so keen on it. Way back in 1997:

I?m not hooked up to the internet, which is rather bad of me. I write all my books in longhand ? don?t believe all this stuff I say about technology! My girlfriend has a PC and a modem, but we don?t seem able to connect it up. But I love the idea. My dream would be to download the entire Harvard University database, or to consult every psychiatric journal ever published. However, I?m terrified that if I do get the modem working, I?d never do anything else!

Although he certainly appreciated its qualities, he never seemed to delve right into it:

Twenty years ago no one could have imagined the effects the internet would have – entire relationships flourish, friendships prosper on the e-mail screen, there’s a vast new intimacy and accidental poetry (from the osprey-tracking site to tours round old nuclear silos and the extraordinary aerial trip down the California coastline and a thousand others), not to mention the weirdest porn. The entire human experience seems to unveil itself like the surface of a new planet.

Entertained though he was, the Ballard of the 21st century did not share his 1971 version’s thrall for information overload. In fact though he inspired much of 21st century fiction, he was very much a product of the 20th, in thrall to monstrosities of modernity such as cars and concrete, and obsessed by human decay, rather than computers and transcending into cyberspace.

Ballard shunned email and Internet, it was irrelevant to his obsessions. His concern was space, the body, travel, the dark underbelly of a suburban tract housing development.

Pity. I’d have loved to have seen what he made of it all, of not just visiting the online world but living in it. I’m not sure any modern author quite has his eye for the human condition or the true consequences of the world we build and immerse ourselves in, but maybe I’m not reading enough of the right people.

PS In case you didn’t catch it on the linklog, do check out the brilliant, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race


Earlier today, I posted this to Twitter:

“How the sun storm might look in London” http://is.gd/tsfH O RLY? #dailyfail

And I’ve just reread and realised that as little as two years ago I would have gone “what the fuck are you talking about?”. This is the sentiment I had hoped to capture had it been a blog post (as if I write such things these days) with the full power of the English language at my grasp:

I have just spotted this story about solar storms – the pic is captioned “How the sun storm might look in London” Really? I don’t think so. The Daily Mail’s shoddy graphics department lives on.

Within the Tweet I had managed to place a shortened and incomprehensible URL, a lolcattish meme and the practice of using hashtags (with added snark) – all it needed was an @ to another user and I would have captured pretty much all the aspects of Twitter’s lingua franca – a creole of sorts where words, phrases and URLs are compressed to fit the devilry of the 140 character form.

From a sociology of technology background, you could argue it either as ingenious user-driven innovation to work round arbitrary limits on space, or a case of technological determinism compelling how we communicate. But I’m not concerned about that. The bigger problem I’m grappling with is: Is this is a good or a bad thing?

20 years on

20 years ago today, nearly a hundred people went to a football match and did not come back. The Hillsborough disaster is not only a hideous tragedy but a story of negligence, contempt for human life and dishonesty.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium was acting as a neutral venue for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane end, which was terraced and divided into pens. The fact that the word “pens” was used to describe them is an illustration of how poorly regarded football fans were – little more than animals.

Poor ticketing, the practice of searching fans for weapons and the late arrival of coaches meant a dangerously packed crowd was building up outside the ground before kickoff. At the same, those fans inside the Leppings Lane pens had been directed into the central pens by police and stewards, rather than the pens along the entire terrace. Under the command of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, an exit gate was opened to allow more fans in, rather than using the turnstiles as usual. The fans already there were crushed, caught between the perimeter fences designed to cage them in, and their own fellow supporters, unaware of the carnage in front of them.

The match was soon abandoned, but with people dying what followed was a set of inexcusable failures. As Simon Kuper relates, an emergency escape gate in the perimeter fencing was forced shut. A police cordon formed on the halfway line, preventing fans from the other end of the pitch from assisting. Over forty ambulances turned up but only one was let into the ground.

In the immediate aftermath, the police lied saying the gate had been forced open by fans, and senior officers compelled those present at the crush to change their statements. CCTV footage from the stadium control room, which would have helped any investigation into the matter, went missing. The media was equally complicit – infamously, The Sun printed a vile front page of lies alleging that Liverpool fans were drunk and had robbed the dying and dead. The Taylor Report into the disaster dismissed these as exaggerations and fabrications, and found primary culpability at the hands of South Yorkshire Police, while also criticising the stadium’s poor design and insufficient safety measures.

It was the deadliest footballing disaster in British history. Of the top five in terms of deaths, three (Hillsborough, Ibrox in 1971 and Burnden Park) were due to crushes; the other two (Bradford and Ibrox in 1902) due to infrastructure failure (fire and structural collapse respectively). Poor safety has killed many more football fans than hooliganism (Heysel is the single most notable and regrettable exception to this), yet the design of football stadiums and the attitude of the authorities to supporters in 1989 was predominantly that they were a threat, not people who should be protected.

Almost twenty years on, a few hundred miles to the south, a man called Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack on his way home from work, shortly after being assaulted by police whose job was to secure the protest at the G20 summit. The similarities are uncanny; the police had been brutal to protesters all day indiscriminately. People were cordoned into particular areas against their will in a process bizarrely known as “kettling“. Not only was the officer involved brutal in striking an unarmed man posing no threat to him, but utterly callous in not coming to his aid when he could not get up – it was left to protesters to help him.

In the immediate aftermath, the police leaked to sympathetic friends in the media the lie that bottles and bricks had been thrown at officers treating him as he collapsed, and they happily swallowed it. It turns out not only that this was definitely not the case, but the police initially refused to let an ambulance get through. And once the news came out that he wasn’t even a protester, it wasn’t long before his poor health and apparent alcoholism were being misused by the same journalists to mitigate any responsibility for his death borne by the police.

A system built to oppress and not to protect. A callous disregard for life. Lie upon lie about the events with complicit friends in the media. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is the number who died, but whether it is one death or 96, it is indefensible.

The deaths at Hillsborough were ruled accidental by the coroners, and none of the men in charge that day and with most responsibility for the events were ever investigated or prosecuted by the state. A private prosecution was unsuccessful – the jury could not agree on a verdict for Duckenfield. For the relatives of the dead who believed those in charge should face justice, they have never had that closure.

But, scant consolation as it is to the mourners, one thing did come out of this horrible tragedy – a resolve that enough was enough and this should never happen again. Another disaster like Hillsborough will in all certainty never happen again at a football match in this country. Lord Justice Taylor’s report and the revolution that followed it has left us with better-designed stadiums, more intelligent and enlightened policing of football matches, and a culture where fans are regarded as human beings not cattle. Football is now safer than it has ever been. There is plenty wrong with the game – the obscene amounts of money, the diving and gamesmanship, but at the very least, when you go to a match, you know you will be able to walk out of it alive at the end.

Where does that leave those seeking justice for Ian Tomlinson?
I strongly hope that his family have every success in making sure those responsible do not go unpunished. However, given the political system and the police we have in this country, and the precedents set not just by Hillsborough but by Harry Stanley and Jean Charles de Menezes I doubt anyone will be convicted or even charge with culpability in his death. The nerdgasms about citizen journalism that helped reveal the truth only serve to make me feel like I am going to be let down even more once the system closes in and protects it own. But this is all conjecture, and in any case retribution is half the story.

Ian Tomlinson’s death was the latest marked symptom of a political and policing culture gone wrong – a state happy sit back while its police beats and then ignore those whose freedoms it is meant to protect. But seeking justice for him or any other victim of state brutality does not just extend to trial and retribution (important though it is) for the guilty. As Hillsborough proved, it also means safeguarding all the future possible Ian Tomlinsons – which include you and me – by reining in the police’s wanton brutality at demonstrations and better respect for the right to protest and assemble peacefully.

Sadly, no-one in power is yet forthcoming. It took a disaster the size of Hillsborough for the authorities – decades late and 96 deaths too many – to realise the dreadful state of affairs we have gotten into. Ian Tomlinson’s death has not yet had the same effect. We can only hope it doesn’t take another 95 people to die before those in charge realise.