MonthAugust 2008

It starts off as a story about plagiarism.. but then you think differently

Slate, before I went on holiday, had a story about a huge, huge load of plagiarism done at the Montgomery County Bulletin, which I think you could justifiably call a small newspaper – 20,000 circulation, the sort of thing that basically lets hairdressers and double-glazing companies get a good place to advertise, and wraps some decent text around it – from Slate and loads of other places.

I read the Slate piece, and thought that while the writer was on the money – sure, he was being ripped off – that the examples weren’t so egregrious.

Yes, I know, this might sound rather contradictory in the light of stuff I’ve written in the past. But then again, the US is a big place, there are local papers and there are internet operations, and the ripoffs were actually constructive ones – they patched together parts of different stories to create a gestalt.

And then you read The Houston Press’s “Hairballs” (couldn’t they have come up with a better name – and a different name than “Hair Balls”? At least run it together into one word?) blog. Where you learn that this ongoing saga has a bad ending: the newspaper is being shuttered. Mike Ladyman, the editor-publisher of the MCB, said he didn’t want to have to deal with all the hassle.

And Mark Williams, who wrote the offending (but far from offensive) articles?

Williams wrote three stories a week for the Bulletin: the feature story, the Bullpen and the music. He was paid seven cents a word for the feature and then $125 for the other two combined.

Williams then writes an open letter to Jay Jody [oops, sorry, Jay] Rosen, who felt this was sooo bad as to constitute “the greatest case of plagiarism”. Here’s part of it; for the whole, do go to the Houston Press blog.

You have done an exemplary job of exposing the seedy underbelly of duplicitous small town weekly newspapers and the evil doers that run them. You have indeed brought us to our knees.

I sincerely apologize for my crimes against you and any perceived damage done to your person or your career accomplishments. It was never my intention to cause you harm. The article in question was included in other press materials I had received via e-mail. I used parts of the article as background and did so thinking it was cleared for such use; but, as you have so subtly pointed out, I was mistaken.

Of course, you are certainly owed an apology, but one has to ponder for a moment just why that is; after all, you have most definitely garnered the attention of the bloggers that you evidently crave in abundance with this manufactured scandal. So my advice, if I may offer a small slice, is to enjoy the spotlight while it is yours — have yourself a ball! You are the victor, so do enjoy the spoils.

It must have taken years of seasoned investigative know-how to push me off my lofty perch. It takes a dogged, intrepid journalist to expose the alleged wrongdoings of a 44-year-old college dropout who drifted from one lousy media job to another for 20 years; it takes courage to debase someone with a mouthful of cut-rate dentures who, up until 2007, lived in his parents’ home for seven years due to near-fatal bouts of clinical depression; it takes a journalist of a certain caliber to torpedo a pathetic hack who has barely squeezed out a living for nearly a decade at seven cents a word.

Savor your moment in the sun, Mr. Rosen. You win, we cry uncle. However, one salient point must be clarified at this time. According to your cleverly titled article on this situation, you stated that you contacted our daily newspaper of record for help in this matter; the very fact that you would refer to our daily newspaper of record as “reputable” is a source of amusement to our evil little weekly rag. In the last year alone, the newspaper in question has published front page articles accusing certain public officials of malfeasance, only to retract those allegations a day or two later. Ironically enough, that same newspaper has, on at least two occasions, shamelessly pilfered from our publication. Bet they didn’t mention that when you called them, huh?

The question one has to ask is, how would you act if you found someone had done the same? I just don’t think I’d write a vast expose like that. And if a local freesheet was ripping off my stuff, well, I guess that would be annoying. But the greatest case of plagiarism ever? Nah. Worth a big spread, passing on to other papers? Nah.

Ironically, when I was on holiday I read a John Grisham novel – The Last Juror (I didn’t buy it; my wife got it free on a magazine) – which is all about a small-town newspaper that is bought by a 23-year-old cub reporter (whose aunt has the necessary money) and who turns it into a big moneyspinner.

Then again, the character there writes tons of it himself. It’s all set before the internet. Even so, he’s not getting 7c per word..

“Amanda Chapel” is a man, and a troll: don’t be fooled, dear Twitterers (updated)

(And a big hello to anyone who came here from “Amanda Chapel”‘s twitter feed. Sit down, why don’t you?)

If there’s one thing that feels dafter, in retrospect, than engaging with a troll, then it’s engaging with one that’s been an open secret for not months but years.

For such is the “Amanda Chapel” fake character of the Strumpette blog. I’d vaguely heard of Strumpette, but thought it was one of those millions of sexblogs we’re all hearing so much about these days. (Turns out it’s not. It’s some “we hate PR, let’s be persnickety about it” blogs. Hey, like me! Except it’s being rude about American PR.)

Anyhow, I’d followed the Amanda Chapel character on Twitter without realising it’s a fake – in all likelihood gotten up by some guy called Brian Connolly, of whom I’ve never heard.

And so begins an illuminating tale of trollery. I’d stopped following @amandachapel ages before, concluding that this person was too mad, angry and otherwise disorganised to be worth listening to.

Someone who I follow said they were thinking of unfollowing “her” because “she” was so “angry”. (Him. Let’s be real. In retrospect, it’s gotta be a guy.) At the time @amandachapel was having a trollish go at some guy from Dell (including one tweet saying “As a Dell shareholder..” – yeah, right), new to Twitter who I’d thought was new to Twitter (corrected on comment below) and so an obvious target.

I said they should unfollow @amandachapel, and that I had, and called @amandachapel “dire”.

Now, he must have a Summize/Twitter search feed set up to watch for mentions of his altername: for quickly came the snipey reply: “You’re bottom feeding.”

To which – after mulling over things to say – I replied “Says the woman with a picture of her panties for a profile picture. Right.” (I’d only seen “her” – his – profile page on Twitter, and hadn’t bothered to follow the links to the equally fake profile and picture on Strumpette. That I did later. Even then the penny didn’t drop. Hey, it was production day. I was behind.)

At which the troll, ya see, leaps up from under the bridge. Fresh meat! Meat, what’s more, that doesn’t know that the “Amanda Chapel” character would, if you met her in a book, make you think “The guy who wrote this isn’t too good at characterisation, is he?”

But that’s the weakness of social media, and perhaps (especially) Twitter: while the 140-character limit is fantastically useful, it’s a terrible window on a person’s character. You can like someone on Twitter and find you struggle for conversation after a few minutes. You can find them blank but that doesn’t rule out that you’d get on famously with them if you had the time to actually talk.

Cue a quick email from the Troll, sent at 17.15 (-0400: Chicago time, maybe) to stir things up: Dire? Excuse me, fuck you Charles. Who asked ya and who cares what you think. Jesus. (Are emails private? Yes, except when they come from imaginary people. If it’s any help to people who like playing detective, it originated from 207-181-204-51.hnc-bsr1.chi-hnc.il.cable.rcn.com (HELO furthermore). That is, the IP is 207.181.204.51. Rogers Cable? The “Furthermore” bit will be Furthermore Publishing, Connolly’s toy.)

To which I replied – remember, I was still thinking this was a living, breathing person – “Patently evidently: you do”. End of. I thought.

But nah, overnight there was another tweet. And an email (40 minutes or so after I’d replied): No. Being annoyed by but another opinionated asshole is only that. You are legion. (The timing might be off. Possibly the first email preceded the second tweet. Which would be interesting – a way of seeding it, prodding people with the email – classic troll behaviour.)

I replied on Twitter. (People did advise against it. Could y’all not have mentioned the “fake” and “booted off Facebook for being fake” bits?) It all got silly. Knowing it was a troll, I finally left it alone. But I wondered.

So I looked up a little more, and found that Jeff Jarvis had waged a minor skirmish back in July 2006, for God’s sake (but Jeff’s smarter, and had figured out the fake much sooner – from the fact that “Amanda” left no Googletrail, “like a vampire who leaves no reflection in a mirror”; and Doc Searls had looked deep in March 2006.

The Jeff Jarvis thing would explain why the tweets tried to wind me up about @jeffjarvis: the troll probing for things that will continue the argument, so that they can snigger underneath the bridge: “It’s great! I’m pretending to be this woman, except – hee hee! – I’m not! And he’s taking it seriously!”

Let’s go back to that first email. In retrospect, come on: do you know any women who’d jump in like that? Stir and stir again? Pure trollery. Pure male trollery, moreover.

Conclusions? First one is: ignore the trolls. And in social media, it’s helpful to tell others who the trolls are. Perhaps explicitly? (Yeah, I could have listened harder.)

Second: for the benefit of Google and not-yet-informed readers, Amanda Chapel does not exist. “She” is a construct.

Third: I still don’t get the mindset of wilful trollers. To keep it up for years on end suggests to me a personality that I’d really not like to know: a bit lacking empathy, a la Blade Runner.

Fourth: social media makes it really hard to know anyone you haven’t met in the real world. A 140-character window is a tiny slit to see someone through. It’s trying to see the inside of a house by peering through a telescopic lens. Ditto for a Facebook page, which is a transient collection of what caught someone’s eye. It’s hard to judge character (and so veracity) through these media. Do you know me from this blog? But that’s only the aspect of my character that come out when I’m sitting down with some blogging software and enough time to compose something. (I write stuff in my head and save it up, sure, but my state of mind tends to be the same when I’m doing it; and that’s not even close to being the range of my character, when you consider all the stuff I do – family, play, work, each with its own confusions and stresses which can only be solved in particular ways. Hell, blogging is about the least stressed thing I do. Maybe that’s why “Amanda Chapel” likes it so much. And he gets to dress up his words as a woman’s.

Well, whatever turns you on.

Update: here’s an interesting one: a linguistic analysis of comments made by Connolly, and “Amanda Chapel”. I love how you just can’t quite hide online; your mind gives you away eventually. Though one thing that I also find interesting is that the tweets seem to be written by more than one person. Linguistic errors will out. One prefers “U” (as in “U’ll” for “you’ll”) and mixes up “you’re” and “your”; another spells them out and gets them right. But the rhetorical style is all male; they don’t know how women fight with words. Women don’t use an insult as an invite to a fight; they simply have a putdown, and that’s that. Men, on the other hand, can’t resist coming back to it: they want the fight, the clash of egos, and so they egg on the insult, again and again, because they can’t be satisfied until it’s resolved in some physical way.

The differences in how the sexes use words to try to hurt are the sort of thing you have to listen carefully to, and you can’t fake it unless you’re a skilled writer.

This guy – or these guys – don’t have that by a long, long chalk.

Robert Fripp and Martin Freeman – separated at birth? (And Josh Homme too?)

Freeman Fripp

I was looking at the copy of Exposure, by guitarista Robert Fripp (made wayyy back in the 1970s, but still highly recommended) and started wondering… where have I seen that sort of puggy face before? Something about the line of the nose and mouth… who can it be?

And then it hit me: as seen in The Office, and that sitcom everyone’s forgotten about, and the (really quite good) film of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the separated-at-birth twins: Robert Fripp and Martin Freeman.

Got any other favourite separateds?

Later… listening to the Fripp album, I realise that there’s a clear line that extends from Fripp and his experiments right through to Queens of the Stone Age, my latest favourite band. (As regular readers will have noticed.) They both like music that goes in very non-obvious directions, yet sometimes stray into very tuneful areas that anyone could have written. If you like Fripp’s stuff, there’s a good chance you’ll like the desert rock of QOTSA; and vice-versa. WEll, it works for me.

Laterer… this comparison (musical, between Fripp and Homme) becomes even more true if you listen to Homme’s Desert Sessions, where he gets together with a bunch of people and makes an album in a week. Desert Sessions 9 & 10 sounds very like what Fripp might put together in such a mood.