Another Internet miracle!

I’m among the many fans of the entertaining physics lectures that made Walter Lewin a star of stage (MIT OpenCourseWare) and screen (YouTube). And I was among those saddened, last month, to learn that charges of harassment had ended his career on the OpenCourseWare stage.

When it severed its ties to Lewin, MIT made the controversial decision to remove his lectures from Searching for perspective on that decision, I landed on Scott Aronson’s blog where I found much useful discussion. One comment in particular, from Temi Remmen, had the ring of truth:

I agree Walter Lewin’s lectures should be made available through a different source so everyone around the world may enjoy them. Having known him for most of my life, I am not in the least surprised that this happened to him. None of us enjoy his downfall. However, he managed to alienate many of his peers, colleagues and people in his personal life to an extreme. It is my gut feeling, that prominent people at MIT had enough of his antics, in spite of his success as a teacher and brilliance as a scientist. In the scientific community, he is widely known for being very demeaning and insulting to those he does not feel are as intelligent as he is — and for having had numerous problems with women in the past. His online sexual harassment does not appear to warrant this kind of punishment, not even by MIT. This was a long time coming and they got rid of him this way. Emails destroy careers. Sorry to say. I feel sorry for Walter too for lacking the insight to treat others better and that he did this to himself.

That was on December 10th, the day after the news broke. I read the comment thread a few days later, absorbed the discussion, and moved on.

So I was surprised the other night by Conor Friedersdorf’s The Blog Comment That Achieved an Internet Miracle, inspired by that very same comment thread. When I’d last checked in, the Aronson thread ended at about comment #75. The comment to which Friedersdorf refers was #171, posted on December 14.

It would be insane to add many more words to the outpouring that followed the now-infamous Comment #171, both on Aronson’s blog and elsewhere. So instead I’ll just add a couple of pictures.

Contributors by number of comments:

Contributors by number of bytes:

What these charts show is that two people dominate the thread which, by the other night, had grown to over 600 comments. There’s Scott Aronson, the author of the blog, who in the two weeks leading up to Christmas wrote 107 comments adding up to about 30,000 words (assuming an average word length of 5 characters). And there’s Amy, who over those same two weeks wrote 82 comments adding up to about 36,000 words.

I can’t begin to summarize the discussion, so I’ll just agree with Conor Friedersdorf’s assessment:

Aaronson and his interlocutors transformed an obscure, not-particularly-edifying debate into a broad, widely read conversation that encompassed more earnest, productive, revelatory perspectives than I’d have thought possible. The conversation has already captivated a corner of the Internet, but deserves wider attention, both as a model of public discourse and a window into the human experience.

There were many interlocutors, but one in particular stood head and shoulders above the crowd: Amy. How often is she mentioned in three widely-cited blog posts about the Comment 171 affair? Let’s look.

0: (Conor Friedersdorf)

0: (Laurie Penny)

0: (Scott Alexander)

Another Internet miracle!


  1. And I think if anything the counts underestimate the influence Amy had in that conversation. She had pretty much orchestrated the conversation before that comment, so many of those other bytes are responses to Amy, not Scott. And after the comment Scott made, she decided to open up about her history, which included a rape.

    The article by Laurie Penny is in fact so much less interesting than the Scott and Amy discussion, which starts with Amy asking “Hey, you don’t have many female commenters, you want to take a guess why”, move to a very precisely worded intellectual debate, and then finally into an emotional discussion of personal histories.

    It reminds me of the share-or-steal games you see in psychology where two people, without coordination, can either decide to split a reward (in which they both get half) or steal it (in which case they get everything). The hitch being, of course, that if both steal no one gets anything.

    And what they find is that some people initially start by sharing, but if the opponent steals, they just go to round after round of both selecting “steal” because no one wants to be a chump. The only way to undo the effect, they found, was for one of the participants to share, multiple times, and get stolen from, as a kind of message that they are serious about sharing enough to take some blows.

    What I hate about social media in general is that it’s natural response to weakness is to attack, which throws even the best people into these steal-steal cycles where nothing gets better. Scott deserves praise for exposing weakness on the internet, where it’s not well received. But the crucial point is whether Amy decides to see that as a sincere signal of a new dynamic, or just another opportunity to steal. It takes at least two people to break the cycle, only one of them is getting credit.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. You’re right about the underestimate. Her level of engagement with everyone in the thread was just astonishing. A fancier discourse analysis would show that, and there’s enough data here to do so. (Though I had to stop the script at #586 because at that point the thread broke WordPress’s formatting!)

    Can you clarify what you think was being shared and/or stolen here, and by whom?

    It seems to me that within the thread Amy was widely acknowledged, but not in any wider context. Part of that — and only part, I’m sure — has to do with owning vs sharecropping. Scott owns the blog, Amy’s a sharecropper on it. A third party can link to Scott’s web presence in a way not possible for Amy. Should the 3rd parties I call out have made the extra effort? Absolutely, but there’s friction.

    Another imbalance here is, of course, that Scott is a known identity and Amy — even were she to have conducted a cross-blog conversation from her own space — wouldn’t be.

    (I’m sure we are both thinking about how these dynamics could play out in a federated wiki, and if so, what that would look like.)

  3. I had seen some of this thread and I find it fascinating. I felt sympathy for Scott and his revelation seemed to indicate that he only thought of women as romantic partners not as friends and that seems relevant somehow.
    But also, a little part of me hopes that Amy doesn’t really work in STEM but that she laboured at the coalface of that thread to build a resource for teaching. In any case, I hope someone does use it for study.
    Like Amy, I acknowledge myself as an agent of sexism as well as a victim and I am conscious of my own privilege (s). In the last few months, I have adopted a policy of witnessing some a couple of people on Twitter who are Ferguson activists. I cannot say they would never mislead but I would imagine it’s difficult to present a consistent false identity. I learn daily from them and also about there trolls very similar to women’s trolls. Slightly different, that it’s crowdsourced is #everydaysexism @everydaysexism and it’s a constant surprise.

  4. Well, this is all kinds of amusing. This is Amy, btw, roaming around to see what kind of ripples the stone left. I did wonder if anyone was going to notice the disappearing act.

    The thing you might be leaving out, Jon, is the relationships amongst the writers/bloggers and their motives as journalists/bloggers rather than scholars or just-people talking. Conor mightn’t know or care about Scott or Shtetl, but he does know and care about TNS and TNR and the rest of the front-page outlets where the story showed up after Laurie wrote her piece, and Laurie’s close enough to being in his circle. There were winnable points for responding to Laurie (because she writes for TNS etc., and because the piece blew up), but not for responding to me — so for all intents and purposes I existed only to make Scott write the post that made the Laurie etc. pieces go.

    Laurie, for her part, was telling her own story and responding directly to Scott, and also saw some opportunity there (not just in that piece, but because she was in Boston at the time). And she was responding to Scott’s provocative high note, so again, didn’t need my end of the conversation.

    Other Scott, as I’ve taken to calling him, is part of Original Scott’s community; and again he wasn’t particularly interested in my end of things, or in the conversation as a conversation, but in the battle joined by Very Loud Online Voices he’s already primed for battling.

    (And for almost everyone else — hardly anyone who’s not a scholar or just compulsive has the attention span to go digging through source material on a thing like that. Comment #171 was the nerd equiv of celeb with wardrobe malfunction on the beach. The context won’t matter much to the casual reader.)

    Making things even less tidy is the fact that my anonymity was somewhat intentional. This corner of the internet turns out to be small, and there aren’t more than a couple of degrees of separation between me and any of these people, but I’ve never really gone in for clubbishness or been especially interested in making a name and dragging it around behind me; just haven’t needed to. I also, unlike Scott Aa, am not tenured, and unlike the others am a non-well-off single mom, and would prefer to remain employed. So a low profile was fine. I sent the conversation around to enough humanities/soc-sci academics that I think the conversation itself will get some good use. The thing is, though, it’s got competition — which is a good thing. There are other very long and, because online, well-documented arguments along these lines, with varying degrees of liveliness and varying stakes. (Nobody actually involved in the Shtetl conversation lost a job, for instance.) In the aggregate, I think they’re going to mean something, and they aren’t done. They’re also tied tightly to questions of online speech freedoms and policing, which is beginning to become a legislative matter. It’s worth revisiting the 1960s and the FSM to start thinking about why otherwise quite liberal Boomers balk at constraints on the kind of ravening stuff that goes on, to the point of not wanting to see it — I’m guessing there are distinctions, important ones, that haven’t been articulated yet.

    Anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that if I’d wanted and been able to afford credit, I’d have been pretty noisy about it and got me some. But you’re right, I’d’ve had to’ve made the effort. And the question of who can afford to be credited with ideas and media online, and what the consequences of that are — that’s a whole other story. A really interesting one, if you ask me.

    francesbell, I really do work in STEM, though as a writer-with-sci-background, not a scientist. And that insider-outsider status is a funny story by itself, in terms of sexism — there’s some fancy intersectionality going on there.

    mikecaulfield, I think that share/steal problem is an important one, and we both took lumps, me and Scott. What worries me about it is how fraught that was. It’s a kind of conversation that would’ve been very ordinary on USENET maybe 20, 25 years ago. It’s not ordinary now; it’s very difficult to have now, even in that relatively protected space Scott made (something else he deserved credit for), and even though both of us (and some of the others in the conversation) were reaching back to civil argumentative habits formed decades ago in similar families. Nearly every force pushed toward polarization, propaganda. That strikes me as rather dangerous. I think in the end the real danger is that if it takes such energy to argue civilly, what ends the comity isn’t ill-will but exhaustion. I think that’s a problem.

  5. Wow Amy – we talked about you as though you weren’t there and then you showed up – Thanks! You are definitely labouring at the coal face – all power to you.
    “Nearly every force pushed toward polarization, propaganda. That strikes me as rather dangerous.” – the push towards polarisation is something that preoccupies me – let’s try to understand (and overturn) it.

  6. So as for trying to understand and overturn it: I walked away from facebook and twitter last fall (and went back to fb to be with friends during Brexit, or whatever it might turn out to be), and a few weeks later wrote this on my own blog:

    Just had a brief dip back into twitter and Jezebel and was reacquainted with the world of horrible things. Rapes, murders, you name it. Oh, and a lot of showing off about prizes and whatnot.

    I think I see what happened, though, why the online social world turned into that. The medium’s actually being used as it was meant to be used: it’s a freely available press. The problem is that most people have nothing much to say. The people who do have something to say are generally either propagandists or eyeball-seekers — they’ve got a cause, or they’re promoting something, or they’re trying to package and sell an audience. So of course they overwhelmed the place almost as soon as it opened up, and things get worse and worse, because they have to outshout each other, and recruit other people to shout on their behalf, preferably for free. And now and then a volunteer shouter can’t handle the shouting anymore and gets so mad that he actually leaves his house and tries to attack the other-side people for real.

    That’s why it’s almost impossible not to get into polemical arguments as soon as you show up there, and why you have this ridiculous situation where polite, friendly conversation’s squeezed in and among a lot of yelling about blood and sales. It’s not a conversational medium anymore and hasn’t been for a long time. Back in USENET days, yes, it was conversational — polemical, sure, but because it was mostly academics talking, they were already bound by codes of collegiality and fear of professional repercussions. No such things exist in online argument now.

    Part of the problem is that the promoter’s terror of being unbranded, and therefore inaudible and nonexistent, seeped into genuinely conversational areas like this. Maybe a dozen people read this blog, which is totally okay. But if I want to go out looking for new friends on WordPress, I have to search by keyword. Things I find interesting. If I type in “Gamow”, though, or “Kieslowski”, both known to attract thoughtful and interesting people, I’m likely to find extremely narrow blogs about physics or film; the keepers are afraid of diluting the brand by talking about, say, some outrage at the grocery store, or why house walls aren’t any thicker than they are, even though probably no more than a dozen people are reading them. And that’s rather dull.

    I don’t know whether it’s possible to have ordinary conversation again online.

    1. “I don’t know whether it’s possible to have ordinary conversation again online.”

      I think for the most part only in semi-private spaces. At Hypothesis we offered that capability back in November. Almost immediately the usage of the service shifted predominantly to that mode.

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