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An Interactive Experiment: Dump The Jerk?

Vote For Me and I?ll Set You Free -- Some of you have said loudly and repeatedly that I don't belong here. So herewith, an exercise in Interactive Media Democracy, Unprecedented in the Western World! Vote your media. Keep the Jerk or Get Rid of Him, a Slashdot Poll:

Do I Belong Here?

Once more this very personal question arises - it wouldn?t be healthy to count how many times it?s surfaced before - whether I belong somewhere, in this case, writing on Slashdot.

I?ve contributed three pieces since signing up as a contributor two weeks ago, and all have generated praise and criticism, which is fairly standard for Web-writing.

The pieces have also generated something else, something unusual in my experience and ironic on a site devoted to the sharing of free ideas and free software.

A lot of people are saying - in e-mail and in public posts - that I don?t belong here.

Several have said in public postings that professional writers shouldn?t be contributors here. Another said nobody writing via a UNIX system (Netscape Navigator on my Communicator, Internet Explorer on my laptop) ought to be allowed, as it was not politically correct. Some have added that the topics I write about - Net and geek culture, Web politics, connections between the OSS movement and older, revolutionary notions about freedom of speech and thought - have no place on a site like this.

These criticisms are different from normal flaming, or agreement or disagreement with an idea or commentary. It?s a kind of criticism I hadn?t really encountered much in writing about the Net and the Web - first, for off-line publications like Wired, GQ, Rolling Stone and the New York Times, and increasingly, as I?ve been drawn into the cyber-culture and come to prefer it, for Websites - Hotwired (until just before it was sold) a few pieces for Newstrolls.com and my current primary (and only paying) base, the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum ([http://www.freedomforum.org])

I ought to point out that I used to work in mainstream media at newspapers -- The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer -- and at one TV network, CBS News. I?ve published six novels and two non-fiction books, the first being "Virtuous Reality," a controversial polemic opposing the idea that new media is immoral and dangerous. My next non-fiction book, "Running To The Mountain," will be published in the spring. Currently, I?m working on my third, "The Rise Of The Geeks," to be published by Random House in 2000.

It would be misleading to say that the response to my writing on Slashdot has been only, or even predominantly, critical. Before I stopped counting, I?d gotten hundreds of e-mail messages commenting on the pieces I?d written, expressing appreciation, or just wanting to talk further. Many raised questions, challenged conclusions, offered new information, wondered about a point or perspective.

"Man have you stirred things up on Slashdot with your articles," e-mailed Joel last Sunday. He kindly said he appreciated my "bravery and stubbornness [no geek can top me in stubbornness] in the face of the wall of geeks on Slashdot and mostly newbie geeks who post as they are sitting on some computer their parents gave them and they feel that they need to assert their geekiness to anyone (especially someone like yourself who is a self-admitted non-techie)."

Joel offered some help, as did many others writing sympathetically: he urged me to study and install Linux. "This is probably the only way you are going to earn real respect on Slashdot? Show you are willing to learn the language of the people you are writing for; these guys are like the French and they will only talk to you on their turf in their language?"

Richard wrote to thank me for the feature I wrote on the Web-centered campaign of Minnesota Governor-Elect Jesse Ventura. But he added that he thought there was something not quite right about my writing style, at least as it appeared on Slashdot.

"Reading your article, I felt as thought I was reading something written professionally and not by an amateur." Richard said he saw Slashdot as primarily a place that gave voice and expression to amateurs, not pros. Thus my style was out of sync. Then, of course, there are people who think I?m gaseous, repetitive or just plain boring.

So, do I belong here?

I first arrived on Slashdot a month or so ago, at the persistent urging of a bunch of online friends who love the site and were urging me to write about it. So I did, on free!, the Freedom Forum site. Within minutes of browsing the site, I felt parallel, oddly contradictory responses. First, I was bewildered at the many things I didn?t understand, and almost simultaneously, I felt the powerful sensation of having come home. I could see that I had stumbled into an alien world, but was instantly comfortable there.

I?ve been railing for years about the virtues of bottom-up media as opposed to the declining top-down models of mainstream journalism. Slashdot didn?t merely invoke interactivity, it was one of the most sophisticated expressions of it I?d yet seen. Interactivity is built into the machinery and content of the site.

I got hooked right away on a Website that offers a nearly continuous stream of fresh ideas and information, most of it coming from outside the site itself.

The graphics, organization, software for articles and public postings was by far the best I?d ever seen, allowing replies, side-discussions, and immediate feedback.

Atypically, I got addicted to Freshmeat, where I-a Mac-man, ignorant of code and mechanics - could try to download Linux 2.1.128ac3 or Artistic Style o.9.2 or Burn It 1.4pre3 and figure out what it was or meant. Slashdot may be democratic and interactive, but it is also Darwinian. No guideposts along this road for the technically-challenged. You fight on or fall where you stand.

Once or twice, I even succeeded in figuring out what I was doing or seeing.

I was mesmerized by the instincts of contributors to Freshmeat to solve problems, and freely share the results. This is, of course, the point. I very much liked features like hacker Alan Cox?s "Cathedrals, Bazaars, and the Town Council," one of the best pieces I?ve ever read about the politics and values of software developers. Every time I?d get frustrated, weary of or intimidated by the technical writing, I?d come across some amazing meme or piece of cultural writing like Nate?s package on Ambient Music, pioneered by Brian Eno.

When I finished reading the Ambient Music package, I knew something about a new form of culture, something that rarely happens after picking up The New York Times. And up top was a box, "Write Up by Nate," where readers could check one of two choices: "I like this write up" or "I don?t like this write up."

Such pieces reminded me of the not-long ago early days of Wired when the magazine bristled with interesting, sometimes loopy arguments and ideas, rather than celebrity profiles.

And how many media sites of any sort offer so many ways for readers to participate, from submitting pieces to sharing software to voting on polls and posting on every single article? Slashdot was an almost new kind of media, with ferocious energy, never the same for more than a few minutes, with the most attentive and participatory audience I?d ever seen.

Happy to come across it, I started communicating with Rob Malda about writing for Slashdot. We both thought it would be a good idea.

I understood that this site would present some particular challenges. Here, I knew much less about universally-discussed topics and interests than almost anybody. But I know a lot about media and technology, and both were coming together in radical ways.

You can?t write on a Linux geek site without learning something about Linux. But it didn?t cross my mind that the fact that I wasn?t, and never would be, a techie, would disqualify me in the minds of some people.

Geekdom is a powerful idea for me, so much so that after writing about it for several years, I?m traveling the country working on a book about some brave geek kids struggling to put their lives together.

From the first, I?ve written about the culture, politics and anthropology of the Web, not its machinery. There are hordes of technical writers, all of whom know more than I about code and computers. I never felt I needed to grasp the intricacies of the internal-combustion engine to appreciate the mobility provided by a car. But I do need to understand the social implications of the cyber-world, it?s interactivity and connectivity, the concepts of big ideas like links, hypterext and OSS.

Even if I could learn the technical details, I don?t really want to. For a writer like me, the more one delves into the machinery, the less I can see what it means. So I can?t take Joel?s very well-intended advice. It would change the kind of writer I?ve worked hard to become. Besides, I don?t really yearn for the respect of geeks who only want to hear from those who speak in their specific language. Not only is that not what I?m about, I don?t think it?s what this site is about.

My niche is clear. I?m an idea-sparker and conversation-starter. I track media, new and old. My mission is to be provocative and challenging. I don?t need to write things that everybody agrees with; for that you can read your local newspaper?s op-ed page where, I promise you, you won?t find anything remotely offensive.

And even though Richard is right - there is a disparity in voice sometimes between me and other writers and posters here - I?m afraid I can?t respond to his suggestions much either. I am quite proud to be a professional writer; I can?t imagine anybody saying anything nicer. If you think writing code is tough, try selling a book.

A writer?s voice is not only his livelihood, but his identity and spirit. People have the right to listen, see and read or not. But nobody has the right to try and take it away. Linux geeks and I both fear companies like Microsoft because they squash the individual voice, subjugating it to theirs. Not what I expected to find here. Changing my voice to make some clannish geeks comfortable would be a kind of creative suicide.

So like the General said to the Germans when they demanded he surrender: Nuts.

My voice, like my ideas, stands or falls on its own merits. If I have nothing to say, or say it poorly, or if nobody wants to hear it, nobody has to bother to flame me. I?ll be gone soon enough. There is always the simplest and, for me, the most devastating option in the world for disaffected readers - skip me.

As to learning more about Linux, sure. Lots of Slashdot geeks have offered to be my tech-support, as they so generously put it. I accept. The idea of Linux is entralling, a desperately-needed counterpoint to the greedy and intensely anti-creative corporatism strangling so much of American media, publishing and commercial life. But like most of you, I don?t have lots of free time. I can?t say if I?ll ever be able to use it with much proficiency, and I think its use ought to be an option, not a sacred requirement. What I really wish for is that the software gets simple before I have to learn how it works, like ICQ Chat or Hotline.

Interactivity is a powerful force when it meshes with creativity; it changes people on both ends. Writing online for years has radically transformed me, and changed my voice considerably. I listen to all those posts and messages, like them or not, and many seep into my language, style and consciousness.

I suspect that if I continue contributing to Slashdot for a while, that experience will take hold, as it always does, in the way I write. Just as the site flows continuously and interactively, so do the encounters between any writer and his readers; they tend to fuse over time.

The cyber-world is filled with grumpy flamers, gurus, academics, cypherpunks, hackers; with anonymous testosterone-charged adolescents happy to go after somebody while hiding behind anonymous names. Ultimately, their comments are all as valuable as mine, and they have just as much a right to their means of expression.

But some fights go beyond argument to identity: to the nature of a place, its heart and soul. Despite relentless media and political efforts to demonize the digital world as being filled with perverts, thieves and hackers, those of us who work online every day understand that these are hideously inaccurate stereotypes. Websites bristle with personality, values, identity. So in one sense, this flap about me has to do with the kind of place Slashdot decides it wants to be. Whatever it collectively decides is valid.

But it?s also more personal than a lot of Web flaps. I survived countless cyber-squabbles during my time as a Wired Contributing Editor and Hotwired columnist; this is different.

To me, the geek experience isn?t a trend or fad. It often has a lot to do with alienation and exclusion. Many people embracing the term today wouldn?t have let a real geek within a hundred yards of them just a few years ago. All geeks are by no means alike, but most have brushed against some form of rejection. The geeks I admire most take care about doing it to anybody else.

If it?s cowardly to cave in to pressure to fit someone else?s notion of proper writing, it?s ingenuous to pretend this kind of controversy doesn?t hurt at all. It always stings to be told you don?t belong. It has distasteful echoes for anybody, writer or not.

I can only say that I have little doubt that I do belong here, and most of the e-mail I?m getting tells me the same thing. As long as Rob Malda is happy with my work, I plan to stay.

The values I see expressed here are my values, even when they are sometimes expressed differently and in different contexts, and if I have things to learn, I also have things to pass along. Technology is a metaphor for values and technical dramas are often representative of other kinds.

Still, I?ve come to trust interactivity and believe in it. A big difference between this culture and the old one is that ideas have to stand the test. And I?d rather write about other things. So I suggested to the Commander that we move this discussion forward by sticking a poll box next to this column, and make me the topic. Let the geeks speak for themselves.

Vote to dump the jerk or keep him.

Meanwhile, you can always e-mail me at jonkatz@bellatlantic.net

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An Interactive Experiment: Dump The Jerk?

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