Mob Response

Let me get this out of the way, Paul Christoforo acted like a self-important jerk in his correspondence with a customer about delivery of an Avenger controller accessory. His self-congratulatory, imperious, dismissive explosion of barely literate correspondence to a customer asking a completely legitimate question touched as much a raw nerve with me as anyone else who has ever had to endure what passes for customer service these days. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that every single person who read the e-mail chain that began with the customer and ended with Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade took vehement exception with virtually everything Paul said.

Though contrite now and quick to talk about how he was having a bad day —- despite the fact the e-mail conversation stretched over the better part of 2 weeks — he presented the gold-standard example of the worst kind of service. But this article is not about Paul. This article is about the response, and how deeply disquieting the sanctioned retribution of the online hit-mob has become.

The people of the internet know no limits to their charity, but neither do they seem to know limits to their bloodlust for abuse, revenge and humiliation. Even a small corner of the virtual universe can focus into unimaginable pressure — just ask GoDaddy, which has been under siege for more than a week after coming out publicly in favor of the Stop Online Piracy Act. Now, like Paul, GoDaddy isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure, but they are a cautionary tale that when the Sauron Eye of an organized internet mob turns to put your indiscretions under the microscope, the results can be devastating.

In truth, what I have taken away from both these incidents is that there is good reason to fear the tyranny and unrestrained animosity of a virtual lynching, for there is no compassion to be had in its almost random punishment.

At times like this my thoughts always turn to Micah Whipple. He was the unfortunate Blizzard employee caught in the storm of angst associated with the company’s quickly discarded idea to require the use of RealID on Battle.net. Micah made the unenviable decision to prove that using your real name on the internet is safe, and the internet seemed to turn as one to squeeze Mr. Whipple and show him the deep error of his ways. Within minutes his private information became the plaything of hundreds of thousands. How his world must have turned upside down for a day. Or a week? Or even a month?

Unlike Paul or GoDaddy, it’s hard to find much reprehensible fault with Micah. Yes, it was probably naive of him to throw himself into the middle of a brewing storm, but the result must have been terrifying not only to him but all those near to him. The level of harassment brought to bear on him is the kind of thing that will wake you up at night in a cold sweat.

In moments like this, here on the safe periphery, it all looks pretty entertaining. Heck, I’ve laughed at a few of the more clever pokes delivered to Paul Christoforo over the past day or two. But, spare a moment to imagine what it must be like to be the focal point of the laser beam. Suddenly you are completely vulnerable, exposed for an angry world with malicious intent to see. For all the good that internet communities are capable of, they have equal capacity for nothing short of unfiltered hate.

Did Paul deserve an angry rebuttal? Yes. Did he deserve to get fired? Yeah, probably. Did he deserve to get inundated with thousands of e-mails, harassing phone calls, public rebuke from hundreds of thousands and even threats of violence against himself and his family — including his two-month-old infant? Does that punishment really fit the crime?

The truth is, I’m frightened of the internet. I’m really troubled by the thought that someday I will write the wrong thing and somehow it will be the thing that locks into focus at just the right place. I have sometimes specifically considered stopping this writing endeavor and getting out while the getting is good. I’ve had as many as a few hundred people really annoyed with me before over things I have written, and that is unsettling enough on its own. I can’t begin to imagine what the pressure of hundreds of thousands or millions must feel like. And, I don’t want to know.

There is a hypocrisy at work here that villanizes people like Paul but takes no issue with the almost criminal response. Yeah, the guy was a complete tool to a customer, but you can’t tell me that’s worse than threatening the guy’s 2-month-old baby. How is that OK? How is it that we didn’t all stop at exactly that minute and turn our holier-than-thou scorn on the people that decided the best response to a guy who provided crappy service is a death threat? Sanctimonious rage, unrestrained abuse and impotent threats of violence are far more troubling to me than that someone acted inappropriately in a communication with a customer.

This is a mob, as sure and as dangerous as if it had formed in the street to throw garbage cans through windows and topple police cars, and now that it's done with Paul it's looking for the next target. And the mob mentality in its virtual form is as terrifying a thing to witness as it would be in the real world. It is remorseless, relentless and without compassion, and to me it is the real story of the past few days.

Comments

disobedientlib wrote:
Nothing revelatory here, but I think it's the anonymity (superficial as that may be at a technical level) that is the key - both in Mike's original response and in the internet mob's reaction. The rampant homophobia that dominates any FPS game space is another example of this kind of thing.

Just like in face to face mobs of old (lynchings, etc.), there is something in group anonymity, made especially easy on the web, that magnifies peoples' own insecurities and fears and makes it easier for those people to focus their own unrelated frustrations into hatred at someone or something they have no real connection to.

Just my 3 cents.

+1, and I'd also add what a speaker on a TED talk (name escapes me at the moment) coined as a 'cultural ghetto' only amplifies the mob-think. Basically, when you surround yourself with people that only share your particular world-view, you become less and less able to see things from other perspectives and lose the capacity for empathy.

I've been spending a lot of time on neogaf the past couple of months - more because of the pace of discussion on games than anything else - and it's crazy the amount of groupthink that goes on over there. Anytime someone comes in with a rational viewpoint, they get buried with posts essentially labeling them as traitors to the community. It's pretty scary how willful ignorance rules the day.

I guess I fall into some weird middle ground. I too fear the internet. At the same time, the guy was a douche, and he poked the bear. He deliberately made things worth, effectively calling out the original victim here for having the temerity to think the internet cared. To me, that's a a little bit like a guy rear ending you, getting out of the car, handing you his drivers license and then saying "hah, have fun trying to collect on your insurance, I know the cops."

So there's a big wad of self infliction here. But again, it also made me fear for the day I step over the line. It's easy to write this off as "hey, he was an ass, and he'll be forgotten in a week" but there's pretty much no chance this guy doesn't effectively suffer from identity theft symtpoms now -- losing control of his email, etc. As someone who lives largely digitally, that is more than an inconvenience. It's almost a kind of assault.

So I guess I'm wishy washy on this one.

Regardless of whether or not this situation should have escalated to this point, it has and Cristofo has a solution to end it relatively quickly right in front of him. If he chooses not to make use of it, whose fault is that but his?

All he has to do is say uncle, it's his fault for not doing it -- not the guy wrenching his arm.

That response is more devil's advocate than anything else. The problem here is that in this case at least neither side is particularly without sin. Not Paul. Not Mike. Not Reddit/Kotaku. Everybody got dirty on this one.

The real lesson here is that no matter how big of a jerk you are, there are bigger jerks on the Internet.

Parallax Abstraction wrote:
momgamer wrote:
kincher skolfax wrote:
Parallax Abstraction wrote:
... If he wants this to end, he needs to stop talking. If he does, in a month no one will remember it.

Totally agreed. Maybe another reason this fiasco is so popular is because this guy's an absolute trainwreck when it comes to his supposed specialty.

Still, I wish the Internet wouldn't let go of these types of "outrages" just because people are short on attention or some new meme comes along — but because letting go is better for everyone's sanity.

I know you guys don't mean it this way, but I'm really uncomfortable with the solution to this being "shut up and take it until the pitch-forkers are bored".

There needs to be limits, and it needs to have an end. Not for everyone's sanity, but because anything that could be construed as appropriate is done now and it's time for everyone involved to move on.

I agree but like you said, I didn't mean it in that way. Regardless of whether or not this situation should have escalated to this point, it has and Cristofo has a solution to end it relatively quickly right in front of him. If he chooses not to make use of it, whose fault is that but his?

The problem is there is a fine line between your stance and deciding that anyone this happens to is at fault and can solve it by just shutting up and taking it. Replace this guy with what happens every time Leigh Alexander tries to talk, or what happened to Kathy Sierra and this solution isn't nearly so cool.

That's why we have to have something else to bring an end to it. I wish like heck I knew what.

The Internet can be a very forgiving place--a *genuine* apology goes a long way, particularly if you're quick about it and before you wake the sleeping Internet giant.

The Avenger Controller folks seem to have a grasp of this, while in contrast, Christoforo continues to try and social engineer his way out of his predicament. He should shut up, not so that the incident will be forgotten, but because it will demonstrate some understanding of how he got into this mess in the first place.

Itsatrap wrote:
The Internet can be a very forgiving place--a *genuine* apology goes a long way, particularly if you're quick about it and before you wake the sleeping Internet giant.

The Avenger Controller folks seem to have a grasp of this, while in contrast, Christoforo continues to try and social engineer his way out of his predicament. He should shut up, not so that the incident will be forgotten, but because it will demonstrate some understanding of how he got into this mess in the first place.

This, though I also agree with what Elysium and Momgamer said. I'm not saying that everyone who ends up in this situation should just shut up and take it. Except in this case, Christofo was 100% in the wrong and even when proven so, continued to fight anyway. He wasn't automatically at fault, he was just at fault. I'm not saying that's the solution in every case, but it is the solution in this case. Internet justice is not any kind of real justice.

Just want to chime in to clarify that I agree with Itsatrap and PA that the smart PR play is to issue an apology and then keep quiet. I was not arguing that Paul should "shut up and take it," but rather that he should stop digging his hole deeper with his clumsy responses.

Sometimes children, even grown children, need a hard lesson. Paul Christoforo is no Star Wars kid. I have zero sympathy.

Elysium wrote:

I guess my problem remains that because Paul is a bad guy, then suddenly people aren't to be held to some kind of reasonable measure of social expectation? Because he is a jerk or even a thief, it's ok for a few thousand people to go do whatever they can to destroy the guy's life for a few days? It's vigilantism, not justice.

...And this is why I love this site, making the internet better since 2003.

As I see it, it's a bunch of asshats piling on the one asshat that blew his cover, and just in case, I'm talking about people threatening the guy's family, etc.

Do death threats against's Paul's family cross the line? Absolutely.

But I completely understand why there's massive outrage against him. He's the perfect example of how certain types in corporate America completely screw over customers and then brazenly flaunt their bad behavior. Consumers and working stiffs who get paid far less than this idiot have had enough. Maybe it's not fair he gets singled out as a scapegoat. But in this economy, you just can't expect to get away with that kind of bad behavior.

Feeank wrote:
Elysium wrote:

I guess my problem remains that because Paul is a bad guy, then suddenly people aren't to be held to some kind of reasonable measure of social expectation? Because he is a jerk or even a thief, it's ok for a few thousand people to go do whatever they can to destroy the guy's life for a few days? It's vigilantism, not justice.

...And this is why I love this site, making the internet better since 2003.

As I see it, it's a bunch of asshats piling on the one asshat that blew his cover, and just in case, I'm talking about people threatening the guy's family, etc.

Death threats and other criminal behavior are over the line. IMHO public shaming is not in cases like these. Don't forget that Paul continued to engage in bad behavior and egging on his critics. He brought a lot of this on himself.

disobedientlib wrote:
Nothing revelatory here, but I think it's the anonymity (superficial as that may be at a technical level) that is the key - both in Mike's original response and in the internet mob's reaction. The rampant homophobia that dominates any FPS game space is another example of this kind of thing.

Just like in face to face mobs of old (lynchings, etc.), there is something in group anonymity, made especially easy on the web, that magnifies peoples' own insecurities and fears and makes it easier for those people to focus their own unrelated frustrations into hatred at someone or something they have no real connection to.

Just my 3 cents.

Bingo. Take away the anonymity and most of this B.S goes away.

jdzappa wrote:
Feeank wrote:
Elysium wrote:

I guess my problem remains that because Paul is a bad guy, then suddenly people aren't to be held to some kind of reasonable measure of social expectation? Because he is a jerk or even a thief, it's ok for a few thousand people to go do whatever they can to destroy the guy's life for a few days? It's vigilantism, not justice.

...And this is why I love this site, making the internet better since 2003.

As I see it, it's a bunch of asshats piling on the one asshat that blew his cover, and just in case, I'm talking about people threatening the guy's family, etc.

Death threats and other criminal behavior are over the line. IMHO public shaming is not.

Sure, no problem with that with me neither, I guess what I'm trying to say is that for every Paul Cfofo that gets dragged into the mud for the peasants to throw rocks at, there are endless Pauls' among the peasants themselves salivating at the thought of throwing the heaviest, sharpest rocks at the unfortunate idiot that got caught. The guy deserved every professional consequence he has suffered so far, losing the account, reputation ruined, etc, but from there to deserve death threats and harassment? I don't see it : /

Christoforo was absolutely wrong in his treatment of a customer, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that(speak up if you do). I can't fault Mike for getting involved on behest of the guy who included him in the emails, and I can't fault him for the public shaming. I don't know that I can even fault the internet for jumping on that pain train specific to Christoforo.

But with all that said, the righteous indignation and shaming crossed well beyond the line when any threats of violence were made, and leaped over the cliff when they included his family and dug out personal information of any type. Shame him on Youtube, mock him on Memebase. But leave it at that.

kincher skolfax wrote:
Parallax Abstraction wrote:
I think stuff like this happening at placed like Reddit and 4chan goes too far sometimes but I also think it doesn't happen that often and it's usually only the most egregious cases where it comes it. Not to say that justifies it because it doesn't but I don't think this is a case of people having to watch what they say lest the mob take revenge. This was a guy being abusive, not simply disagreeing. I'm not sure how we solve this problem but I also don't think it's that big a problem, at least not yet.

I really wish I could agree. Unfortunately, I've seen far too many colleagues and friends suffer worse treatment for the unforgivable offense of expressing an opinion while also being female.

I think we're thinking of the same person, and I am totally with you.

How many Goodjers even went so far as to email something mean to this guy? This is more like watching footage of a tsunami. We are watching the trainwreck, not participating. We have just as much influence on these events as we do over natural disasters.

We all know there are a ton of asshats out there, and sometimes stuff blows up and we get to watch something crazy. This isn't about telling people to be nice, because no one that needs to hear the message is listening.

But this does serve as a reminder of how important it is not to underestimate the power of the digital word. Hell yeah it is scary that we are all one wrong transgression away from the same thing. But the odds of it actually happening are still infinitely small.

Just a small dose of humility and common sense from Christoforo, and this doesn't happen. It's why there is so little sympathy for the guy. Ao while it is scary, I don't think we are walking a razor thin line here.

His actions were done as part of his job in public relations. Public shaming seems to be a pretty appropriate response to poor public relations, in my opinion. Of course it should stay there, it shouldn't enter into his private life.

gregrampage wrote:
His actions were done as part of his job in public relations. Public shaming seems to be a pretty appropriate response to poor public relations, in my opinion. Of course it should stay there, it shouldn't enter into his private life.

No such thing as a life that is private and off-limits. Not in the past and certainly not now. There is only the illusion of such a thing.

Strangeblades wrote:
gregrampage wrote:
His actions were done as part of his job in public relations. Public shaming seems to be a pretty appropriate response to poor public relations, in my opinion. Of course it should stay there, it shouldn't enter into his private life.

No such thing as a life that is private and off-limits. Not in the past and certainly not now. There is only the illusion of such a thing.

When's your new reality TV show coming out?

It's hard to know what to say about this. I think the PR person opened pandora's box. Being paid to represent a company and a product and treating customers and business partners like that, well from a professional standpoint, he made his own bed.

I'm going to guess that there is more than one GWJer out there, myself included, who has the 'learning experience' of writing an email nastygram, something done in haste while emotions are hot, and that is absolutely regretted within the moment of hitting send. I would hope that normal people would have that moment of self-reflection and remorse. It amazes me that this chain of emails just continued to escalate.

I still don't get who the customer is, that at the moment of receiving such poor service, they escalate to writing to major websites within the course of a few emails. I'm not sure if that was brilliance, over the top or something else. I doubt this was some coincidental clash of the titans. It was probably more like the law of averages and you are left wondering how many other customers might have had similar exchanges previously, but shaken it off or been turned away by it. For the company producing the product, this may have been horrible, but.. well I am sure they are thankful in a way to see a potentially significant relations problem exposed.

To hear of death threats to the PR dude and his family over his unbridled arrogance and poor customer service for a controller is ridiculous, and I'd guess a real documented crime if it were worth pursuing.

I dont know if its a question of justice or vigilantiism, but probably a mix of both. I don't think the vigilante extremes should immediately overshadow everything. For the PR dude, a costly lesson, but I guess its one where I would hope he can look in the mirror, learn from it and move on with his life. At this point, he has to move on.

And Elysium, I hope you are exaggerating just a bit on your fears of the internet monster. You must write with the expectation that your work will be accepted by some, rejected by others and maybe strongly argued by some. If it weren't the case, then I would guess there wasnt much being said worth writing.

This event has prompted me to do some serious self-googling and see what it turns up. I've found that there are quite a few items where I thought I had closed an online account of some sort, only to find it still open, or other issues where I had shared some photos, and had them set to public rather than "friends only". I'm trying to go through and clean up some of this stuff, so that any googling of my name doesn't turn up private, family type things (unfortunately, as a consequence of my work, Google turns up a lot of hits on my professional life that I can't easily clean up).

MacBrave wrote:
disobedientlib wrote:
Nothing revelatory here, but I think it's the anonymity (superficial as that may be at a technical level) that is the key - both in Mike's original response and in the internet mob's reaction. The rampant homophobia that dominates any FPS game space is another example of this kind of thing.

Just like in face to face mobs of old (lynchings, etc.), there is something in group anonymity, made especially easy on the web, that magnifies peoples' own insecurities and fears and makes it easier for those people to focus their own unrelated frustrations into hatred at someone or something they have no real connection to.

Just my 3 cents.

Bingo. Take away the anonymity and most of this B.S goes away.

What does it say about the person that threatens death, rape, and other crimes while anonymous, but wouldn't repeat it to the person's face? If I found one of my friends acting like that online, not sure how I'd feel about remaining friends with them, at least without calling them on it.

There's a huge line between calling someone out for being an asshole, and threatening death of a human being over $50 of someone else's money.

because anything that could be construed as appropriate is done now and it's time for everyone involved to move on.

Yeah anything except some kind of authentic apology from Christoforo. None of his apologies indicate he has any kind of inkling of what he did wrong.

Threatening his family is out of line (edit: to be clear, threatening him with physical harm is not ok either), sure, but given his track record with the truth, it's not clear to me he even actually has a family.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
For a social group that's notoriously picked on and humiliated, I'm disquieted by how much nerds on the internet love a good public shaming.

Public shaming is effective. Many know this from personal experience, and it's easy to understand.

Whether it's appropriate is a different topic.

I already expressed my thoughts yesterday in the thread found in the Everything Else forum, but because it's now been reposted on the front page, I'll just quote part of Jayhawker's post to sum up my opinion.

Jayhawker wrote:
How many Goodjers even went so far as to email something mean to this guy? This is more like watching footage of a tsunami. We are watching the trainwreck, not participating. We have just as much influence on these events as we do over natural disasters.

We all know there are a ton of asshats out there, and sometimes stuff blows up and we get to watch something crazy. This isn't about telling people to be nice, because no one that needs to hear the message is listening.

Bottom line: the mob mentality/reaction has (for better or worse) been a part of human nature for eons. The internet just makes it easier for asshats to participate, so the mobs are larger.

When I first read about this yesterday morning, it struck me as delicious justice. Throughout the day as more light was shed on this sad person and the hyper-reaction by "the internet" I began to feel a chill. It stopped being amusing.

Paul made available quite a bit of personal information to the public domain before this event, and now he's getting a public rectal exam for it. I guess it's an eye opener for those of us who underestimate the dangerous combination of resourcefulness and mob vindictiveness.

On the other hand, he really does show symptoms of sociopathy in that he hasn't shown any remorse for his actions other than getting caught by a bigger bully. I wonder if he'll ever understand why his behavior struck a nerve with so many people.

I definitely don't think that accidentally marrying or being born to a douchebag should be a punishable offence. The 'righteous indignation' of the internet is always kind-of exciting and noble, but then people immediately cross the line from sending stern emails to threatening the man on a personal level.

It's a large part of why I try to keep my real name off the net

People who make threats or harass should be tracked down and tossed in a dank hole. Sadly it's usually impossible to do that when it's done over the internet.

I'm glad this PR guy got a public shaming. The downside is the assholes who take things too far. Unfortunately, they'll continue to do that no matter how much you and I agree that it's deplorable. How do we stop them?

Where are we getting that he is being threatened - from CP? Is he a reliable source? Frankly, I find death threats a bit hard to believe. Harassment, no, but death threats towards a child? I don't believe it.