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On the Nature of Public Speech.

I get asked, every now and then, why I don't talk that much about my life here. After all, they say, this is a blog. I'm supposed to talk about my loneliness, or do memes, or stuff like that. Or, they know something about me, and wonder why I don't talk about those aspects of my life; why I don't discuss the surgery I had in March (I'm fine), or the life threatening condition I had a few years back (I'm fine), or why I don't talk about the time I was a professional actor (I'm fine).

Some people like to answer that question for me, too. "Oh," they say. Or write. Usually write. "You're shy. You're humble. You don't like to talk about yourself."

I'm not sure any writer who puts words out for the world to see every day of his life can really be called 'shy.' And folks who know me know 'humble' isn't exactly the best word to describe me. And as for talking about my self... hey, I'm my own favorite subject. I acknowledge that. I own my arrogance. I'm good at arrogance.

However, I also understand venue. I don't talk about myself here on Websnark because people don't come to Websnark to read about me. They come because they like my insight on something, or they come because they're entertained by my ramblings about outdated sitcoms and fart jokes. And I'm grateful. I love it when people read this stuff. I love having an audience.

But that audience isn't here to hear me talk about myself. For that, I have a Livejournal. And before that -- before these trendy Livejournals and Bloggers and Moveable Type Installations, I had an Online Journal. In those, the subject is me. My politics. My health. My tortured soul. The Memes that catch my eye. You know the drill. You've all read Livejournals.

(I will not be brokenhearted if folks don't decide to visit these things, mind. But I'm also not ashamed of them.)

If Websnark is a lecture hall, where I'm up on a stage dancing and cavorting and trying to entertain you, my Livejournal is like a coffee shop where I'm sitting nearby and reading you poetry. It's more intimate, less preachy. If you wonder why I don't go all fanboy when I get linked by the artists I revere, it's because you don't read my Livejournal and see it happen. If you wonder why I don't go all Emo when I'm down, it's because you don't read my Livejournal and see me act like... well, every other person with a website. It's a different venue, with different purpose.

But there's one thing I never, ever forget. Because I've learned my lesson. My Livejournal... and my Online Journal before it... are not private. They are public. They are just as public as Websnark, even if there's a couple of orders of magnitude difference in readership.

And what I say in them, I'm saying publicly.

I once hurt a friend's feelings. It was stupid, and thoughtless, and I still kick myself over it. Said friend was someone I went to college with, and he told me something personal once. Nothing truly bad, but something that was part of his own life that he shared with me, his close friend. Some years later, I related that event as an anecdote on a Usenet newsgroup. It wasn't a very high traffic newsgroup, and it was easy to imagine that I knew everyone reading it -- that it was private, in its own way. This was in the days when the Web was still spreading, slowly -- when the Internet was still primarily textual. And when a young guy who wants to tell a good story can be pretty fucking blind about what he's doing.

Well, it was over a year later that my friend's brother did a websearch for his brother's name, and had it get flagged on Deja. And he e-mailed my friend.

And it was maybe eight months after that that I found an e-mail address for my friend, and excitedly e-mailed him, asking if this was really him or someone else. You know -- a "If this is you, let's get back in contact!" letter.

The response I got back was nothing less than I deserved. I had hurt him, publicly, and embarrassed him, and seeing an e-mail from me wasn't exactly the high point of his day.

I apologized. And meant it. And because he's a big man, he forgave me. But I've never forgotten. And I've never forgotten the lesson I learned.

The Internet is public, kids. And we have been given the most incredible of gifts -- the capacity to publish our free expression for the whole world to see, for the cost of an internet connection. (Or not even that, if you go to a library and use their equipment). If you take time, and work at it, you can build an audience. If you use Livejournal, you don't have bandwidth costs. Hell, you don't even need to pay them for an account if you don't want to.

It's easy to think "this is mine. This is intimate. This is my diary." But it isn't. It's public. Even if you lock your entries to Friends, unless you know all of your friends well, you're still speaking to an audience.

As many of you know, Livejournal's been in a bit of an uproar today. It seems a young woman, a few days back, wrote a satirical post for her Livejournal. And it seems that in that post, she expressed (I'm not sure of the exact details) a desire to see the President of the United States stop breathing. By force, if need be.

I don't take a political stand on Websnark (that's what my Livejournal is for), but given my attitudes and my stand that "art matters," you can probably intuit my opinions of the current administration.

But I don't want physical harm to come to the President. And chances are likely neither do you. And chances are likely neither did that young woman. She meant it satirically.

But the United States Government, specifically the Department of the Treasury and the Secret Service which works for them, cannot have a sense of humor.

Let me say that again, giving it obnoxious emphasis and a blink tag that will make it look jarring and ugly and all newbieish, because if I ever tell you one true thing that I want you to remember, this is it:

The United States Secret Service cannot have a sense of humor.

They have to take any threat to the President seriously. Any. If you go here, you'll see the justification for this policy, as well as a couple of egregious examples of "no sense of humor" from the Clinton administration. But you can find examples from most modern administrations.

Guys, they've killed four Presidents. And wounded one. And shot at two more. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they want to commit suicide. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they want to impress girls. There are people who shoot at Presidents because they believe they're going to save the world. The President is a world leader, and they've been assassinating World Leaders about as long as we've had a concept of 'world' and 'leadership.'

So. This girl got a visit by the Secret Service. And by her own account they were reasonable and nice, and drank coffee with the girl and her family, and were perfectly satisfied that the girl was not a threat. She was upset, however, that someone turned her in, and she was upset, however, that she now has an FBI file that says she once threatened the President.

For many people who read the Internet, reporting threats to the President isn't optional. It's required. If a Livejournal user who calls himself "Berstanpeniswang" claims he's going to kill President Catgirl because he doesn't like the way she wears pink, and a United States Marine reads that message, he is obligated to report it. If he doesn't, and President Catgirl takes Berstanpeniswang's bullet right between the pink cat ears, that Marine is culpable for allowing the death of the President. "I didn't think he'd do it" is no excuse, when there is a National Tragedy that could have been prevented.

So yeah. The outrage people are expressing is wholly misplaced. No, I don't think that girl meant to threaten anyone. But the Secret Service doesn't assume that. They check things out. And yeah, it goes on your permanent record.

When I ranted about political leaders in the past, on my Livejournal, I did it knowing fully well that someday, someone might use my words to justify not hiring me for a job. Even though at the time, I could count my Friends list on one hand. Because those words are committed to the Internet, and they're never going away. Ever. If I deleted the Journal tomorrow, that just means I've deleted one record of what I wrote. There's still the Internet Wayback machine. There's still backup copies going back Christ knows how long that I have no control over. It's the way that it is. This is a public forum, in a public medium.

My words may offend people, sometimes. I don't get to take them back after I use them. It's come up, here on Websnark. It will come up again. All I can do, whether here or on my Livejournal or on some Forum I comment on or in other peoples' journals I comment on, is be cognizant of the fact that I'm doing this in front of the whole. Fucking. World. And the mike is live. And there are no takebacks.

When you're writing on your journals, and you bare your souls to the world, know that you're in fact baring them to the world.

When you're frothing about the political figures you hate, and you threaten them with violence because it's a funny way to rant, know that in fact you are threatening violence against others and official notice can and will be taken.

When you write about something embarrassing your best friend from college did four years later and you post it on the web, know that you are in fact embarrassing your best friend in front of potentially millions of people. (Don't believe me? Ask the Star Wars Kid.)

And when you invoke the right of Freedom of Speech, don't ever assume that means you aren't responsible for what you have said.

Sorry I didn't write about many webcomics today. Work was a bear and a browser crash killed this essay once, so I had to rewrite it from scratch. And right now I'm watching the ninth inning of the Sox game. They're up by three, so it's going to take some spectacular choking for them to break my heart this time.

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WebSnark discusses the nature of public internet speech. Basically it is speech which never goes away, and gets most if not all of the surrounding, defensible (or not) context stripped out of it. It snapshots a moment in time, and keeps it in the cur... [Read More]

Comments

This has happened to a number of cartoonists recently, too. And dumb high-school kids. And other people. The Secret Service has been on overdrive since September 11. By all reports, the agents are invariably nice about it; they understand that 99.99% of these reported "threats" are just people fooling around.

But they still have to look out for that one in a million that turns out to be serious.

Be smart, people. If you joke about something like this (as I wouldn't, because, much as I despise our current President and his administration, I don't think the death of a real person is funny), you'd better make it pretty damn clear that it's a joke. And you'd be wise not to commit it to public record.

Well said sir. Well said.

They're watching you!!!

And they have bad ass equipment and technology to do so!

:)

As long as they don't start checking up on the people conspiring to get the president *fired*, you're absolutely right.

AIE! Blink tag!

[tries to figure out how to use blink tag so as to be even MORE obnoxious]

At least you didn't MARQUEE.

Just a quick update, I've had about 500 visitors from Websnark, as well as several that I'm assuming were from the LJ feed, since they are from multiple people's friends lists.

And now back to the story...

In the days before the web, my advice was always "Never, ever put anything in writing that you don't want to see printed in a newspaper or brought up in court."

Since the web, I've added "brought up in a job interview or when running for office".

If you think elections are wacky now in the dirt that's dug up during the campaign, think how crazy-interesting it will be as the extremist rant they posted in college, or the angst ridden wailing from high school pop up to haunt people.

So, while the secret service (along with all the other US government security forces) has been in overdrive since 9/11, that has nothing to do with this case. ANY threat to the president has resulted in a visit from the Secret Service. I remember one case from about 8 years ago where a kid accidentally left himself logged into his webmail account in my mother's library. Another kid who didn't like him thought it would be funny to use the first kid's email to send a threat to the president. The next day kid A and kid B (and my mom) got a visit from an Secret Service agent. I don't know who got a mark on their FBI file. This in NOT releated to Bush or 9/11. It goes back much farther than that.

And for good reason.

Remember: John Hinkley shot President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, who he equated with her character in Taxi Driver. Sirhan Sirhan claimed he was hypnotized by the television into shooting Robert Kennedy. Leon Czolgosz was inspired by an anarchist who killed a European Leader into killing President McKinley. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme was doing what she thought Charles Manson would want her to do.

The Secret Service can't assume anyone who threatens the President has good judgement, is sane, or will listen to reason. They have to assume that they're believing they're giving 'fair warning' and check it out. They have to.

There's a line in the Clint Eastwood movie, In the Line of Fire that goes, more or less, "there are 400 threats made against the President every year. And we have to check each and every one of them." Including Eastwood going to a suburban house to talk to a 13 year old. That was 1993.

Damn it, now I have a yen to go see Assassins. Does anyone know if anyone plans to stage it, again?

Well, I know Baby D Productions is planning to do Assassins next spring, but I imagine that it'd be a a bit of a drive for you. :)

Lessons I learned about posting on the internet:

1) Phone calls, Private Messages and Emails FIRST.
2) Never post when you're a) Drunk b) Angry c) PMSing (Sorry guys ;) )
3) As much as you can hide behind a handle, the internet is not anonymous. One day you're going to face in real life someone who has read your online stuff and has figured out it was you. If you're lucky you won't die of embarassment when that happens.
4) To prevent 3 happening, maybe not posting something you'd wouldn't attach your real name to is a good idea.

Yeah, I learnt those the hard way.

Dude, "Assassins" is on Broadway, for the first time, right now! Neil Patrick Harris stars as the Balladeer! I am totally not making this up. And I am unworthy of your love.

Seriously? Dude! I knew that it played at Studio 54 for a while, but I thought it had closed without reopening. Oh, I am so there. I just need to arrange to crash on my friend Deb's couch (or, my friend Jessie's couch if Deb isn't available) whatever weekend I can get tickets for....)

What Phalanx says is true. I don't use a handle for posting (unless you consider "MasonK" a handle), but it was still rather a shock the day I went to my Favorite Sandwich Shop That Sells Submarine Sandwiches(tm), and wrote a check for my purchase... and the guy looks at the check and looks at me, and said "*The* Mason Kramer?"

I mean, like maybe 200 people read Superguy at that point... what were the odds?

Your time is coming, Bro. Someday, out of the blue, someone will recognize you as "the Websnark guy." It's just a matter of time.

Man I hope they don't have a shotgun handy.

Shaenon: Dude, "Assassins" is on Broadway, for the first time, right now! Neil Patrick Harris stars as the Balladeer! I am totally not making this up. And I am unworthy of your love.

Eric: I knew that it played at Studio 54 for a while, but I thought it had closed without reopening.

Granted, I'm not actually in the area, but from what I've seen, Eric has the latest info. Sorry.

I'm not positive, but I think if it was still on Broadway our local theater couldn't get the rights to do it here.

Granted, I'm not actually in the area, but from what I've seen, Eric has the latest info. Sorry.

DAMN YOU MAX POWERS!

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