Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Danger of Publicly Shaming People Online...

The internet's greatest challenge these days is figuring out exactly how to tread that fine line between relying on "the wisdom of crowds" for content, yet not encouraging a mob mentality.

Enter Reddit, one of the leaders in user-generated social media in cyberspace. Yesterday, someone posted a link with the following title:

"Reddit - Name and shame this guy - TODD PICQUELLE - rips off a designer's hard work and passes it off as his own - even changes magazine articles to pretend they're about him (see comments)".

Apparently, this web designer, Todd Picquelle, was caught plagiarizing the work of another web designer, Rob Morris. Take a look at the original web page versus the plagiarized version and judge for yourself (if it's unavailable due to heavy traffic, a screenshot can be found here).

It appears pretty obvious that Vicquelle absolutely stole Morris' design down to the very last detail. In fact, the only things he seems to have mustered up the energy to do was photoshop his own head into the existing picture and change his name.

But here's the bigger problem. Read the comments people left on the Reddit page about this story. Vicquelle is cursed at and called names with all sorts of obscenities being hurled at him. Even more disturbing, some folks (many anonymous, of course) even discuss possible physical violence. One user writes how he would "personally like to punch him".

Throughout the rest of the day, what ensued was nothing less than an all-out cyber witch-hunt. Reddit mobs scoured the Web and then "outed" his blogs, websites, LinkedIn profile, and basically any other piece of personally identifiable information related to the guy in an attempt to publicly "shame" and "[warn] potential customers to steer clear of him".

Now, I don't mean to put myself in the position of trying to defend someone whose actions seem so obviously despicable, but what ensued yesterday on Reddit was really quite disturbing. People might perceive the events that unfolded as either 1) a good thing that the Web has a self-enforcing mechanism that fosters accountability and won't allow anyone to do "something as obvious as that and not expect to get noticed or called out on it", or 2) a bad thing that mobs are so quickly and easily able to destroy someone's life and reputation without any sort of due process.

After all, what if - just what if - one of Vicquelle's buddies actually photoshopped the image and posted it to the Web as a type of practical joke?

The bottom line is that destroying someone's reputation and livelihood is an extremely serious matter, and it's completely unacceptable for ordinary individuals to do so without any actual knowledge of the situation other than what gets posted in a 189-character link, and submitted by anonymous users, no less. Meanwhile, it ought to go without saying that threats of violence are, of course, criminal and deserve to draw the ire of law enforcement officials.

If Vicquelle is, in fact, guilty of outright plagiarizing Morris' website, then his actions do indeed warrant strong condemnation, and legal remedies exist to redress the situation. But what this case truly demonstrates is that online mobs are the greater danger. They're the ones creating fear and giving user-generated sites a bad name.

Paradoxically, these mobs are destroying the very credibility of their own venues.


At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Josh of Cubicle Ninjas said...

Imagine it another way: You do this for a living and someone steals your work. The thief ignores your cease and desist emails. After contacting a lawyer you find you don't have many rights, and the bill is likely to be thousands of dollars to get any resolution.

The point is there is no solution for professional artists. The thief made a choice to steal so they have to deal with this fact. Intershaming happens when people have very few options left. Did they take it too far? Most likely, but when someone steals from you for profit it is not a time to be kind.

Also it important to note that there is no "happy accident" here. The person tried to pass off someone else's work. They got caught. They were forced to take it down due to the response. Problem solved. (The thief also stole all their articles, images, and work from other people as well.)

If someone took your blog post, published it, made money from it, and got good publicity for this work, would you think that is right? No. You'd want to set people straight.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Josh, I agree with everything you're saying. If it were me who were victimized, I'd be livid.

My point, however, was that it shouldn't be acceptable for online mobs to try and rectify the situation however they deem fit. We both know that the overwhelming majority of Reddit users who contributed to the persecution yesterday had no real information informing their decision other than what a stranger says happened in a hyperlink.

Again, I'm not trying to defend Vicquelle or his actions. But there's a reason why mobs aren't allowed to go vigilante and dispense their own form of justice in the real world. Let's remember why that is.

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Rob Morris said...

Hi Rob,

Yes. I agree it was a little scary to see the beast that is reddit in action. These guys scan a story and then unleash their wrath.

I can confirm our friend Todd was indeed deserving of the serving, but if he weren't it would have been way too late.

I've had a lot of people rip my site. The reason Todd got the treatment he did was because the nature of his plagiarism was so pathological.

I guess the Reddit people made a bit of an example of Todd.

I agree there's definitely danger of causing damage when people don't check the facts of themselves, but part of me was glad to see this get resolved the way it did.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Rob, thanks so much for the comment and enlightening us on what happened. And I truly sympathize with you for getting your work stolen.

I can't believe that some people decided to rip your site. That's just unbelievable.

But, while I can fully understand why part of you was "glad to see this thing resolved the way it did", the fact that you can still acknowledge the dangers in the mob's reaction, despite it working on your behalf, demonstrates that you're a pretty reasonable guy.

Wish you all the best :-)

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It just so happens that my fiancé just finished her NYC jury duty the other day. Although we both have our problems with the legal system we both agree that due process and trial by ones piers is a beautiful thing. This case seemed to be clear-cut, but I can easily imagine a misguided mob. In my own experiences the threat of legal action was more than enough to have an image taken down. I can only imagine what I would have done If that didn’t work.. Rob perhaps you have a suggestion for the best (and maybe cheapest) course of action?
Ben O


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