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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Musing: The Art of Trolling and Evoking Rage on the Web

In my last post I had angered a Mac user when I claimed that Microsoft owned Apple and therefore disqualified them as a competitor. Admittedly this was my expression of a common misconception and was quite ignorant as I hadn't done any recent research on the topic. Being that I don't want TII to be about expressing ignorance and/or bias masquerading as "News Stories" just to attract misguided traffic, I decided to correct the issue by doing something foreign to most IT Industry Analysts: Performing Some Research, after which I conceded that my reader was in fact correct and encouraged any other readers to provide relevant details that would also be helpful in regards to that topic.

Such traffic-gathering tactics are nothing more than a glorified combination of trolls and are being used in lieu of classic "sky is falling" news stories traditionally reserved for slow news days. They are also, in some respects, an insult to the artform of trolling. Yes, I said it, artform.

Any web user has seen it before: that post which they should know better than to dignify with a response but are emotionally compelled to reply, more often than not through anger. I had recently come across one such post which I originally thought to be genuine but ended up being nothing more than a well-played straw man argument. The post I'm referring to is one made by a "JerryLeeCooper" in ZDNet's forums which was then followed-up in such an ignorant, adamant, and pure rage-inducing manner that I suspect the forums ZDNet must have increased their registered users by a large fraction that night based on angry respondents alone! It was only after doing some digging that I realized it was a ploy to drive traffic to this character's website.

What made this work so well for him, leaving only a few who caught it, was the careful expression of his ignorance so that it would be believable as a viewpoint. Much like the common "Linux would be just as prone to viruses as Windows if it was as popular" argument, commonly used to dismiss Linux security compared to Windows, it was ignorant but believable without going over the edge such as a claim that Linux is a terrorist-sponsored OS. So by taking a bit of liberty I would like to suggest that JerryLeeCooper be handed my own personal 2007 IT-Disturber of the Year Award.

Next time I will look at applying some metrics for measurement and democracy for voting on this award, but where does one begin measuring the effectiveness of a troll? Is it where they can drive traffic? The number of replies they generate? The percentage of a crowd they can agitate? What about apathetic or "calm" groups? Are they worth more?

Any others I've missed? I'll start putting together a list of "successful troll metrics" - any input is most welcome!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rant: He Neither "Misses" nor "Hits" the "Point"

Bill Gates recently gave a speech (here is the video) for a kinder, gentler, more merciful form of Capitalism. One which would benefit the poorest two-thirds of our fellow man while still being profitable to businesses. There have been arguments for both Gates being right and Gates being wrong and even the skeptic that I am cannot help but agree that we need to do something about this horrible divide between those who have and those who have-not.

What could be better than the world's wealthiest man dedicating himself to the poorest people in the world? This is fantastic news!


Sadly, there is a huge difference between what Bill Gates says, and what Bill Gates does. There is an unfortunate truth that the top 2% (probably more) of the wealthiest people in the world have obtained their status at the expense (summary) of the rest of the population, rather than through some mutually beneficial methods. I really had hoped that this was an exception to that rule but no matter how much I denied it - the facts, which I outline below, confirm it:
Bill Gates neither misses, hits, nor cares about the point - his speech is merely the preamble for a corporate welfare application being prepared by Microsoft. He hasn't gone insane, this is just "Business as UsualTM".

In his speech Mr. Gates proclaims that "Companies should create businesses that focus on building products and services for the poor." as if oblivious to the incredible efforts during the last 3 years to provide those countries with modern educational tools! Efforts such as the Linux-based OLPC laptop project, which after becoming an object of Gates' ridicule, has been making progress in successfully providing the third world affordable computing and learning platforms posing a long-term threat to the Microsoft's Windows monopoly. How ironic, then, is the fact that educational tools and computers based on Windows are virtually non-existent in poor countries due to Microsoft's monopoly pricing and their lack of interest in those who cannot pay those prices? They have started focusing on products and businesses in these sectors very recently but only as a response to the competitive threat posed by Linux, OLPC, and others. Their recent efforts have included giving steep (and steeper) discounts on Windows licenses, attempting to develop a version for low-end hardware, and in more disturbing cases threatening and bribing smaller poor Governments to adopt their products. Microsoft's recent efforts are not about providing the bottom-third of our population modern learning tools, they are merely an extension of a classic business strategy that Microsoft has recently had to pursue for competitive reasons.

So now the million dollar question is: Why is Gates pushing for changes to our Capitalist system if there are already businesses and organizations making headway in providing the solutions for the 3rd world? Businesses doing exactly what he touts in his speech, albeit without Microsoft technology?

It is when Gates states that "...disburse funds to create financial incentives for businesses to improve the lives of the poor..." that I inevitably come to the conclusion that Gates isn't asking for a fundamental change to Capitalism. What he's asking for is a subsidy which will allow Microsoft to enjoy the types of profits it's used to while extending it's monopolistic tactics to a new, low-profit, market.

So as for Bill Gates' speech and all the hoopla surrounding it, I will write it off as Waggener Edstrom doing what they do best to earn their paycheque. They have elegantly crafted an argument which paints this whole effort as an off-the-cuff plan, supposedly written on a napkin during a flight, based on Bill Gates' mercy after witnessing the poverty in the African slum of Soweto. They have managed to wield our own emotions as if they were their own personal tool by using a combination of our pity for the poor and our wishful thinking to make it all but impossible to argue the point without coming off as an heartless cynic.

Well, this heartless cynic predicts that this campaign will be easily identifiable through the following:
  • the repeatition of this "creative capitalism" message (through Waggener Edstrom and Microsoft's channels of influence)
  • increasing focus on the creation of financial incentive programs from Governments and U.N. Agencies as the "right thing" to do
  • "creative capitalism" becoming the newest buzzword on the lips of every pointy-haired boss while being nothing more than a poorly-disguised euphemism for corporate welfare

With that in mind I'm really hoping we will be able to resist the inevitable call to action spawned from these suggestions for 3rd World "Technology Outreach" programs. It is obvious that these challenges are best left in the hands of organizations genuinely aiming to improve the situation as well as to businesses with sustainable business models for the 3rd world. The issue with profit-obsessed companies, such as but not limited to Microsoft, who are only seeking to extend their market rather than commit, with a dedicated mission and/or business model, to helping the world's neediest is that they will only do the absolute minimum to obtain approval (i.e. check-off the "ticky boxes") on whatever reports are required to obtain their subsidies. I have no doubt that this will be done without any regard as to whether, in reality, their efforts help those people or not. This is in stark contrast to non-profit organizations devoted to such causes which make sure that the help they provide is empathetic, real, and effective! It is also a slap in the face for businesses which have opted to use creativity in their business models, rather than subsidies, to solve those countries' problems and still turn a profit. Sure their profits are not as excessive as those demanded by monopolists, but they are sustainable.

While I am somewhat impressed with the sheer talent in the design and execution of such a PR campaign I anticipate becoming extremely frustrated having to watch the irony of this whole "creative capitalism" speech come to bear:
the world's poorest being used as an excuse to line the coffers of the world's richest!

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