The Empire Strikes Back

The cover of a recent Forbes article shows a fist rising out of computer to deliver uppercut to a corporate guy in a red power tie. “Attack of the Blogs,” screams the headline of a piece warning companies to be on guard against online character assassins.

The blognoscenti reacted with swift and predictable derision. “Why they omitted “gouge their eyes out with forks,” “clamp electrodes to testicles,” or “ship them to Gitmo by the crateload,” I don’t know,” quipped Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, echoing sentiments expressed by Dan Gillmor, Doc Searls and Steve Rubel.

Ok. So the Forbes piece was melodramatic and reflected the angst of powerful people who either don’t understand — or have suddenly come to realize — that there has never been a better time for individuals or small groups to propagate ideas with viral contagion.

While I ultimately believe grassroots media will be a liberating and positive force, every tool can be misused and so the flip side of this revolution means thousands of people may now publish whatever hurtful or untrue remarks may occur to them in the heat of the moment.

What is to be done? Well, first off, let’s not worry about big companies. They have more money than sense and can employ scads of people to safeguard their brands. I only hope they can restrain themselves from seeking to intimidate critics with SLAPPs — the acronym for strategic lawsuits against public participation. I’m sure the Electronic Frontier Foundation will be alert on that front.

At the same time everyone who exercises the right of self expression must understand that they have the responsibility to be truthful, accurate and fair. Many of those we target with our words will be people as vulnerable as ourselves, or perhaps even more so if we have the greater experience with this new gatling gun for firing off ideas. Long ago Shakespeare’s Othello moaned :

“Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

I’ve been a journalist and writer for many years and yet this is the first time that words meant for public consumption have gone directly from my mind to yours without some editorial intervention. It’s been a liberating experience and I blog because I enjoy thinking out loud.

But this is a new arena for the thousands who have suddenly discovered they can have a voice. So perhaps we ought to thank Forbes for publishing such a loaded piece. At least we’re thinking about the real likelihood that many people — real people of flesh and blood, not the “fictitious persons” that are corporations — will be undeservingly hurt by those who unthinkingly hit the send button on comments that may not even be true.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media