Mena Trott Declares Civil War

Mena Trott speaks at Les Blogs

In a keynote address at the Les Blogs conference yesterday, Six Apart founder Mena Trott cut short her call for blogger civility to put a bleep in his place:

Who is dotBen? All day yesterday you've been an ------- to the people who've been in this town and I want to know why don't you, why, what the ----?

It's hard to fairly judge the situation without seeing the events that led up to it, but that's never stopped me before. Trott showed courage giving a speech at the Six Apart-organized conference in front of screen that projected live online chat, a relatively new phenomenon called a backchannel, but I agree with the point Ben Metcalfe seemed to be making when dragged in front of the whole class -- you can't always be nice if you're being honest.

The comments Shel Israel made right before the confrontation are pretty funny in retrospect:

It's a different world now and it's a new way of expressing things. It's a much faster world we live in, so I guess we got to live with it and every story has two points of view and we have to listen sometimes to see what other people think.

Update: Here's a longer excerpt of Trott's speech (and the transcript), which she intended in part as a challenge to backchannel behavior:

I started to get incredibly nervous about appearing on this stage today. ... The main reason I was scared and I'm still scared, is that IRC backchannel. ... I've seen people make comments on these channels that they would never say to somebody's face.


"Who is dotBen? All day yesterday you've been an asshole to the people who've been in this town and I want to know why don't you, why, what the fuck?"

Reminds me of the lineup scene in the movie "The Usual Suspects." Was she frothing?

"you can't always be nice if you're being honest"

I don't think the point is to always be nice, as Mena herself demonstrated. The point is to be accountable and responsible. Which I think Ben demonstrated when he stood up, by (1) not repeating "this is bullshit" and (2) asking to take the conversation offline.

Why, it's almost as if he were saying some things are better said offline, in a format that's not public and permanently archived, in order to be both more civil and more effective.

Funny, that.

Were you there, Anil? I can't really argue the merits of her argument because all I got to see was that exchange.

I'm not sure how I would have reacted as the speaker. As the backchannel commenter, it would probably be pretty easy to mouth off on IRC and then act like the bigger person once the speaker flipped out.

I don't think this reflects badly on 6A at all. She's a human being who got angry. The BBC twit typing flames on a screen... not so human.

I think Ben Metcalfe was writing what most of the audience were thinking.

Six Apart organised this conference so they were in control of having the IRC and showing it on the main screen.

If the people on stage want to be at the top of their industry, they must be civil. CEOs, Presidents, and other public figures get nowhere by being rude and condescending to their audiences. Charm is key.

Mena (and most of the other 'heads' of the industry) need some serious media training if they want the blogging industry to mature, because these sort of charades are extremely unprofessional.

On the contrary, you can always be nice, even when you are being honest. This idea that somehow rudeness or unkindness is intrinsic to an honest discussion is completely wrong. It also, I believe, is an attitude that is destroying our ability to have public discourse.

Manners, politeness, respect, cutting a person some slack, even overlooking some of one's own more petty points are all things that are perfectly consistent with honesty. Honesty requires not contradicting things you know to be true. It requires advancing viewpoints that you believe. It says nothing about the linguistic tactics.

dotBen's observations about the sort of realpolitik of being in a semi-public situation are wrong. No one should have to be able or willing to brave arbitrarily harsh attack merely to participate. dotBen and his ilk represent the typical, juvenile attitude of people that simply don't care who they hurt. That use 'honesty' as a sleight of hand to deflect attention from willingness to brutalize people in pursuit of their own goals - often that cannot be advanced in a reasonable way.

Mena's response, contrary to Mr Cooper's viewpoint seemed to me to be heartfelt and sincere. If she was trying to be manipulative, she might follow his advice against "these sort of charades" but I think that condescending choice of words puts the lie to the supposed neutrality of his comment.

I agree with Rogers, she called an asshole an asshole - and she did it without being mean-spirited. I am firmly on her side.

I was going to post a snarky comment about how "It's hard to fairly judge the situation without seeing the events that led up to it, but that's never stopped me before." ought to be some sort of weblogger credo, but this is even more important:

No one should have to be able or willing to brave arbitrarily harsh attack merely to participate.

That's an extremely important point. I know we can't make the internet a "safe place", by any definition, but we really can't require that people sit there and take arbitrary beatings with grace and good charm. That's just too high a standard, an inhuman standard.

The more inhumanity we "require", the more people we prevent from being in those positions. (Sure, it's a balance, we don't want to solicit assholes; I'm just saying we probably ought to admit people are human and let them act as such.)

The typical tech conference seems to be a speaker delivering powerpoint images and some commentary to an audience with an internet connected laptop. The speaker has to compete with the ability of the internet to become a distraction.

Ben had the incremental inducement of an interactive audience eager to read his take on the next speaking head. He just worte what he was thinking and anyone on that channel could disagree. The decision to allow laptops, host an IRC channel for discussion and then to periodically display that chat to the audience behind the speaker is of seriously questionable taste. Mena needs some counseling from a lawyer on the consequences of dragging a critic before the audience and asking the deeply probling question "What the Fuck?"

I think she owes the guy an apology and it will hurt her business. It was a blatant abuse of power. She could have simply taken a laptop and joined the IRC and written "hey, BenDot, WTF?" and used the channel her critic was using. He wasn't heckling the speaker from the audience and disrupting anyone's right to hear the speech without commentary and I'm sure her had opposing views posted to the IRC chat... If not, then mena was insulting a larger editorial group and just targeting a leader.

So, I ask: Mena Trott "What the Fuck?"
Explain yourself. Ben should be given a refund for public humiliation. And wouldn't we LOVE to hear that offline chat? The bigger question is "do we deserve to hear it?" If you don't want internet discourse to apporach the ethics and standards of tabloids then follow the advice Mena lectured on "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." WTF?

Being "nice" is for face-to-face confrontations -- it saves bloody noses.

There is no compunction to be "nice" to an anonymous poster; one that isn't too "nice" themselves. Indeed, it is necessary to reply insultingly, if without profanity, because using invective against such use of words defines the debate and those corresponding in it.

Any "hope" for political correctness on the internet, to anonymous posters, is faint, at best.

Having said that, all you Democrats/liberals are nothing more than petty traitors in trying to gain political advantage while our soldiers are risking their lives in pursuit of freedom for millions of Iraqis. Wise up, you stupid idealogues, and start supporting democracy instead of your failure of a party, and claiming some sort of patriotism for crying "fire" in the theatre...

I'd have to agree with TQ White. I believe you can always be "nice" while being honest -- if by nice, you mean free from inflamatory language.

Ben could have easily made the equivalent statement without using the term "bullshit". Had he done so, I'm not sure that Mena would have even noticed. The flippant, dismissive and derisive nature of that term, and others like it, is what is at the heart of this.

When did the burden of successful communication shift to the listner?

I am increasingly disturbed by a trend that I've observed being advanced all over the internet, that "free speech" means "speech without consequence". This is juvenille at best and reminds me of the childhood assertions of "It's a free country" in defense of rude behavior. Free speech simply means that you are free to act like an asshole. It doesn't mean that you are allowed to act like one without receiving the acompanying label.

I also object to the characterization "dragged in front of the whole class". He made his comments in a public forum. As for the suggestion that Mena should've responded in IRC: While it may have been more well received, it wasn't required. The nature of the chat was altered from pseudo private to public when it was plastered on the screen.

Now that I've seen a longer excerpt, it seems like Ben Metcalfe was singled out for an argument Mena Trott wanted to have about backchannel behavior.

I wouldn't be surprised if the person controlling the display chose to display the backchat upon seeing his "this is bullshit" comment, knowing it was exactly the kind of thing Trott was lamenting.

I'd like to see the whole keynote, because this is one of the rare times when a silly blogging tempest in a teapot is accompanied by video. But the blogger who was hosting it had to remove the files for bandwidth considerations.

I don't find this a big deal as much as an entertaining one. In my opinion, when you give a speech on civility, you're just asking for trouble.

As for moderation, I don't do it on Workbench for two reasons: People hate it and I want readers to be as free as possible to criticize me when I've made a mistake. That hasn't happened since early 2004, but I want to be prepared just in case.

RE the backchannel IRC? I think this adds a dynamic, interactive element to conferences/events and I wish the speakers would do what those of us who have live radio shows with IRC already are doing: involve the backchannel more often.

This is one element of podcasts that is missing -- the live broadcast interaction. Some really special things can happen in a live environment with a backchannel.

Mena's idea of involving the backchannel seems to have backfired somewhat in this case, but then we haven't heard her complete side of the story so far, just the Zawdony rebuke where he posted about getting spam from the same PR company that 6A uses and Mena broke her rule of not replying to flames to reply. And of course Ben's side of the story. So far I'd score this to Ben, but Mena wrote that she would have more to say later, so I'd like to read her perspective.

However, these recent events suggest to me that Mena's supposed "thick skin" is thinner than she is willing to admit.

Could you imagine someone calling bullsh*t in the middle of a presentation you were giving?

I went to his website. His explanation boils down to cultural differences between Americans and Europeans, and blames part of it on West Coast attitude, and part of it on Mena's "naive" description of the blogosphere.

I usually abstain from profanity, but asshole is the perfect word to describe this fool. It is kind of refreshing. For far too long after reading the European blogs, you would think they are all in the US.

Have the irc logs been posted?

I have seen exhaustive coverage of what Mena said, and her calling out dotBen, but nowhere showing what he said at that point, and nowhere showing the tenor of his comments over the two days.

Both Ben and Mena paid and are still paying for their demonstrations of rudeness, I would say Mena proved her point by sacrifice. ;-p

From another perspective, I think we maybe see more confrontations in conferences (Shock Conference?) because large ripples across blogs created by such incidents could be valuable to some folks.

I don't think it was as bad as the attack on Dave Winer at Blognashville, but Mena was right in pointing that crap with .Ben out. If you're gonna flame people, then stand by what you say. Can't handle it, then stfu....

I think it's silly for Meena to bitch about something when she was asking for it by opening up the Gates of Anarchy. IRC is intrinsically South Park. Get over it,

IRC transcript linked from here. (Search for 'this is bullshit'.)

I've posted more of my thoughts here.

Hopefully, this post does a good job of getting across some of the points I was trying to make in my talk, and in the private discussion I had with Ben.

I was there and Mena did lose the plot -at least in my European eyes.

As for Winer's remarks - in part, they're off topic and irrelevant to the argument.

As to his point about comments - there's no conversation without comment. And Winer's the master of keeping anything he doesn't like off his site while spreading his thoughts around sites where commenting is permitted. Seems to be hypocritial to me.

If nothing else, a lot was learned. And that's got to be a good thing.

Mena summerizes, "Is it possible to have the sort of productive face-to-face connection or conversation that Ben M. and I had offline in an online world? And what can we, as bloggers, do to facilitate that?

Take "accountability" for the comments you make! You said it yourself.

What is the subject of the comments which elicit insulting, provocative or profane replies? Are you taking responsibility for that; however "nice" you present it?

Rogers seems to indicate that his "Retort" is not a good example of the "nice" you promote, but that he wants to allow freedom-of-speech and unmoderated. That is what Rogers needs to take responsibility for "saying," and with the choice of subject matter and the title-spin he uses to foment the arguments.

The Left doesn't much care for heated replies to their "messages," and slavishly avoiding the responsibility for the "message," call for some utopian ideal of political correctness in the replies they receive; e.g., they tacitly support the terrorist's goals in calling for withdrawel and reviling the administration for the conduct of the war, and yet become upset when the replies to their "message" explains that perception to them!

"Responsibility" begins not with the insulting or demeaning replies, it starts when the "message" is spoken/written in the first place...anything else is cake-eating...

The Drudge Retort is not unmoderated. Over time, the level of editorial control imposed on the site has increased as abuse increased. Around 1,500 of the 193,000 comments posted on the site since July have been moved to the deleted comments bin, where people can judge whether the removals were justified.

I like to run sites that don't impose much control on what users can say -- especially in terms of the political views they express. The result is a more raucous and combative forum than many people are comfortable with, but one of the strengths of the web is that you're always one click away from something you might like better.

That approach seems comparable to offering a conference backchannel and putting it onscreen. I don't think it's possible for a backchannel to be polite -- it's like distributing straws and wads of paper at the back of a classroom.

Rogers says, "I like to run sites that don't impose much control on what users can say -- especially in terms of the political views they express."

Fine, and of course that was not what I was discussing, but rather the "responsibility" for the replies you may or may not receive as a consequence of that "speech."

The best example of the "impolite" back-and-forth under discussion is: Politics. As I also mentioned, it is the position/speech expressed, originally, which necessitates the "responsibility" mentioned by Mena. You can't begin to assign that "responsibility" to those who reply, however insultingly, and avoid that it is a consequence of the person's original comments.

Of course, there can be heated discussions on subjects other than politics, but that is the thrust (I think) of the call(s) for some utopian ideal of "politeness." The Left/liberals don't care to be compared to those who support terrorism, but they just can't resist trying to take partisan political advantage of the horror of war -- they are avoiding their responsibility in doing so.

When discussing other subjects, where is the angst demonstrated; the concern for "being polite?" Even when someone issues some insult, it is like water off a ducks back -- except with the present effort by the Democrats to seek partisan advantage over our dead soldiers, tacitly supporting the terrorists themselves and raking the slime-pit for more mud to throw...

...and none of you care to take the "responsibility" for those words and actions. So, you (in general) blame the responses and call for responsibility on the part of those who do insult, deservedly, the cake-eaters who claim to be "patriotic" while they call our soldiers murderers, use illegal weapons, torturers and, then, turn around and call them "heroes" when it suits their political advantage to do so.

Elitist Antoinettes...

First, backchannels develop their own conversational norms, and they usually differ from those of a respectful audience.

Contrasting those differences by wall projection may serve to enlighten, distract, confuse, or engrage. These may be good things. Or not.

When I've seen Mena present (around five times, I think) she has often put me to sleep, maybe because she was herself bored with the panel or subject matter. So anything that gets the private Mena fired up is good by me. Wish I'd been there.

There is an art to constructive backchannel, often related to technography. When I play, I try to annotate the speaker with related quotes, links, questions that clarify, jibes when a panel takes itself too seriously, with fact/reality checking thrown in. Something I'm less effective at is transcribing and summarizing the speakers and the rest of the action in the room; very useful for people outside the room.

It does change the dynamic for speakers, just as microphones (and your suddenly big voice), a large auditorium (stage fright), or working with television cameras (knowing how to look good and move for video) add to the skills required for effective oration.

anging like a palate (uvula) from the roof of a mouth, according
to imaginative Linnaeus, the little bellwort droops, and so
modestly hides behind the leaf its footstalk pierces that the eye
often fails to find it when so many more showy blossoms arrest
attention in the May woods.

Lora quotes, "...according
to imaginative Linnaeus, the little bellwort...

A lily by any other name, Uvularia perfoliata L. (for Linnaeus,) would smell as sweet.

I love obscure, pseudo-intellectual commentary like a swiftian way...don't you?

You can lie and being nice and it feels can be honest and being sarcastic but it feels so heavy.

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