2020-06-23

Slate Star CoDoxxed

Get it? Because he says they're "doxxing" him.

"Doxxing" is a type of cyber-bullying in which the bully publicly reveals private information about the target, such as their home phone number or address, their employer's information, photos of the target's children, and so on. This is considered to be extremely threatening. Imagine that someone publicly posts a photo of your small child playing at the park, along with the Google Maps link to the park and a comment to the effect of, "This is where that racist Joe plays with his kids." That's doxxing. Yes, it's bad.

But that's not what's happening to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Let's dive in.

First, The Back-Story

Go ahead and cruise on over to slatestarcodex.com to get Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So's version of the story. It goes something like this: A writer from The New York Times wanted to write a story about a popular blog that generates a lot of interest and that maybe got some things right about COVID-19 early on. That was fine with Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So until the journalist said, "By the way, I've been able to figure out what the So-and-So stands for, and I'm going to put that into my story." Dr. Scott freaks out a little and says no, don't do that. The journalist says it's company policy.

So, Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So deleted his whole blog, saying that The New York Times was trying to endanger him by doxxing him "for clicks."

Before I go on, I would like to remind my readers of my previous posts about Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So. Here's a link. You will see from what I've written before that I consider the guy to be really weird. It's not just that I dislike his blog - and I do - it's that he seems emblematic of a very bizarre strain of Silicon Valley culture, and the deeper you get into this crowd, the heebier the jeebies, if you catch my drift. 

His blog rose to prominance when some well-regarded bloggers started linking to his posts. They all seemed to consider him very smart and thoughtful. Soon enough, "everyone" was reading him. Over time, his posts have become more performative. He started out writing like a self-conscious nerd, and now he writes as though he is playing the part of a self-conscious nerd who thinks he is a really smart and funny guy. That's fine. Fame changes you. I don't care.

What I do care about is the content of his blog. Each post tackles any number of topics. He's written on climate science and economics and technology and artificial intelligence and psychiatry and biology and sociology and anything else. He always presents his views as though he is an expert, but quite often it's painfully obvious that he's just done a couple of hours of internet research. There's no shame in doing some casual research and blogging about it, but when everyone starts calling you an expert, and you keep doing light research and presenting it as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So Presents The Answer To A Problem That People Have Been Trying To Solve For Decades, then it starts to get on my nerves.

I mean, it's dorky to do what effectively amounts to college homework assignments as an adult passing the time. But it's problematic to be taken seriously for it.

An "Anonymous" Blogger

Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So openly admits that his name is a pseudonym. First question: Why is he using a pseudonym? Maybe it's like a stage name. Lots of people have stage names. Stage names can be a lot of fun. But that's not why Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So says he uses a pseudonym. Instead, he says it's because he wants to remain anonymous.

But Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So also says that Scott Alexander is his real-life first and last name. That sure is an odd choice of pseudonyms for someone who wishes to remain anonymous. The legendary whistleblower "Deep Throat" wasn't a guy named Deep Throat McInnis, and if he was, going by "Deep Throat" wouldn't exactly be a cloak of anonymity. "Deep Throat" was not a pseudonym that resembled his or her real name at all. It was an obviously made-up moniker; it was intended to be obviously made up, because if everyone knows that Deep Throat's real name is nothing whatsoever resembling Deep Throat, then no one has any idea what Deep Throat's real name is. That's true anonymity. That's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So wanted, obviously. If he wanted that kind of anonymity, then he would have chosen a pseudonym more like "Deep Throat," or "Alone" (the pseudonym of the writer of The Last Psychiatrist blog), or "Slate Star Codex Guy" or something.

Pretty much everyone knows that Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens. Samuel Clemens didn't choose "Mark Twain" as a pen name because he wanted to be anonymous. He chose it because he thought he could sell more books under the name "Mark Twain" than under the name "Samuel Clemens," and he was probably right. Mark Twain sounds way better. But when the press discovered his real name, Samuel Clemens didn't delete all his books and complain about being doxxed. He just did what any normal person using a pen name would do: He said, yep, but I write books under the name Mark Twain. And there was no issue.

The matter was slightly different with "Publius," or "Publicus," or whatever name they were using to write The Federalist Papers. In that case, they had to be anonymous because they could have been killed for treason. Notice again how "Publius" bears scant resemblance to "John Jay" or "John Adams."

It gets worse, of course. Not only did Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So choose a "pseudonym" that was actually just his real name, he published many old links to all his old blog posts, in which he discussed personal details of his life. He discussed the experiences of the patients he saw in his clinical psychiatric practice. He held public meet-ups, advertised on his blog and on his social media accounts, where he agreed to meet with pretty much any old person who happened to read his blog or follow him on Twitter. He didn't meet strangers with a cloak and a mask, either. He met them using his real face and his real name and as his own, real, self. In short, he presented himself publicly as Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, Please Don't Use My Last Name Because I Want To Be Anonymous, Honest.

Not exactly the behavior of a man who seeks anonymity, is it?

Playing At Being Famous

But okay, maybe he was just naive about the matter. That could be the explanation, right?

Still, fifteen years of naivete over the course of progressively building internet fame seems to strain credulity. Once you start getting calls from The Times, wouldn't you reconsider your willy-nilly attitude toward divulging personal details? I mean, if it mattered to you that you remain anonymous, and you started to become famous, wouldn't you then quietly cull your blog of all references to your real life and real identity, and then just stick to publishing bi-weekly homework essays? Wouldn't you cool it with the public meet-ups and stuff?

You would indeed, if you cared about anonymity.

So, another possible explanation here is that Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So liked being famous and well-regarded for publishing homework essays on the internet. He liked being able to organize meet-ups and watch strangers show up, wanting to meet him. He got a taste for fame, and decided he wanted to keep up with it. That's find and dandy, too. I don't fault a man for wanting to be famous. Lots of people want that. 

Then, this feature in the New York Times should be his big break, right? Finally he gets his big spotlight in the press. Finally he can divulge his true identity, set up a Patreon account, publish a book, and maybe secure a regular writing spot at Slate Magazine, or Vox, or The Atlantic or something. If you wanted to be a famous public intellectual, isn't that what you'd do? That's what I would do. I would work hard for my big break, and when it finally came, I would try to make the most of it. I'd try to capitalize.

But that's not what Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So would do. What would he do? Delete his whole blog and complain that he's being persecuted. Weird, right?

Another Possibility

I'm just going to float this theory. I have no idea if it's true, and no skin in the game one way or the other. But it's a theory that makes sense to me.

Imagine you did homework essays for fun. Imagine you were kind of a nerd who lived with ten other people in the same house, you've gone on record saying that you don't have much luck with women, and you're basically just a clinical psychiatrist somewhere. Then imagine one day a lot of genuinely smart public intellectuals start reading your homework and say, "Hey, look at this guy. He seems smart."

So then imagine that you decide to keep up with the homework. People are reading your posts. You feel well-regarded. Heck, you are well-regarded. You get a taste of fame, and you decide you enjoy it and you want more of it. So you keep at your homework, and people keep reading you and linking to you.

And it's all pretty nice because it comes easy to you. You can do a couple of hours of internet research and write about it, no problem. So that's what you do. But at the bottom of it all, you know you're not really solving any problems. You know that your lengthy essays aren't really all that meritorious. You don't think you're all that smart, but everyone keeps saying that you are anyway. Thus, you enjoy the position you're in, you love the fame and the accolades, you like the meet-ups, maybe you even get more romantic attention than you did before.

But you don't have what it takes to capitalize on your fame because, at the bottom of it, you only have the willingness to do a couple hours' internet research per week. You know that people who write books - people like Malcolm Gladwell and James Altucher - actually spend a lot of time and money on research and interviews and collecting information. You know that it's their full-time job. And you know that, while you'd love to give a TED Talk and be interviewed by Tyler Cowen, you don't actually want to spend all your time researching the information you write about.

You know that because you've done enough internet research to understand that there is a HUGE difference between really knowing something and just sounding like you know something. And you know that your expertise is in the latter, not the former.

So things are going well. You have lots of readers, including some incredibly smart people who say nice things about you. When occasional readers point out the flaws in your arguments, you now have a legion of fans to do the additional legwork for you. All you have to do is sound kind of plausible, and there will be enough grains of truth in what you write that your fans can fill in the blanks on their own. In this way, you get them to do the legwork on your most controversial claims, and you get credit for it without having to do the hard work.

Well, that sounds a bit phony, doesn't it? Isn't that what fakers in the business world do? They get really good at sounding good, and then they pass off all their work to underlings, taking all the credit for themselves, and scaling the corporate ladder without ever having to do the hard work. This is classic charlatan behavior.

And when charlatans in the business world get caught, what happens next? They usually quit the job in a blaze of glory, finding a way to spin it such that they get a similar job elsewhere, hopping from job to job until they either get promoted or outed as a fake. And the story is always the same: "I did this amazing thing and that amazing thing, and then someone tried to take credit for my work, so I left." It's always that somebody set them up or something.

So, if you were a faker, if you were this kind of charlatan, only instead of being in the business world, you were in the world of internet blogging... imagine this. Imagine that a real reporter, a real professional writer, asked you for an interview and hit you with some hard-hitting questions that you couldn't answer because, let's face it, you're not who everyone says you are. Imagine that these hardball questions were difficult enough that you started to fear that if your fans got to read your poor responses, the veil would come off and you'd no longer be seen as Mr. Smart Well-Regarded Blogger.

What would you do?

Some people might delete the whole blog, in a blaze of glory, and claim that the reporter was trying to cause you personal harm.

I've seen similar things in the business world. I won't say for sure that this is what happened to Dr. Scott Alexander So-and-So, but it's a story that is consistent with a particular and plausible set of circumstances.

We shall see how it pans out.

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