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A Few More Critters for Amy’s Menagerie (Courtesy of the Porcupine Anti-Defamation Scoiety)

I am a card carrying porcupine. According to Amy Gahtan’s new series on “Handling Online Vermin”, the internet is swarming with undesirable, nasty “vermin” who apparently threaten the well being of innocent online souls:

online media presents a deeply weird juxtaposition of isolation and connectedness, anonymity and identity, parts and whole. In this baffling environment people can be unbelievably brash and vulnerable at the same time.

In this realm, the vermin of communication thrive. Recognizing them, and choosing to react appropriately, is the key to avoiding their damage…

Now Amy writes very well, writes often, and covers a lot of territory in online communication. I scan her “web” feed and read most of her articles. She may be surprised, but more often than not, I either agree with much of what she writes, or learn from her shared experiences. Sometimes she tosses up a tater, though that is too much to resist taking a swing at.

And that makes me a porcupine. A bad one, according to the definition and treatment guide:

People who seem unable to write a sentence that lacks a barb. There’s a rude, condescending, dismissive, or insulting edge to nearly everything they say. Often these barbs are thinly disguised as humor, or as hyper-rationality. Believe it or not, most porcupines are not aware of how irritating or hurtful they can be. They believe it’s “just their personality,” or they transfer the problem to you. (“Can’t you take a joke?”) They believe they are concealing their vulnerabilities, when in fact barbs only make underlying insecurities more obvious.

Ouch, my quills are quivering.

Metaphors can be a useful vehicle and a slippery trap at the same time (one I have gotten stuck in often)– when you combine them with making rather sweeping generalizations…. well it is a double whammy on dangerous turf. Use both wisely, I say. Amy does make a very valid distinction:

“Vermin” labels apply to behaviors, not to people. It’s an important distinction. When you encounter online vermin, don’t assume that their vermin-like qualities represent who they are.

So what do us porcupiners do that is so verminous?

… online porcupines often are gregarious. They tend to post liberally to discussion forums, chat rooms, weblog comment threads, and on their own weblogs and sites. Some also are podcasters. This means that vast swaths of the online population encounter porcupine quills on a regular basis, especially in discussion areas.

In a word, this sucks.

It especially sucks because porcupines are likely to make an internet newcomer’s initial interactions rather unpleasant. I’ve spoken with many people who decided they “don’t like the internet” because they ran into “a bunch of rude jerks” right off the bat.

This reminds me of my first forays into the active communities of email listservs in the early 1990s. As a newbie on a Director (multimedia software) listserv, I eagerly jumped in with what I thought was a useful suggestion. ALmost seconds after I clicked send, I was swatted down in searing flames by Gordon III (I forget his real name), where after I was quiet on the list for about 3 months until I found my voice and confidence. Through experience, I learned the nuances of online communication, how the game was played in this environment.

It would seem (my assumption, danger danger) that Amy has her own particular view on how the internet should be and how be should be in it. To me this is a bit pretentious, perhaps that is something that happens when you go pro. In Amy’s internet, there would be no mean things said, no barbs slung, no technical terms, nary an acronym, just people smiling and singing happy songs. It is an Internet with Big Green Directional Arrows, Click Here buttons, safety rails, and training wheels. The soft walls are all painted the same color, and there is soothing background podcasts. It seems so safe, so sterile, that it makes one want to….

Not in my internet.

In mine, the Internet is the one level place where no one’s world view is any more valid or “right” than anyone else. I do not judge other views unworthy- I may disagree, criticize, say why I do not like it, but I support that everyone’s opinion and world view out there has a place in net space. The way I would like the internet to be only goes as far as my little corner of it. I share it gladly with people I disagree with, people I respect, people I hate.

And it is a place where I can be wrong (which I am often), stupid (I will among the first to laugh at myself), caustic, make mistakes, learn, grow. experience this about every 3 hours. Frankly I do not take myself all that seriously. You might be advised to join me.

This all ties in very much with chapter one of David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, my new bible, hereafter named SPLJ. He makes incredible insightful distinctions between the real world we live in and the shifts in time, space, and self that happen online– that we often “try different selves on”-

we are rewriting ourselves on the Web, hearing voices we’re surprised to find coming from us, saying things we might not have expected [SPLJ, p9]

The things that we like most on the web need to co-exist with the ones we do not like, and that includes “vermin”. No one gets to pick who gets to stay and who has to go.

The Web is profoundly unmanaged, and that is crucial to its success. It takes traditional command and control structures and busts them up into many small pieces that then loosely join themselves– and that too is crucial to its success… As a result the Web is a mess, as unorganized as an orgy. It consists of voices proclaiming whatever they think is worth saying, trying on stances, experimenting with extremes, being wrong in public, making fun of what they hold scared in their day jobs, linking themselves into permanent conditions and drive-by arguments, savoring the rush you feel when you realize you don’t have to be the way you’ve been. [SPLJ, p9]

It is not an English tea party, with carefully folded napkins and proper pinky raising.

So I am a porcupine, and will be proud of it. I do not do it to ridicule people, though sarcasm does come from a word (I heard this once never looked it up) that means “to cut flesh”). I do it because it provokes thinking, and exchange. To me there is not enough of this, not for the sake of arguing or petty disagreeing, but because it is where the social exchanges happen. Often I learn my quills were tossed wrongly. I make amends. I thinking differently. I am challenged when quilled myself. I am not challenged or driven by people just saying nice things (well it does feel re-assuring) there is not much growth potential in a steady diet of only nice words.

Amy says:

Porcupines create a hostile environment for online newcomers, which negatively impacts online biodiversity.

which reads to me as a contradiction. Species have not evolved in stable environments, changes and growth happen in the transitions and disturbance zones, pertubations. Rivers transfer energy generate activity in the rapids, not the smooth pools between. Take away the porcupines and our vermin brethren, what do we have? Mayberry? Pleasantville? Stepford? Where is the “biodiversity” without the tension that exists between differences?

And in the porcupine treatment guide (which does offer very sound strategies for dealing with online interactions- there, a nice quill was tossed, a soft-tipped one that should just tickle):

It’s important to recognize that most online porcupines are not malicious. Generally, they are merely thoughtless or inept communicators. Usually this results from severe conversational myopia – most online quills result when the porcupine overfocuses on one aspect of something someone said, and loses sight of the broader context (including the consequences of being rude).

Doesn’t this sound a bit “rude, condescending, dismissive” with an “insulting edge” A bit of a barb “thinly disguised as humor, or as hyper-rationality”??

And I know now my diagnosis- “severe conversational myopia”– is there a purple pill for it?

So since Amy has the vermin covered, I thought I’d add a few more Internet species.

A Purse Poodle is one of those full grown miniature dogs my friend and colleague Donna calls “barking slippers” — the kind that can actually meet those apartment guidelines of allowing pets “under 15 pounds.” Usually adorned with pink bows and smelling always like fresh French shampoo, the purse poodle jumps nervously every time a door slams, a Rotweiller walks by, or someone a mile away glances their way. This creature requires an environment of extreme order, tidiness (condiments stored in alphabetical order), and ultimate saftety. They never go outside, they never rough house, and never bark at anything.

What does one get out of interacting with a purse poodle? It is undetermined.

Croaking Friend of a Frog (CFOAF) This creature typically sits in one spot and listens for the distance croaks of fellow frogs. It merely just echos what it hears, often verbatim, but if the CFOAF adds anything of its own to the community, it is merely “This is Cool”, “Check This Out”, or “I Found this Interesting”. Sometimes, you will detect something of interest emitting from this frog, but when you listen closely, you find it is not even the full source, which you have to trace elsewhere. Harmless, but they add a lot of chatter to the night.

The Feeble Fledgling yearns to soar like the eagles, but is unwilling to step out of the nest without two safety harnesses and attached to their parent, plus a pre-determined flight path and landing zone. The see the world beyond the nest as way to scary to even look far over the edge. No one really sees them, but most that accidently fall from their roost quickly learn that flying is not all that hard, and wonder why they were so afraid in the first place.

Well there are many more, but the point is that there are more than vermin out there. Sure I made lots of distortions here, and am open to taking shots for it. This porcupine sports a large target on his fur.

But I still urge Porcupines, unite, stand up and squeal proudly with me, “What’s so bad about being vermin?” We do not mind that the net is chock full of Purse Poodles, Croaking Frogs, and Feeble Fledglings.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Just the sheer volume of writing you find necessary to post with regard to this topic only validates for me that you are a porcupine … and you are flame bait.

    Which would you rather be: someone who can brush things off because you know they don’t really apply to you on a personal level, or someone who is seeing everything as an attack and reacting to it?

  2. That is an interesting observation, Tom, on my writing. I actually mulled over what I read on Amy’s site for a day or so in the back of my mind, but my blog composing software makes writing long things easy.

    But the topics and volume of my blog posts for January 2005 do not support your contention:

    Topics include:

    use of tech at maricopa / my projects 7

    flickr 6

    tagging/folksonomy 5

    rss / feed2js 5

    fighting comment spam 3

    web feedback 3

    amy / porcupines / “professional blogging” 3

    odd web sites 2

    small pieces loosely joined 2

    blogging 2

    interesting sites 2

    audio technology 2

    personal / off topic 2

    web design 1

    learning objects 1

    browser tools 1

    movable type how to 1

    I don’t know you, I don;t know Amy, you do not know me. Weinberger’s books makes the distinctions you might be missing- the disconnect between who we are online and who we are as people. So here is a clue to the real me- I brush everything off and like I said, do not take myself seriously.

    Nor did I feel “attacked”– is everything that is not a gushing positive reply and attack? Talk abiout being sensitive to criticism and taking things personally…. Odd.

    I like to stir things up- as my favorite author Edward Abbey wrote, “Society is like a stew… if you don’t stir it up once in a while, all the scum will rise to the top.”

    PS- Interesting that Amy’s Porcupine Strategy suggestion is to ignore us — so it is her husband who shows up with a comment??

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