The problem with free speech is that it contains all manner of talk we don’t like. Criticism, careless talk, revelations about the rich and powerful and, yes, obscenities and abuse. Looking at the pre-election graffiti in Pompeii, we learn that this is hardly a new phenomenon. Armilius Celer was bold enough to put his own name to a plea to elect his neighbour Lucius Statius Receptus to a position with judicial power, even though he ended his campaign message with these words:
“May you take sick if you maliciously erase this!”
Whilst most of the graffiti preserved by the sudden interruption to life in Pompeii is about the gladiatorial contests (much as twitter is actually dominated by celebrity tittle-tattle), there is a fair amount of political graffiti. Here’s another:
“The sneak thieves request the election of Vatia as Aedile. The whole company of late drinkers favor Vatia. The whole company of late risers favor Vatia.”
These ancient trolls performed their work at night, often with ladders to get their message into highly visible positions. They were well organised, with workshops for preparatory work and operated in teams, with a ‘whitener’ to clear away existing graffiti, an assistant, a lantern man, a ladder man and the sign writer himself. Their output has revealed much about their society, much of it unpleasant (to modern eyes, at least). Much of it was nasty:
“The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison”
The problem with free speech is also its greatest strength. It cannot be controlled. The free flow of discourse allows topics to spring up wherever there is something to be discussed and this endless spring often creates new pools of thought. Whereas the Southern Italians of old felt abandoned by their Roman overlords and developed their culture accordingly, today we have the blogosphere, twitter and the like which turn our cultural devils into figures of fun remarkably quickly. This week, a comedian made himself into the joke of the week by being caught avoiding his taxes. A little further back in time, a successful self-promoting Tory Member of Parliament caught the flak in a particularly unpleasant way. Whereas most high profile people subjected to abuse of that nature simply ignore it, Louise Mensch took the opposite approach and called attention to it by declaring many of these nasty messages to be her “favourites” on twitter. Many of us, even her political enemies, were impressed by her clever approach to the problem. She kick started a big discussion about the nature of public discussions.
Unfortunately, it seems that Mensch didn’t just object to the abuse. She also disliked the very nature of free speech. She doesn’t like the way conversations twist and turn and stray “off topic”. She declared that she was going to start a rival service to twitter, called menshn, where people would be obliged to stay “on topic”. This morning, I entered this new forum to check it out. This is what I found.
Firstly, I tried to edit my profile by uploading the same image of me that I use on all social networks etc. Menshn’s bio pic upload was broken, so I’m stuck with the default image. Instead of an anonymous egg like twitter or a greyed out head and shoulders portrait like WordPress, I’ve been obliged to be pictorially represented by this image:
Louise Mensch made me look like this
I’m not really sure who this is. Definitely she’s the wrong gender. I’ve been able to download the full sized image because the site isn’t coded very well; it was in a directory which one would normally expect to be off limits to the general public.
I’m happy to show you my profile page because it doesn’t actually contain my data, which isn’t very convenient if you’re thinking about changing it. Here’s the page which doesn’t contain any data:
Where’s my data? (Click to enlarge image.)
As if to prove that criticism is acceptable, you can see a trending ‘meshn’ on the right there. Some wag has created an account called, “itsallmimimi” and told #BigLouise exactly what he thinks of her government. I presume it’s a man but who knows – they’ve got another standard issue image to represent them:
Who is this?
Obviously, I’m not up to speed on the various historical political figures which #BigLouise wants to represent us with. I can’t help thinking that they do reveal something about the site’s Creator, particularly in terms of the order they were chosen in. Taking the order by file name reference, here’s the first one:
menshn.com’s first choice of bio pic – “rnd_1.jpg”
So much for me. What about the conversation? I thought that I would start off by making a constructive suggestion or two. At this point, I noticed that there are a limited number of topics I was being invited to discuss. The site’s co-founder has made the absurd claim that “Twitter is not organised around topics”. His problem is that the topics on twitter are totally out of control. People can start whatever topics of conversation they want, whenever they want. On this new site, at the moment, debate is only permitted on six topics:
- US Election
- UK Politics
- Euro 2012
Having practised as a barrister, I had read the rules. Not that you would have to be a barrister to read them; they’re written in plain English. Here they are (you might want to skip this quote, it’s a bit tedious but it’s here for the record):
- The first rule of menshn is you do talk about menshn. Please feel free to invite your friends, spread the word, and post about us on Facebook and Twitter.
- menshn is for talking on topic. We’re passionate about politics and we love debate. But if you harass, spam, clog feeds and so forth, we can delete your account without notice. So be like Fonzy and be cool.
- menshn is community-led – if another poster is bugging you, you can report a given menshn or mute/block the user by clicking on their profile. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a mute button in real life?
- Use of menshn is entirely, and we mean entirely, at your own risk. By registering with us you agree that menshn, and any company or person associated with menshn, is completely and totally not liable for any damage you may incur by using the site directly or indirectly. We are not responsible for links or menshns that users or third parties post; you may see content that offends you; people may be horrible to you, defame you, twist your words, post nasty links or pictures, post malware, damage your computer, pretend you wrote a menshn you didn’t, imitate you, and any other nasty thing we haven’t thought of. You agree to indemnify us for any and all liability and not to sue the menshn, its associated companies, owners, shareholders, or anybody related to menshn, for anything that derives from the site. As we said, we are community-led and you click on links at your own risk.
- menshn welcomes you to the site by assigning you 100 random followers from the start in your area of interest, and assigning you to follow 100 accounts – you are free to unfollow any of these users or block any followers you don’t like. The random nature of this means that as we start out, you might not like some of your followers/people you subscribe to. By signing up you agree it’s OK for us to do this and that you take responsibility for pruning your own list. Later versions of menshn will allow you to opt out of this default setting, but we figured it would be good to start talking on topic with an instant community of your own.
- We will assign you a random profile picture if you choose not to upload one yourself.
- See those “rate” buttons by the menshns? If you like a comment, or think it’s relevant or cool, please rate it. The points go up in real time, at the top of your screen. The top 5% of best-rated menshners are always seen in a community’s stream (although you can block them like anyone else). menshn is designed to reward intelligent chat. You know – we talk on topic.
- menshn can use advertising. We can promote links, and assign you followers or subscribe you to accounts, or promote given menshns. You agree to this by signing up. Hey, right now in version 1.0 we have placed the ability to donate straight to the Obama or Romney campaigns in the relevant chat rooms! Get to it, politicos! (If you want to).
- menshn is passionate about politics – but future versions of the site will expand our rooms into every topic that has demand for it. World Series? Check? Weddings? Check. Olympics? Check. Please think about topics you’d like to see added.
- menshn will grow and change. We can change what menshn does and the service it provides without notification to you or other users. See rule 4. We reckon you’ll figure it out if we do.
- menshn is public. People can reprint your menshns or even, (outrageous though this may be), quote direct messages you send to them. Anything you post on the site can be reprinted and you give permission for that to happen. Whether by other users, menshn itself or future partner companies. Also, users themselves, and not menshn or any company or person associated with it, are solely legally responsible for everything they post, including any links or direct messages. If you libel somebody or post malware, or do anything else illegal, and you get taken to court, it’s on you. We will absolutely co-operate with law enforcement. So take responsibility for anything you menshn.
- menshn is not forever. Many sites keep your posts indefinitely. On menshn, your menshns age off after one week and are not stored on our servers, except at our sole discretion. Reported or rated menshns, or menshns we are asked to keep by legal authorities or to investigate a complaint, we may keep as long as we choose. However, the standard here is that your menshns will disappear into the ether, and not stick around like Mount Rushmore. You agree to this, and all of the above, by signing up to use menshn. Have fun – talk on topic!
Perhaps I should have read the first rule literally? Striking a somewhat desperate note, it urges you to discuss menshn.com elsewhere. Foolishly, I thought that it would be okay to talk about it inside it. Being something of a pretend techie, I felt obliged to post a variation on the “hello world” message – the traditional geek opening gambit. I wove in a little satire and posted this message on the UK Politics ‘topic’ (that’s a forum to you and me):
“hello small world”
This message did not appear in the topic’s thread when I posted it. It appears on my own page but not in the discussion I tried to join. I tried again. Time to post a helpful suggestion:
“why no mobile version of this site?”
Perhaps this shouldn’t have been posted in the UK Politics
forum, sorry ‘topic’. It also didn’t appear. Hours later, neither of these messages have appeared in the place I posted them in. Apparently, these forums are very heavily moderated. Undeterred, I posted another message, this time in the Tech forum, sorry ‘topic’:
“Menshn has far too many bugs to be beta even. Why has it been launched when tech side unfinished?”
Okay, that was a critical message but it definitely fitted in with the declared topic. Guess what? It didn’t make it with the censors’ approval. Lying in bed, I imagined that the service was being overwhelmed by eager Young Conservatives, keen to try their hand at sensible, focussed discussion. I gave it another go:
“menshn has too many bugs to be beta even”
The censors grabbed this one too. Grabbed it and did their dirty work on it. Frustrated with the Stalinist approach to discourse, I returned to the UK Politics forum and attempted to post this message:
“does this service add to british political discussion or just park a small number people in a private room?”
No prizes for guessing what happened to that! Finally, I tried a fairly neutral message. Surely this would get through to publication in the UK Politics ‘topic’?
“unsure of value of discussion on uk politics with so few people involved”
No. Nothing I have posted has appeared in any of the allowed topic chatrooms.
Regular readers will know that I play a lot of chess. These days I am often found relaxing at chess.com; it’s free and you can play people from all around the world, live. Chess.com bans political conversations in its “main hall” chatroom. A couple of years ago some of us had a lot of fun with that. We declared that we would not talk about politics because the situation of the Afghan Potato Farmer was far more interesting. We hinted who might be who, very subtly. The American moderators didn’t grasp the meaning of our prefatory remarks and so, right under their noses, we discussed the war in Afghanistan in detail. Eventually, we were rumbled and I got banned from the site. I created another account, this time adding a hyphen to my name and resumed the serious business of playing chess.
That’s the point that #BigLouise doesn’t get: you’ll get a serious discussion flowing if people have a reason to go to the place where it happens. That’s why so much British cultural life revolves around public houses – there’s a reason to be there. We use twitter because everyone uses it. Ditto with Facebook. Et cetera. What’s the point in joining a social network geared for serious discussion if you have over zealous monitoring and control of what can be said? It simply doesn’t work. As @PaulBernal tweeted this morning, light touch moderation is the only kind that works. You have to let us discuss the non-existent Afghan potato farmers or you won’t get us to talk at all.
I’d keep quiet about these figures but I’m not #BigLouise
Proof that it doesn’t work is demonstrated by the embarassingly tiny numbers of people who have joined. Despite huge publicity in newspapers and on television, as of the time of writing, there are only 772 chatting on the service. Today is the launch day! More people will read my blog today. Many more. I’m a political nobody compared to #BigLouise. Why has she done this to herself? It’s the greatest exercise in self-humiliation since Nick Clegg threw his pyjamas into David Cameron’s bed.
So what’s the selling point of this new service? Much fuss has been made about the grant of 40 extra characters, compared to twitter’s 140. It doesn’t look like #BigLouise wants her service to be used by revolutionaries caught up in the fervour of the Arab Spring – they won’t be able to resort to SMS to post messages from situations too dangerous to get a laptop out. They probably wouldn’t be able to stay on topic anyway. Whilst we’re on the subject of messaging on the move, there is no mobile app ready to work with the service. Even this blog is optimised for 5,000 different devices but menshn on a mobile? No, forget it. It doesn’t even serve up a mobile version. If you’re on the move, #BigLouise doesn’t want to hear from you and she doesn’t want you to hear from others.
Another obvious difference with twitter is that messages expire after one week. That is bound to keep the conversation in the now. It also frustrates conversation outside the platform to refer to conversation inside it – you can’t link to messages on it. In terms of search engine optimisation, that is a backward approach. It also reveals a complete misunderstanding of everything that’s brilliant about the internet. Facebook suffers from the same problem, of course, but it keeps the boundary around its walled garden fairly low – you can follow inward links if you are a member. #BigLouise wants to keep the conversation all to herself.
With all these conversational hurdles, some carrots have been proffered. There’s a points system, which is a lot like a supermarket loyalty card. It actually describes the points as “rewards”. You get points if someone else rates your messages. You get points for joining a discussion. You get the idea. I’ve got five points for subscribing to a room which I wasn’t allowed to post messages to. Bonkers.
On the plus side, there is some clever word play based on #BigLouise’s name. Users are called “meshners”. Messages are called “meshns”. That’s it. That’s the only thing which made me smile while I was there.
Will I go back? I doubt it. What would be the point? I’m not welcome in the conversation. The whole thing feels like an attempt by someone to rewrite the rules upon which the internet is founded. It’s a real dead zone. I wonder how many people are in there for similar reasons as me? Checking it out on day one and bound to abandon it.
Contrary to what it says in the newpapers which favour #BigLouise, a hacker is someone who takes something which isn’t broke and fixes it. This new service claims to keep trolls and poor conversationalists at bay: that’s its promised fix. Many people deal with them on twitter by having private accounts. Others use the list service. Menshn fails to recognise those tools and instead tries to exclude virtually everyone. It’s a neutered version of social networking. It’s a futile attempt to recreate the power of the internet without any of the strengths that it has given us, as if it’s been designed by some of those people who’d really rather the whole digital age simply went away.
There is perhaps one useful feature of menshn.com – it’s an open prison for Tories. We know they are in there. They can come out and talk to the rest of us but they prefer the safety of their prison walls. However, we can join the inspection committee and go and watch them whenever we want. How long will it be before someone creates a tool to release all the messages in there to the wider world?
Yesterday people were debating how long it would like for #BigLouise’s big project to flop. I gave it three months. Now I think that’s not just generous, it’s positively charitable. It is by far and away the most misconceived website I have ever seen: practically useless, contrary to the spirit of free speech and so heavily guarded that the goal of focused discussion has been caught in the censor’s net.
If anyone manages to link to this post from within menshn.com, I’ll give them a guest post. Meanwhile, the last word on the attempt to stop people freely expressing themselves goes to the unknown nocturnal commentators of Pompeii:
“If upright living is considered any recommendation, Lucretius Fronto is well worthy of the office”
“Chie, I hope your haemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before”?
“Claudius’ little girl-friend is working for his election as duovir.”
“Vote for Lucius Popidius Sabinus; his grandmother worked hard for his last election and is pleased with the results.”
“Apollinaris, physician of the Emperor Titus, had a good shit here!”
“I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers.”
The walls of our society are not weakened by stupid scribblers. They are built up! Whoever is able to judge what is abuse and what is satire? #BigLouise would take that mantle and wear it down. She doesn’t understand our love of free talk. She doesn’t get it. Were these words scribbled with young romantics in mind or the stuffy political animals which would control our conversation?
“Let him who chastises lovers try to fetter the winds and block the endless flow of water from a spring.”