Since writing about Dread Pirate Roberts and Silk Road last week, I’ve been following the Silk Road story a little closer than I normally would, and I found this – an interview with SSBD (SameSameButDifferent, a moderator on the site), an Australian bloke from Brisbane who did little other than moderate a forum on Silk Road. Again, a story worth reading if you haven’t already.
But sadly, an ongoing story which was much closer to home involving a Pirate, a court case, a website being closed down and many people I know hit today.
I’ve been using ZGeek.com since about 2004. It was about 4 years old at that stage, and at first, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a news blog, like Boing Boing or a thousand others that filled the interwebz back then. This one was run by Pirate, a bloke in Sydney, and so its content was geeky news. I would often joke with people who weren’t familiar with the site that it was very much a boys’ club website, and focused around “geekery, pornography and arguments”. That’s an overly simplistic description, but noone took the site too seriously, and it was a community of mainly Australian (but frequently overseas, especially American) adult geek-boys.
The strongest feature of ZGeek was the forums that built up around the community. Unlike anywhere else I’d found online, the ZGeek forums were rough. Everyone played ball hard, and arguments were frequent and passionate, about everything from interpretation of the meanings of the latest Battlestar Galactica episode to the rantings of government ministers on climate change to news of the latest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The community there were passionate about the stuff they were discussing, and quite often in furious disagreement.
Unique though was the culture that built up that to win in those debates, to hold the stage, one had to know the topic, argue your ground, and dismantle your opponents’ position. But what it wasn’t about was attacking your opponent. This was the ultimate expression of targeting the ball and not the man. Debates were intelligent, and fiery, but never uncivilised.
What I developed in those forums was a tendency to play hard in online debate, but to expect that I, and my fellow debaters would stick to logic, to citing our sources when arguing matters out. Some of my greatest opponents in ZGeek debates I consider friends, for although we disagreed about a great many things, we clashed within a set of rules of honest debate. I was famed (or infamous?) for clashing with one individual – Leonid – on the topic of Israeli foreign policy and my stoushes with him are responsible for everything I know of Israeli-Palestine relations, because I had to learn all about the topic in order to go toe-to-toe with him on many many occasions.
I was sorely disappointed when that attitude didn’t exist elsewhere. Too often, nowadays, and I am especially looking at you Facebook, people believe any nonsense put in front of them, and the notion of asking “What evidence do you have for that claim?” is labelled harassment or abuse.
ZGeek’s demise has wider implications for the online world in Australia though.
(I was an outsider to most of what follows, so my version is open to correction if anyone knows better)
Might not be actual Pirate
The decline began when Pirate, the site’s operator, posted a news story related to a reality TV show where the winners would get to travel in space. ZGeekers were a bit cynical about the prospects of the show ever coming to fruition, and so were scathing in their criticism of the idea. The show’s promoter (was his name Greg Smith? or am I remembering that wrong?) claimed he’d lost the deal to make the show, partly because of the ZGeeker’s criticisms (if anyone had a deal worth millions of dollar, as that bloke claimed, and it could be shot to pieces by a bunch of geeks making fun of it online, it can’t have been too solid a deal in the first place, right?) He sued ZGeek for $42 million, but had the matter tossed out of court.
Later, one of his friends, a former solicitor, sued ZGeek because of criticism that had been directed toward her in a ZGeek forum discussion about her involvement in the gang-rape trial of Bilal Skaf. Because this new litigant was a former solicitor, she knew how to tie Pirate and ZGeek up in legal knots, and the case dragged on for years.
Last month, after years of trying, that solicitor won an $86,000 judgement against Pirate. For comments made not by him, but by other people on the site. That’s the thing that’s most galling about it all – he’s being held responsible for the actions of others.
Pirate’s defeat means that anyone who runs a website in Australia where members of a community contribute content – even in the form of comments – can be held liable for those comments. The website operator, as the “publisher” is responsible. That’s a very dangerous precedent.
What I, personally, took from ZGeek is a great many friendships. And in my search through email archives, I found the following comment, by me, to Pirate, the day I went to the Supreme Court to stand in for him at a hearing in 2011:
…As the latest recruit to the Monkey Army, I swear my undying allegiance to you as Pirate in Chief, and pledge to rid the world of stupids who harm our loyal brotherhood
Goodnight and lots of love to Pirate & Buffy, Sagacious, Kez, ShinyMetalAss, Muppet, Astro & Elentari, Gutterclown, Beowulf, PsychoNavigator, MarchPig, uzz32, Btrfly, Carsinogenic, Edeity, Dwarfthrower, Willett & Javaira, Dr Jones (aka nreJones), Leonid (of course!) and many, many more