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This place matters

Saturday, March 26, 2016


A couple of weeks ago, Great Britain made the worst taxonimic decision since the invention of spotted dick: they let the Internet name a boat. A British government agency is building a massive polar research ship and thought hey, we should let the Internet name it. 

As you have probably heard, netizens crashed the agency's website in their rush to cast their vote for the name Boaty McBoatface. 

They really walked into that one. Just the other day I said to Jeremy, "They're lucky they're not trying to name it HMS Hitler Did Nothing Wrong."
Enter Tay, Microsoft's latest disaster. Tay is an online bot designed to learn how to converse with people through online interaction. But Microsoft's efforts backfired - after just 24 hours Tay had turned into a violent, genocidal racist. One of her tweets: "Hitler Did Nothing Wrong."
Editorials worried about the state of the world and all of that. But it's not so much the state of the world as the state of a relatively small group of very dedicated assholes. And Microsoft should have seen it coming.
So there's this website called 4chan. I am not including a link because you should never ever go there. Back in 2003, 4chan founder Christopher Poole wanted to see what would happen if there were an online forum with no rules at all where everyone could post anonymously. Turns out, what you get is what the comic Penny Arcade calls the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or GIFT. The theory is this: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. Some kind of cool things have come out of 4chan, like most of your favorite memes. But a whole lot of unholy has come out of there too.
There are plenty of perfectly lovely people on 4Chan. Users have tracked down and reported criminals, especially animal abusers. It's also where Anonymous was formed - they're kind of like a mob of chimps with flamethrowers that are occasionally pointed in the right direction, so that's a mixed blessing, I guess. 
Many of the people on 4chan are obnoxious adolescents, either literally or figuratively. And they enjoy playing infantile pranks. At first, the pranks were innocent and mostly pulled on each other - Rickrolling for example. Then there were the prank phone calls - like getting everybody to call a specific Game Stop asking for the game Battle Toads, because that's entertaining for some reason. This naturally lead to people Battle-Toading individuals by posting the phone number of a person they didn't like and claiming it was a Game Stop. 
The pranks kept getting uglier and affecting more people. They started a Steve Jobs death hoax that caused Apple stock to plummet. They doxed and so severely harassed an 11-year-old that she had to be placed under police protection. They hacked a bunch of celebrities' phones and shared their private photos. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. 
So their hijacking of online polls is actually fairly mild by comparison. A few years back Mountain Dew asked Internet users to propose and vote for names for a new flavor they were unrolling. Top results included Diabeetus, Fapple (don't ask) and of course, Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.
What's weird is that few of the kids who participate in these pranks are actually Neo-Nazis or Hitler fans. They do it for the shock value and because they think it's funny. I actually know 4Chan users who are minorities and actually participate in this awfulness. 
None of which makes it any better. But it is a little reassuring to know that Tay didn't turn into Donald Trump because the Internet in general is racist, but because of the concentrated efforts of a bunch of losers with a really messed up understanding of comedy. 
What really distrubs me is that Microsoft failed to foresee this. I mean, aren't they supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful? How could they not build in a filter that makes Tay unable to use racial slurs or talk about Hitler? It's baffling. 

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