Writer and critic Lee Siegel did something very, very wrong. Back in 2006, Siegel was so infuriated by the flaming he was taking on the New Republic's website in its policy for writers not to intervene, that he began answering the ugliest criticism in an online comments section under a pseudonym. He got caught, was suspended from his job and treated as vain and ridiculous.
Since then he's thought deeply on the subject and written a book titled, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. Here's an interview we first ran back in 2008.
LEE SIEGEL: I was called names that I can't really repeat on your show and at one point someone called me a pedophile, not using that language. And I thought, you know, enough is enough. I called one of my editors and I complained about it and they said, well, you know, this is just the way it is. You can love it or leave it.
And I just answered out of exasperation and on principle, and, of course, out of my foolish pride, but I gave them tit for tat and the whole thing blew up, and it really wasn't a very bad ending. I wrote a book, the policy at The New Republic changed; online anonymity is part of the debate now. Every cloud has a silver lining.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] What was the pseudonym you used in responding to this guy?
LEE SIEGEL: I chose the pseudonym Sprezzatura. By the way, I did nothing to hide my style because I did not want Sprezzatura to take credit for my best lines.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That’s ironic, because tell us what Sprezzatura means. [LAUGHS]
LEE SIEGEL: Well, it's, it's - it connotes a kind of deceptive simplicity. It’s a, it's a term from the Italian Renaissance. It’s really the way to be artful, while seeming natural.
BOB GARFIELD: Well done. How did you get outed?
LEE SIEGEL: Some very, very busy and industrious commenters went back and actually did a textual analysis of my own writing and compared it to what Sprezzatura was saying, and, eureka.
BOB GARFIELD: We've talked in general terms about how people inveigh on the Web, especially when they're given the opportunity for anonymity. But it’s not just nasty talk that’s so frustrating.
I mean, you know, it’s not just name-calling. My experience is it’s also oh, I don't know, intellectual dishonesty, playing fast and loose with the truth, essentially not following the rules, not playing fair in debate or discourse. Does that drive you crazy as well?
LEE SIEGEL: Yeah, you know, Internet boosters are always talking about how the Internet shatters old hierarchies. But that’s nonsense. What the Internet’s creating is a new kind of hierarchy, where the loudest and most aggressive voices drown out or bully into silence the most patient and reflective voices. Of course, it, it just makes me very exasperated to see people come online and just venting an opinion. As a critic, I'm aware of the fact that criticism has very little to do with passing judgment. The fun of criticism, the thrill, the pleasure of it is how you get to your judgments, through wit, through argument, through style, through historical analysis. But these people come online and they just vent an opinion. And it’s a clamor of opinions, and it becomes incoherent.
BOB GARFIELD: People talk about the Platonic ideal of the democratic Web but it strikes me to be more along the lines of Lord of the Flies and reverting to human nature in a very ugly way.
LEE SIEGEL: Exactly, it’s, it's very schoolyard. You know, the whole dynamic behind the Internet is really to appeal to our impulses, to appeal to our id. The Internet is really a product of commercial society. You know, you get on, you click, you use your finger. You can get what you want when you want it. You can indulge any impulse the minute you feel it. There’s no inhibition. And that’s really the ideal shopper. But applied to human relations, it’s disastrous.
BOB GARFIELD: So what’s the solution for all of this? If, if we can agree that the Internet has changed the social dynamic in many, many ways and has kind of turned the power of all institutions upside down, and the idea that individuals are now free to weigh in is so attractive in so many ways, how can that power be harnessed, the power of the individual to, to express a viewpoint for good instead of commotion?
LEE SIEGEL: Well, in, in terms of people just venting their opinions, I really have to take a very [LAUGHS] unpopular position here and say I, I don't see how that can be harnessed for good. I don't know what good comes of that kind of clamor. It makes these individuals feel good. It gives them the illusion that they're being read.
But any newspaper or magazine editor will tell you, with a winking aside, that nobody’s reading these threads, except the people who are on them. It’s really, for the most part, a kind of cynical commercial tactic that a lot of newspapers and magazines are using because they think it’s going to help them survive. It’s not helping them survive, in fact.
And, I think, more and more, as journalists get laid off, as the Internet begins to cripple newspapers and magazines, and these powerful journalists who have lost their jobs are going to start speaking out against it, as opposed to pandering to it, which they've been doing for the past 10, 15 years.
BOB GARFIELD: Lee, thank you.
LEE SIEGEL: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Lee Siegel now writes for The Daily Beast and is the author, most recently, of Harvard is Burning. This interview first aired in 2008.