For some time, I've been thinking and writing about this question: is it "fair," and "right," that if I act like a sufficiently notable choad on the internet, I may become instantly famous for it, and the consequences of that fame may follow me and have profound social implications?
I keep coming back to two answers: (1) yes, and (2) to quote Clint, deserve's got nothing to do with it.
For the last hundred years, people who care about such things have been complaining about the anonymity of modern life. People who used to live in small towns live in big cities, and people are turned towards television and globalized, homogenized culture rather than towards their neighborhood. One consequence is the ability to treat people badly — even in serial fashion — with relative impunity. It used to be that you'd get the reputation as the town drunk or the town letch, or the village idiot, and that reputation would follow you until you move on to another town. But now many people don't even know their neighbors, let alone their whole "town."
With respect to certain bad behavior, the internet can change that — it can transform you into the resident of an insular town of 300 million people. This week notable jackass Paul Christoforo is finding that out. Try Googling his name to see what I mean.
Some people worry that the result is unduly harsh or unfair — that anyone can become a pariah because of "one mistake." I'm all for the concept of mercy, but I think that concern is misguided for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, the internet is manic and has a short attention span. You have to do something truly epic to go viral. One angry email won't do it unless it is so extreme that it reflects a disturbed mind. If you "just have a bad day," you'll slip into obscurity quickly. It takes talent, or sustained effort, to become internet famous. Consider the case of Jose Martinez of Brandlink Communications. Like Christoforo, he acted like an ass, and won a day or two, tops, of internet fame — but now he's slipping inexorably into deserved oblivion. And he's still employed. And it's only been six months, but if you say Hermon Raju, people will say "who?"
No, the sort of people who become instant-internet-famous are the ones who double down when called out on their bad behavior. In other words, it's not enough that you "have a bad day" — you have to refuse to acknowledge that you're having a bad day.
Finally, some argue that internet infamy can be "out of proportion" to the offense. Perhaps. But isn't that the call of every person who reads about your actions? People don't win instant internet notoriety based on third-hard accounts of conduct. They win it because they do something on video, or in writing, that's notable. If what they did really isn't that bad — if it's truly been blown out of proportion — then can't future readers determine that for themselves? There's more than a whiff of paternalism to the "blown out of proportion" concern — it seems to suggest that we ought not write about someone's misdeeds because future readers can't be trusted to assess their significance themselves. I disagree. Paul Christoforo's future employers, employees, associates, and friends are perfectly capable of reading up on the situation and making up their own minds.
Therefore, though I acknowledge the persistence of human frailty — most especially my own — I don't think that there is something inherently bad about occasional instances of that frailty becoming famous.
Moreover, there are good things about the prospect of internet infamy. It empowers individuals to respond to maltreatment. It provides the prospect of consequences to bullies. It deters bad behavior among those capable of being deterred. It allows investigations that may prevent new victims of bad behavior.
That said, though I support investigating and writing about bad behavior, I absolutely oppose harassing phone calls, harassment of relatives of bad actors, or other tactics designed to terrify rather than to illuminate. I encourage and approve of using internet methodology to track people down and expose them for doing such things.
Speaking of illuminating, let's discuss Paul Christoforo's latest "apology."
Christoforo has offered a string of what he views as "apologies" and what I view as proffered justifications for bad behavior. They are illuminating. Consider first his apology to Mike of Penny Arcade:
I just wanted to apologize for the way our emails progressed I didn’t know how big your site was and I really didn’t believe you ran Pax , So for what’s its worth I am very sorry.
This is not an apology for being a dick; it's an apology for being a dick to someone with more power and a bigger soapbox than you. It's saying, in effect, "I'm sorry for mistaking you for someone I could get away with abusing."
Paul Christoforo's statement to the In-Game column at MSNBC is even worse. It's not clear whether Kyle Orland refrained from asking him tough questions (for instance, about the wholesale plagiarism on his website) or whether he just elected not to print the answers. But the column amounts to an evasive apologia, not an apology.
A chastened Christoforo is now looking for forgiveness from the Internet community he unwittingly antagonized, saying in an interview with msnbc.com's In-Game he was "caught on a bad day" and that he hopes they will "let sleeping dogs lie."
Here's the thing: it's clear that Christoforo wasn't just "caught on a bad day." He's acted like that to customers before. Plus, the issue isn't merely temperament, it's honesty. Christoforo's Ocean Marketing site is largely plagiarized. Moreover, he dishonestly assumed the identity of another marketer, Brandon Leidel, in a buffoonish attempt to defuse the situation.
Christoforo is still attempting defiance:
Yet despite all the drama, Christoforo said he hasn't lost any of his other accounts, aside from Avenger. "It hasn't affected my business yet," he said. "Clients have brought it up, but they've mainly laughed about it. I haven't lost any clients."
The "lol thanks for the free publicity" gambit is typical of sociopaths caught out.
Referring to the email thread that started the whole mess, Christoforo said that he didn't know who he was talking to in his initial, flippant response to Penny Arcade's Mike Krahulik.
"I didn't know who that guy at Penny Arcade was," he admitted. "If I had known, I would have treated the situation a little better. PAX is a great show. What he does is what I've been idolizing since I was a kid. It's admirable he's put that together. He has a lot of connections, ones I want too."
Once again, Christoforo makes it clear that only powerful people — people who can hurt him or help him — are people who deserve decent treatment. Christoforo is not a marketer who is remorseful for treating a customer badly. He's more like a career purse-snatcher who is remorseful (and terrified) because he snatched a purse from the elderly mother of a local mafioso.
Christoforo also said his response was driven in part by what he saw as the disrespectful tone of the messages that came before it.
Also typical of sociopaths and narcissists: a swollen sense of entitlement to respect, utterly uncoupled to any history of showing respect to others.
Regarding the litany of names Christoforo's e-mail called up as potential supporters — a list that included everyone from Epic Games' Cliff Bleszinski to the mayor of Boston — he said the tactic was meant to "impress, not to threaten" and didn't come through correctly because "you can't see tone of voice in email."
Another hallmark of sociopaths and narcissists: the "do you know who I am/who I know" syndrome. [Lawyer protip: if a prospective client insists on showing you pictures of himself or herself with famous people before discussing the case, the representation will be miserable.]
"[Legal action] is something I'm not interested in doing because the community would be more pissed at me," he said. "Regardless of money [possibly won in a settlement], it would really ruin my name. Am I saying I care more about my reputation than money? Yes."
Note the lack of awareness that if he tries legal action, we (the collective we, but also this blog) will stomp him like a cockroach. Note also the utter lack of insight — typical of narcissists — about the connection between his actions and his reputation.
"At the end of the day, I'm a human being, and it feels like the entire world was bullying me," he said. "I want people to like me, I don't want people to think I'm a bad person. … I made a mistake. … I hope I can make something positive out of it."
At the end of the day, Paul Christoforo is a human being. But so are his customers, who were the target of his scorn and ridicule. So were the industry figures whose support he falsely claimed and who won his abuse by disclaiming him. So was the marketing expert whose identity he appropriated. So were the writers whose content Ocean Marketing stole for its website. So are the people who hired him, whose business plan has been substantially complicated by his douchbaggery. Paul — in a manner typical of narcissists — would like you to focus on his humanity to the exclusion of theirs. No, Paul. No.
Paul likes the word "bully" — it's a popular one among people who feel that they should be able to act the way they want without social consequences. I leave it to the good judgment of the reader whether the bullies are the ones quoting Paul and pointing to his conduct, or Paul himself. I'll say only this: the more Paul talks, the worse he looks.
Edited December 29 to Add: Forbes, through its writer Daniel Nye Griffiths, has a new interview with Paul Christoforo up. I update to make two points about it.
First, Christoforo continues to be Christoforo, and has reached the point where he is impossible to satirize. Yesterday, attempting to make fun of Christoforo's concept of an apology, I wrote this:
Sorry, I never would have punched you in the face if I had known you were a black belt. Can you please stop spin-kicking me now?
Today, in the interview, Christoforo says this:
Basically, what Mike [Krahulik] did is this: If you were in a bar, drinking and hanging out with a bunch of people, and in that group of people was one guy that you didn’t know was a mixed martial arts champion. He knows he can kick the **** out of anyone in that bar, and you happen to pick a fight with him. He doesn’t tell you what he is, you take a swing at him and the next thing you know you have a broken jaw and you’re on the way to the hospital.
In short, it's not wrong to throw punches — it's wrong not to warn the guy prone to throwing punches that you are better at it than he is. That, right there, is a sociopath.
Second, I have to say this: I really hated the interview. I would go so far as to say that it offended me, because it came off as a softball, rehabilitation-on-the-interview-couch, friendly chat with a guy who is just awful. It seemed like something that a PR professional much more competent than Christoforo would have arranged. Griffiths didn't challenge any of Christoforo's statements — he didn't probe his "just a bad day" narrative with references to prior documented communications, or posing as another marketer, or plagiarism on his web site.
Daniel Nye Griffiths is the journalist; I'm not. In a correspondence on Twitter about the interview, he suggested that all of that contradictory information was already known and out there (including in his own prior post) and that the point of the interview wasn't to revisit it. He also suggested that his point was to let Christoforo hang himself — as he says, "[s]ometimes just letting people say things is a better way to convey an idea to readers than editorialising about it. QED." I find that unconvincing, or at least unappealing, here. Christoforo has already repeatedly offered the narrative he offered to Griffiths. Asking him questions about inconsistent facts — which has not been called upon to do before, apparently — would not be "editorializing." I submit that it would be interviewing. Christoforo has already hanged himself quite thoroughly; I fail to see the purpose of an interview that simply hands him more rope. In addition, I find the tone of the coda to Griffith's piece difficult to reconcile with the idea that he was simply letting Christoforo be Christoforo:
At heart, Christoforo clearly feels that he is more sinned against than sinning – and that he was suckered into taking a swing at Mike Krahulik without understanding the consequences. Personally, I suspect that Krahulik simply did not imagine that, in the context, he would not be immediately recognised.
In either case, it is certainly the case that it was terrible luck to be the person whose Internet argument caught the eye of a superfan. Whether the moral of that is always to behave as if your communications could be shared with an audience of millions, or to play the percentages and hope to avoid this kind of blow-up through sheer probability is probably a matter for the individual conscience.
Griffiths' work suggests he is perfectly capable of an interview that is tough but fair. Indeed, he felt free to challenge me, suggesting that my initial tweet on his column (suggesting he needed a handi-wipe and a breath mint after that interview) employed a homophobic metaphor. For what it's worth, I would have used the same metaphor with a female journalist, thus offending an entirely different segment of the audience: I meant to make the vivid point that the interview struck me as obsequious. But whether I'm a homophobic douchebag like Christoforo is not the point. The point is that through that chide, and through his Twitter correspondence with me, Griffiths was more inquisitive than he was in his interview with Christoforo.
But perhaps such things are a matter of taste. You can read Griffiths' debate with me on his account.