Friday, June 23, 2006

Responsible Blogging

Let's talk about public forums on the Internet.

I'm a staunch believer in freedom of speech, and the information superhighway is quickly becoming the preferred way to communicate. Unlike telephones, the exchange can be permanent, and unlike newspapers or books, it allows for instantaneous self-expression, followed by instantaneous reaction and response.

Never before in the history of the world have people been able to express themselves so easily and quickly.

Perhaps too quickly.

An unforeseen phenomenon sprung shortly after the first chat rooms and message boards appeared. A specific type of person who used the Internet not as an open means of intelligent discourse, but to call people names, cause trouble, and refuse to listen to reason or apologize for their behavior.

We call these people trolls.

Trolls enjoy causing trouble. They like the attention they receive from being insulting, demeaning, and provocative. The name troll comes from the fishing lexicon--to troll means to cast out your lure and wait to see what bites.

Unlike real life, where calling someone a nasty name, or pointing a finger and shouting untrue accusations might get you into big trouble (and perhaps even force you to defend your words) the Internet is the perfect venue for cowards such as trolls.

In short, there is no accountability. A troll can make wild claims, attack people and organizations, and do it from the safety of their own home, never having to personally confront the people they condemn, or take responsibility for the harm they've caused.

Let's use a hypothetical example. Let's say someone used a blog to level some serious accusations against, oh, let's call it a group of writers. In this person's perception, this writing group has done something really bad, something really unforgivable, such as nominate writers for some awards.

Wait, that's not really unforgivable, is it? Well, what if we make all the nominees... MEN.

I know, I know---what a despicable assortment of scoundrels this writing group must be. But try to bear with me for a moment.

At first glance, you might look at this nomination list and think, "Well, this writing group must be excluding women."

While this conclusion might not be particularly well thought out, it is a legitimate perception.

Now, if you're a staunch support of women's rights (as we all should be), you'll be angry that no women are represented on this ballot. So angry, in fact, that you decide to use the Internet to vent your anger.

So you do what any smart person would do. You go to the organization's web site, looking for information about how this could have happened. You contact the co-presidents and board members, demanding an explanation. You speak to the judges to seek the reasons why there are no women on...

Oh, wait. I take that back. What you do is write a blog entry calling the organization bigots, sexist, and stupid, without any hard facts to back up this belief.

But we can chalk that up to passion, right? After all, sexism exists in the world, and it is an important issue, and if it has teeth and eats sheep it has to be a wolf, right?

But what if the organization comes forward, and politely points out that they are not, indeed, a wolf? They are a teddy bear. And they didn't kill your sheep. They're actually very sensitive to the needs your wooly friends. And they have proof, facts, and evidence to back this up.

That's when you be a woman and admit to your mistake, right?

Or do you cling to your original, erroneous perception, show no remorse for the people you've insulted and the harm you've caused, and continue to stick to your prejudices?

What would you do?

The funny thing is, the Internet is partially responsible for this situation. If I were to pick a random person, say, bestselling author David Morrell, and call him a bigot to his face, chances are he'd get mighty angry and demand to know why I said such a thing. I might have to use things like facts and logic to back up my rudeness. I might even have to defend my position and my original argument.

But not on the Internet. Because on the Internet, any coward can say whatever they want to say, without accountability. They can hurl insults without having to look into the face of the person, or people, they are insulting.

When these people can't even respond or defend themselves, such as judges who have signed non-disclosure agreements, it must feel particularly self-righteous and liberating, because you don't have to face them, and you don't even have to read their objections.

That's how you know the true troll from people who have simply made honest mistakes. The trolls never admit they are wrong.

I wonder how libel laws apply to blogs? I wonder if an organization can prove damages if some motormouth makes untrue accusations? I wonder if big writing organizations with big coffers ever hire big lawyers?

Hypothetically, of course.

On a completely unrelated topic, I've heard there have been some accusations against (coincidentally enough) a writing organization called ITW. Co-President Gayle Lynds has issued a statement, which I'm happy to repeat here:

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My name is Gayle Lynds, and I'm co-founder and co-president of ITW, with David Morrell. I've been following with interest the queries that have arisen about the nominees for the first ITW Thriller awards. As an individual --- not representing ITW, its board, or its officers --- perhaps I can shed some light on the subject.

I was as surprised as anyone by the results of the ITW Thriller nominations. But then, ITW deliberately built a firewall around the award judges, so none of us knew the outcome in advance. At the same time, no panel of judges knew the results of any other panel's deliberations.

Let me tell you a little about the firewall: Any author or person speaking on behalf of an author who tried to influence any of ITW's judges would have had that author's books disqualified for two years. This was so that the judges could work in private and in secret. All board members as well as the chair of the Awards Committee --- James Rollins --- were ineligible to be considered for the awards. Again, this was to protect the judges and to avoid any accusations of favoritism toward ITW's leaders. This information is available in ITW's bylaws at http://www.thrillerwriters.org/bylaws.html.

In short, ITW's board worked very hard to make certain the awards were as fair and as impartial as possible, and so did the judges, as you will see.

Since this was ITW's first year, the judges faced the monumental task of creating systems that would be the foundation for all future awards. Because of the boxes of books that arrived on their doorsteps to be read, several had to delay their own deadlines and make sacrifices within their families in order to fulfill their very serious responsibility to judge well. This sort of selflessness is to be lauded.

I personally am proud of every book and film script that was nominated. All are excellent works from the thriller field.

Now about the accusations I've read recently about sexism in the awards....

If you go to http://www.thrillerwriters.org/awardslist.html you'll see a list of all submitted books. Only 29% were written by women. For the Thriller Best Novel, only 17%.

At the bottom of http://www.thrillerwriters.org/awards.html, you'll see a note to authors: "If your book is not on the list, please contact your publisher to remind them to submit your book as quickly as possible."

So what happened?

The chair and judging panels showed their concern that they be able to consider every thriller published in 2005 in several ways. The chair and several chief judges contacted all publishers --- both publicists and editors in each house --- to alert them that ITW was in the process of judging its first awards and to ask them to submit all thrillers.

I stress that not just one person was contacted in each house, but several, to ensure that the house understood that ITW really wanted each and every book in all of the subcategories of thrillers, from adventure to medical, romantic to espionage, legal to historical, and every other permutation. No one should be left out of the race.

Still, books were not always submitted. The judges worked closely with the chair, alerting him when they saw new books coming out. At the same time, he was on the watch, too. He went back time and again to publishers.

When it became apparent that few novels by female authors were being submitted, he redoubled his efforts, often contacting a house four times on behalf of novels that were clearly thrillers written by women.

At the same time notices were sent to ITW members reminding them to check the website to make certain their 2005 novels had been submitted.

In the end, the responsibility for having books submitted rests on the shoulders of the publishers. That's their job. At the same time, authors had the option of submitting copies of their books themselves.

As an author (not as a woman who has spent her life battling sexism), I could complain that no women were nominated. At the same time, I could also complain that no people of color were. I'm not sure whether any Muslims or religions other than Christian or Jewish were nominated, but I think they weren't either. There also might be a preponderance of nominees from one section of the United States, which could be taken as a prejudice favoring that area.

As long as awards are given in whatever field, there are always going to be those who say, "I wish it were otherwise. And because it isn't, it's prejudice."

The only time there's really an institutional problem, at least in my mind, is when there is a history of one group of people being disenfranchised.

Since this is ITW's first year, the organization can have no track record of institutional prejudice. ITW has worked diligently to avoid prejudice. The judges by their actions have indicated they have also been diligent in trying to create a level playing field.

My hat is off to ITW's judges, who worked very hard and read many fine books. All are excellent authors in their own rights, too. They did a sincere and worthy job, and they deserve not only our respect but our appreciation.

By the way, the awards chair for next year is a woman. She is not a person of color. Her religious background is unknown to me. I'm not even certain where she lives. She is a fine author and a wonderful human. Her name will be announced at ThrillerFest.

Anyone who would like to attend ThrillerFest --- it's going to be a blast --- should visit www.thrillerfest.com. You can learn there at the Awards Banquet who the winners for the Thrillers are. ThrillerFest begins next week. As I said, all of the nominees are excellent. I congratulate them on creating superb works.

Gayle Lynds
www.GayleLynds.com

32 comments:

Jason said...

Well said.

Hypothetically, if "Trolls" like this did exist (again, totally hypothetical), I hope they read this.

Not that there are any such people out there. Just hypothetically.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

hehehe I had a feeling it was only a matter of time before this debate found its way onto your blog. I've already unloaded my ten cents worth in the aforementioned "scene of the crime," so I'll not vent here. Certainly made life rather interesting yesterday!

Wish I could go to that banquet, but not much chance of that right now. Oh, to have the spare money and vacation time!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I guess everyone is blogging about this today, Joe, including me. And it's kind of a shame.

ITW deserves POSITIVE attention, not negative. And a round of nominations that someone doesn't agree with -- no matter how slanted it may appear -- is no reason to inject politics into the equation.

Sigh.

Great post, Joe. Excellent points, as usual.

Stacey Cochran said...

Thanks, Joe for the follow-up on this. I already had the opportunity to discuss this somewhat at Sarah's blog. It's interesting to read Gayle's response to the accusations.

I have worked to get a couple organizations off the ground myself before, and I know how hard it is.

Again, I just can't say thank you enough for all the hard work (and support) every member of ITW contributed in getting the organization off of the ground this past year.

I know the city of Scottsdale and Phoenix and the state of Arizona is proud to be the site of ITW's first convention. This one's for the record books, folks.

Keep up the great work ITW. And know that everybody's work and contribution to get the organization off the ground is greatly appreciated. I love thrillers.

Stacey

Mark Terry said...

Well Joe, I had my say on this yesterday on Lee Goldberg's blog, and later in the day had a conversation with Kathleen Sharp, who is the ITW newsletter editor about it. I'm glad Gayle (who I recently had a lovely phone interview with--a terrific woman, writer, and great support of writers, men or women) responded as she did. Those statistics are interesting, and unfortunately may just be fodder for more sexist analysis.

Ah well. ITW, to my mind, is doing everything right, and I like their proactive manner of approaching the genre and trying to bring it to the attention of readers.

Of course, I'm biased. I'm a member and I also do reviews for the newsletter.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.mark-terry.com

Brett Battles said...

Nicely done, Joe.

You are absolutely right. Shedding light on something that you think is wrong is an extremely important right, but not if you don't check the facts.

In that case, you're no better than say a government official throwing out accusations at authors being "communists" and creating a black list which put innocent writers out of work. Not that that would ever happen.

anne frasier said...

joe, thanks for the sanity you've brought to this insanity. i somehow missed the whole stink until last night. what i find so alarming is how an untruth is told, then someone picks it up and elaborates on it. very disturbing, but sadly some people seem to thrive on that kind of thing.

JT Ellison said...

Joe, I'm just excited to get a chance to meet you at ThrillerFest!
Thanks for another well-reasoned arguement. Elaine Flinn covers the judging angle at Murderati.com today, if you're interested.

JA Konrath said...

I hold you in the highest esteem, Anne. Always have.

Eileen said...

Bravo. I'm glad that in this case the truth is getting out there. Too often these rumors can start and take on a life of their own until the world sees them as fact.

jason evans said...

I'd like to add one more point. Sometimes these hypothetical situations turn into a witch hunt.

Most times the person the mob grabs and drowns in the river was in her house minding her own business. Not a witch at all.

Let's deal in the light of day with reason, respect, and calmness. The mob should disperse. Ain't no witches here.

Anonymous said...

Tempest--meet teapot.

Anonymous said...

I finally took a look at the issue over at the source, and was curiously aroused and simultaneously repelled. I think I dated this particular critic once or twice, and her lipstick gave me a rash. But, tit for tat, I heard she contracted a nasty STD which eventually causes brain damage and trollisms if not treated correctly. Oops, too late.

JA Konrath said...

I'm not concerned about witches, Jason.

But if I ever used this blog to demonize a specific individual or organization, and then found out I was incorrect, I'd apologize.

Better still, I'd have my facts straight before slinging accusations.

jason evans said...

I didn't mean to suggest you were, Joe. I do think some people out in blogland are looking for them, though.

Your point about a person standing up and admitting he/she was wrong--yes, I complete agree.

Abe Munder said...

Joe,

Janet Maslin calls you one of the more effective writers in the newly released Thriller anthology in today's New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/22/books/22masl.html

She even quotes one of your trademark snappy lines. Cheers!

JA Konrath said...

I've been wrong plenty of times. I think eating crow is good for the soul.

Stacey Cochran said...

I was at the very first convention in Scottsdale where the idea of ITW was born. Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore (one of the first bookstores to give me an author event, btw) and David Morrell, as well as Keith Kahla at St. Martin's, are really to be credited with making that first convention a success, which then gave the attending authors the confidence to get behind creating this organization.

As such, I've watched this thing take off right from the start, and I've seen how much hard work has gone into making it fly ever since.

I only wish I could find a publisher to publish one of my novels, because ITW would be one of the first organizations I would join and would want to support.

Stacey

Monica said...

I know bringing up the subject borders on eye-rolling, but are you saying Viets can't sit straight on her panties because no women thriller writers were nominated for some new organization's awards?

Female thriller writers aren't segregated from male thriller writers in the publisher's catalogues. Female thriller writers are marketed as mainstream and are even marketed to male thriller readers. They're even shelved on the same bookshelves!

Heifer, pleeeeze.

As far as discrimination goes in publishing, talk about mild.

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Perspective is a tricky thing.

Anonymous said...

If you have a problem with the whole ITW thing, then why not come out and say what you think? Calling people names, even indirectly, doesn't really elevate the debate.

Also, most trolls are anonymous and only say things to provoke controversy. I don't think that's the case here.

JA Konrath said...

I think my views on the subject are pretty clear, Anon, without posting links and pointing fingers. Enough of that has been done already.

As for elevatging the debate--there is no debate. Logic, facts, and evidence were all presented and ignored.

There was no sexism in the ITW judging. In fact, the judges did their best to make sure there was no bigotry at all.

This isn't a debate about sexism. This is drawing false conclusions, and calling people names.

In my experience, trolls aren't anonymous. They are provacative, and want credit for the disruption they cause.

Some good people were made to feel pretty bad, for no reason. That's what this is about.

It's wrong to belittle the very serious topic of discrimination by labeling this situation as discriminatory.

It's also wrong to hide behind your keyboard and make accusations that you'd never have the guts to make face to face--especially when the accusations don't have a shred of truth to them.

Have you heard the story of the five blind men and the elephant?

One felt the elepant's trunk, and assumed it was a snake.

Another felt the elephant's leg, and assumed it was a tree.

Another felt the elepahnt's ears, and assumed it was a bird.

Another felt the elephant's stomach, and assumed it was a wall.

And the last felt the elephant's tail, and assumed it was rope.

All were wrong, because they only explored a small portion of the elephant.

Jumping to conclusions isn't smart. But jumping to conclusions that cry bigotry and sexism and point fingers and admonish in sarcastic tones---that's as wrong as wrong gets.

Bernita said...

Haven't followed all this - but it reminds me that windmills are such SAFE targets.

Mike MacLean said...

I checked out the original site where the sexism allegations appear. While most of the readers were behind Ms. Viets’ viewpoints, a woman named Donna did an excellent job supporting the ITW in her comments. She’s a brave woman to voice her opinions while all those around her scream for blood. Check it out if you get a chance

Mike MacLean said...

Okay, "scream for blood" was way over the top. I got carried away and I apologize for it.

Hey, it does feel good to admit when you’re wrong.

Dakota Knight said...

I have to admit, I'm not up to snuff on the whole ITW thing. However, I would love to join ITW at some point. As it stands now, my publisher, Urban Books, is not on the list of acceptable publishers even though its distributor, Kensington Books, is on the list...oh well.

Oh another note, I'm kind of torn with this whole anonymous post thing. I mean, I understand someone wanting privacy, but not when he (or she) is hurling insults or starting rumors. I just went through this today with someone (anonymous) who commented on another person's blog.

Anonymous said...

Ali

Just to let Mike Maclean know - Donna Moore was the Fan guest of honour at LCC Bristol - which is a little weird as she is also a published author :-

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0809557363/203-4998834-1071920?v=glance&n=266239

She is a firm part of the genre here in the UK, being a bog reviewer. She took a load of flak when she posted that excellent response.

If you get a chance read her book

Ali

JA Konrath said...

Over at the blog that started this bigotry busineess, there is talk of statstical anomolies and chi squares and percentages.

None of that means anything. An awards contest isn't the lottery, and not all books have an equal chance of winning.

The books that have the chance of winning are the books that the judges like. It isn't random. It's targeted and specific. They weren't picking numbers out of a hat.

I've gotten A LOT of emails from the judges and ITW board members, and I'm confident in stating the following: the 15 books nominated would have been nominated even if they were all written by women.

Sexism wasn't the issue. Personal taste was the issue. As such, percentages and statistics simply don't apply.

Those particular judges preferred those particular books. The fact that all of the nominated books were written by men is due to the fact that, in this particular contest, they wrote the most appealing books.

But since no one seems to really understand probability, it is worth explaining.

Let's look at flipping coins. What is the likelyhood that if you flip it a hundred times, it will come up tails each time?

Astronomical, you probably say.

But that's because each coin flip must rely on the results of the preceding coin flip.

The fact is, a coin turning up tails 100 times has the same probability of happening as a coin turning up tails ten times, or sixty-one times, or twenty-five times.

That is because each coin flip is a 50/50 chance, and each flip has nothing to do with the previous or subsequent flip. They have no relationship to each other, and aren't dependent on each other.

In easier terms: if you flip a coin nine times, and it comes up tails nine times, what's the chance it will come up tails a tenth time?

50/50. Just like the previous nine.

Let's apply this to the judging.

For every book that made the final ballot, there was greater than a 2 to 1 chance a man would be nominated.

In other words, put two oranges and an apple in a hat, and close your eyes and pick a fruit.

Chances are two to one you'll pick an orange.

In the ITW awards, 15 oranges (men) were picked. And for each new pick, the 2 to 1 odds stayed the same.

If we were to attribute the results to blind chance (rather than the reasoned, informed decisions they actually were), we wouldn't use the end results as a way to determine odds. We would use each individual nomination.

And, as pure chance, for each individual nomination men had greater a 2 to 1 chance to get the nomination. This is highly probable.

Only when the end result of all the nominations are looked at does there appear to be a bias or anomoly.

But here's the interesting thing--the bias comes in the form of pereception, not statistics.

What do I mean? Let's go back to coins.

Flip a coin three times in a row. If it comes up tails each time, you might think that's a strange coincidence. But that's because you're ascribing traits to the situation that only exist through your perceptions.

In other words, three tails in a row is only a coincidence if you recognize it. If you flipped heads, tails, heads, or if you flipped tails, tails, heads, each of those had the EXACT SAME CHANCE OF HAPPENING as tails, tails, tails.

But because your brain sees and recognizes a pattern, it ascribes significance to it.

There is, in fact, THE SAME SIGNIFICANCE to the fact that all the ITW nominees were male as if fourteen were male, ten were male, or zero were male, if that was the pattern you'd recognize.

Significance has NOTHING to do with statistics.

Jeri said...

Not being in the thriller community, I don't have the slightest clue what this is all about, nor do I really want to know. I get enough of that bullshit in my own genre(s).

But forgive me a few corrections to your probability lecture, Joe.

Strictly speaking, the chances are not 2 to 1 each time a new finalist is picked, because the proportion of females to males increases as the males are picked out of the barrel.

If you had 200 oranges and 100 apples in a bag, your chances the first time of getting an orange are 2 to 1. The chances of getting an orange the second time are slightly less (1.99 to 1), unless you put the first orange back in the bag.

And while the chances of getting tails on any given flip are 1 in 2 (50%), the chances of getting 5 tails in a row when taken as a whole result = 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/32

I saw this happen at a roulette table once. The #5 came up five times in a row. The last four times no one placed a bet on #5 because they thought, "There's no way it'll come up again," even though, as you said, the chances of #5 hitting with each spin stay the same (1 in 38, counting 0 and 00). But the likelihood of 5 five's in a row was 1 in 38 to the fifth power = 1.26 x 10 to the negative 8 = a really tiny number.

"Significance has NOTHING to do with statistics."

Significance has everything to do with statistics. Hence the phrase "statistically significant." We use statistics to show the likelihood of a result being a random coincidence. One of the ways it's used is to sniff out discrimination. A result might "feel" like discrimination when it's simply not the case.

But your original point was spot-on: book judging is not a lottery. If the best thrillers, as judged by this panel, happened to be written by men this year, well, that's the way it is. If a proportionately large # of finalists are female next year, then what?

JA Konrath said...

2 to 1 each time a new finalist is picked, because the proportion of females to males increases as the males are picked out of the barrel.

True, but even with 15 males gone, it is still greater than a 2 to 1 ratio in this case (70% of the sumbission were male, with over two hundred submissions.)

the chances of getting 5 tails in a row when taken as a whole result = 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/32

That's if you're looking for a pre-determined outcome.

The outcome of the ITW awards was already known: 15 males. You can't predict an outcome that has alread been determined, you can only predict the liklihood of future outcomes.

As far as probability goes, 15 males being picked had a 100% chance of happening, because it did, indeed, happen.

We use statistics to show the likelihood of a result being a random coincidence.

There's the problem---coincidence is based on perception, not statistics. Eye of the beholder and all of that.

Let's say you see someone at the mall who you haven't seen in 10 years. Big coincidence, right?

Wrong.

Every time you go to the mall, you see hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But because you don't recognize any of them, you don't take into account that you had an equal chance of meeting a complete stranger as you had meeting someone you recognize.

So you think, "what are the chances of me meeting my old friend?" In fact, they are equal to you meeting anyone, but you apply your own bias (personal recognition) to the equation.

Calling 15 male nominees 'sexist' is attributing significance to an event after it has occurred (a form of a 'bullseye fallacy' in which you draw a bullseye around a pre-existing bullet hole.) My earlier response on "affirming the consequent" speaks to this issue.

But the likelihood of 5 five's in a row was 1 in 38 to the fifth power = 1.26 x 10 to the negative 8 = a really tiny number.

If you're using statistics to predict, yes.

But it happened. And it had the same chance as happening as any five numbers coming up.

But because we apply significance to random events happening in a way we can recognize, we consider it an anomoly. It isn't. It's simply random.

Jeri said...

I agree with the fact that our brains attribute significance to patterns that aren't there. It's pretty fascinating.

But stats are used all the time to evaluate things that already happened, not just to predict future outcomes. That's actually where they're most useful, from a policy perspective.

That being said, correlation doesn't equal causation. There could be other explanations for statistically significant outcomes other than bias. Which is another way of making your point about the "affirming of the consequent" logical fallacy.

JA Konrath said...

...correlation doesn't equal causation.

You succinctly said what took me eighteen paragraphs. :)