I help out with technical matters for the Association of Internet Researchers. Anyone who does social research on the internet knows about the AIR-L listserv. As a graduate student, it was a bit of a lifeline. At the time, people interested in the social aspects of networked technology were fewer and farther between, and this was a great meeting of minds and resource to draw on. Like other collaborative resources, it depends on the good will of those who are a part of it. But I also feel protective of that community because it has helped me personally as a scholar.
Someone who goes by Dr. W. Reid Cornwell is attempting to bootstrap what he is calling The Center for Internet Research. I cannot criticize the effort to have a “center.” I dig centers. And at first glance, it certainly appears to have a lot of backing. It claims to be “allied” with a number of prominent organizations, including the Internet Society and the EFF. Of course, it also claims to be “allied” with AoIR, which it certainly is not. On the “Directors & Advisors” page, it lists a number of heavyweights that would lend it credibility, including Vint Cerf, a father of the internet and currently a VP with Google, among others. One of the people on that page assures me that they have no association with the organization, and so again I wonder to what degree all of these people are really involved, but on its face, it looks to be a serious undertaking. There is a surprising lack of actual research on the site, but the same might be said of other such centers.
Surprising, then, is the behavior of its “principal scientist,” Cornwell. Some of his posts on AIR-L were innocuous. I play the troll often enough to know that there is often value in the approach, and appreciated the opportunity for interaction. Trolling isn’t always a terrible thing. Unfortunately, he took this beyond the limits of professionalism: taking on multiple identities and insulting other discussants. Once booted from the list (after seemingly interminable handwringing), he has made a post claiming that he was given short shrift by the Association. Of course, he seems to have missed the point: AIR-L is not a public street corner, but a community. And like a friendly neighborhood bar, when someone gets a bit drunk, starts insulting the other patrons, and airing their private email, he is asked to leave. No hard feelings: you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
I would just as well assume Mr. Cornwell is gone and forgotten. But there are two things mitigating against this. First, there is his center. Academics are a trusting lot, and they may not take the time to ask about, say, where the principal scientist did his graduate work, or what his scholarly background is. They might assume that the organizations the center is “allied” with are actually substantially related to the center.
The second is that he has likened AoIR to a star chamber, presumably because he thinks that he should have been guaranteed some form of due process before being booted from the list. It’s not surprising: if you’ve ever seen someone bounced from a club, you know that this is the usual refrain as they are ushered out the door. In fact, I wrote to a colleague very soon after Cornwell began posting on AIR-L predicting that his entire effort was to be kicked out of AoIR in order to be able to cast himself as a rebel and a maverick. Because of many of his posts on the list, he has managed to cast himself, to an audience of more than 1700 people who do work in this area, as little more than an annoyance and poorly informed about some of the core issues. Luckily, those posts speak for themselves.
Perhaps it is revealing that he allies himself with Lachlan Brown, a notorious troll who was also removed from AoIR, and ran into difficulties on other lists as well. Cornwell wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, AoIR troll. While Cornwell very clearly stated he wanted nothing more to do with the list, future trolls may be less willing to remove themselves. What, then, is to be done? In the end, it has to come down to valuing the discussion and the community over the individual. Unlike a blog, where rants (like this one!) can cascade out without forcing themselves on an audience, a listserv is a more delicate beast.