Dr. W. Reid Cornwell

Fremont Troll - MikeyworldI 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.

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  1. Posted 11/4/2006 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing the life of Dr. W. Reid Cornwell. BTW, you mentioned that “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.” Are you referring to trolling as a humorous diversion?

  2. alex
    Posted 11/4/2006 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    No, not so much. Although I occasionally find humor in it, it isn’t the intent. I think you were in courses with me; in a seminar, I sometimes intentionally feign ignorance in order to draw out discussion. Sometimes, when I think I am feigning ignorance I discover it isn’t an act! For many years, a strategy I have often employed is when I was pretty confident about something, I stated it as a question, and when I really had no idea, I made it a declarative statement. This has served me well because it encourages conversation.

    Particularly the act of feigning ignorance, or asking questions about what many people consider settled issues, can easily be seen by some in a community as trolling. Mind you, what it means to troll is not entirely clear. In its original usage, it was a more humorous way of harassing new members of a group. But more generally, it is now considered an attempt to draw attention to yourself and engage people who would otherwise ignore you. The better way to do that is to be original and brilliant, but for those of us who have already spent our brilliance at an early age, playing dumb or being intentionally controversial can work as well.

    To riff on what the Dalai Lama said in Buffalo at the law conference last month: it has a lot to do with intentions. I don’t consider what I do as really trolling, because the intent is not personal aggrandizement but encouraging discussion and understanding within the group. Of course, it is deeply difficult to read intent, and misunderstandings are usually not about meanings, but the perceived intent behind the meanings. Luckily, such misunderstandings about intent can be largely abrogated by engaging others in respectful manner. It’s the whole Habermas thing: conversation only works when people come to the table with some shared ground rules.

  3. Posted 11/4/2006 at 1:01 am | Permalink


    A nice way of distinguishing between benign and nefarious trolling. But as you say, although intent is everything, true intent also happens to be potentially inscrutable. Even to the actor.

    Everywhere we look (the Association of Internet Researchers’ listserve, for example—or Wikipedia, to name another), the same problem turns up: We simply have no alternative but to confront the kind of mendacity at which humans are the master species.

    There is no way to avoid this problem, it would appear.

    David Peterson

  4. Posted 11/4/2006 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    nice post, alex.

    i appreciated your post on gather and i assume that you knew you wouldn’t get a straight response from reid.

    trolls are like fire, but instead of oxygen to grow they require responses. so if no one responded to reid’s posts – or lachlan’s, or sam tilden’s, for that matter – they would eventually go away. trolling on a list like air-l, where so many list members know exactly what is going on but can’t help themselves from getting involved, just makes the whole thing that much more meta, eh?

  5. alex
    Posted 11/4/2006 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    And quietly, I’ve encouraged others not to rise to the bait. Yet here I am doing so, not just on gather but on my own blog :). You’re right, it’s funny to see a list where people are probably more aware than most about the nature of trolling, but I and others still managed to feed the troll.

    I really don’t think you can troll a blog. While people can set up blacklists and kill-files for email, it’s naturally a much more intrusive medium, and so people begin to get annoyed when they feel–as it was often put–the signal-to-noise ratio has dropped considerably. I think there is already so much noise on blogs, and so little signal, that there is much less worry of that happening!

  6. Posted 11/7/2006 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Alex, I’m assuming that part of the point of this post is to direct people to some additional information about this person in case they do a search on his name online. I’m assuming this partly, because you used his name as the subject for the post, which as far as we know matters in search engine results. So this could be helpful to someone down the line.

  7. alex
    Posted 11/7/2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Eszter: Yes, that’s probably the reason for the title. I really am not in the business of warning people about anything, let alone other people. My Mom always said (and she reads the blog, so can correct me if I’m wrong!) that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Moreover, DFTT, and all that.

    On the other hand, when something like this happens, your first instinct is to go and see whether this person does this in other venues, and that helps to decide how best to proceed. I thought it was important for people trying to figure out who he is to have a pointer to the discussion on AIR-L. He has indicated that he stands by his interactions there, and so, I think it’s worth indicating those. I know some people who think everything he wrote was beyond the pale. I actually was more sympathetic (and you can see that I tried to make some of those threads productive), but in any event, I think that this shouldn’t be buried.

    Given that he is presenting himself as being pretty important in our field, I just want to remind people to be skeptical. That applies equally to anyone. Heck, I am one of the least published people I know, so, it’s a good idea to take much of what I say with a lump of salt as well. But I’m also not pretending to be more than the sum of my contributions.

  8. Posted 1/2/2007 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Alex should be ashamed of attacking a person who actually held him in high regard. Let the record show that even after departing AOIR I ask him to participate in a project that he has claimed to, in theory support “open publishing”

    This posting is filled with factual errors.

    1. I offered to resign from AOIR and the offer was accepted by its president Matt Allen. However, I was not informed of the acceptance as would be expected.
    2. I call myself Reid Cornwell because that is the name that appears on my birth certificate.
    3. Every person on my board was invited to participate and they generally did so in writing. I.E. the board is not virtual as he alleges. The people that reside in Colorado have participated in face to face meetings.
    4. Most trolling is done so anonymously, my 900+ listings on Google argue against this definition. Hardly anonymous as he alleges.
    5. While I attempted a pseudonym it was rejected by Alex as the listserv manager. All of my posts were under my own name.
    6. I made no suggestion that I should be given “due process”. I did not want it. I did address the rules as draconian.
    7. I did not post anyones comments that were offered as private. I did post emails that contained crude, insulting or inappropriate comments made by other listserv members.
    8. I was a paid AOIR member. This distinction is important because as such I was one of the owners of the listserv not a non-member participant.
    9. Alex refers to some issue of credentials (which I see as academic credentialism), they are available to any person of good will. My credential have been available online for decades. In addition they have been vetted by all of the institutions I relate.
    10. I have never claimed to be anthing but a person who has been involved with the internet and other networked systems for 3 decades.
    11. Most of my work has been in the industril secor and have had no need for publications accept as a hobby interest. Despite that, my publications have appeared in national and international publications for ove 3 decades.

    I view Alex’s writing with sadness because he has exposed a vindictive nature that say’s more about him than me.

    Finally, I just discovered this article so I have not had the opportunity to respond before now.

  9. Posted 1/2/2007 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    It occurs to me that you have an opportunity to expose my poorly informed opinions. You can do it here, at http://dialecticxy.org , Gather or anyother place of you choosing.

    I would be interested in your enlightened view.

    The ball is in your court.


  10. alex
    Posted 1/11/2007 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve left the above statement up document Mr. Cornwell’s initial reply. In subsequent posts, he made rude comments toward myself (don’t care too much) and others (do care, and a violation of my TOS). I’ve deleted those posts and will delete subsequent posts–he is officially my first persona non grata.

    I should note that he has also contacted me suggesting that he will be pursuing a libel suit. The above was not intended to slander his character, merely to make that character clearer. In the US, truth is a defense against libel, and a number of things (e.g., he claims a degree from Oaklands University in the UK, apparently a known diploma mill, etc.) suggest that if anything I have been generous in my account.

    That’s my last word on the topic. Obviously, under threat of a lawsuit, I’m disinclined to engage in further discussion.

  11. Mark
    Posted 3/28/2007 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    “Oaklands University in the UK” ?

    I’ve been working and studying in the education sector in the UK for the last 20 years on and off. Never heard of Oaklands. List of UK universities here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_universities_in_the_United_Kingdom

    You can always drop UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) a line:

    There is an Oaklands college which is a further education college – looks like it mainly does courses for 14-19 year olds with vocational courses and access to higher education, and a limited number of higher education courses. But its not in London, and its not a university. http://www.oaklands.ac.uk/

  12. Suzy
    Posted 5/21/2007 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    This may not matter, because I have received a email from Dr. Cornwell saying that the Education Summit he is organizing is already filled, and accepting no new registrations, but some questions were raised on AIR-L about the conference. So I emailed to the major sponsors to ask about their involvement. I would post this to AIR-L, but many do not want to hear of this anymore.

    Most of them did not email me back. Two people emailed me to say that they had endorsed the Center for Internet Studies, but did not have involvement in the conference. Presidents of two of the organizations listed as sponsors indicated that they did not know about the conference or give permission to have their logo used.

    Dr. Barbara L. McCombs emailed to say that it “is indeed a legitimate conference.”

    Dr. Cornwell emailed me two times, and was polite and not rude each time. He even offered to me free registration! I do not know, now, what to think. Some people who are listed supporters say it is a “scam conference” and others say it is “legitimate.” I will choose to go to more popular conferences, I think.

  13. Posted 10/23/2007 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    After reading this post, I realize that this may be an innocous topic; however, I would be greatly appreciative of anyone who could provide me with any information on W. Reid Cornwell.

  14. Posted 12/13/2008 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Heather, I have had experience with Cornwell. My email address is morrison@unc.edu

    Please send me a note.


4 Trackbacks

  1. […] It comes at an interesting time, since we have spent the week in both classes discussing the question of anonymity, pseudonymity, and trust in virtual environments—which is one of the core themes of Cosi. This follows on Reid Cornwell’s attempt to create a virtual crowd of supporters, and discussions over whether anonymity of authorship in wikis like Wikipedia leads to or takes from its credibility. In Cosi, of course, the anonymous act is the common conceit in a lot of farces (leaving aside the question of whether Cosi is a farce): an attempt is to test the faithfulness of two young women to their betrothed by pretending to be someone else and wooing them. In other words, pseudonymity—deception—is employed in order to discover a deeper truth. […]

  2. By A Blog Around The Clock on 11/20/2006 at 2:20 am

    Blogrolling: A…

    Below the fold are blogs with titles that start with the letter ‘A’. Any glaring omissions? Anything worthy checking out? Is YOUR blog starting with this letter?……

  3. […] a thaumaturgical compendium » Blog Archive » Dr. W. Reid Cornwell […]

  4. […] with trolls and flaming? Well, for one (as argued by the perpetually insightful Alex Halavais here), show respect for the community, email list, or what-have-you to which you’re subscribed if […]

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