Friday, 22 February 2008

Is Cruel Cool?

Yesterday I posted a very harsh criticism of an auction being run by someone called "nottiger" at sitepoint.com. After I posted it, I looked back and thought "Man, that is rough. Is it really cool to diss someone's idea so brutally, no matter how silly it seems or how much it smells like a scam? What if it turns out that nottiger is a really nice person, but depressed, and this idea was his big attempt at restoring self-esteem? What if he reads my blog and it's the final straw that breaks his back - how would I live with myself if he topped himself over this whole thing?"

Unlikely, but what if? It certainly wouldn't help my own self-esteem much.

Well it turns out nottiger did read my blog and he contacted me this morning to respond. As an aside, he's a Kiwi (like me), or at least I assume so from the content of his message.

Fortunately nottiger doesn't seem depressed and he handled my criticism well. He did stoop to having a dig at my home town but I'll let that go.

Back to the question "Is it okay to be so harsh?". It's not normally my style because I have seen the effect such criticism can have on people.

The situation is quite similar to working in TV production when you're faced with the "personal harm vs public good vs entertainment value" dilemma. Sometimes you decide to cause potential harm to a small group of people in order to benefit the wider community. If you lack ethics (which many TV producers do) you might be comfortable harming people simply to increase entertainment value. Personally I use what I think is a fair balance between public good and personal danger, but I'd never want to hurt someone just for kicks or ratings.

And that's what made me uncomfortable about yesterday's post. Was I doing it for the public good or for ratings? There is certainly a public good aspect - I feel that the product being auctioned is worthless and so falls into the consumer protection category. You could argue that no one is being forced to bid in the auction but consider this:
- It's highly unlikely that nottiger will commit suicide over my blog post but it's such a bad outcome that it's worth talking into account.
- In the same way, it's highly unlikely that a naive person would unwittingly waste $750,000 on a worthless idea, but the outcome is bad enough that it's worth trying to prevent. Just look at Randi.org to see how plentiful suckers are.

In retrospect I could have had the same effect without being so cruel. I'd probably do it differently now but I'll stop short of an apology because the seller's auction was so public, so expensive, and so inviting of a strong response. He's certainly getting a response at the auction and reddit - the poor bugger is getting flayed alive.

If you're reading this nottiger, I meant what I said about calling in for a coffee or beer. I've become good friends with people who I didn't initially get on with. I like your creativity and tenacity. We might be a fiery mix but you never know - we might have some interesting conversations over a lager.

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