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07.03.2003

Dave Winer Considered Harmful

If you don't know who the man is, stop reading right now and be happy.

I realized I had had my fill about five nights ago, when over a sushi supper I briefly tried to explain the great RSS saga to the better half, and found myself talking for half an hour as she ate tuna roll and looked at me with the big eyes that mean "I can't believe I gave up San Francisco to be with you".

Stated simply, the problem is this: Dave Winer is the writer of several widely-used Net protocols, and his journal is the most linked-to weblog on the Internet, but he has the emotional maturity of a hamster. Specifically, a bipolar, sanctimonious hamster with weak technical writing skills.

This shouldn't matter. Pocket Napoleons abound online - that's what the Internet is for.

But people see Dave Winer's contributions to blogging, his seniority in the community, and his large audience, and naturally assume that he must be cut from the same cloth as a Linus Torvalds, Bruce Perens, or Larry Wall. In other words, a wizardly, technically adept, emotionally stable leader of a large online community.

It takes a while to realize that he's actually a freaking nutbag.

You have to take the time to follow his site, and notice the pattern of praise/attack/obfuscate that is his signature. Or else, you just have to be a clever Polish sociologist and pick up on it right away.

A couple of days ago, Winer had a hissy fit and took down his site, leaving a self-pitying manifesto. Marysia Milonas took a look, and offered this analysis:

Dave Winer decided to take a break in writing Scripting News. In the explanation he put up on his blog, three important things are stressed:
- he didn't receive support from his friends when others were shouting at him (I don't know the story)
- this experience was so difficult for him he wonders whether writing is worth it.
- he would like to show his audience what the blog world would look like without Scripting News.

Well, Dave's post is really emotional, it shows a person who is deeply touched by what happened. He feels attacked, he is disappointed, he lost the motivation which is crucial in the blogger's work, and he found a solution to deal with this experience: he shuts down his blog, not really because of himself, but rather as a punishment for his audience. Psychologically speaking, I can understand this, but on the other hand it is evidence of his strong self-confidence - he is almost sure to recieve enough positive feedback, asking him, perhaps even begging him to come back in the blogosphere. Which is what he will do with the greatest pleasure in a few days, not only because of the numerous e-mails and posts, but also because of an internal need to write - blogging is addictive.

It turns out her prediction came true almost before she had time to hit the "post" button on her weblog. No doubt overwhelmed by the flood of beseeching email, Winer put Scripting News back online after only a few hours. To his credit, he was honest enough to keep the 'I quit' page up on the server, too. His new spin on it was that it was some kind of warning shot, to make people think.

Marysia wasn't impressed:

The break was short. Really short.
Dave is back. Even his Mom noticed that something was going on and invited him to come home.
How pathetic!

And she expanded on the sentiment a couple of days later [trans. from Polish]:

I didn't call Dave Winer's behavior "pathetic" because I think it's pitiful to stop and start a blog - quite the contrary. And it wasn't because he keeps an e-journal, as opposed to an e-diary, making me expect more from him. If I expect more from him, it's because reading his blog (irregularly, I'll confess) and hearing about him gives me the impression that Dave Winer is a mature, adult person sufficiently able to control his emotions to avoid going to extremes, and honest enough not to manipulate his readers.

His brief shutdown of Scripting News (several hours), during which he announced to the world that he could no longer cope and had decided to "give you all a demo of what it would be like if [Scripting News] weren't here" seemed to me and continues to seem to me to be a dishonest game with his readership. The announcement also seemed exceptionally conceited in tone. I strongly suspect that Dave already knew he would resume writing right away even as he composed his alleged "last post". But he let people - even loved ones - write to him, comment and speak out.

He put his head out to be petted, and it got petted.

From my point of view, that is deliberate manipulation, and for that reason alone I think it is distasteful. I'm not outraged at him for doing it. I'm just laughing a little bit into my sleeve. After all, I predicted this would happen, and to be honest the whole thing reminds me of a not-too-ethical experiment.

The real experiment is seeing how long a Harvard business card can counterbalance this kind of behavior. Smart and emotionally stunted people are superb manipulators - it's not advisable to let them have too much power.

I've cited Marysia here because she really has no conceivable reason to be biased against Dave, and draws all her conclusions from material published by him on his own site. You can make a case for me being part of a dark cabal dedicated to tarring Winer's name (after all, I complained about his sloppiness with regard to XML-RPC ), but it's hard to find a more disinterested party than Marysia.

If you're interested in the technical side of weblogging, be aware that there are more trustworthy sources of information than Scripting News.

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