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January 11, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

Good Grief

Tim Ferriss was a real-world griefer before real-world griefing was cool. Before Anonymous was putting epileptic kids into seizures, DDOSing the Church of Scientology, and harrassing teenage girls for no good reason whatsoever, Ferriss (through sheer force of narcissism) had already begun gaming whatever system he could get his hands on. And now he writes books about it. The question you should be asking yourself, as you read this tongue-in-cheek New York Times review of Ferriss's "four-hour workout" book is, did he write this to actually teach people his idiosyncratic health plan? Or (more likely) is it just the newest way Ferriss has decided to grief the world, via the NYT bestseller list?

Griefing, of course, is the process of exploiting the rules of an online community to make its members miserable. Griefers are the people who join your team in online games, and then do everything possible to sabotage your efforts. It's a malevolent version of the "munchkin" from old-school RPGs, where a player tries to find loopholes in the rules, except that griefers aren't playing to win--they're playing to get a reaction, which is much easier. The key is in the balance--a griefer or munchkin is looking to maximize impact while minimizing effort. That's basically what Ferriss is doing: he power-games various external achievements, like kickboxing or tango, not for their own sake, but to boost his own self-promotional profile.

The problem with writing about reputation griefers like this guy is, for them, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. They want you to hate them, as long as it boosts their search ranking. And there are an awful lot of people out there following similar career plans--maybe not as aggressively, almost certainly not as successfully, but they're certainly trying. They may not realize that they're griefing, but they are. Affiliate marketers? Griefing. Social networking 'gurus' who primarily seem to be networking themselves? Griefing. SEO consultants? Totally griefing.

Like a zen student being hit with a stick, I achieved enlightenment once I looked at the situation this way: it's the Internet equivalent of being a celebrity for celebrity's sake. Or, perhaps more accurately, griefing provides a useful framework for understanding and responding to pointless celebrities elsewhere. Maybe this is one way that the Internet, for all its frustrations and backwardness and self-inflicted suffering, can make us better people.

The one thing I've learned, from years of "Something Is Wrong On The Internet," is that the key to dealing with griefers--whether it's a game of Counterstrike, Tim Ferriss, or the vast array of pundits and shock jocks--is right there in the name. They benefit from getting under your skin, when you treat them as serious business instead of something to be laughed off. As Belle and I often say to each other, you can always recognize people who are new to the dark side of the Internet's ever-flowing river of commentary by the gravity they assign to J. Random Poster. We laugh a little, because we remember when we felt that way (sometimes we still do), before we learned: it takes two people to get trolled. Don't let them give you grief.

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