Monday, September 25, 2006

Sock Puppet

By now everybody knows about Lee Siegel, The New Republic's infamous blogger. According to the NYTimes, he "insulted his detractors and posted rhapsodic comments about himself using a 'sock puppet'." Jonathan Zittrain, an Oxford "professor of internet governance" further expanded and wrote that "the use of sock puppets is one of the graver transgressions you can make online."

This is the first time I have seen sock puppet used in this context, and it really stuck to my noodle after I read about it. How did that become the dominant metaphor for disguising your identity online, did Tom Zeller Jr, the NYTimes reporter, pull it out of the atmosphere?

Looking up the term on Wikipedia yields revelation on this front. Sockpuppet (sometimes known also as a mule, glove puppet, alt(alternate) account, or joke account) is an additional account of an existing member of an Internet community to invent a separate user. This may be used for fictional support of separate people in a vote or argument by falsely using the account as a separate user, or for acting without consequence to one's "main" account. It is often considered dishonest by online communities, and such pretending individuals are often labeled as trolls. (

Examples of other sock puppets are cited, going back as far as 2000. Surely there are earlier examples, yet the point is made: sock puppets are an online phenomenon and a regular practice by the less-than-scrupulous. Such individuals could be more accurately charactised as being scrofulous, or morally tainted.

The first encounter I had with sock puppetry dates back to the mid-nineties, when a male friend pretended to be a 14 yr old girl in order to lure unsavory types into chats. This activity at the time would have been described as a tentacle, the in vogue term then. Yet, according to Wiki, sock puppet goes all the way back to "July 9, 1993 in a posting to bit.listserv.fnord-l".

Funny, isn't it, that it took a conservative columnist at a right wing rag to bring sock puppetry into the media spotlight. Then again, I suppose that's a sign of the times.

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