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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I Hate Astroturf

Back in high school marching band, we'd go once a year to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for the big statewide marching contest. At the time, the field had an astroturf surface, and one of the highlights for us was getting to march on a better surface than the ankle-deep, hole-ridden fields we used each Friday night. The artificial turf was smooth and predictable and easy to march on. We loved it!

Later on, while marching in the Razorback Band in college, I learned the truth about astroturf: it is evil beyond all expectation. Aside from the carpet-burning, shoulder-dislocating, ACL-tearing characteristics that are so well-known to athletes, there are the lesser-known, more insidious problems -- astroturf sheds and generates static.

When you walk across an astroturf field, you build up a bigger charge than a car battery. All that static then attracts thousands of tiny little loose pieces of plastic grass, which leap up onto your shoes and embed themselves in your socks. These are horrible, insidious little things that are nearly impossible to remove, and if you try washing the socks they only transfer onto the other clothes in that load, then melt into small black balls in the dryer.

Thus it was that astroturf earned the nickname we had for it: devil grass. We all tried to wear only old socks to the rehearsals at Razorback Stadium, so they could be thrown away later, and we did our best to keep those shoes separate from others. Fortunately, we only practiced there on Fridays before games, so it wasn't too bad. I can't imagine what the football players had to go through. [1]

Astroturfing on the Internet is at least as bad as the devil grass.

A few weeks ago when I first posted about net neutrality, several things struck me as odd about the comments.

First, it was strange that I got any at all. As far as I know, my only regular readers are my friends and family, most of whom seldom understand my techie posts enough to comment, but I dismissed the sudden influx as being due to my endorsement of Save the Net.

Second, I thought it was odd that most of the commenters didn't have links to blogs of their own. That I dismissed as just people who are more blog readers than blog writers, since that described me for a long time.

Third, it seemed unusual that few (if any?) posted followup comments. Drive-by commentary certainly isn't unusual in the blogosphere, but I usually try to check back in on threads that I'm involved in, as do most people, I think.

Finally, and most damningly, they were nearly all opposed to neutrality regulations. This is certainly a contentious issue, but based on most of the commentary I've read and conversations I've had with fellow geeks, sentiment seems to be at least evenly divided, if not actually leaning in favor of neutrality. I found it nigh unbelievable that the expressed opinions were so overwhelmingly opposed.

It occurred to me at the time that the telecoms could be comment spamming blogs about the subject, but I dismissed that notion on the grounds that a) my blog is too insignificant to warrant that kind of attention, and b) I deemed the telecoms to be too clueless about the opinion-generating power of the blogosphere to even think of the possibility. Maybe in a few more years, but not yet.

Looks like I was right to begin with. They're either more clueful than I thought, or they hired some PR firms that are.

This is certainly a debate worth having, since it is an important issue in the future of the net, but that's really not the way to engage in it. There are people I respect who disagree with my point of view, and that's fine, as long as they're open and upfront about it.

As strange as it may seem, honestly and frankness are really important in the blogosphere, since by and large our thoughts and expressions are the only things by which we can judge each other. Lies and deceptions undermine that, and thanks to the million eyeballs principle, most of the time they will be uncovered.

Or at least they will as long as the means to uncover them are open and accessible to all. That might not be the case, though, if the pathways to the truth were throttled and controlled by those who wanted to suppress it. Ironically, their very actions in opposition to net neutrality make a powerful argument for it.

So, in honor of their sneaky, weasely (if unsurprising) tactics, I smirkingly bestow upon the telco and cable companies the standard title of demagoguery: Big Telecom. Or maybe Big Bandwidth sounds better, I can't decide. ;-)

In the meantime, now that PR firms have caught onto the potential of blogs, it will be their next task to learn how adversely bloggers react to being manipulated. That'll be fun to watch.

[1] I should add here that I absolutely LOVED practicing in Razorback Stadium on Friday nights, under the stadium lights and surrounded by all the history and tradition of the field. That experience made the post-practice cleanup totally worth it.

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