Dave Winer, if you haven’t heard of him, is a minor Internet celebrity. His wikipedia entry describes him as “a software pioneer, creating some of the first outliners, content management systems, and weblog tools. He’s also the author of Scripting News, one of the first weblogs.”
He’s also something of a perpetual pain in the ass.
Like great characters from fiction, it’s Dave’s contradictions that make him fascinating. One minute he can be lovable and engaging, an oversized teddy bear of a man with a wide-ranging curiousity and an irreverent sense of humor. He advocates openness, and inclusion. He talks – constantly, but interestingly – about whatever subject has caught his attention, painting in broad strokes, big themes. Revolution! Zoom!
But for someone with his long track-record of participating in online communities, he’s amazingly thin-skinned. Fail to give him the status and deference he thinks he deserves (and depending on the situation, the amount he thinks he deserves can approach infinity), and he can suddenly explode in childish tantrums, pulling rank, launching personal attacks, and spewing obscenity-laced flames.
Back in 2000, at one point Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly & Associates was the target of his wrath (because Dave hadn’t been invited to the “P2P Software Summit” Tim had organized). At that time, Tim wrote the following in his Ask Tim column:
When someone reserves for himself the right to “flame at will,” and claims that his flames are only his quest for truth, in spite of feedback to the contrary from many people, he should expect that those people will not invite him to their meetings or discussions. I completely grant that Dave has the right to remain on the outside, to critique anyone he likes, and to crusade for whatever causes he believes in, but if he wants to be included in events that I organize, he’ll have to behave more politely. He may consider that censorship; I consider it etiquette. No one disputes his right to his views–in fact, we all still read him because his views and ideas are so interesting–but I think he needs to recognize that his social habits will, from time to time, lead him to be left out of events and discussions to which he might otherwise be invited.
What was true in 2000 remains true today, as shown by the recent BlogNashville conference, where Dave was allowed to present a session titled, “A Respectful Disagreement,” in the course of which Dave, a political liberal, chose to lecture his mostly-conservative audience on the subject of online civility.
The result was predictable, as Dave moved quickly from referring to his audience as a bunch of “rednecks” to perceiving himself as the victim of unfair attacks, and then lashed out accordingly. Apparently there were lots of fireworks, but the part that has received the widest attention since then is the video made by weblogger The Political Teen. It shows an interaction between Dave and Stan Brown of Two Minute Offense; Dave makes an assertion about the economy being in bad shape, and Stan, sitting toward the back of the room, quietly snickers. So Dave tees off on him, going on and on about how “ugly” and “rude” Stan is being — being, in fact, amazingly ugly and rude himself, while Stan remains polite and rational.
This is classic Dave; I’ve seen dozens of online interactions he’s had over the years that have ended up exactly like this. At first it was amusing to watch him go into orbit, but as I’ve seen him repeat the same pattern over and over again, I’ve come to realize that it’s actually pretty sad; he’s trapped in this cycle and can’t break out of it.
The American Association of Psychiatry’s DSM-IV defines a narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, as follows:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy. The disorder begins by early adulthood and is indicated by at least five of the following:
1. An exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
2. Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. Believes he is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
4. Requires excessive admiration
5. Has a sense of entitlement
6. Selfishly takes advantage of others to achieve his own ends
7. Lacks empathy
8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him
9. Shows arrogant, haughty, patronizing, or contemptuous behaviors or attitudes
Now, I’m not a psychiatrist, and I’ve never met Dave in person, but based on that definition, and what I’ve seen of him online, I think it’s likely that he suffers from NPD.
These days I mostly ignore Dave, other than to notice it in passing when he has a particularly prominent meltdown, like the one at BlogNashville. But as I look into this podcasting thing, I inevitably run into him, since podcasting is the latest case of Dave’s glomming onto a technology and settling himself astride it as self-appointed leading practitioner and populizer. I think this is another aspect of his narcissism: he’ll demand recognition as a pioneer of some technology, even when his actual contributions to the field don’t really justify that status. He’s done this to a greater or lesser extent with outlining software, scripting languages, weblogging, p2p networks, RSS, and XML-RPC, and now, as I said, with podcasting.
After randomly choosing a recent podcast of Dave’s (MP3 file) and listening to it, I noted to some friends that Dave is even more oboxious in podcast form than he is on his weblog — which shouldn’t actually be possible. But listen to the first thirty seconds or so of that podcast and see what you think.