Mysterious Beasts of the Antipodes

Kangaroo-australia-32220270-1024-768The Australian outback is the home for some of the most unusual animals in the world and, in the years that I have lived here I have been lucky enough to meet many of the unique fauna of Terra Australis while rambling about in the bush. Most people think of animals like kangaroos and koalas in association with Australia and the Great Southern Land also has a reputation for being the home of some of the most deadly snakes and spiders on the planet. As unusual and deadly as these better known animals are, the Aussie bush hides a myriad of less well known creatures that are often even more bizarre than the emu and kangaroo that appear on the Commonwealth coat of arms.

Giant Lizards and Egg Laying Mammals

goanna

Goanna

The central regions of Australia are broad deserts where only the toughest critters survive and lizards are among the biggest native fauna that live in these remote parts of the bush. The largest lizards that I have encountered in the bush is the Lace Monitor, called a Goanna by locals, that can reach a length of over six feet from the tip of their nose to the end of their tail. These fearsome reptiles are armed with seriously long, sharp talons that they use for climbing as much as for disemboweling prey.

The largest one that I ever saw lived at a camp grounds (and still does I am sure, goannas are very long lived) in a National Park in the desert behind Hattah and it was easily seven feet long. It waited for a group of people to lay out a picnic dinner before emerging fearlessly from its home in a hollow log, jumping onto the picnic table and devouring several kilograms of sausages. The goanna was totally unperturbed by the people, or their feeble efforts to rescue their sausages, and when it had finished its repast it sauntered back into its log untroubled by the audience that it had attracted and secure in the knowledge that nobody would bother it while it slept off the meal.

platypus-underwater-animal-profile-web620

Platypus

Perhaps the most unusual animals in Australia are the monotremes, mammals that lay eggs. There are only a couple of species of creatures in this order, the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) commonly called the duck-billed platypus because of the shape of its snout, and the Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), also commonly called the spiny anteater. Platypii are elusive animals that live in the banks of creeks and rivers but even so I have been lucky enough to spot a couple. Echidnas are more common (although there is really nothing very common about them) and I have met a few going about their business in the bush.

In my youth I was staying on a farm and, during a prolonged rainstorm, a spiny anteater took up residence in the sheltered woodpile where it found a log infested with ants that had inadvertently been thrown into the stack. The echidna was happily licking up the ants when the farm’s cattle dogs and a favored pet Dalmatian came across it and bailed it up. The echidna rolled itself into a tight ball of sharp spines and each of the dogs took a turn impaling themselves on its impregnable defenses. Interestingly, the smart working dogs were content with only one or two painful attempts while the papered pooch took significantly longer to it figure out!

Beasts that Time Forgot (in Tasmania)

The Tassie Devil

The Tassie Devil

The Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger

The Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger

The southernmost extremity of the Australian continent is a large island called Tasmania that is a triangle shaped, mountainous outcrop of wilderness at the edge of the Great Southern Ocean. Because Tasmania has been isolated form continental Oz for about 30,000 years many of the animals that inhabit its impenetrable bush are unique. Thanks to Looney Tunes the whole world has heard of the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) and are familiar with its formidable reputation. Pound for pound it is one of the most formidable predators in the world with an impressive set of teeth and jaws that generate one of the strongest bites (125 pound-feet/553N) per body mass of any living animal. As impressive as the Tassie Devil may be, until it was hunted into extinction, the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was an even more imposing predator.

 

Tasmanian Tiger cover

The Tasmanian Tiger: Extinct or Extant?

In the book The Tasmanian Tiger- Extinct or Extant, a collection of dissertations edited by Rebecca Lang, the story of the Tassie Tiger is explored and the evidence for its continued existence is examined. When the Apple Isle was first settled the Thylacine was considered to be a dangerous pest and was blamed for killing stock which led to a bounty that all but ensured that this beautiful, elusive creature was hunted to extinction. The last Tasmanian Tiger in captivity died in the 1930s and gradually sightings of the beast in the wild diminished until its demise was declared officially in the 1980s. Nonetheless, tales of encountering Thylacines have continued, casting doubt on claims that it has been wiped out and initiating a groundswell of support for studies to find surviving specimens and to protect them with a view to repopulation.

Exotic Intruders and Mythical Predators

camelPerhaps the greatest threat to Australia’s delicate isolated ecosystem has been the introduction of several species of animals from other parts of the world. These feral animals have been both deliberately and accidentally released into the bush and often have a devastating effect on the indigenous fauna. Many of the small northern hemisphere animals like rats and mice and rabbits have multiplied to plague proportions in Australia due to a lack of their natural predators to keep their numbers in check. Often, the pest control measures that were used to combat the spread of these feral animals, like the introduction of foxes to limit rabbit populations in the mid 1800s, has simply compounded the problem. One of the most famous environmental disasters of this sort was the introduction of the Cane Toad to the sugarcane fields which were supposed to devour an insect pest and instead took up a diet of native creatures, totally ignoring the original target species. Of course domestic animals like dogs and cats have also escaped into the bush and become feral, generally rising to the top of the food chain because of the lack of any real competition for their superior hunting skills. In addition, there are several more exotic creatures that now inhabit the outback like camels, water buffalo and wild horses.

big cats cover

Australian Big Cats an Unnatural History of Panthers

Since these feral animals have become so common in the outback there have been recurring legends of even more exotic species that have been introduced to the landscape that are as dangerous as any of the native predators- big cats. In their book Australian Big Cats an Unnatural History of Panthers, Rebecca Lang and her partner Michael Williams give a detailed account of these tall bushman’s tales of large black cats roaming in the remote wilderness areas of Australia, picking off hapless sheep and cattle. These myths have circulated in the bush for years and while I was living in Central Victoria in the mid 1980s the most common version was that American Air Force units stationed in western Victoria during WWII had brought Cougar cubs with them as mascots, releasing them into the bush when they deployed to the front and establishing a breeding colony of pumas in Oz.

Puma-Leão-da-MontnahaAustralian Big Cats supplies a number of alternative stories, the most common one involving the crash of a circus train on the outskirts of some remote outback town that resulted in the big cats escaping and the whole incident being hushed up to avoid official investigations. The evidence presented in the book makes a convincing argument for the existence of large cats in the bush and advances several theories about not only how they came to be there, but also which particular species fits the profile of the hundreds of sightings. While pumas seem to be the most likely, the possibility that there may be jaguar or even leopard living in the bush is something of a sobering thought. Until I read Lang and Williams’ book I was under the impression that the great outdoors in the Aussie bush was a fairly innocuous place to pitch a tent- finding out that a jaguar may be watching me barbeque my steaks for dinner from the shadows of the mulga scrub, waiting for me to climb into my swag for the night has certainly changed my ideas about camping out under the stars.

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Books Forged from Hell Fire

pyramidos ready for shipping

Pyramidos ready for shipping

My journey through the world of publishing has taken a bespoken turn this year with the publication of the limited edition of handmade, leather bound copies of my latest tome on ceremonial magick, Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus by Hell Fire Club Books. The process of producing these high quality works of the bookbinder’s art has often been an enlightening one, making me mindful of how the process of publishing has become more accessible, while the magick of writing and publishing books of real substance has remained a vital craft that has been enhanced by the introduction of modern digital technologies in such a way that the writer and the publisher can develop relationships that would be impossible to have with the behemoths of the modern world of books.

The outcome of developing a book in this way has been a skillfully executed volume that has been made to be a durable, practical book that is as highly desired for its artistic qualities as for the substance of its content. Because each volume is hand made using long established bookbinding techniques, the publisher has involved me at every step in the process, keeping me updated on the progress of everything from the printing to the promotion of the edition, forging a transparent working relationship that is reminiscent of the world of books in a by-gone era before the multinational booksellers determined the books that we would read and which titles would top the bestseller lists for Christmas.

New Books in Old Covers

Hell Fire Club Books

Hell Fire Club Books

The accessibility of digital litho printing technology that made self publishing a viable process has become a thorn in the side of many large traditional publishing houses that are losing their exclusive grip on publication. While the “Big Five” may seem to be struggling to come to terms with the new world of digital publishing, writers and bespoke publishers have taken advantage of these emerging technologies, generating a new wave of booksellers that are focused on creating high quality books that appeal to the bibliophile’s enduring love of paper and leather. I have been lucky enough to meet one such artist/bookbinder/publisher/entrepreneur in the person of Eamonn Loughran of Hell Fire Club Books.

Leather bound Pyramidos

Leather bound Pyramidos

I first connected with Eamonn at the suggestion of a common acquaintance, Kevin Davis who shares a mutual interest in magick and Thelema. Kevin has been working on a publishing project with Eamonn and suggested that I may be able to contribute to it as well. I contacted Eamonn and he explained his concept of producing excellent quality editions of occult texts, both old and new, to foster the growing interest in occultism and to preserve the work of contemporary occultists (such as myself) in volumes that have an intrinsic value as works of art in their own right. In the meantime I was preparing to publish Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus, and I showed the manuscript to Kevin to get his opinion. He suggested to Eamonn that he might be interested in publishing a limited edition of the book and, on hearing the idea I readily agreed to be involved with what appeared even from the outset to be an exciting and magical process- creating a modern grimior.

The Process

Pyramidos end papers

Pyramidos end papers

Because Hell Fire Club Books is a small publisher with a tight focus I was able to be intimately involved in the entire process of creating the book. This began with setting the book up for printing and, unlike the online print on demand services, the fact that the books are made by hand allows for the edition to be produced in a custom size, rather then the standard trade dimensions required across the publishing industry, giving the end result a unique aesthetic not found in mass produced editions.

Once the interior design of the book was complete and the printing was finished, Eamonn applied the real artistry to the volume and when he outlined his plans for the book I readily agreed to what sounded like a beautifully bound edition without fully understanding what the end result would be. At the time I had no idea how involved the process itself was either. Eamonn brought all of the traditional bookbinding skills to the task with each handmade volume going through a surprisingly complex series of steps, all done by hand. Folding the pages, sewing, adding end papers, rounding and backing, adding head-banding and place marker ribbon, applying layers of paper lining to the spine, trimming, cutting the boards for the covers, lacing the book together in its newly made binding, paring and finally gold tooling the leather cover are all done meticulously by hand. During the process each book goes through at least six wet gluing stages and is pressed multiple times to ensure the tightness of the stitching and the consolidation of paper fibers, nipping the completed book into its leather covers- the whole process can cover over forty individual steps to produce one handmade copy of the book. Being handmade, each book is a unique edition because of the natural inconsistencies of the materials used and the variations that occur in handling each book as it is being made.

The design chosen by Eamonn for Pyramidos included midnight blue cross grain calf skin with hand embossed gilt titles, black and gold head and tail bands with scarlet moire silk endpapers which sounded grand when he explained it to me but was even more amazing and beautiful when I first had the book in my hands. Like many others that have acquired a copy of this edition of Pyramidos, the aroma of new leather and the solid, weighty feel of the book has impressed me as much as the sheer artistry of its construction.

Maintaining the Magical Tradition

Pyramidos signed cards

Signed cards sent out with the limited edition of Pyramidos

In many ways, this sort of publishing model is closer to the traditional way that most of the classical works of occultism have been produced in the centuries since the invention of moveable type printing. Even in this more spiritually enlightened age, books of technical occultism are never going to have a very broad appeal and so getting them published is always going to be a challenge. Many of the accepted classics of occult literature were originally published privately in very limited numbers, a fact that is often forgotten in these days of downloading pdf ebooks and mass produced grimiors. As appealing, and useful as this is for modern students of the occult arts it doesn’t go a long way towards preserving the contemporary advances in occultism in a form that ensures its long term preservation- a long standing concern of many of the great magicians of the past.

The advent of POD publishing has, to a certain extent, made it easier for occultists to produce books but the easy accessibility of the medium also means that a lot of books of varying quality have appeared on the market and it is often difficult to know their true value. The advantage of using even a small, bespoke publisher is that the content must pass muster with someone other than the writer before all of the time, money and effort is put into publishing the book. This process of natural selection also gives the reading public more confidence when they purchase new books on magick and many people that are interested in books of occultism actively follow these sorts of small publishers, specifically looking for unique contemporary publications and modern recreations of traditional texts in high quality editions.

Magick has always been a rapidly evolving study and has produced a continual supply of new manuals of instruction since the ancient Egyptians scrawled their invocations on papyri in the time of Ptolemy and the pace at which occultism has developed and diversified in the modern day has greatly accelerated as we have become more interested in exploring alternative spiritualities in the last century. While the biggest publishing houses are still unlikely to take an interest in these niche oriented editions, it has created a sizeable demand for high quality publications that makes it a great time to be an occult author.

Hell Fire Club Books

Hell Fire Club Books

The leather bound limited edition of Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus is available from Hell Fire Club Books until sold out.

Posted in Books, D G Mattichak jr, Magick, Publishing, Pyramidos, Thelema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Writing Pyramidos

Pyramidos FB coverWriting a book is a major undertaking regardless of how many times that you have already gone through the process in the past. Since I have taken up writing full time I have had a couple of opportunities to ghost write books and prior to that I had already published several of my own efforts. Easily the most difficult and perhaps controversial types of books to write deal with occult topics that are often misunderstood and usually misinterpreted.

Pyramidos front coverMy latest book; Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus, has its genesis in a series of correspondences between myself and a magician of considerable knowledge and experience. Having both found success in our practice of magick we both find ourselves in a position of offering guidance and advice to novices at the occult arts and we discussed potential strategies for providing useful and practical advice for these students as they embark upon the Path of the Wise. This original inspiration ultimately led to writing a comprehensive book on the symbolism and practical performance of one of Aleister Crowley’s least well known magical compositions; the Pyramidos Ritual.

The Provenance of Pyramidos

The Pyramidos Ritual was written by Aleister Crowley in 1906-8 to be the ceremony of first initiation for his new magical order of A.’.A.’.. Its structure and movements are based upon the Golden Dawn Neophyte Ceremony that Crowley had been using for eight years and had previously attempted to develop into a unique new style of magick in 1900. As an occult composition the Pyramidos Ritual represented a definite evolution of Hermetic magick from a lodge based, Masonic styled practice into an individual spiritual pursuit that put the onus for progress and development almost entirely upon the solo practitioner.

sign-of-osiris-slain sketchFirst presented as Liber DCLXXI vel Pyramidos, A Ritual of Self-Initiation based on the formula of the Neophyte, by Aleister Crowley, A.’.A.’. Publication in Class D it was never published in full and even Crowley’s closest acolytes only ever received the instructions in sketch form, left to flesh out the full details for themselves. Although there is sufficient detail included in Liber 671 for an assiduous student of Crowley’s magick to expand it into its full form, it requires a fairly comprehensive understanding of the Golden Dawn system of magick upon which it is based. The instructions also assume that there is a general familiarity with the literature of occultism and that the novice is proficient in the basic theory of magick, at least as Crowley expounded it.

divider_hadit

From Essay to Tome

As the ceremony of first initiation, and a general pattern for practical magick, every novice at Crowley’s system of magick will come up against this fundamental book of instructions, usually early on as they come across references to it in his other works. Magick in Theory and Practice has a great deal of useful, instructional material for the performance of the Pyramidos Ceremony and Liber 671 is cited directly in the footnotes. It is also mentioned in other works by Crowley including Liber Tau and Liber Israfel and it is the recommended structure for the composition of the ceremony for the invocation of the knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in the instructions given for that operation in Liber Samekh.

Pyramidos front coverIn the days before the internet, this obscure ritual was very difficult to obtain, ensuring that novices didn’t come into possession of it before they were prepared to come to terms with the details of preparing to perform it. The web changed all of that and now there are a number of versions of Liber 671 easily downloadable online. As these once difficult to obtain texts can now all be found on the internet it seems impractical to attempt to restrict their use and so, after much consideration, I decided to try and create a useful, practical guide for novices to use in their study of this central, foundation work of ceremonial magick.

Originally I intended to write an essay that could be distributed to students (my colleague is associated with a number of Probationers in A.’.A.’. that are approaching this milestone in their magical careers) but as I delved into the material I soon realized that the Pyramidos was much more complex and had deeper roots in Western occultism than it appeared to on the surface.

Another issue that I considered was the language of the source material which has become somewhat archaic in the century since it was written. The Golden Dawn Z Documents, an invaluable source for the study of ceremonial magick, are especially difficult to get through as they are steeped in high sounding language and suffer from a chaotic structure that makes them difficult to study. When I revisited these sorts of obscure documents, and after speaking to a friend who had struggled with the obscure language of the Victorian gentleman occult scholar, I saw that there was a genuine need for an explanation of these fundamental principles of ceremonial magick in plain terms.

Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

Many of the sources that contributed to the composition of the Pyramidos Ritual, like The Book of the Spirit of the Living God are obscure and often buried within other books. Even if a student of magick knows where to find them, they may not be able to obtain them all and I came to the conclusion that the most practical option would be to assemble all of those sources into one volume where their connections could be more easily studied. At the same time, to provide the best possible practical guide to the use of these various techniques I decided to explain them and their connection to Crowley’s Pyramidos Ritual.

The result was that what began as a simple essay on a magical ceremony grew into a comprehensive book about a Thelemite style of self initiation and the magical heritage of Crowley’s system of magick developed for the newly dawned Aeon of Horus. The final result, Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus is a practical examination of the basic Elemental magick that emerged from Victorian occultism at the end of the nineteenth century and evolved into an eclectic, modern spiritual practice in which Liber 671 is a definite and significant step.

Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus includes 15 illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography of references that contributed to the composition of this dynamic ceremony of high magick art.

Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus is available now for $39.95 (plus postage and handling) from:

Buy Pyramidos: Self Initiation in the Aeon of Horus

Pyramidos by DG Mattichak Jr $39.95

Pyramidos by DG Mattichak Jr $39.95

 

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The Dawning New Age of Books

PRINTSince the first printing of the Diamond Sutra in 808, the business of book publishing has evolved through many permutations as succeeding developments in technology have altered the process of making and selling books. Prior to 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg built his first moveable type printing press, the production of books was a labor intensive process and books were expensive items beyond the reach of most people. By 1500 there had been eight million books printed in Europe, more than had been produced in over a thousand years since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Martin-Luther-1532

Martin Luther- bestselling self published author

The advent of the printing press was a revolution in book publishing, taking the control over the process out of the hands of the church and placing it into the hands of the common people for the first time. By 1500 the moveable type printing press had spread across Europe and produced in excess of 20 million copies, with that volume being multiplied tenfold in the next hundred years. When Martin Luther published his tract; Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on 31 October 1517 it was funded by his supporters and used the network of European printers to spread the reformation across the world. Within two months it had spread across Europe and by January 1518 it had been translated from the original Latin into German for dissemination to a wider readership.

Booksellers and Publishers

With sales volumes in the millions, the newly emergent industry of book publishing became big business very quickly. Generally, booksellers commissioned volumes from printers, producing their own copies of the popular books of the day. Obviously this meant that original books published by one bookseller were being copied by many others, and the original author was not receiving royalties for their work. As literacy rates improved across Europe and America the demand for new authors with original material increased, inspiring booksellers to look for emerging talent, establishing the first modern publishing houses.

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Kudos and Criticism in Cyberspace

cyberstalker

The anonymous face of the web

Once the domain of faceless corporations and tech savvy cybernerds, the internet has become the virtual playground of the Twenty-first century. The boom in internet use that has resulted from the rapid uptake of digital technology, and which has seen the number of websites grow to over 600 million in 2013 has made cyberspace a very familiar place for the majority of the 2.4 billion users that now regularly access the web . Having this level of instant access to the web has added a new, conceptual kind of social interaction to our normal daily discourses.

Sites like Blogger or WordPress, Tumblr and Facebook have generated an online subculture that shares (and often over-shares) their experience, knowledge or even random thoughts with anyone that cares to read or watch them. Like everything else that we create, this subculture generates both a light and a dark aspect to its application.

Facebook Turns Ten

stalking-on-facebook

Happy Tenth Birthday Facebook!!

In a recent post to his timeline Mark Zuckerberg gushed effusively about how fantastic the first decade of Facebook has been for him personally. He waxes lyrically about the humble beginnings of what has gone on to become an almost global phenomenon that has, in many ways, redefined the nature of our social interactions as we enter a new millennium. While most of the MSM focused on Zuck’s enthusiasm for the Facebook community that has evolved, my personal takeaway from his edict was his reflection on why he was ‘the chosen one':

“When I reflect on the last 10 years, one question I ask myself is: why were we the ones to build this? We were just students. We had way fewer resources than big companies. If they had focused on this problem, they could have done it.
The only answer I can think of is: we just cared more.”- Mark Zuckerberg

To commemorate the momentous occasion of the decennial of Zuck’s vision becoming a reality the 1.23 billion Facebook users are invited to view an online video look back of their contribution to the site. Looking over Zuck’s own video I didn’t see evidence that he cared any more than the average guy and the sanitized infographic that Facebook released to illustrate its evolution from a small student networking site at Harvard into the second most visited site on the internet notably skips past some of the less well received experiments that have been made on the website in the past ten years.

While Zuckerberg tries to focus on the positive things to have come out of Facebook, saying “It’s been amazing to see how all of you have used our tools to build a real community. You’ve shared the happy moments and the painful ones. You’ve started new families, and kept spread out families connected. You’ve created new services and built small businesses. You’ve helped each other in so many ways”, along with the opportunity to build that network of Facebook friends comes the temptation, overwhelming to some, to use the social sphere to less constructive ends. This dark side to the Facebook phenomenon is one that Zuck and his team are less comfortable talking about and, as anyone that has tried to have an offensive image or comment removed from the site will already know, Facebook really doesn’t give much of a fuck about how its users abuse their newfound freedom to comment on anything and everything that happens in the world.

How Web 2.0 Changed the World

Facebook stalking meme

A two way street?

In the age of Web 2.0 technology that has put the power of the internet into the hands of the average user, social media has created a platform that has encouraged people to engage with others on the web. This has created an environment where whatever you do or say either on the web or offline, there will be those that either love it or hate it and, with the immediacy of the access that is now available to users, their kudos or criticism can now be uploaded for very public consumption in a snap.

The technology for Web 2.0 has been around since the late 1990s but it didn’t reach anything near its full potential until 2006 when internet connectivity finally became a standard part of most households. It was the usability of the new configuration of the internet that made it a viable product that average people wanted to be engaged with. Blogging became a cool pastime for ordinary people and sites like MySpace and Facebook evolved the interwebz into a public forum where people (often unwisely) aired their differences with as much regularity as they shared photos of their cat or their dinner.

“The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution.”- Lev Grossman Time Magazine, You- Yes, You are Time’s Person of the Year, Monday, Dec. 25, 2006

This early description of Web 2.0 delineates the advantages of having this level of individual connectivity in glowing terms without even a hint of the shadow that it also has the potential to cast over its billions of interactions. In 2006 it was perhaps too early to see how this new technology would change the way that we interacted with others and the impact that having anonymous (or nearly so) access would influence the attitudes and behaviors of individual users.

In its most constructive form this interaction, even when it is critical, is one of the best things to have evolved out of the interwebz and the ultimate extension of the original intention behind Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of the web as “a substrate for humanity, as something on which humanity will do what humanity does and the questions as to what we as individuals and we collectively do, are still just as important and just as much as before, up to us.”

This concept of the interwebz as a place where we do “what humanity does” raised the question of what is and what isn’t appropriate behavior in cyberspace. Even Berners-Lee saw the potential for the misuse of his invention, saying “I suppose the question is to what extent the people use it for things which should seriously concern us. For example, are people using the web to get information about how to do illegal things, whether it’s to make explosives, how to kill people, poison people, or whatever it is. So there’s a certain amount of danger that this tool can be used for bad purposes. It’s a very powerful tool.”

The Importance of Kudos to Business

yelp-bad-reviews

The cyber-complaints department

Of course the real reason for the development of Web 2.0 hasn’t been so that we can all Tweet our latest insignificant thoughts or post selfies on Instagram. It is designed primarily as an advertising medium to support that most human of activities, buying and selling. It has become such an integral part of the sales funnel for many businesses that a corporate presence on the web is as essential as a brick and mortar showroom to success. Many businesses now rely on their online advertising to attract customers to the sales floor.

To facilitate this emerging market sites like Epinions began to appear that took advantage of the ability for users of the new Web 2.0 technology to add their information to existing websites in the form of reviews. The intention was (as Epinion’s byline puts it) to provide a platform for “unbiased reviews by real people” and the service has been such a great success that most estimates indicate that as many as 92% of internet users read reviews and 89% say that reviews influence their purchasing decisions. The demand that ecommerce created for online reviews has spawned a long list of similar websites in the decade or so since this new feature was first added to the purchase funnel.

Websites like Yelp, Google+ Local and Local.com have become standard reference points for consumers that are looking for anything and everything that they want to buy. At the same time, because of their very nature these sites have become a soap box for consumers to express their feelings about products or services that they have paid for. Because satisfied customers are less likely to tell others about their purchase experience (studies indicate that dissatisfied customers are inclined to tell between 9-15 people while 13% will tell more than 20 while satisfied customers only tell 4 to 6 people about their positive experience) these review sites have become a controversial tool in the online marketing world. On one hand they provide an easily accessible touch point for new customers to discover a business while on the other hand they create a platform where it is more likely that disgruntled consumers will air their grievances against the business. This requires that businesses take a very proactive and narrow path in managing these online properties and a workable code of conduct for dealing with this new aspect of their advertising.

Negative SEO and Facebook Bullies

negative-seo

Black hat SEO

The importance of these online directories has increased as internet usage has moved towards being a mobile activity and smart phones have allowed us to access information about businesses and their products on the spot. Because of the immediacy and the user relevance of all of this data, search engines rate it very highly and use customer reviews as one of the key indicators for assembling the SERPs for business or product related searches. This, in turn, gives those businesses that have more customer interaction at the top of the search results. If those interactions are generally positive then the influence on potential customers will also be generally positive but, as it would seem is more likely to be the case, if the reviews are negative then this will be the impression that is created for a new customer that has found a business via one of the search engines.

In the highly competitive world of business this creates an opportunity for (unscrupulous) operators to flood their competitors’ directory listings with negative reviews in an attempt to divert new customers away from their showrooms. This sort of practice is more prevalent in some industries like the restaurant trade where a good rating on Urban Spoon or Zagat can make quite a lot of difference to the weekly takings. The practice of spamming (that is really what this amounts to) your competitors’ online listings like this has become known as negative SEO and it has come to be viewed as a definitely ‘black hat’ online marketing technique. In fact, it is frowned upon so much that it is one of the surest ways to be banned from most of these sites and even Google will eliminate your URL from their SERPs if they catch you at it.

Business directories are only one place where this sort of underhanded use of Web 2.0 platforms goes on and, because most brands keep some sort of social media presence, sites like Facebook are also prime targets for these tactics to be used. And, because all of the users of these networks are ultimately presented almost as a brand themselves, sites like Facebook also create a place for people to leave their opinions about others where they are very likely to be seen by all of their friends and family. This is the doorway to the darker side of social media that Zuckerberg skates around so carefully in his reminiscences on the evolution of his new social tool.

The online Bully

The online Bully

If negative SEO attacks can have so much power in the business world (it is currently illegal in many countries) how much more influence can a negative social media campaign have against a private individual. Three factors make social media the perfect medium for making assaults on someone’s character. Firstly, the nature of social sites means that many of the influencers in a person’s life will be connected with them via their webpages and so anything that is written on them will be highly visible in their peer groups and to employers etc. Secondly, the prevalence of mobile technology and the suitability of social media to an always connected environment make access easy and, finally, the ability to disguise a true identity behind an alias so as to preserve anonymity and avoid direct responsibility often empowers people to do things on the web that they may not do in meat space. All of this has seen the bullying move from the schoolyard to the internet and stalkers now follow your trail through cyberspace rather than by hiding in the bushes in your front garden.

Virtual Crime and Punishment

cyber crime scene

The scene of the crime

As is the case with most new technologies that come along, legislation to govern our use of the internet has been slow to develop. This is most likely due to the lack of a clear definition for the use and misuse of new technologies as people become used to dealing with them and find ways to use them which, whilst not illegal (at that moment), are not in accord with society’s expectations. So, as people begin to use new technologies, new laws evolve to govern their misuse and where computers are involved, the complexity that they represent naturally generates complex legislation to govern the purview of their lawful application.

The laws that govern our use of cyberspace are generally divided into legislation against specifically digital properties, like hacking someone’s email account or Facebook page, and using digital technology to make a personal attack on someone. The hacking laws were developed (at least here in Australia) late in the 1990s to protect computers against hackers and to make creating malware an offence. These laws are covered in Division 477 of the Federal Criminal Code (1995) and outline a range of high-tech crimes that have evolved out of the digital age. In short it says:

“A person is guilty of an offence if the person causes the unauthorised access, modification or impairment of a computer or the data held in a computer with the intention to commit, or facilitate the commission of, a serious offence against a law of the Commonwealth, a State or a Territory (whether by that person or another person) by the access, modification or impairment.   Penalty:  10 years imprisonment.”

The second kind of legislation took much longer to evolve in the Parliament as its effects are far more insidious and difficult to prove. The boom in social media use has also created the conditions for the development of new interpersonal forms of communication and, while many of these new connections are very positive they have also created the conditions for their abuse and the new crimes in cyberspace at the beginning of the new millennium are cyberstalking and cyber bullying.

In June 2011 the Victorian Parliament amended the stalking laws to include the use of digital technology to harass someone. This law, now called Brodie’s Law, is an amendment to the Crimes Act (1958) and especially affects the Stalking and Personal Safety Intervention Orders acts (2008 and 2010). It makes it an offence to use the internet or a phone in a threatening, harassing or offensive way, making threats, stalking (including messaging someone to harm or scare them), accessing internet accounts without permission, defamation (spreading lies to intentionally hurt someone’s reputation) or encouraging suicide and carries a penalty of 2 years imprisonment.

How Far is Virtually Too Far?

This second type of virtual crime is much less concrete that the older anti-hacking laws simply because terms like ‘threatening’, ‘harassing’ and ‘offensive’ admit to a certain openness of interpretation. Unlike creating a virus that tries to steal users’ data (like credit card numbers and bank account details) from their hard drive, the effects of cyber stalking can be hard to pin down and their effects aren’t always as obvious as the case of the young woman for whom the law in Victoria has been named.

change.org logo

change.org logo

The recent death of an Australian celebrity which was apparently a suicide that was, at least in part, motivated by a bad reaction to cyber bullies, has once again brought the issue into the very public spotlight of the mainstream media. For the moment at least, this has put a very public face on the usually unknown victims of these crimes and has generated a huge amount of sympathy from the public that has seen over 40,000 signatures being added to a petition on Change.org demanding that the government and social media sites like Twitter take a stronger stance on cyberbullying. Of course the petition doesn’t have any concrete definitions for any of its demands and so it is really something of an empty gesture but at the same time it encourages us to ask where the line in the virtual sands lies between the use and the abuse of social media sites. At what point does sharp, stinging criticism become offensive harassment and exactly when does satire step over the line and become character assassination?

Because personal cyber-attacks come directly into the victim’s home via the web or their mobile phone it seems to share a lot in common with traditional domestic violence and for this reason the cyber specific stalking laws are amendments to the statutes that govern intervention orders. Generally, a transgression of acceptable cultural norms or a violation of another person’s rights in the form of indexed criminal behavior is a commonly accepted, although broad definition of domestic violence. Closer examination reveals that it is really a cluster or pattern of interrelated behaviors, which cannot only impact another person’s freedom and rights but also effect various aspects of physical health and emotional wellbeing and a comprehensive definition of domestic violence now includes all behaviors that exert physical force to injure, control, or abuse an intimate or family member, forced or coerced sexual activity, destruction of property, acts which threaten or abuse family pets, as well as nonphysical acts that threaten, terrorize, personally denigrate, or restrict freedom (Psychological Abuse in Violent Domestic Relations, edited by Daniel O’Leary, PhD, Roland D Maiuro, 2004). At the moment this defines behavior that would be considered to be cyberbullying or cyberstalking.

This implies that when your tweets shift from disagreeing with a point of view on some topic to making denigrating comments that refer to the person rather than what they have said that you may have strayed into cyberbullying territory. Similarly, stalking some celebrity or even just harassing someone that you don’t like via their Facebook page by leaving denigrating or purposefully damaging comments may be illegal and constitute a serious indictable offence regardless of whether you have any physical contact with the person or not. In addition, comments that you don’t consider to be offensive and which weren’t made with any intention of causing distress may be interpreted as being abusive by the person that receives them and, potentially, by the magistrate that they approach for an intervention order to make you stop making them. It is this uncertain level of interpretation that will continue to make these internet laws a point of public discussion for many years to come.

All of this also makes it a sure bet that the operators of the huge social media sites like Facebook and Google+ aren’t going to involve themselves in the social morass by taking responsibility for monitoring or removing any potentially litigious content until the definition of what is abusive on the web is much more clearly defined. In the meantime, as these issues become more commonplace it still may be alright to jump onto your friend’s Facebook account while he’s passed out to post embarrassing pictures of him, but don’t be surprised if he slaps you with an intervention order for your trouble.

 

References:

Facebook’s Decennial

http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/02/03/facebook_10th_anniversary_social_network_turns_10_looks_back_at_its_history.html
http://www.dailystar.co.uk/tech/363872/FACEBOOK-TURNS-10-Here-s-ten-fun-facts-you-never-knew-on-Facebook-s-10th-birthday
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-04/facebook-turns-10-the-social-network-in-numbers/5237128
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook

Web 2.0

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0
http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/W/Web_2_point_0.html

Online Presence Statistics

http://www.reviewpro.com/reputation-research-statistics-2767
http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130604134550-284615-15-statistics-that-should-change-the-business-world-but-haven-t

High Tech Crime

http://www.afp.gov.au/policing/cybercrime/hightech-crime.aspx

Criminal Code Act (1995)

http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2012C00776/Html/Text#_Toc339546822

Crimes Amendment (Bullying) Act 2011

file:///C:\Documents%20and%20Settings\D%20G%20Mattichak\My%20Documents\Downloads\11-020a.docx
http://www.justice.vic.gov.au/home/safer+communities/crime+prevention/bullying+-+brodies+law
http://www.findlaw.com.au/articles/4793/cyberstalking-and-the-law-.aspx

Charlotte Dawson Cyber Bullying Petition on Change.org

http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/the-australian-government-charlotte-s-law-tougher-cyber-bullying-legislation

Psychological Abuse in Violent Domestic Relations, edited by Daniel O’Leary, PhD, Roland D Maiuro, 2004

http://books.google.ca/books?id=pv6XIjT4MpUC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

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