Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A Brief History of John Lee 

The 'sphere is agog over John Lee's blistering, albeit ill-informed attack on Choire Sicha and Ana Marie Cox of Gawker and Wonkette fame, respectively. Lee's perceived problem is that both blogs somehow denigrate blacks and make them out to be "second class citizens." Um, OK, I actually thought they poked fun at everyone and thus all folks are second-class citizens, but nobody asked me. Besides, as soon as I saw the byline, my eyes nearly popped out. Then I started laughing because truly, everything and everyone gets recycled after a certain period of time.

Not everyone has long memories, or paid attention to what was going on as the dotcom boom turned into a fizzling bust, but about three years ago, Lee was making waves (and enemies) in fronting Urban Expose, a website geared for minority groups with the following mission statement:

Urban Exposé is an industry pariah. A news site dedicated to covering the exploding urban media market in new media , film , television , fashion , magazines, and music. UE delivers timely relevant information on the industry in a humorous fashion.

In other words, Urban Expose was a site not unlike Gawker and Wonkette, but done back in the day when blogs were still the sole domain of angsty teenage girls. Anyway, when UE first got started, Lee's identity wasn't known; in fact, he posted under the moniker "Crispus Attucks", named for a American black soldier murdered in 1770. The guessing game for the man behind the pseudonym was rampant, because he had to be an insider, someone who had more-than-common parlance with black culture and media goings-on. Nobody guessed that it would be a then-29 year old man who'd once graced the cover of Wired Magazine for a completely different reason: as one of the earliest computer hackers, one who'd made his "fame" during the Commodore 64 years, who'd just served six months in jail for hacking crimes and now was on the other side, naming names in the shadowy world of hackerdom.

Lee's unmasking on the "Today in New York" program--something he decided to do on his own, by the way--was a major deal at the time, because it was so unexpected. Who'd have thought that a teenage hacker who'd served time would resurface in a completely different context? When the news hit, an old friend of mine was writing for a now-defunct tech website, and he was ecstatic about the news. He'd long thought Lee was a genius and one of the smartest people he'd ever met, and this just seemed to confirm it. But a few months after the news hit, Lee's name disappeared from the news. I last heard of him maybe two years ago when he participated in a tech-based conference said friend was also taking part in. Then, nothing.

But now, John Lee resurfaces as a critic of the kind of sites that seem to mirror just the very thing he tried to do with UE. Either there's nothing new under the sun, or the Internet is a great way for people to resurface in completely different contexts after a time spent below the radar. Maybe the Blogiverse is the new Dotcom Era--albeit with a hell of a lot less money involved.

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