9.7.08

Yelling At Wall, Wall Yells Back

It turned out to be fortuitous, ironic, "just desserts"-serving, that a post I published on June 11, 2008 was the one in which I chose to reveal my name. I'd attended an n+1 panel discussion on the state of the internet the night before and felt chastened by the discussion of the anonymous blogger/commenter as one who criticizes from behind the name "anonymous" and does not afford the commented-upon the same anonymity. So I owned up, posted my name.

A week later, in my next post, I criticized the Do-It-Yourself concert scene and The Market Hotel in Bushwick. The BushwickBK website linked to my blog and amped my readership up to about 100 visits per day (for about five days). It resulted in eighteen mostly antagonistic comments in response to my post.

It was not the first time my writing inspired an angry response; I caused a few letters to the editor as a columnist for my college newspaper from various groups that took issue with my writing. But those interactions were different; I had a byline, a picture of myself next to my columns, and my detractors signed their letters and, even when upset, wrote cogent, mostly civil responses to my work because obscenity laced tirades don't get published in newspapers.

All of which is a far cry from, say, this anonymous commenter's response to my Market Hotel post: "A lot of the above responses were great and touched on many of the reasons why your argument is bullshit. The only thing I can add is that you should go fuck yourself you elitist douchbag know-it-all prick."

I was surprised by the response my Market Hotel post got. Not that I didn't find the response deserving - I criticized a group of blogging-and-anonymous-posting-savvy people. But not much I'd written in the past had gotten attention outside some guy in Missoula, Montana who said, in reference to a post in which I criticized MSNBC for putting Pat Buchanan on the air every night, that "Pat Buchanan has never said anything about black people that haven't been true."

Suddenly, I had a lot of piranhas taking little bites out of me and swimming off unnamed back into the murky waters of the internet. As my friend said, "yelling at a wall is all well and good until you realize that the person behind the wall can yell back." I suppose I'd forgotten that after being ignored by the internet so consistently.

Keith Gessen, an editor and co-creator of n+1, discussed on his blog yesterday the implications of self-publication. He cited a Jonathan Baumbach essay on the creation of the Fiction Collective in the '70's: "The publication of any worthwhile novel is necessarily... a deeply anti-social, even violent act. And when a publisher publishes your novel, he is taking on at least part of the responsibility for that act. You wrote it, but he published it—you share the burden of whatever anti-social message your novel contains. When you self-publish, Baumbach went on, you take that entire psychological burden upon yourself. There is nothing between you and the reader, in terms of the violence of your work."

I have spent a lot of time since the fervor (a minor, not-even-drop-in-the-bucket sized fervor in terms of the scale of the internet, but significant nonetheless for me personally) over my Market Hotel post died down trying to figure out my take on the episode.

I consulted with a few people. One said, "yeah, I liked that post, don't worry about the comments, nobody notices you if you're timid and civil." Another said, "everything you're not supposed to say about cool white people... you were right, but set 'em up first, then knock 'em down." One of my roommates noted that, "one of the key flaws in your blog, I think, is that you tend to make people very defensive."

My post was aggressive and tactless. But it did get people talking, I hit a cyber-nerve. But if the "violence of my work" results in violent responses, I think we just cancel each other out. No real progress is made. One of us, as Gessen went on to write in his post, may be "totally sincere" and the other "totally cynical." We wind up where we started, blood pressure, and hit counter, up a couple points.

That said, if I'd been tactful, if I hadn't called the Market Hotel "the flag of an imperialist hipster culture" (which BushwickBK used as the tagline for their link to my blog) would anyone have paid attention? If I hadn't made anyone defensive, would anyone have felt the need to consider their thoughts and write a response to my post?

My roommates still might have responded, but they know me. There is no wall of anonymity between us. It is much easier to lean on anonymity and be aggressive, dismissive. But knowing you have to look that person in the face at the end of the day might encourage you to be logical. This goes both ways, of course; poster and commenter.

Caleb Crain, another panelist at the n+1 internet event, wrote in his opening remarks, "it may be that communication is compromised when interactions are completely public, that grabbing attention often substitutes for deserving it, and that solitude is more refreshing than a company in which trust and tenderness are habitually threatened."

This seems to leave us at an impasse. Either self-publication (blogging, in this case) is antagonistic in order to "grab attention" and then results in the sort of unproductive back and forth that my post on the Market Hotel did, or it is private, even-tempered, and read by those who will uphold "trust and tenderness." This may be a richer experience, but it will not extend to a wide audience, and if you're just writing to your friends, why not just have the conversation over a beer?

To find a middle ground, look at form and style. I think it was also Crain who, at the n+1 panel, said that he blogs on subjects he is interested in, but does not want to necessarily read ten books of research to write about thoroughly. Several commenters who criticized my post also derided it as a "college-style essay." I admit that I try to avoid a colloquial and casual style of blogging. Although I don't claim to read the "ten books of research" for a scholarly essay, I often do internet-based research for my posts and try to adhere to an essay-like form in my blog writing.

When I don't do research, and I didn't do much for the Market Hotel post, I find I resort to emotinal arguments instead of fact-based arguments. When I have facts to cite and support my argument, my writing is less emotional; I have far more confidence in the efficacy of my research than my emotions, which tend to cloud judgment and obscure meaning. So I found it odd that my least research-based, most emotional, post was criticized for its "scholarly" tone.

If blog posts can be productive and incite discussion that does not rely so heavily on the term "douchebag," they should be far less like my Market Hotel post and far more like a "college-style essay." I assume the disdain for the essay expressed by my readers comes from the fact that they sucked to write in college when all we wanted to do was get a beer and pick up women, but there is a reason the essay has hung around for 450 years; it is an effective tool for making a point, conveying an idea, starting a discussion.

Blogging as we practice it now may resist this idea, but it does so to its own detriment. My failing was embracing my emotions when I should have resisted them and engaged in scholarship. Not every blog post needs to be a didactic, well-cited jump-off for a thesis. But the condition of trading fact for emotion seems widespread and unproductive, antagonistic. Blogging's intellectual scene would be better off if it were just that: intellectual.

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