The Internet and real life are different.
More specifically: political discussions, or for that matter discussions about any contestable topic, differ greatly in their online and offline dynamics.
Here’s an example. Say you’re talking with some friends at a café. One of your friends overhears a conversation at another table, gets offended, and starts arguing with the folks at that table. So far, not an impossible thing in real life. I imagine we’ve all overheard things in public places that got our blood boiling, and perhaps even regretted that we didn’t confront the racists in the corner booth, or whatever.
But it doesn’t end there. The conversation at your table starts to shift course, so that now you’re talking about the people at that other table, whether they’re right or wrong, and your friend that started the cross-tabular conversation is now standing near their table, arguing. He beckons to you to come over and join him. If you’re reluctant, he comes back to your table and quotes inflammatory material said at the offending table, and points your way over there.
At this point, you’ll pretty much have decided, if you’re like me, that your friend is an asshole.
Of course, maybe café tables aren’t the best metaphor for blogs. After all, most blogs at least theoretically welcome newcomers, while café tables are often inhabited by people who just really want to talk among themselves. Maybe the better metaphor is a set of bars with closed-circuit televisions, and exhortations to go to the place across the street and join the barfight already in progress. Or an Episcopalian congregation leading an insurgent raid on the Latter-Day Saints Temple. I’m sure there’s something better.
The point is, what would be looked at as an act of aggression in real life is taken as standard operating procedure in the blog world.
It’s not even necessarily seen, or intended, as a hostile act, this rousing of people to go over and join in a conversation somewhere else. I know I’ve done so with nothing but sterling and benevolent intent in the past, aiming various firehoses of traffic at threads whose owners weren’t expecting so many guests. That practice has a name: “linklove.” It’s the strength of the web, after all, the core of the whole concept, this linking.
And I’m certainly not for a second suggesting that linking to good things ought to be seen as destructive. That’d be silly. How much have I learned from other people’s links? Reading people like Kevin, like Dave, like Lauren and Jennifer?
But there’s something about the widespread practice of negative linking that seems inevitably to lead to dog-piling. It makes sense. People are much more likely to take the trouble to write something when they’re upset. How often do you see letters to the editor praising the paper for their coverage of an issue? Factor in the relative ease and speed with which links propagate throughout the web, and you have the Atrocity Of The Week phenomenon.
And sometimes, you know, the AOTW really is atrocious. Sometimes the negative links direct attention to things that need to be addressed, to offenses that would have flown under the collective radar in offline life, and sometimes the mass uproar that follows educates people who would not have been reached by position papers. As a glorified phone tree to alert people to actions that need to be taken to combat short-term horribles, the net is a wonderful thing.
It’s just that it seems to me that there’s a threshold of linkage beyond which political discussions, as opposed to political alerts, become less than useful over time. I’m not suggesting any hard and fast metrics, but I do know that some of the most useful, challenging, rewarding and worthwhile conversations I’ve read online have taken place among regular readers of the blog in question, and I know that I’ve seen outside linkage derail more useful and enlightening conversations than I can count.
All this said, it’s not really the links that constitute the problem. They just facilitate it. The problem is the kind of behavior that is, advertently or in-, rewarded in the blog world, and the people that exhibit it, myself included on an embarrassingly frequent basis. With enough links to form a critical mass, a discussion becomes a target for the drive-by bombthrowers, the narcissist derailers, the wounded arrogant martyrs and their sycophants, the one-liner snarksters, the social-climbing blog-pimps. Not a single online demographic fails to possess most of these types, from racist reactionaries to radical women of color to shallow A-List mainstreamers and their toadies to misanthropic dog-and-desert nature poetry bloggers.
These people exist in real life too, and chances are that the net factor merely exacerbates an existing condition. I know I’ve been the annoying joke guy in real-life situations far too often, for instance, and I only pick that trait because I don’t really want to think about how many times I’ve also been a narcissist derailer.
But here’s the thing I’m thinking, and tell me if you think this seems too far off: in real life, such behavior is tolerated.
Online, it’s rewarded.
It’s rewarded, and combined with the dogpile dynamic, it creates conditions in which no forward motion is possible. A discussion of the Atrocity Of The Month becomes an argument, and not an argument among two or three discrete positions, but an argument in which hundreds of distinct positions are grouped into two or three rough tendencies, with each of the arguments in a tendency undercut by its putative allies. Anyone wanting only to win an argument rather than to engage need only pick out the most extreme statement on another side — and there will always be one — and either cast it as a ridiculous statement that represents the entire spectrum of the arguer’s opponents, or as the only real question being discussed.
Which means the people who stomp around doing actual harm, who commit actual lies and theft of words and ideas, actually enriching their status at the cost of making their prey’s lives smaller, get to excuse their actions by pointing to the misstatements of a few overzealous people on the other side.
Nuance is lost in the shouting. The crucial subtleties that characterize actual politics in the real world are ignored, when they are not actively dismissed with the call of “which side are you on?” Broad statements are set in opposition to one another, and the notion that both could be true — to take a recent example, the notion that the statements “Islam as often practiced is a reactionary ideology responsible for the brutal mistreatment of Muslim women” and “Anti-Islam sentiment in the US is usually odiously racist in nature” might both be equally valid — that kind of complicated thinking is dismissed with a wave and a snarky comment.
And so I wonder. Is a humane online politics possible, where reasonable differences of opinion are respected, where the goal is to exchange viewpoints and learn from one another and move forward? If so, is it necessarily restricted to venues where the traffic firehoses don’t reach? Is a humane online politics the stereotyped Mesozoic mammal always hiding in the underbrush while the Snarkosaurs and Sitemetrodons rampage out in the sunlight? I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise by any optimists among CRN regulars.