It’s almost exactly two years old at this point, and it links to a post at the Old Blog that I have long since taken down at the request of the guest blogger, but this post by our friend rrp remains one of the most cogent and thoughtful essays on blog discussion dynamics I have seen. The essay has to do with blog wars, but it’s relevant to the less unpleasant aspects of online relationships as well, and to other facets of writing for an online readership.
Starting off with a description of some of the real-life meetings, good and bad, in which she’s taken part, rrp moves on to the blog world.
Put three posts side by side. Make A a calmly argued, logically structured, even beautiful essay. Make B a full on emotional diatribe, making sure to keep it somewhat coherent. It can’t read as flat-out insane. Make C a sardonic, clever piece of wordplay that manages to make any opponents look like fools. How will they rank? Well based on my experience C will get the most attention, B next and A will come in a sorry last.
This rings true. I’ve written all three of the above, if you stretch rrp’s definition of “A” just a little bit. The posts that fall into category C are the ones that still get spasms of blog traffic, even years later. I’m really good at writing C, whether it’s snarky one-liner reductio “Shorter” comments on other blogs, or rewriting Eliot’s poetry to make fun of wingnuts. I lately feel kinda sick to my stomach when I look at some of those old posts, most of them written in a form of anger that I can only describe as something akin to the abuser’s mindset.
Writing in category B is a little healthier. Rants are often provoked by righteous anger, as opposed to the curdled, denialistic loathing that taints much online snark in category C. Bad things happen, and anger is an appropriate response to them. Anger expressed in public will always draw some attention. A couple weeks ago there was this thing floating around Twitter that basically said “either you go wade into this blog fight on the same side as me or you don’t care about the lives of trans people,” and some smart and thoughtful people helped spread the message despite the manipulation and the bloody-shirt-waving. Prairie fires of this sort of anger lick back and forth across much of the political blog world a lot these days. In the desert, fires like that have a peculiar effect, changing the structure of the landscape. Wildfires tend to favor grasses, which can burn and grow back. After a few seasons, the fires don’t hurt much as they periodically burn over the same spot for the dozenth time. Of course at that point, not much interesting grows there between fires.
rrp really gets down to business when she contrasts offline behavior with online, a topic on about which I have been known to yammer:
What does this have to do with online political work? Well, take an audience that’s predisposed to regard the medium as entertainment and primed with the dynamics I’ve described and it’s a recipe for disaster. The behaviors that lead to the worst real-world meetings are the following:
- Loud, Obstinate Ignorance
- Concealed Motives
- Poor Faith Arguments
- Unexamined Motives
In the online environment (and out here in the world too) all of these are lethal to progress, but the last three are especially guaranteed to derail and destroy useful discussions. It’s easier to construct snappy comebacks when you don’t believe in what you’re writing (poor faith arguments) It’s easier to pour out an enraged rant when you’re reacting and typing first, without thinking about why a particular post is making you crazy (unexamined or concealed motives).
But thinking through your own reactions takes training and it takes time. And time is at a premium in a online discussion. …[I]n an online discussion, you have to hit it quick or the moment will have passed you by. That wonderful thing you were going to say loses its context and relevance. It will disappear without an answer, without an echo, without a sound. So there’s every incentive to type fast, to type first thing that comes to mind, to type the words that will have the greatest impact.
You’ll probably type what you feel not what you could have thought if you had a day or so. You’ll probably type out of your reactions rather than your principles. And you’ll type for your audience, wanting to please, instruct, anger, enlighten, and entertain.
It’s a year and a half since I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t wade into the slagfights anymore. I haven’t, mostly. I still watch them, partly out of interest in the issues being fought over, and partly out of self-defense—my name still gets dragged into the things now and then, despite my long absence from the roster of combatants. There are plenty of crucial issues at the center of these fights: human rights, respect, justice, peace, taking place across seemingly intractable divides of gender and race and ethnicity.
There are, I have no doubt, people learning hard-fought personal lessons amid those fights. I wouldn’t say nothing is gained in the fighting. But I still see a lot more flinch-apologies than I do dialogue, a lot more defensive bluster than listening: fire-adaptations any ecologist will recognize handily.
In the meantime, I have spent this last year trying to get my writing closer to what rrp describes as category A, generally forsaking the other stuff. Despite rrp’s well-argued analysis of the dearth of response such writing gets, I’ve heard from plenty of you — rrp included! — that you find some value in the attempt.
That response from all of you was a good thing in 2009, and here as the year ends, I want you to know I’m grateful for it. Thank you.