Friday, July 11, 2008

In such a graceless age

I have a long, rich and occasionally contentious relationship with online discussion. Some of the best colleagues and best people I know I've met because I piped up on CompuServe or responded to someone who responded to me on Tech_Space or Usenet or whatnot. When it works -- when community develops from conversation -- it's very nearly the best thing about the Net. OTOH, as Lev Grossman and everybody and their dog point out this week, these sure ain't the best of times. Among the lovely items in tabs on my screen right this instant:

- A mailing list for tech-journalism professionals, in which one of the members is giving a sustained and full-throated oration on what an evil bastard another journalist is. That journalist isn't actually on the list to respond; he died earlier today. The first journalist is responding to the death announcement.
- A post of mine on a Blog Not This One, where I am blessed with not only some of the dimmest readers this side of "Goodnight Moon" but thumbs-up-thumbs-down buttons for the readers too impaired even to post as anonymous cowards. (Not saying all the readers are that dumb, but the IQ curve over there looks like a course in the Tour de France. And no, not the USAT blog. Those commenters, in the odd little neighborhood bar that was T_S, rocked. And the ones that didn't usually got zapped.)
- A comment thread on an earlier post to this blog, in which some drive-by commenter spewed a ton of hate at the end of an obituary; I challenged her to explain herself, but these types rarely return to the scene of the slime. Now I'm looking at the post and wondering if I ought to, out of respect for the family, kill the whole damned thread.
- A screen capture from a friend who spotted a particularly tasty example of how the biggest assholes online often start the self-embarrassment process with "LOL that's the dumbest thing I heard." (HT to Tony. Again.)

And this isn't atypical stuff right now, not in tone or rudeness or level of inappropriate reaction. (Heck, a friend and colleague of mine got a comment on a story the other day that started by pointing out a couple of typos and concluded with an exhortation for her to die. And I know it wasn't posted by our copyeditors.) Worse, it feels harder to get a good conversation going; poor Science Fair -- goodbye and good luck, on which more anon -- doesn't seem destined to attract that coterie of thoughtful commenters, almost all the blogs over at Other Job seem to be laboring as hard to find "their people" as mine is, and a few of the places on which I'd normally post have reverted to -- !!! -- e-mail for discussion purposes. What next, carrier pigeons and calling cards?

A wise Twitterer I follow asks tonight what makes the world so mean, and now I'm wondering too: Summer's unfortunate tendencies toward id-driven behavior? The godawful economy? The godawful slog to the election? Or is there something more fundamental happening, some basic civility tipping point at hand? I wish I knew. Do you?


Karl said...

In all the years I've been on Net, I've seen this phenomenon of meanness. I think it has something to do with the false sense of power that lies behind anonymity, though there are plenty of mean people who give their actual names. People get behind a keyboard and they can't physically SEE the other people they're writing to, can't SEE the people they're slamming, and so they think somehow in their messed up mind that this is okay. That nobody is actually getting HURT.

Bullshit. I think it comes down to a lack of manners in today's society. I won't say anything on my blog or in a public forum that I wouldn't say to someone face-to-face. If everyone observed that rule, we'd get along much better.

Long story short...some people in life are just assholes.

Michael said...

Hidey ho AG... can't believe it took me so long to find this...

There was a time when I managed to convince myself that the .net gen would be an improvement over the TV generation complained about in Drugstore Cowboy... because you see us net geeks do the interaction thing. instead of being simply spoonfed.

Heh but i started to lose that optimism shortly before the eternal September began. even though i was likely among the last to get my feet wet on the net when the September floods meant something.

I am beginning to think that most people have forgotten how to communicate... and an increasing number just don't care to learn anymore.

And then there are the folk who seem to think that an illusion of anonymity = permission to be a flaming asshole. Never mind just how easy it can be for site admins at least to track the anonymous idiots many times... should they be foolish enough to be worth the bother.

i like the new digs... especially the lack of a nanny filter... though i sometimes enjoyed the gyrations to get past the one at USA Today.

MC said...

The strange thing is you may actually have a point about the summer, as I've read a lot of posts in the circle of blogs I read about the trolls that are wrecking it for them or people they know. Seems almost like an epidemic as of late.

But this is how sick in the head I am... in my crazy back brain, I keep thinking that the lack of hateful comments on my blog is a bad thing. The fact that for the most part I've cultivated a group of nearly unanimously friendly readers around my blog and I just look at that and wonder why I so very rarely get the hate.

And what I have is what most people want... a peaceful environment to write into where people generally don't criticize you, but in some weird way, when I get slammed, maligned or raked over the coals, I feel strangely validated, especially when I am being snarky about something. I mean, what is the fun in ripping into someone if no one calls you on it. (though, I have to admit that too much hate, a la my first big blogging experience would be a superdowner).

But generally, I follow that maxim that the very wise Will Durant came up with, one that is on every email I send: "One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say."

And Michael: I am still a little peeved that the USA Today nanny filter objected to the phrase "kung fu" for some strange reason I can't fathom.

Jeff Trexler said...

Speaking as someone who apparently deserves to be slaughtered like a pig for posting a photo of Benazir Bhutto in her bathing suit--or so I've been told by helpful readers of that and certain other posts--I have to say that the graceless age has at least exposed me to multicultural curses I might not have otherwise learned.

Beyond that, I've gained a deeper appreciation of Shannon & Weaver and techniques for filtering signal from noise.

AG said...

It knocked out kung fu? KUNG FU?! You never told me that... though, come to think of it, that would have been tough to convey without the availability of the words "kung" and "fu." I'm envisioning some sort of blogosphere Pictionary...

(Sorry. Weird weekend. Brain all frizzy now. And yes on the new digs; launching slower than I'd like, but I feel happier about the potential for my own blogging than I have in a long time.)

Good to see so many old friends, BTW -- and Matthew, this *is* one of the things I liked about the vibe at TS, and one of the things that seems to be endangered pretty much everywhere. (Even the other parts of USAT... you know how it can get. "Eternal September" really does about cover it. Stealing with thanks, Michael.) I don't mind lively debate; I don't mind being proven wrong by someone with superior data; I don't mind a challenge. What I do mind is when *every* post, every interaction, is a minefield.

And I increasingly mind the use of anonymity as license to act the ass. This isn't some Venetian ball, where the masks are an excuse for any sort of licentiousness and misbehavior. One can be anonymous and still act honorably; one can travel under his own name and still be disgusting. (The journalist I mentioned in the original post? We knew his name, and under his name he posted, in his troll days, some of the nastiest personal attacks I ever saw.)

So... summer, maybe. The economy and whatnot, very possibly; God knows people offline seem to be particularly short-tempered and nasty lately, and some of that's bound to be the economy. (I have a hypothesis that some of it is also is due to an inferior year for both music and summer TV, but this is one of those theories you get at 3 in the morning and should probably take an aspirin for.) Which all goes back to Michael's thinking -- people simply do not currently care how to communicate. We're overloaded and undersocialized and regard what earlier generations would have regarded as manners as just another obligation, and the empathy and understanding needed to esteem others' humanity (whether that means parsing personal abuse over a typo as overreaction, or finding tolerance for a culture that doesn't regard Benazir Bhutto's bathing suit as justification for murder) as just another form of information overload.

And Jeff? I will say nothing here as per Durant, but know that I am right now whistling "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" in your honor. Somebody needed to; like the man says, guess it must be up to me.

mfheadcase said...

Was fairly certain "eternal september was not original to me... so for the hell of it, i tried google... there is even a wikipedia article **wry grin**

Just as well i tried Google, i still can't remember exactly who *I* stole it from.

MC said...

I still remember when you (and I by proxy) were attacked by a certain blogger of right-wing renown... and I noticed that she created her own little echo chamber through a restrictive registration program, which to me, seems like she doesn't want to play by the same rules of engagement with her commentors that she plays with against those outside her realm.

And I do think economics is a huge factor in this... after all, think about crime statistics(especially ones of a violent nature) and the economy... there is usually a correlation, which makes the increasing belligerence of people online seem to have some explanation.

Though what if this phenomenon has more in common with something like Road Rage... which is not good news for anyone.

And the reason the USAtoday Nanny was miffed about Kung Fu was because of what else Fu could mean.