February 12, 2003

In Which The Enchantments of Blogistan Fade and I Am Left a Pumpkin

Some interesting thinking about blogs, social networks and the “power law” out there this week made me reflect a bit on what I am getting into with this blog. I also found myself looking back on the trail of breadcrumbs through the online forest, back all the way to GEnie and its Science Fiction Roundtable (SFRT), the first online forum I remember really giving me a heady sense of what the medium could accomplish.

I realize in looking back that I’ve always been looking for something online that I have never quite found, a kind of fully realized Habermasian public sphere. There are times I have felt close to that ideal, and other times that I have felt very far away from it while still entranced by some of the other possibilities of a fully wired world. I think I have often been too demanding or constrictive in what I have sought, and probably too sensitive and tightly wound about what I have gotten. Among other things, I find that it is hard to maintain my sense of humor in an online context, as if it is a gross physical trait that boils away in a sea of phosphors.

Clay Shirky’s essay on the “power law” and the way that freedom of choice necessarily constructs hierarchies among bloggers was convincing to me (though I liked Steven Johnson's observations about how to figure a different sense of choice into all of this). The discussion of choice and its discontents also reminded me somewhat of my colleague Barry Schwartz’ interesting thoughts on the dilemmas that “choice” presents to many people.

I have read some blogs off and on for about a year now, but didn’t really get fully into the blogverse until this October, when I was reworking my own pages. I experienced for a while the same sense of heady pleasure and enthusiasm that I usually feel when I dive into a new kind of online discourse or medium. I am still finding new blogs that I really like that I had never read before. I certainly hadn’t really been fully aware until reading Shirky’s essay about how discontented some bloggers are about perceived hierarchies and “A-list” cliques among bloggers.

I should have expected it: whining and moaning about an imagined “A-list” or “postocracy” has been a part of every single online discourse I’ve participated in, from listservs to MOOs all the way back to the SFRT. Now that I’ve seen the carping and pettiness on the seamy underside of the blogverse, I am going through my usual descent from enchantment to normalcy in my regard for my new toy. When it comes to the Internet, I think I'm less a "first adopter" and more a "carrion eater": I seem to show up just as rigor mortis is setting into the dead-horse-beaten corpse of a new online medium.

In a few cases surfing around this week, I have run into stuff that makes my flesh crawl. I like some of what Lileks writes, but having seen some quotes from a recent Bleat about Michael Moore, I had to agree that he’d stepped over—way, way over—some boundaries of human decency.

That being said, finding that there was a blog devoted to hating James Lileks that included a post from a person quite seriously wishing he could kill Lileks and his 2-year old daughter with a suicide bomb struck me as being even farther over those boundaries. Not only was some of the content of the page as sick or sicker as the worst Lileks could offer, it summed up in a nutshell the incestuous, derivative, inward-turning nature of most blogs. A blog devoted to hating another person’s blog—in fact, to hating that other person? Isn’t there a soup kitchen or something that needs a couple of extra hands out there? A better working definition of "wasted labor" cannot be found.

Unfortunately, I am also pretty well done with one major alternative, the closed-membership or heavily moderated virtual community or listserv. I’ve done a number of those, one of them for five years until I semi-quit this week, and they lack some things that I desperately crave.

For one, no matter how much people try to keep fresh blood flowing in, eventually any virtual community gets senescent. Eventually everyone knows what everyone else thinks, and the more you know about how some people think, the less you want to talk to them. Even in the case of the people you really like and find interesting, you eventually run out of old things to talk about and find yourself sitting and waiting for some new event or issue to hash out with them. At that point, no matter how determined everyone is to avoid it, metathrash is going to start happening, for the same reason that animals kept in cages that are too small start picking at their own scabs: just because it provides some momentary amusement.

Also, strong injunctions to civility, coupled with the asynchronous kinds of dialogues that most virtual communities rely on, ultimately have had some really constraining effects on my own writing. I find myself thinking too much in polite little dialogic chunks. Strong moderation or self-imposed civility seems for a while to take care of the worst trolls, flamers and ‘energy creatures’, but in the longer haul, it’s almost like a Darwinian form of natural selection that leads to much more skilled forms of passive-aggressive behavior, creating a better but no less frustrating class of troll or time-waster.

So blogs seem to be it for the moment for me. There is an openness and expansiveness, at least in theory, to blogging. I find it easier to imagine updating my own pages with some regularity in this way: my old design, based around many areas of static content, was simply too hard to update regularly. On the whole, I would rather write about what is on my mind and less about the latest meme constipatedly rumbling through ten thousand blogs (though here I am doing just that) and the devil take whether I am on the C-list or Z-list in the meantime.

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