Jan 182010

So, my birthday was this past week, on Wednesday, the first day since I’ve rebooted my blogging that I’ve missed out on the Monday/Wednesday/Friday regularishly scheduled posting thing (to be followed by a Friday absence as well, but that’s almost beside the point).

It wasn’t, though, because I wanted to give myself a day or two off. It was because I was paralyzed to speak; I sat there, contemplating my soft underbelly, and thought about whether or not I was comfortable presenting it to the world. And I just wasn’t.

My wife took me to see Avatar (3D and in IMAX, thankyouverymuch) for my birthday. When I came back, I wanted to talk about it plenty. But I wanted to have a uniformly positive conversation about it.

And frankly I just can’t trust the Internet to provide that. Nor should I.  As a collective entity, the Internet is in chronic pain, the kind that strips away all kindness and leaves a body making a choice between do I lash out now? and do I lash out later?, no third option. People are wrong on the internet, after all, and the rage that inspires — in me included — is flatly unconscionable and requires the immediate application of said rage to the object of our ire-du-jour.

This makes a blog a terrible, horrible, awful, no-good place to commit acts of pure celebration. Yes, many acts of celebration ala blog come off just fine, but at the end of the day I have to regard that as mainly a matter of luck, akin to throwing a birthday party in a war zone: just because a stray bullet didn’t zip through and kill one of the celebrants is no indication that it wasn’t an incredibly dangerous thing to do.  As Nathan Paoletta has said, the Internet’s supervillain power is its ability to strip away context from any conversation.  Inevitably, someone is going to get accused of white privilege, or of sexism, or some sort of variation of Godwin’s Law is going to break out. It’s enough to send this particular groundhog scurrying back into his hole at the slightest hint of shadow.

Worse, sometimes the interloper, the guy that fires the bullet into the party, has a fine point to be made. But in a mixture of both perception and actuality, the point comes with a stark lack of forgiveness and compromise. I blame the presentation layer, text, for this.  Text often comes without subtext, without tone, and thus a statement that is in contradiction of or otherwise at odds with the object of celebration can only be read in the harshest fashion possible. I say “can only be read” because reading charitably is a skill, and skills are not exercised in the moment of first impression. Skills come in later, if at all. So when you have X, and someone comes in proclaiming Not X, the “not” is the sum total of the message. It is stark, and it gets right the heck up one’s nose.

My gut, not my brain, believes that the immediately correct response is to kick the Not-X-ers in the teeth, to believe with a fiery passion that they are idiots of the lowest order, and to be honest I spend a lot of time even after I wrestle that reaction to the ground still soaking in the negative response.  There has not been a single unpleasant interaction I’ve had on the Internet that hasn’t stuck with me for days on end, even when the guy on the other side of it IS an idiot of the lowest order.  It’s an incredibly uncomfortable way to live and the fact that it happens to me is a strong indication that I should maybe rethink this whole life as a public persona thing. If my emotions are so easily mastered by others to my detriment, it’s stark insanity for me to continue to open myself to that, right?

Well, obviously, no, not right, at least not entirely. There’s value to be had in engaging others, in attempting those acts of celebration.  But man, strategies must be employed to make sure the center holds.

Moving my conversations off of forums has been a big part of the strategy for me. Blogging, at least, carries an implicit authority model with it, one which I am at least in some degree of control over. If I don’t like the direction a commenter is going, I can shut that down — though that’s really an extreme measure and circumstance. More often it just doesn’t come to that because the implicit authority tends to be respected by (most of) the participants in the discussion.  Historically I’ve rarely encountered this “respect effect” in forums (and relatedly, I’ve encountered plenty of forums where the figures of authority evince an utter lack of skill at pleasantly exercising said authority).  While blogging reduces the audience level vs. forums, I think that’s a good thing, and I find it tends to elevate the quality of the material (the initial posts themselves) and of the responses (the comments). The vulnerability problem still exists, but at least I’m strapping on a parachute before diving out of the plane: the risks are better managed.  It’s why I encouraged Rob Donoghue a while back to blog more, forum-post less, and I dunno, I think that’s turned out pretty well.

There’s also the strategy of persona. Not coincidentally, around the time I realized Evil Hat was going to become something of a “real company” (or would at least try to become one), I realized I had to change much of how I conducted myself online.  The gut (the teeth-kicker from above) needed a damn muzzle. I was very much a part of the Internet’s chronic pain problem, and usually went for the lash out now option, because doing immediate damage to an object of ire feels good to the demon gut, even if the brain is smart enough to see the regret inherent in the act.   Rob comes up here again, as someone to emulate: he has vast powers of remaining reasonable that I can only manage a glimmer of at the best of times (I do not know how he does it, but I think there’s something in the water up in Vermont that has something to do with it).  So the last five or so years of me on the internet has mainly been an act of shouting down my gut-response every damn time and firmly, deliberately instructing myself to respond as much like Rob as possible.  Most of the time I even manage to pull it off, and I’m pretty sure it’s worked — enough so that I always laugh when I see folks describe me as a consistently pleasant, reasonable guy on the net. I mean, I know that I’ve been trying to be that, but the internal reality of my success just isn’t as sunny as its outward face.  That’s not to say that there is falseness in that outward face, that outward response. It is who I want to be and in many ways it’s who I am, stripped of the nasty gnashing pointy teeth part that’s trying like hell to defend me from my daily insanity of engaging with the Internet, leaving only the part that wants to like most everything and celebrate the stuff that’s worth celebrating.

But some days the strategies are not enough to overcome the fear, the certainty, that some part of the conversation will just go to places that request the demon’s presence. Respectfully, I shall decline to pursue such opportunities. And thus, my last week’s absence.  Maybe this week will be different. Or maybe some shadows will continue to linger just outside my hole.


  16 Responses to “Blogging Is Vulnerability”

  1. Hi Fred!

    Your observations certainly ring true with me. On the net, anyone with a keyboard can (and will) jump in on a conversation, as opposed to typical social situations where a stranger crashing an active conversation would be unusual. Of course, that is the nature of the Internet and forums — we *want* it to be open and allow strangers to participate in the conversation, as often there are new insights and points of view that are worthwhile.

    That tendency for the negative interactions to get in your head is something I have struggled with and honestly has led me to largely withdraw from forums myself, even ones that run on my own servers. While the majority of interactions are positive, the few that aren’t can really get to you.

    Anyway, great post, thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. This is very interesting coming a few days after I posted this to my blog – Blog Posts As Conversations: http://www.dmperez.com/2010/01/15/blog-posts-as-conversations/

  3. I think there are a lot of people interested in expressing opinions on a topic on the internet, but not as many ready to actually listen to other people’s opinions with an open mind. As Daniel says, a blog is kind of like a conversation, and some folks are interested in just popping in, giving their take, and running. I don’t really understand that, but people get aggravated by the strangest stuff.

    I think it would be a wonderful thing if courtesy and respect were just sort of defaults for everyone online – not to say they wouldn’t change over time, but at least you could assume an individual was a rational, friendly, reasonable person to begin with. Gabe and Tycho actually have a formula for this.

  4. Happy Birthday!

    Best of luck managing the internet, man. I know I am often impressed with how well you do it, and wish I could evince the same facility that you routinely demonstrate. It’s actually kind of nice to know there are gnashing teeth underneath that facade. 😉

  5. Hey, I just had a birthday too! So solidarity, with candles and icing. 😀

    My otter nature says that if you always worry about the shadows outside the hole you never see the shiny fish. Oh, now he’s gone again looking at something.

    I think it’s a major shame if you don’t feel you can say you went and did a thing and had a really great time. The more positivity I see the more likely some of it will take. 😉

    And actually a blog is one of the better places for that. You *can* control it; you can probably turn off comments altogether to preserve a nice corner. Or you can see if other people want to celebrate with you. I dunno, have you had a history of eejits turning up here? (Present company excepted.) What if you want to look back over it and remember those experiences?

    • Well, that’s part of why I’m saying “there’s value to be had in engaging others, in attempting those acts of celebration” above. There’s a reason I’m pushing forward with blogging in general even if I don’t always want to activate it for specific topics. 🙂

  6. I pretty much agree with you, but I take your analysis as a snapshot of what is actually a dynamic, evolving situation. There is learning and growth at the individual level and the collective level and I am seeing them happening in my little corners of the internet.

    Personally speaking, I think we may be wired very similarly in terms of our inability to not react to aggression on the internet. But I am way more thick-skinned and reflective (and less proud) then I was 2 years ago. I’ve also learned to (sometimes) add a layer of interpretation to posts I am reading, one that attempts to account for context, personality of the poster and the missing physical nuances of live communication. All this has resulted in a much more productive and pleasant time on the internet for me and way less walking around unable to get my mind off of someone who dissed me or “was wrong on the internet.”

    At the collective level, I may be a bit pollyanic here, but I feel that I have seen improvements in our general behaviour. There appears to be a bit more give and take, more experienced posters who are learning as I am trying to and site management that is evolving and adapting to the new medium.

    So in summary, I say that just because humans are now having a really hard time communicating on the internet, it doesn’t mean that it is inherently impossible to have a positive discourse and that we should all strive (as you have done so very admirably and successfully; I’ve seen the slight hints of tension in the past and respect how you have disciplined yourself) to do better.

    On the other hand, we are still the human species and so far haven’t shown much ability to improve our behaviour with each other outside of the internet…

  7. First off, and most importantly: Hippy Bathday! May your next trip around the sun be as good as this one was (I’m thinking little will top the arrival of your daughter on this planet).

    Secondly, people react badly to text-based electronic communication as a matter of course. It has none of the cues that allow people to read the emotional tone of the statement, despite it being, in the main, conversational. And because people cannot “read” this response they get frustrated and angry. It’s an entirely human response, since minimizing emotional signals is a sign of hostility in the real world (especially in “polite” society). But most writers don’t realise this – they know what they wrote (including the emotional context), so are bewildered when readers react badly to what they say, which just raises the aggression levels. And in any public fora, leaving aside the individuals just trolling for arguments, you will get people who disagree with you and the ideas that you hold.

    And it is a mistake thinking blogging is a private conversation. You are getting up on a soapbox in the market and broadcasting your ideas to all and sundry. Most won’t listen. Some will recognise you stay and listen to what you have to say. Some may get on their own soapboxes and attempt to shout you down. But it will usually only be personal if they actually know you, even though it may seem like it. At least, that’s the supposition I use, and it seems to work.

    [One is curious as to what people think of me based on the very small slice of me that they see. But it is an intellectual curiosity, simply because I know that they can have absolutely no idea of who or what I actually am from such a limited perspective, and anything anyone comes up with will be so badly wrong it will hurt. Then again, that’s even the case in the real world.]

    Thirdly: I thought Avatar was a great movie and am proud to admit it. Tearing it apart is akin to dissecting a frog. Both die as a result. Enjoy what it is for what it is, and feel free to walk (or fly) on Pandora for a time.

  8. There will always be fools who jump
    onto the Internet to anonymously bash
    others and what they love. That’s what
    the Internet is for.

    Anyways, belated happy birthday!

  9. It occurs to me that the situation is such that you can abandon the attempt to be public to spare yourself the agony of dealing with your gut, or continue on with being public as a way towards personal growth.

    That is, you have to decide if you want to get better at controlling your gut, or at least accepting it and putting its reactions aside, and so throw yourself full-force into situations where you will have to do so, or if you would rather spare yourself and instead avoid those same situations. There’s no “right” answer, except what you want and what you need.

    One thought though about exercising authority, if you’re going to do it, I think …an utter lack of skill at pleasantly exercising said authority… is the point because pleasant authorities are rarely heeded (or rather, aren’t seen as authorities). When’s the last time a cop ticketed you pleasantly, or arrested you pleasantly? If the justice system was pleasant, would more or less people obey the law?

    I don’t know, I tend to think, however, the point of authority is that it needs to be authoritarian, to discourage breaking the rules or challenging it. I admit I may be wrong in this, though.

    • I’m thinking of some specific cases and specific people that I don’t care to name publicly when I’m talking about the authority thing. I think there is such a thing as pleasant authority in the sense that it makes folks happy to have the authority present. I think there is such a thing as mismanaged or talentless authority, too, and *that’s* the thing I have a problem with.

  10. You blamed the text medium, and I don’t think that’s the whole story. Somehow in the preceding 400 or so years people managed to carry on usually civil conversations in print.

    I think the problem is the combination of lack of context plus immediacy. In a conversation you have immediacy, and sometimes say things you instantly regret. But you can see how the other participant reacts, and he can hear your tone of voice etc.

    When you write a letter with a quill on paper, you have all the time in the world to get it right. Think first, because it’s a pain to put down, and a pain to do over. You have very little context (sometimes the guy’s handwriting can give things away), but you don’t usually speak from the gut and write something you will regret.

    I have noticed significantly higher levels of discussion on mailing lists that were digest-only, as compared to the same list (i.e. the same individuals) when it went to individual messages. People would send off as many short, unreasoned messages as they felt like, rather than putting a little more effort into the only message they could get through that day.

    So I think the problem is that most communications channels on the Internet have evolved to facilitate writing without thinking. And I don’t think Google Wave really addresses that (to pick a channel that’s supposed to be cutting edge).

    • No, you’re right, of course. The more you create circumstances for someone to slow down, the better the quality of discourse that comes out the other side. But when someone works from home as I do, you want some of that immediacy, too, since it’s what you lose by not making it out into the real world as much. So it’s a fine line to walk, with the attendant risks.

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