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.