Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Darker Side of Blogging

by J J Cohen

As Karl revealed yesterday, the ITM bloggers are co-composing a piece for a forthcoming issue of Literature Compass called "E-medieval: Teaching, Research, and the Net."

Below is the draft of my contribution, which I offer with some trepidation. It contains some information that longtime readers of the blog will already know, but constitutes the first time I've spoken of any details here (other than two or three buried references in prior posts). Let me know what you think.

I have long been an advocate of blogging and other forms of social media for academics at all career points. My message in this piece will therefore surprise some readers: blogs and other internet forums require vast amounts of unrewarded labor, expose you to what is worst in your fellow humans, and destroy your equanimity. Turn off your computer now and walk away.

Well, not really. Yet having in the past focused upon what is positive about this digital era, I here want to explore the darker side of the Net. Blogging offers challenges that can be dispiriting. Publishing material for conversation rather than admiration requires vulnerability, a commitment (as Karl has written) to one’s own self-pedagogy. There are other dangers: angering a colleague, alienating a potential employer, exposing more of yourself than intended, attracting unwanted attention. What follows is a personal account of a few blog-related difficulties, phenomena that have sometimes caused me to be weary and wary about e-life … but not enough to give up on social media for scholars. As Karl has already made clear, the good far outweighs the dark.

Cyberspace is the realm where we purchase books, shoes, and snake oil; download salacious images; skim the news and ogle celebrity hijinks; research Anglo-Norman loanwords, dogs ready to be adopted, or plane schedules; and share works of art and scholarship, among many other things. The internet is also a snark factory. The Grouse and the Cavil are among its most frequently encountered fauna – along with the Whinge, the Quibble and the Peeve. Read the comments to any unmoderated site, from online newspapers to Amazon product pages, and you'll be lectured in succinct and vivid language about what's wrong with the government, the tax code, the weather, contemporary music, service at restaurants, France, liberals, books with big words, and polar bears – typically under headings having little to do with such subjects. I gave up reading the comments to NPR articles when a news item on the aurora borealis became an impassioned exchange on birth certificates and the presidency. Although tone is easy to misread, especially when emotion binds us to a subject, these interchanges often fail to rise beyond the level of snipe: no conversation or true debate, both of which require patient listening. Few minds are likely changed as a result of vitriolic comments. Persuasion requires trust, imperturbability, doggedness. Very often electronic pronouncements seem drive-by. Something negative is posted on impulse, and the author doesn't check back to view the consequences of the published words. Internet forums can create the effect of impulsive, loud and lonely shouts in rooms so large the walls cannot be discerned. Such spaces do not in general stage communalizing events.

Moderation may assist in keeping comment threads on topic and tone civil enough to inhibit shouting. So can systems such as the banning of anonymity and user-rated ranking of remarks, where highly rated submissions appear first in the thread. Crowd sourcing does work. Katherine Rowe spearheaded an open peer review process for the special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly that she guest edited on "Shakespeare and New Media" (6.3 [2010]). The forthcoming issue of postmedieval on "Becoming-Media" (ed. Jen Boyle and Martin K. Foys, 3.2) created a lively website for its experiment in open review, one that stressed accountability through public identity as part of its comment process. Double blind peer review has long been held to be the gold standard for scholarly publishing, but these experiments in new media have demonstrated viable alternatives, options that may in fact increase the critical depth of the published piece and magnify its impact. The downside of such publishing events is that they do require a significant commitment of time, a resource in rather short supply among most academics. When my docket is crammed with tenure letters, article reviews, and books to evaluate for publication, reading and then commenting upon more essays can seem another chore, no matter how good those essays are. That doesn't mean I won't do it, of course. I believe strongly in such projects. Yet in the end I often cannot carve out the time required to give the serious, insightful feedback such crowdsourcing demands, and fall prey to diffusion of responsibility. The internet is a great multiplier of work. I won't say uncompensated labor, because there are rewards involved -- mainly intangible, but rewards all the same. Still, commenting on blogs and contributing to open peer review isn't a kind of work much visible to the professional reward system. It is mostly a selfless endeavor. No wonder some people are rather irritable by the time they find themselves typing comments in an electronic forum. It’s too bad polar bears, wordy academics, and France must bear the brunt of their irascibility.

Even as I am composing this essay, I see that someone has been posting dismissive comments on the Facebook page we maintain for the blog In the Middle. We used the page to disseminate to those who had “liked” us there a publication announcement about Karl Steel's new book How to Make a Human. The volume has just appeared in print, and we linked to the publisher’s website so that ITM's 564 fans could follow it from their newsfeed if they wished. One of these fans quickly posted a dismissive response, apparently without having followed the link. When challenged by Eileen Joy to think more deeply about the project before reacting negatively, he downloaded and skimmed a PDF of excerpts from the book made available by the publisher. He quickly posted another comment, complaining that How to Make a Human had ignored the work of historians. Karl then replied, pointing out that the reader's objection was in fact patently untrue: all he had to do was consult the bibliography, included in the PDF. The original commenter seemed taken aback, apparently not realizing that the book's author happens to be one of the ITM co-bloggers.

Three things deserve notice within this interchange. First, the commenter reacted just as internet culture encourages us to respond: with brevity, derision, and declarative confidence. The comment had little to do with the actual content of the monograph; it was a condemnation of the project based upon quick reading of the publisher's blurb. To engage deeply with the substance of Karl’s argument would ideally require reading an entire book, and that's a slow process; the internet does not like slow. Second, the author of How to Make a Human was able to add his voice swiftly, much to the surprise of the commentator. Karl thus prevented the thread from becoming a lament about how historians are always neglected and about how the work Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Jacques Derrida is outmoded and deserves disparaging: observations that may or may not be true but have little to do with the volume itself. Last, one way of looking at what unfolded is to appreciate the rapid curtailing of what could have blossomed into a dyspeptic exchange marked by increasing passion and diminishing readability (that is, a normal comment thread on many news sites and blogs). Yet it is also clear from the start an imbalance of power obtains in such a situation. Only the four authors of In the Middle can send out links to the many people who have fanned the Facebook page, just as (invited guest posts aside), we are the only four who can publish on the blog's main page. Everyone else’s words appear in the comments section, which are moderated by us. When Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, Mary Kate Hurley and I post on the ITM FB wall, we are identified with an icon and name that makes it seem like the blog itself is speaking, no matter which one of us is commenting. We therefore sign our names or initials as well, but it can make it seem like we are ganging up on those we disagree with when visually the ITM icons are so numerous in the thread.

And, in all honesty, sometimes we are ganging up. We share an ethos as bloggers -- that is why we blog together -- and so we typically possess a consensus about many value-laden topics. That is not to say that we do not disagree with each other; we do. But we stress respectful dissent and considered dialogue. None of us has much tolerance for quick dismissiveness and drive-by snark. As a result of this impatience, some readers believe that ITM fosters a feel-good acceptance and discourages critique. I don’t think so, but I will freely admit that our values are liberal and patent. Perhaps these shared principles also makes the blog seem clubby. Personally, I think our communal values are what made both natural and predictable our lobbying to have the Medieval Academy of America move its annual meeting from Arizona to protest that state's racist immigration law. They also explain why we tend to focus on the young in the field: graduate students, those publishing first books, those whose work is not yet well known. We are medievalists who share an ethical and utopian commitment to futurity.

I don't ever want In the Middle to seem an exclusive domain. Yet I have been told that I react too strongly against the culture of internet negativity. Perhaps I do, partly because I find it insidious and unappealing, whether in cyberspace or on the conference circuit. Nor do I exempt myself from extraneous negativity’s lure: there have been remarks I’ve published on ITM that I wish I had never composed. I’ve been snarky about books and essays whose authors have found my comments and been upset by them; knowing how a callous word can cause emotion duress has made me more careful in what I post. ITM has also attracted its occasional trolls. We've all had our nasty or gatekeeping comments. A scolding tone comes too easily in some responses, even when the comment comes from a friend or former student. Worse can be the sly civility of comments that begin with "I am confused by ..." and "I am worried about ..." Sometimes the words that follow are well meant and advance dialogue, but at others they can be mere concern trolling. But in the end my reaction to such phenomena is the same: I roll my eyes, tune out, move on. Having a 14 year old son is good training. And I should emphasize that 98% of the blog comments I read at ITM and elsewhere in the medieval blogosphere are thoughtful, civil, and often brilliant. The nergling ones have a way of residing in the memory longer than is their due. I also realize the irony of having just spent a long while being negative about the internet culture of negativity.

I also admit that having had an internet stalker profoundly shaped my response to electronic interaction, forcing me to sharpen my beliefs about what works on a blog to foster lively, useful, effective and intellectually bracing community. Without going too deeply into a history that still awakens uncomfortable feelings, I will simply acknowledge that the darkest side of blogging was having an impassioned reader fixated upon my life and work. This person’s deeds were unlikely to have been a rational choice, yet his contempt and rage were not easy to bear. His actions extended to more than immoderate blog comments (though the daily chore of rejecting those was disagreeable enough). I found it uncomfortable to explain the situation to those who had been contacted by him. I learned that when you are the object of someone's rage, it is difficult not to think that you are somehow causing that animus to explode. His attention came and went in unpredictable cycles: long stretches of quiet, then a sudden explosion of comments and email. When he could no longer post at ITM because of our moderation policy he eventually started a blog of his own. Even though its mission was to critique “In the Middle,” that seemed perfectly fine. Although I never read his blog, free speech means that one can and should operate such spaces if one is so inclined, a place where those who wish to form a different kind of community may do so.

I lost some friends because of these difficulties, especially when I could not convince some whom I trusted and who knew this person that a problem existed that was worth being concerned about. It now seems self-dramatizing to write all of this down, mainly because nothing “real” came of the threats other than unwanted contact. Yet when someone is sending email that involves your family, that makes it clear he has researched property records and knows the acreage your house was built upon, you tend to worry about the crossing of lines. I also wonder if in now revisiting these episodes from the past, I will trigger another outbreak. I realize that if my objective is to ensure that something so unpleasant never unfolds again, silence is my best strategy. Yet I have always felt that remaining taciturn makes it seem as if the events never happened. It also leaves me alone with them. The stalking occurred, and it changed my relation to the internet.

Although sharing some personal information is an essential part of blogging, I am certainly more guarded than I used to be. ITM has become more of a quarantined, professional space as a result (see the reflections here). I even thought seriously about ending my blogging career all together. Yet it is difficult for me to imagine returning to scholarship conducted the old fashioned way. Blogs and other forms of e-exchange are so much a part of my critical practice that I can’t happily return to more solitary modes. Blogging's darker side is in the end wholly eclipsed by its more luminous gifts … and, this essay being done, those are the ones that I return to contemplating.

[photos: atop a dormant volcano, Tower Hill, Victoria, Australia]


Paul Halsall said...

I am the commentator referred to in this article, and I think I rather still stand by my original remarks, at least based on the parts of the book available me (about 20%). (The footnotes rather than the bibliography do indeed, in those sections, refer overwhelmingly to critical theorists, etc.)

I don't think they represent the "darker side of blogging" and I suggest the whole post here is rather melodramatic. At the very least it is self-dramatising about a minor point.

And while you seem to think that I was responding due to an "internet culture encourages us to respond: with brevity, derision, and declarative confidence", I would point out you have a tendency to respond with a constant references to process rather than content, and in a verbose manner. That also represents a certain training by a certain culture, no?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Paul, thanks for revealing yourself. In my opinion, your sending a quick dismissal of Karl's book on FB is similar to what happens at many sites across the internet, especially because the two complaints didn't have a lot to do with the book's topic.

But Karl is obviously my friend as well as a long time co-blogger. Readers of this post will want to keep that in mind: maybe I was harsher to you than I would have been if the book had had an author I'd never met and been on a subject to which I have no attachment. Maybe.

As to my interest in process and my verbosity, guilty. Not sure it reflects my training by culture, but I can't rule that out.

Anonymous said...

the internet, to the extent that it resembles a face to face conversation, is part of a much longer and wider history of idle-chatter, which isn't defined by topics/vocabulary but by superficiality, and any time we weigh in with pseudo-authority on say a complex political issue (like many bloggers did over the the uprisings in Egypt) about which we know next to nothing except what our guts tell us we are feeding the beast. To the degree that we threw off paternalism in the 60's we did not replace it by and large with meritocracy but with consumerism and other forms of gossip.
But who has the institutional authority to insist on higher standards in this age of hyperactive capitalism? Certainly not most professors (esp. not pre-tenure) but perhaps bloggers do. So by all means guard your blog space, save your energy from pointless fights with concern-trolls, get over the need to be liked by everyone or taking things personally that are said by strangers, and keep challenging each other to do better.

Karl Steel said...

well, well.

JJC, I know it's not fauna, but here's another candidate for your menagerie: the gatekeeper

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey, you've written here about something that's quite hard to talk about, and I for one am thankful for that. Blogging is anxiety-producing, in part because you never know how anyone will respond to anything. And given that there's no delay -- well, it's nervewracking.

But I'd love to hear you--and Paul, and Karl, and everyone-- talk about process more. Of course, that's selfish, as it's one of the things I want to write about in a very specific way (indeed, that I'm writing about right now) -- process vs (or in service of) product.


I agree wholeheartedly here. And even when I'm silent, my own process has been inevitably changed. In part, perhaps, because even in moments where I choose my silence on the blog mindfully and with careful thought, there is a part of me that longs for the courage to speak -- to share -- and most importantly, to converse.

In the end, I suppose, it reminds me a bit (cue groaning) of the Wanderer.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

whoops. There should be a quote in there that I agree with wholeheartedly.

It's this one:

Yet it is difficult for me to imagine returning to scholarship conducted the old fashioned way.

meg said...

I've been thinking about negativity online -- how to recognize it, how to avoid it, how to respond to it -- since I first got on Usenet in the mid-80s. I've had Internet stalkers, and even a couple of death threats (including one from the guy who coined the term "web log").

J'adore and j'agree with everything you say here, and the one tidbit that's missing, I think, is the role of community. Online as well as off, communities set specific standards of civility. I remember back in grad school reading a review of a book on the Bayeux Tapestry that made me feel like I'd been witness to an assassination; I showed it to my spousal equivalent (who is in a different field), and he thought it was extremely polite.

In my years fumbling around the Internet's medieval zone, most of the time I see all of us sharing a common set of assumptions. But I must say, when skirmishes break out, it's very often between historians and litterateurs. Different cultures, doncha know.

One last thing: God bless Internet negativity for toughening me up over the years. That has come in handy more than a time or two. And I daresay that watching, and occasionally waging, Usenet flame wars over the years has improved my understanding of communication considerably.

meg said...

Ugh, I seem to have caught your verbosity virus, at which point it mutated into a raging case of greybearditis. I hereby swear to avoid the phrase "over the years" and variations thereof for at least a week, lest I kill myself with self-venerabilization.

Paul Halsall said...

Look, I see some validity in Jeffrey Cohen's remarks, but I am not sure that brevity in online comments is really a problem.

Comments to my mind are more like parts of a conversation than a series of reflective articles. They make more impact, and are clearer, if they make one or two points.

In the case in question I made it clear that my initial reaction (marked as such) was critical but open to amendment. I.e. a conversational gambit.

Paul Halsall said...

I think another issue, btw, is that many British academics are far more willing to engage in more aggressive commentary than North Americans usually feel comfortable with.

Eileen Joy said...

Just a couple of comments here:

@Paul: regarding your comment that Jeffrey's post might be "rather melodramatic" and "self-dramatizing," Jeffrey readily admits the 2nd point himself in his own post [so: is it really fair to say to someone who worries out loud whether or not he is being self-dramatizing to say, I "suggest" you are being self-dramatizing?]--in other words, he understands that he is risking being self-dramatizing, but he shares these reflections, risking embarrassment, but also with the idea that remaining completely silent about a series of events that were not without their trauma never allows them to, in a sense, be both acknowledged as real/true/having actually happened and also put to rest. But you also elaborate: "self-dramatising about a minor point"--if you mean by minor point, Jeffrey's reaction to your comments on FB about Karl's book, that makes some sense to me; but if you mean by "minor point" Jeffrey's narrative of his stalker experience, then, no, that is not a "minor point": that was fairly traumatic for all of us involved, me included. It was in no way "minor" and I'm personally glad Jeffrey wrote about that here, just to get it aired and, hopefully, "done with." The comment is just confusing because you also say "I suggest the *whole post* here is rather melodramatic." In some ways, this brings back for me [esp. in relation to the stalker episode] the violence that bullies [cyber or otherwise] enact without ever lifting an actual, physical finger. They threaten you with words and gestures only, and if you say anything out loud about them to anyone, you either look like a coward or a complainer or a paranoid or a self-dramatizing egoist. You can't win, and then, in order to be dutifully (because more socially acceptable) silent, you have to carry the words around with you where they gnaw at you and undermine your confidence. Further, to respond in kind directly to the bully is to somehow admit, if even partially, that the bully matters and that his words matter. Either way--stay silent or speak back--the bully always wins. It's a zero-sum game.

As to the original conversation thread on Facebook regarding Karl's book, we certainly don't have to all love Karl's book or appreciate its erudition or historicist or theoretically-inflected arguments, etc. [and as Jeffrey has already pointed out, as friends of Karl's, of course we may be biased, but I also think reviews of the book are going to be very positive about the book's historicist *and* theoretical dimensions], but I would be willing to bet that your comments there were meant to provoke some sort of [likely] heated reaction so that we could get into that really seriously tired "historians do the facts of the Middle Ages better than literary scholars" argument, and although Facebook should certainly be a forum where we can all post comments "on the fly" that shouldn't be allowed to "stick" to us forever [and you yourself readily and admirably admitted your first judgment of the book was based on cursory review of its blurbs and some excerpts and that your mind was open to be changed, although in all honestly, I don't actually believe you: I think you wanted to pick some fights about historicism vs. theory, and I think there are more honest and more polite ways of doing that, and yes, politeness counts, even in social media like FB and Twitter], nevertheless, again, honesty and politeness and I would also say respect for each other's positions and work should count for something in these discussion, so being too cursory and snippy sometimes is bound to get everyone in trouble [again, Jeffrey has also spoken to this in his own post].

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


@Jeffrey: thanks for this post and for what I know was a small bit of courage required to share it in draft form here [and eventually to make it more broadly and permanently public in its final form in an academic journal].

I just wanted to make small comment here affirming your belief [or hope] that online media -- blogs, especially, but also FB and Twitter -- should aim for respectful dissent and considered dialogue. These are also media that should allow us to not constantly edit ourselves as if we are preparing all of our remarks for posterity [as we might do when writing an article for an academic journal or preparing a book for a university press], so we will all make mistakes and sometimes speak out of turn [or without full enough knowledge of the subject and/or positions of the interlocutors at hand, etc.], and we can always work to be vigilant about that, nevertheless. I do not believe that online media mean I have some sort of license to say whatever I feel like without any sort of reproach or social/peer review: if anything, given the larger and varied "publics" involved, I think I actually have to be more careful [and polite and respectful], while also entering into a sort of unspoken "social contract" with these larger publics that I can afford to be a little less guarded, more "open" with my still-not-yet-fully-formed ideas and there will be a forgiving audience who will help me better hone my thinking and writing. This is something I will speak more to in my part of this collective essay.

Caren said...

Prof. Cohen. Thanks for writing this. I've always admired how honest your blog posts are. And while there have been times you've made references to things outside my knowledge zone it's gotten me to delve a bit deeper into a topic/subject that I always found challenging.

This blog you write with Karl, Eileen, & Mary Kate helps to illuminate that fact that Medieval doesn't equal boring, but a topic that can be interesting to someone who has only a shallow interest in the topic.

I've also admired how you're willing to talk about your family and life in your blogging, where I am so guarded, and the limitations that puts on my writing.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I think for ALL the reasons you all give here that I have come to think of the open internet as a place for the promotion of authors' ideas rather than genuine debate.

Holly Crocker has also, I believe, sometimes suggested that constructive critical argument is difficult on the web.

This isn't a negative conclusion. It means that the main space for critical debate remains face-to-face discussion. And I rather like that!

Anonymous said...

"This isn't a negative conclusion. It means that the main space for critical debate remains face-to-face discussion."
perhaps but how often does that happen, especially with someone with truly different views from one's own?
I'm guessing that most academic blogging comes not from a desire to go public with one's work but from isolation/deprivation.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Dear dfm

I think I should have said 'dissemination' by the way - not 'promotion' (or not just promotion).

Anyway I am privileged (perhaps?) in that real conversation happens all the time - especially with students but also with colleagues and family - at home and at work, at conferences and sometimes just sitting on trains and queuing at the supermarket. I don't think I am alone in this - most of the academic bloggers I know - including Jeffrey and Eileen - are not isolated or desperate for chances to communicate.

I can see that those who really are isolated may have to use the internet for conversation. But I miss the opportunity - on the internet - to read faces and hear inflections. I hate the time lapse involved in commenting - and of not knowing whether you are actually talking to anybody at all - and the permanence of web stuff.
All those things make it hard to do civilised argument - and instead we are pushed to extremes of either safe flattery and clubbiness, or rebarbative criticism.

Anonymous said...

SRJ, thanks for your reply, I should have been clearer that I didn't mean that folks are cut off in general but from people with whom they can discuss their research interests. I share your concerns about the disembodied aspects of online interactions but frankly see little evidence that academics meeting in the flesh has been much help in reducing "either safe flattery and clubbiness, or rebarbative criticism", here efforts like Eileen's to go post-academy-public seem not just timely but vital to the future relevance/development of these enterprises.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

dear dmf

This is possibly the closest I have got to an online conversation.

Everything is a matter of degree isn't it - I just find real conversation more rewarding and engaging than the online variety - but I am not suggesting we ban blogs (I use them myself), or that they are a bad idea, and of course people in universities should be talking to people outside universities!!!!!!!!!!

Afraid I am about to disappear to a place with no internet access for quite a while - so for me at least conversation in the near future will have to be with those I can see, hear and touch.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

It does seem that none of us are being entirely happy about blogging in these pieces. I have written two essays like this this summer and hope not to write any more, as I doubt I have any more to say, but the dark side is definitely coming to the fore. I just wanted to thank Jeffrey for turning it into a thing to provoke thought rather than a monster under the bed. I have, as you know, not always been a fan of In the Middle (though these days I am), and have argued freely with you all on and off-line, but that, and conversations like this, also mean that I am always citing ITM as an example of the light side of blogging, the virtual community where real thinking and interchange is enabled by the vibrations between posters and commentators. So I'm glad the monsters didn't take you offline.

It does provoke me to think, however, that being up-front personal in these circumstances is almost a defence. One of the things that makes Internet commentary sometimes seem so sharp and uncaring is the anonymity; we know nothing of the circumstances, background of commentators, and how much of a role lack of thought, caffeine shortage, annoyance with colleagues, envy of success and so on right up to bereavement and profound mental distress, may be playing in comments -- we don't, fundamentally, know where people are coming from. If, however, one front-loads or at least presents information like that, people can start to understand why one says what one says. That could lead either to dismissal or engagement but it makes it harder to force blame to adhere to such a voice.

If I might also come back to Prof. Halsall's comments:

I think another issue, btw, is that many British academics are far more willing to engage in more aggressive commentary than North Americans usually feel comfortable with.

I would have to say that, though your basis for comparison is a lot better informed perhaps, my experience is almost exactly the reverse; some of the most aggressive feedback I've seen or heard delivered has been from North American scholars. If two anecdotes make data, what is it when they contradict each other?