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 ). 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]