The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Inque § Matching cuts / 2014-09-05 13:27:23
Gavin Craig § Matching cuts / 2014-08-31 16:33:56
Tim Maly § Sooo / 2014-08-27 01:35:19
Matt § Sooo / 2014-08-25 02:10:30
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-25 00:49:38
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:47:35
Doug § Sooo / 2014-08-21 20:40:50
Tim § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:23:13
Gavin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:10:44
Robin § Sooo / 2014-08-21 18:06:14

Escape from Thunderdome
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Here’s the tick-tock: Marc Ambinder writes a terrific, thought-provoking post titled I Am a Blogger No Longer. Here at Snarkmarket, it strikes us all so well and so deeply that we decide to dive in:

Now it’s my turn, and I’m going to keep it short.

I’m with Saheli; it was this graf of Ambinder’s that seemed to carry the meat of his message (emphasis mine):

All I will say here is that the mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing and is predicated on the assumption that the reporter’s motivation is wrong. Unfortunately, the standard for defining oneself as a web journalist depends upon establishing a certain credibility with a particular audience of critics. Responding to complaints about content and structure and bias is part of the way one establishes that credibility.

At first I thought it was maybe a stock and flow thing. You know:

Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: Oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

There’s exhaustion in Ambinder’s description, right? There’s relentlessness. So maybe Ambinder is just toggling back to stock.

But no—I think it’s something very different. Actually, Ambinder is describing the exhaustion endemic to a very particular species of blogging (and this is something Matt talked about, too): political blogging. He’s describing the constant background radiation of criticism that characterizes that universe. He’s describing a feedback loop that doesn’t energize, as it ought to—instead, it saps away.

So here’s where I’m going to plant my little flag:

I think Marc Ambinder totally made the right choice, and not a moment too soon, because I think blogging in a Thunderdome of criticism is a really bad idea. I think it erodes the soul, and I think it’s probably not something that a person should do.

There’s a line of thinking that says the whole point of blogging is to, you know, engage with The People Out There. (Especially Perhaps If They Are Vehement Critics.) I think that line of thinking is wrong. I think a blog at its best is a dinner party, and if you are the guy who shouts me down whenever I rise to speak, who questions my very motives for throwing this party in the first place: you are not invited.

Now, happily, it’s a special kind of dinner party. Anyone can listen in, and the front door is ajar. Come to think of it, there’s probably always an extra place set, Elijah-style. But even so: it’s a space that belongs to its authors, and they set its rules. Maybe that’s easier said than done when you’re blogging about the Tea Party… but I don’t know. There’s this little red delete button next to every comment here on the WordPress admin screen, and it’s pretty easy to click.

There’s this great chat between Oprah (yes) and Maya Angelou (yes!) that I read many years ago, and it’s always stuck with me:

Oprah: And you also don’t allow anybody to say anything negative about anybody while in your home.

Maya: That’s right.

Oprah: I’ve seen you put people out of your house for telling a racist joke! And you are not the least bit embarrassed about disrupting the whole room.

Maya: I believe that a negative statement is poison. The air between you and me is filled with sounds and images. If that were not so, how is it that I can turn on a television right now and see what’s happening in New York? That means sounds and images are in the air, crowded, jammed up like bats. And Oprah, I’m convinced that the negative has power. It lives. And if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over. So when the rude or cruel thing is said—the lambasting, the gay bashing, the hate—I say, “Take it all out of my house!” Those negative words climb into the woodwork and into the furniture, and the next thing you know they’ll be on my skin.

So, this is all to say that I’d love to see Ambinder return to blogging sometime—maybe in an environment that’s more Maya (or more scenius) than Thunderdome. (Surely such a thing could come to pass at The Atlantic…)

And it is also all to say, wow. We’re lucky ones over here.

17 comments

Three quick points:

1. What a fabulous round of posts and comments. Genuinely plowing new ground here, I’d say.

2. You’re all correct about thebvariety and differentiation of blogs and blogger experience, but let’s acknowledge the Thunderdome encapsulates *far more* than political blogging. The range is depressingly varied.

3. Dinner party is a good but perhaps too genteel metaphor. I always used saloon-keeper instead: you want (in fact, need) them to come in, to be loud, to argue. It’s when they start spitting on the floor or breaking furniture that you toss them out.

Oh yes. I like saloon-keeper a lot. Maybe there’s a middle ground… speakeasy?

There are, of course, all kind of establishments. But I think a great blog host, like a great dinner party hostess or bartender, should also be an intellectual matchmaker–sending off a newcomer to talk to a regular with similar interests, inviting a distinguished visitor she knows all her friends will like.

Even better: a whole row of different joints each offering somewhat different music.

Yes! The one thing a blog is not, though, is the public square. Even though that’s what a lot of theorists told us for a long time.

Tim Carmody says…

There’s a German philosopher* named Jürgen Habermas who’s probably done more than anybody to push this notion of “the public sphere,” and the kind of good-faith, deliberative-democracy idea of communication and political/cultural discussion that happens there.

What people usually forget is that he’s not talking about Union Square or Speakers’ Corner or any place Out In Public. Historically, he traces the emergence of the public sphere to coffee shops; in particular, a kind of 18th/19th century MittelEuropean version of them, where middle-class men would meet and share newspapers (newspapers were expensive!) and talk about what was happening in the world.

By modern democratic standards, that space looks pretty elitist and nonrepresentative, but pre-1850, it was pretty radically democratic. And I think that kind of coherent discussion does need more common ground and cleared-away space than the kind of drive by, honk your horn, and shout out what you feel stuff that happens in most blogs.

* Do you know how people say “there’s an app for that”? Well, for most things, I can say “there’s a German philosopher for that.”

Hugely appreciate catching us up with the links. Still thinking about that first post and his distinction of “blogger” vs journalist. It strikes me that journalism is increasingly defined more by the act than the byline or masthead, though the latter is what affords an individual done shield protections. All that being said, it’s worth pointing out that the writer/reporter/blogger/correspondent in question plans to keep tweeting, and thus will be microblogging in the public arena. Many of the ignoble aspects of public discourse online in 2010 will continue to be just as ugly, if not attached to the comment section of a blog at the Atlantic.

The nice thing about the saloon analogy is that you are less likely to kick out a dinner guest who gobbles up all your food and then petulantly asks why there’s no science fiction book cover post pie. ;-)

But the party analogy is totally how I think about my favorite blogs too,
and what I enjoyed about blogging when I really did it. It may be overly genteel but it reflects both the generosity of a relatively free establishment and the graciousness expected of a visitor, and somehow acknowledges the still relatively unsolved monetization problem. It’s not coincidental that the blogs I actually still read on a regular basis are at least partially populated by people I have built some off-blog social connection with.

Of all the ‘big’ bloggers, Ta-Nehisi seems to have the hardiest control of that big red delete button. I’ve heard it can get really hard though, when your blog is super popular and your guests are particularly rowdy: exhausting and soul crushing to try and ‘moderate’ the comments and properly ‘host’ the party. And when trackbacks and pings and tweets take that whole gathering out of your yard, man, just thinking about dealing with that is exhausting.

(How sad is it that I had to look up Thunderdome?) I kind of have this platonic idea of democracy as exactly that kind of idealized dinner party that is both diverse and polite, where everyone assumes that everyone else is acting in good faith, where the deliberation is centered around the evaluation of facts and the deployment of reason and persuasion tempered by very genteel quantities of idealism, compassion, enthusiasm and only the most appropriate kinds of outrage. Earlier today Snarkdean Howard Weaver tweeted this article about a historian’s analysis of Obama and his faith in the power of pragmatic deliberation; whether that peception of Obama is true or not, the fact that a lot of us want it to be tells us something about the kind of political discussion we idealize. There’s also this notion that real political progress and consensus best emerges from a community, that by connecting
with each other over time we can learn from each other and work together. And of course, there’s a fundamentally democratic impulse towards inclusion–more is better, media that’s citizen-based and crowd-sourced and hive-minded will always triumph over any kind of filter or barricade. Sociality, deliberation, discussion, participation: how could blogs be anything but the most nurturing of environments in which to report on politics?

And yet. Here we are, refugees from the storm, taking shelter in this mysterious little utopia. I’m not even sure that this ideal of genteel yet diverse political discussion ever existed. Political blogging is a Thunderdome, a radioactive minefield that’s exhausting to farm. Is Snarkmarket such a genteel place to hang out b/c it’s relatively apolitical or because we all tend to agree with each other? How can you create an inclusive, diverse bloggy political forum, with typically bloggish time signatures and commentariat and voice, that honestly deliberates the issues but stays emotionally sustainable? Short of cloning the triumverate, what are the scalable, transferable lessons?

Tim Carmody says…

One of the things I said to Robin once is that part of the secret of Snarkmarket is that while we might be political or opinionated, in the bulk of our posts, there’s nothing to really argue with. You can’t really front on our motivations too much like you can with politics or tech or some kinds of cultural journalism.

I’d just written this post about potatoes, paper, and petroleum, and I think the line was, “what are you going to do? Call me a shill for the potato industry?” It’s just so tangential to what everyone else is saying.

There’s also a difference in style and tone. Half the time on Wired, if I get a streak of snarky comments, it’s because the readers haven’t actually read what I’ve written. They’ve just read the headline or skimmed the article. And in many ways, the articles are written to be skimmed. You don’t repeat information or spend time qualifying what you’re saying, so if a reader misses it, they just fill in the gaps with whatever they want to believe.

The best comment thread I ever had on Wired was for my How to do (almost) everything with a Kindle 3 post. The tone I wrote was different, the style of post was different, the way I engaged with commenters was different.

It was amazing; and I couldn’t do it every day. It was impossible.

The other thing I’ll point to is that a site’s commenters vary tremendously based on how they enter any given post. At Wired, most readers come in through the front page. They don’t care who you are, they have no conception of your history, a lot of the tricks you use to build up narratives and establish a persona and a set of credibility over time just don’t work. Nearly every encounter is a cold encounter.

Gizmodo, on the other hand, where my posts are sometimes syndicated, has its share of drop-ins, but I suspect most of its commenters come in through RSS. You get the perception very quickly that the author doesn’t matter in a different way; they’re writing for each other, jabbing, snarking, making jokes, adding bits of information, knocking arguments back and forth.

Both of them are weirdly ego-deflating. But again, I don’t think you can single out blogs by content and say “tech blogs are like this,” “political blogs are like this.” The stew of microcultures is really wide-ranging.

The secret to good quality blogging/dinner partying/saloning is hiding right up there in Robin’s tags. “Good faith.”

I’m thinking of the key principle of Wikipedia, “assume good faith”. A principle that’s often strained to the point of breaking on that sprawling collaborative endeavour, but one with remains a good basis for having a useful conversation.

Matt P says…

I think one of the key takeaway lessons is to be responsive to the issues of the day, but indirect. It seems like the sites and writers that provoke the most useful, interesting discussions are the ones who say things I can’t quickly agree or disagree with, because I don’t already have an established opinion on them. They step to the side of the issue, rather than ramming it head on.

And yet, the most interesting writing on Snarkmarket (and elsewhere) comes in response to a pressing event. Ambinder’s departure from blogging, or the Prop 8 verdict — these provide the occasion for considered discussion, that somehow still avoids the “someone is wrong” response.

It’s hard to have a good discussion without trust. And one of the best ways of establishing that feeling of trust is if at least some of the participants already know and like each other. That sets the tone. People who know and like each other have less to prove. They don’t have to impress each other. They’re less likely to grandstand or get huffy. They can take intellectual risks, because if they end up being wrong, that’s okay.

It’s not just limited to The Snarkmarket. The happiest course I took in college was a humanities seminar co-taught by two big-name professors who also happened to be good friends. They took turns lecturing. They teased each other. They critiqued each other’s opinions. And by doing so, they very consciously set a tone in which the freshmen and sophomores in the class could let go of their OH MY GOD MUST IMPRESS PROFESSOR WITH MY BRILLIANT COMMENT attitude and just talk about books. By the end, the 30-student felt like a family–at least by research university standards.

I spent a lot of time yesterday on Alexis’ Zadie Smith/Facebook thread, and it really struck me how many of the comments were phrased in this strangely defensive/aggressive tone, even within the confines of what was by Internet standards a very thoughtful, civilized discussion. Even son, many of the commenters’ verbal body language was: elbows in tight, fists at the ready. They were needlessly dismissive or arrogant. Often their actual points were perfectly interesting, and shouldn’t have triggered defensiveness, but they were strangers talking to other strangers, and that made many of them a little shrill. I think my tone would have been like that, too (there I was, at The Atlantic, tracking my dirty footprints across their 153-year-old carpet!) except that I know Alexis. I didn’t have to do the virtual version of grabbing him by the elbow and blurting out a garbled response because I assumed I was going to bore him and wasn’t he ready to move on, already. I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself in some way (through forcefulness, or frustration) to earn myself the right to talk. I had been to this dinner party before, and I knew some of the other people who were probably going to show up, and I could relax.

I wrote my senior thesis on university classroom discussion, and it was very obvious that discussion groups always had some of their best conversations just as the semester was drawing to a close. It took them that long to a) relax and b) warm up to each other. It’s not rocket science. It just takes goodwill and time–and, I think, a little bit of knowing people in real life, or at least across different contexts. For instance, Saheli, I do not think that it’s completely a coincidence that it’s taken us ten months to exchange.(which is clearly about something that both of us think about a lot.) Good things take time.

Christoffer says…

Reminds me of how Schultz divided interpersonal relations into inclusion, control and affection.

Christoffer says…

Oh, and I realise now how I’m trying to impress you all, the professors.

Here’s the thought that enthralls me as I read and ponder well-argued discussions about people-technology-gadgets-algorithims-human nature:

Almost everything is true.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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