Online Tool Kit

Stirring myself now from my traditional post-graduation coma + catching up on deferred life maintenance. One thing that caught my eye today as I did my bloggy rounds was a very nasty blogspat involving Acephalous.

As one of the comments on a thread at Crooked Timber about the whole thing observes, this is the kind of episode that makes it hard to explain blogs to non-blog readers, and worse, makes you feel like they’re going to get the wrong impression. Only it’s not the wrong impression, not exactly. One of the basic issues with online communication from its outset is that people with a very big need for attention and almost zero ethics have been able to provoke numerous responses when previously they would have been casually ignored. In this case, the author of Acephalous, a graduate student whose real name is readily available at his blog, has been compelled to deal with a pseudonymous attacker who emailed numerous people at his institution with spurious charges of racism.

Whomever the emailer is, I don’t think there’s much question but that he/she is a grade-A tool. I hope everyone who got those emails is smart enough to delete them efficiently, but so many academics are basically innocent of what goes on in the wider online world that I fear that even if they don’t pay attention to the stupidity of the emails themselves, they’re going to feel that somehow the author of Acephalous is doing something wrong to attract this kind of crankery to himself.

Any author, academic or otherwise, who addresses a wider public is going to draw that kind of attention. It’s just that in the old world of publishing, you likely never knew about it–you might occasionally get a weird mail, but that was to you, and you’d throw it away after a chuckle or two. Your publishers similarly discarded whatever they got. The old-media outlets had reputation gates: a pseudonymous jerk with a stupid complaint wasn’t going to get a letter published in the New York Review of Books or anywhere else that mattered. The online world only changes this in one critical respect: it allows people to magnify and multiply weak, mean, stupid or cruel voices. Not just because of technology, but because as readers, we’re all still learning how to built filters for ourselves that once upon a time we relied upon cultural brokers to build for us.

The messy question in all this is how much the main authors of blogs are responsible for the communities which form around those blogs. I can’t help but think that the author of Jesus’ General has a bit of responsibility for this episode, though he’s been good enough to read the riot act to his community–because that’s the table he sets in what he writes. There are other political blogs where I think the hosts and authors pretty much egg on a lot of nastiness in their comments sections and then blink in surprise if they’re called to account on it. But at the same time, blogs aren’t reducible to their communities, and if you want healthy pluralism among the people who respond, you actually do not want to be in there constantly chiding or banning those who don’t speak or think as you do.

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