The ‘True Image Of A Writer’ And Online Writing

Shortly after I first began writing on the ‘Net–way back in 1988–I noticed that there was, very often, a marked contrast between the online and offline personas of some of the writers I encountered online. (I am referring to a small subset of the writers I read online; these were folks who worked with me in campus research labs but also wrote actively on Usenet newsgroups.) One of the most stunning contrasts was provided by a pair of young men, who were both brilliant programmers, but also afflicted with terrible stutters. Conversations with them were invariably affairs requiring a great deal of patience on the part of their interlocutors; their stutters very frequently derailed their attempts to coherently communicate. (I had suffered from a stutter myself once, as pre-teen, so I instantly sympathized with them, even as I did my best to decipher their speech at times.)

This was not the case online. Both wrote brilliantly and voluminously online; they wrote long and short pieces; they wrote on politics and technical matters alike with style and verve; they possessed a caustic sense of humor and were not afraid to put it on display. Quite simply, they were different persons online. One of them met his future wife online; she wrote from South America; he from New Jersey; she fell in love with ‘him,’ with his online persona, and traveled to the US to meet him; when she met him in person and encountered his stutter for the first time, she–as she put it herself later–realized it was too late, because she had already fallen in love with him. The unpleasant converse of the situation I describe here is the internet troll, the keyboard warrior, who ‘talks big’ online, and uses the online forum as an outlet for his misanthropy and aggression–all the while being a singularly meek and timid and physically uninspiring person offline. The very anonymity that makes the troll possible is, of course, what lets the silenced and intimidated speak up online. Without exaggeration, my memory of these gentlemen, and of the many other instances I observed of shy and reticent folks finding their voices online, has informed my resistance to facile claims that traditional, in-class, face-to-face education is invariably superior to online education. Any modality of instruction that could provide a voice to the voiceless was doing something right.

In Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, New York, 1986) Primo Levi writes:

Anyone who has the opportunity to compare the true image of a writer with what can be deduced from his writings knows how frequently they do not coincide. The delicate investigator of movements of the spirit, vibrant as an oscillating circuit, proves to be a pompous oaf, morbidly full of himself, greedy for money and adulation blind  to his neighbor’s suffering. The orgiastic and sumptuous poet, in Dionysiac communion with the universe, is an abstinent, abstemious little man, not by ascetic choice but by medical prescription.

The ‘true image of the writer’ is an ambiguous notion; online writing has made it just a little more so.

Note: I wonder if Levi had Nietzsche in mind in his second example above.

On Self-Censoring Opinions, Verbal Or Written

I would like to consider myself a plain-speaking person, the kind who is always able to ‘speak his mind,’ ‘say what he is thinking,’ ‘tell us what he really thinks,’ and so on. But I’m afraid the evidence suggests that all too frequently, in all too many conversational spaces, I bite my tongue and hold my peace, suppressing words that might otherwise have found expression. A written counterpart to this behavior exists, of course: in online discussion spaces too–like this one, for instance–I do not venture an opinion in many domains. We do all do so for reasons of propriety and etiquette, of course, and indeed, such self-restraint is often a virtue of sorts, but there are many other reasons for not speaking up or holding forth.

Sometimes I engage in such self-censorship because, quite simply, I have nothing to add to an ongoing conversation–I sense that what I’m about to say would be redundant or not as perspicuous as other contributions to it. I like to talk, and like anyone else, consider my opinions to be ‘correct’ ones, so such holding back does not come easily to me.

Far more interesting is the case, of course, when I hold back for fear of provoking a reaction I do not have the time or the inclination to ‘process.’ This situation should also be familiar to us: for instance, we do not rise to the bait at a family gathering when a relative says something offensive (every family has, I suppose, a list of topics that must not be broached on such occasions.)  Or sometimes, even more interestingly, we sense the opinion we express will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context, its ‘subtleties’ ignored–all resulting in a cascade of vituperative condemnation directed our way. We despair over ever being able to ‘explain’ the thesis we would proffer, and sense the dispute that would arise as we navigated the various discursive obstacles that would be placed in the way of such clarification would be insuperable. Perhaps we would dig a deeper hole for ourselves as we attempted to  ‘clarify’ what we meant to say. (These are, of course, indications that we should consider whether we should wait a while to see if we can revise a draft of what we want to say to see if its content can be made sharper; such considerations apply equally to verbal and written opinions.)

Such self-censorship is, I think, more prevalent in the online context. The infamous ‘tweet storms’ that result when an inexpertly written and inarticulate tweet–begging for emendation and clarificatory follow-up on a ‘sensitive’ subject makes the rounds–can easily overwhelm the hapless offender. So can the vitriol on a Facebook status commentary space. Writing one comment–or tweet–after another in a desperate attempt to patch the leaks in the dyke is all too often a losing cause. Better to suck it up and retreat to lick your wounds, bruised but considerably wiser, forewarned and forearmed for your next foray online.

 

On The ‘Net: Letting ‘Em Have The Last Word

I began arguing on the Internet some twenty-seven years ago. I haven’t stopped yet. At first, it was all about the Usenet newsgroups; later it was mailing lists–private and public, online conferences, blog posts, blog comments spaces, IRC channels, Facebook and Twitter timelines. I read, I wrote, I flamed; I was read, I was flamed. I was infuriated, I was provoked; I infuriated, I provoked. No matter where you went in cyberspace, there you were, arguing with someone.

And these interlocutors, they drove you batty. You knew they were wrong; they knew you were. (You both cared what your audiences thought of you.) You wrote quasi-treatises, clear and limpid in their rhetorical and dialectical simplicity; they were free of argumentative fallacies; they were responded to with obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Your interlocutors’ arguments were so aggravatingly wrong that at times you suspected you could not unpeel the layers of provocation they laid on; you began to doubt whether you could do an adequate job of unmasking these imposters.  You thought your extensive catalog of this world’s intellectual sins and charlatans was complete; your experience with the folks you argued with online demonstrated that many more entries needed to be made in it.

These folks online, friends and strangers alike, they were not like the ones you met and talked to in person. When those folks spoke, their words were transient, evanescent; they came and went, vanishing, leaving only some traces, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleasant, soon to be overwritten by some new stimulus. These folks online, their words were written; they were committed to ‘memory’ of several kinds; they acquired a permanence; they became lasting accusations of the lack of all kinds of uprightness and rectitude; you were indicted of a multiplicity of sins. Sticks and stones could break your bones, and these words, by virtue of their durability, threatened to do as much.

And all in public, because when you argue on the Internet, you always have some kind of audience; perhaps a small one, like your departmental mailing list, or perhaps a colossal one, like a popular newsgroup or the comments space of a leading blog. You aren’t just arguing for yourself; you are arguing because you’ve ‘got a rep to protect.’ (With probability one, a rejoinder from a Facebook commenter that you will respond to with great alacrity and vigor is one that you disapprove of, but which has received a ‘Like’ from another reader. Here, the gauntlet has been thrown, the offender has already acquired some support of dubious moral quality, some irritating cheering from the peanut galleries. You must speak up for yourself and do double duty; not only must you show the original offender he was wrong but show his worthless sycophant that he backed the wrong horse in this particular race.)

Small wonder that famous ‘Duty Calls’ cartoon from xkcd is, er, famous:

Duty Calls

You laugh, because you know it’s true: you can’t let go, unanswered, some affront to your pride and your sensibilities. You cannot let an internet interlocutor have the last word. (A friend once told me–in the early days of the pre-WWW internet i.e., in the days of Usenet newsgroups–that he would not log on once he got home for fear of not being able to log off again all night. In those days, users dialed in to access newsgroups; when you stayed logged on, whether at 1200, 2400, or 9600 baud, you ran up your phone bills too, so there might have been some economic prudence that gave my friend’s resolution some much-needed heft.)

So there it stays, that unanswered comment on your blog, the idiotic comment on your Facebook page, that chirpy, offensive tweet, burning a hole in your cranium, threatening to keep you awake as the full horror of its being read by every single user of the internet slowly dawns on you. You draft your reply as you go about your day’s business, waiting for the moment when you will be able to pour out your furious rejoinder, your nail-in-the-coffin response that will seal the deal once and for all.

But it won’t. And you know it. Another cycle awaits.

Letting that ‘last word’ remain unanswered is key, of course. The expert internet user comes to size up, quickly enough, what kind of creature his interlocutor is. Most importantly, is he the kind who will let you have the last word? If not, step away from the keyboard. No one cares very much; there is a lot to be distracted by; something will come along, sooner rather than later, to divert the attention of us all. Let the evidence of your inability to come up with a witty rejoinder, a snappy response, an exposure of the operative fallacy, a devastating demolition job on a weak argument persist; let it remain as an example of how not to ‘win’ an internet argument.

Few listen to such good advice. I often don’t. Sometimes I will let the last comment on a Facebook thread or a Twitter thread bother me, insidiously burrowing its way around my anxieties and insecurities, before, finally provoked, I snap and respond. But I have some cause for optimism too; I have often found it easier to just terminate a conversation; I have grown wiser about the demands on my time and energy that these endlessly prolonged conversations can make. Simple economic prudence rules the roost; here may be found many zero-sum games, extracting costs that will have to be paid for somehow, elsewhere in my commitments.

So, I have walked away from fields of battle. I have let my partially composed and insufficiently pungent replies die on the vine; I have left my sword buried in the ground. I have let opposing generals come out on the battlefield and reassure themselves after they have surveyed it that they have seized the day and the moment and bested their opponents, who have slunk away under cover of the night. I am content to let them think me lacking in all manner of intellectual qualities.

I’m busy writing this post instead.

What My Facebook Like Means

Facebook users often express dissatisfaction over the limited range of options available to them for responding to posts made on their newsfeed by their ‘friends.’ (I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button! I wish I could like this a thousand times! I wish I could tell you how much I liked this!) My sympathies are with the complainers. My ‘Like’ button is terribly overworked; it does double, triple, quadruple duty; there isn’t enough granularity of expression in that atomic expression. It does not capture the range and variety of social interactions it facilitates.

This is what my Faceook ‘Like’ means:

I approve of the content of the link you have just provided. I disapprove of the content of the link you have just provided. This photograph is adorable. You said something funny. Just saying hi. Just saying bye. I am appalled. I am sorry for you. I hear you. You go girl. You go dude. Interesting; I’ll get back to you. Who cares; but you clearly do. A grunt. A guffaw. A chortle. A snicker. A snort. Thanks for the ‘Like’; here is yours.  Too Long; Didn’t Read; but here is a ‘Like’ anyway. Can I look forward to a ‘Like’ from you sometime soon? I have no idea what you are talking about but you clearly seem to be fishing for attention and this is the best I can do for the moment. Consider this a goodbye present; you will soon be dropped from my newsfeed. This was a rather transparent attempt to be clever and you do this way too often, but still, you are family, so here is a ‘Like’ for you. I haven’t dropped you from my newsfeed yet? Consider this a thank you for the ‘Like’ you sent me the other day. Just chiming in; everyone else is giving this a ‘Like.’  You ‘Liked’ my baby; I’ll ‘Like’ yours. Why wasn’t I invited to this dinner party? Why wasn’t I invited to this barbecue? You have friends besides me? Who is this person you are posing with? Our friendship has been reduced to the exchange of these electronic waves which people call ‘Like’ and which I am sending your way. I hope you will ‘Like’ some of the content I post; this is the third ‘Like’ I have given you in the past week. I hope my ‘Like’ will encourage you to keep posting this bizarre shit that has so many of us so entertained, if mystified. Your kid isn’t that cute, but you are an awfully sensitive person, so here is a ‘Like.’  Hi; haven’t seen you in a while; do you come here often? This could be the first of many ‘Likes’ if you play it right. Just trying to get you over the hundred mark here. Oh, it’s you again, telling us all how much you have accomplished while we struggle to get through the day; here is your gold star. Hi; you might not know me, but we just became friends on Facebook.

That Guy, The One Who Picks Fights With Your Facebook Friends

Like many Facebook users, I have defriended ‘friends.’ Enough was enough, and the ‘Unfriend’ option got selected. Sometimes, it was because I was sick and tired of seeing their posts in my newsfeed–for whatever reason, perhaps they were politically or personally offensive, or just too silly to put up with anymore. (Pompous, self-inflated, pretentious, bon mots and faux aphorisms are among the worst offences; they deserve the electronic guillotine like nothing else.) Sometimes, it was because I was finding that person particularly contentious in their dealings with me online–in their constant desire to reduce all conversation to a species of verbal sparring. And sometimes, because the offender had committed an exceedingly common Facebook sin: getting into edgy, hostile, arguments with friends of friends.

Let’s say you have a party. You invite some of your friends over. Many of the people you invite introduce themselves to each other. They enter into conversation, and sometimes, perhaps after a few drinks have been consumed, they might even engage in spirited discussion or argument. A few intemperate ones, not recognizing the bounds of propriety turn these encounters with almost-perfect strangers into slugging matches. You wish you hadn’t invited them to your party. They are loud, they have assumed too much familiarity with your other friends, they have disturbed the decorum of an otherwise friendly space.

Or consider a variation on the above theme. A friend of yours,overhearing a response another friend of yours made to you, loudly accosts him, and starts berating him. The two do not know each other; they have not been introduced. Your first friend is bemused and bewildered. You are vexed. Why doesn’t your second friend simply address himself to you alone, the person whom he knows and has previously established some kind of relationship with? Why is he picking fights with strangers–at your  party?

This second kind of behavior is exceedingly common on Facebook. You post a status; your friends respond to you. But other friends respond to them. So far, so good. If they know each other. But if they don’t, then you  find one friend subjected to  harassment by another.

Pro-tip: this is rude. Really rude. If you want to comment on a friend’s Facebook page, by all means do so. After all, he has spoken up in a space open to you. But do not, unless you know the person, unless you are friends with them, enter into hostile, contentious arguments with friends of your friend. You are embarrassing your friend, being an ungracious guest. You are being an obnoxious presence, one begging to be expelled. There are many spaces for argument on the Internet; many spaces for discussion and disagreement. The exact template and form and content of the argument you are disagreeing with will be found elsewhere; that fact is mathematically certain. If you feel like refuting that argument, find an alternative venue for so doing. Your rhetorical and argumentative skills will find deployment; you will be reassured you are as smart as you think. You do not need to refute *this* person in *this* space.

And if you persist, do not be surprised to find yourself shitcanned.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

Online Conversational Spaces: The Vocal and the Previously Silenced

Comments on Internet discussion forums have been the subject of much analysis ever since electronic conversational spaces first made their appearance back in the 1970s. Pioneering scholars of ‘computerized conferencing systems’ like Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz–who conducted most of their empirical studies on the Electronic Information Exchange System–noted that several features of these systems made possible not just the rich and vigorous discussion that was their hallmark, but also much of the hostile, aggressive and abusive behavior that was its distressing counterpart.

The ‘anonymity that these systems provided was crucial. The ‘anonymity’ was not just the kind that was engendered by the provision of the ‘Anonymous’ handle for writing online. Rather, the ‘anonymity’ of a computerized conferencing also included the variant created by the simple distancing between two identifiable users; a named participant from Macon, Georgia, is for all practical purposes, anonymous to me. This ‘speaking from keyboard to monitor’ made it possible for users to shirk conventional notions of face-to-face interaction in favor of several variants of verbal confrontation. 

And just as important as the anonymity was the asynchronous nature of the communication: you didn’t have to respond immediately to a point like you had to in face-to-face conversation. You could wait, draft your reply, think it over, polish it, make it as hard-hitting as possible, and then post it; you were not going to get cut-off by your interlocutor and you had the time to compose your thoughts and then offer a response. For every user that was embarrassed by a too-hasty reply, there was one who took the time to compose a devastating rejoinder, composed at leisure, its rhetorical edges sharpened to a cutting point.

Online spaces for conversation removed many of the handicaps of physical discussion spaces; perhaps you were not a confident conversationalist in offline, physical spaces but online you could be a veritable ninja. Your stuttering was no longer a handicap; you could not be out-shouted; the raised eyebrow, the smirk, the grimace, in short, the entire arsenal of off-putting body-language was not available to those who sought to resist your argumentation. What mattered in an online space was, interestingly enough, your writing. Conversely, perhaps you were a bully offline, but online if you didn’t have an argument, you could be taken apart rather easily. An interesting leveling of the field was made visible; indeed, the most salutary effect of the online space was the voices that could now be heard, that used to be swamped offline, but now found a medium suited to them.   

Soon, aggressive, bristling personas who composed wrote intensely forensic arguments and who were not shy of using sarcasm, irony and invective and sundry other rhetorical devices made their appearance in online ‘conferences.’ They were accompanied by those who sought only to abuse, who freed of the fear of the social sanction that was immediately visible in a physical space, lashed out in every manner imaginable.

It is this latter group that invented a new species of online bullying and hectoring and that is now commonly associated with the degradation of online discourse. But it should not be forgotten that the online space also gave voices to many that were previously silenced.