Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gatekeepers and publishing

This weekend, I co-presented a workshop with Assistant Professor Judith Anderson at Columbus State Community College's annual creative writing conference, this one titled "Genres and Generations." Our workshop dealt with the opportunities Web 2.0 has opened to artists, and how writers can use blogs and social networking to attract and build an audience for their printed work.

During an afternoon panel discussion on creative nonfiction, someone in the audience raised a question about blogging as a form of the essay. The panelists answered that bloggers were, essentially, narcissists, a waste of bandwidth and of time. This judgment drew sharp objections from the floor, including several from participants in our morning workshop. They countered the stereotype, arguing that many bloggers are intensely aware of and involved with the world around them, linked in a network of communications with others who were often passionately committed to issues, interests and causes.

The keynote speaker for the conference had been Walter Mosley, who on Friday night read from his book This Year You Write Your Novel. Mosley encouraged the audience to invest the time and effort in attempting to write their own stories. One audience member asked Saturday's panel how Mosley's injunction squared with their condemnation of earnest bloggers who are dedicated to writing. The response was that bloggers are certainly permitted to write, but they're wrong to publish.

Publishing, the panelists agreed, requires gatekeepers, to minimize the dangers that unmonitored publishing might pose to society and to individuals. The discussion then switched to the topic of fraudulent material that had been posted on Wikipedia. (Never mind that Wikipedia isn't a blog. All hypertext is equally suspect.)

The panel was composed of people whose wit and judgment I hold immense respect for, but I must disagree with them on this point. I believe they view the Internet simply as simply a different delivery method for the printed word, rather than as an entirely new medium. But the two are different. Print, as McLuhan pointed out decades ago, is mechanical and explosive. It fragments the audience into individual, specialized readers. Hypertext is electric and implosive. It tends toward a tribal structure of deep involvement, a breakdown of barriers.

Print-oriented academics, I believe, see the blog as a private journal (including all the form's associations with paper, ink and handwriting) that has been posted online merely for the sake of the writer’s vanity. A small percentage may, in fact, be that.

The true blog, though, begins as unmediated electronic text, posted as a statement in an ongoing conversation. It's not a matter of isolated words designed to be contemplated in tranquility. It's a voice speaking in a village, in a chorus or babble of other voices. As long as the social structure of the village is healthy, the service of a gatekeeper, deciding who may or may not speak, is not required.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Keyboarding or handwriting?

CNet's Candace Lombardi has an interesting article on the teaching of handwriting skills in the computer age. In the fall of 2007, Virginia Tech will issue tablet pc's to students and require students to use them in classes. At Memphis State, however, Professor June Entman banned her law students from bringing laptops to class. The speed of the keyboard enables students to transcribe her lecture. Taking notes by hand, she contends, requires independent, active thought, interpretation and analysis.

Is she right? One's answer to that question may be determined by his or her age.

In my generation, handwriting and keyboarding skills were taught at different stages of the educational process. In fact, it was primarily women who learned to type, in training for future secretarial roles. My junior year of high school, I was the sole boy in the second-period typing class, in a room with 23 teenage girls. Those were some of my happiest adolescent days.

For those of us who developed these skills separately, I think, typing is a distinctly different experience from writing by hand. I still compose poetry and fiction with a pen and a notebook, waiting to commit anything to the computer until it's pretty much in a final form. This isn't a Luddite resistance to technology, only an acknowledgement that my thought process is different when I'm on the keyboard. My words seem to arrive through a different route, the style is altered, and I'm paradoxically less inclined to edit and revise on the screen than I am on a sheet of paper.

Most of Professor Entman's students are unhappy over the ban. As a teacher, I fully support her right to dictate the rules governing her classroom. But I wonder about her assumption that younger students may be processing information differently if they bring laptops to her lecture. For them, the experience of typing may be the same as that of writing by hand.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tragedy, news, and social networking

As students at Virginia Tech cope with this week's tragedy on their campus, and attempt to return to a normal life, many of them are expressing anger at the press for creating a state of siege on their campus. "You've got your story. Now go home," one young woman said this morning during a story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

One grievance that students have raised -- and it's a legitimate one -- is over the way that reporters from wire services, newspapers, television and radio raided their LiveJournal, Facebook and MySpace pages hoping to contact witnesses to the shootings, urgent for interview time. Robin Hamman at has compiled a catalog of requests students received from ABC, the LA Times, CBC, CNN and others. Some display sensitivity to what the students' emotional turmoil, but others lived up to the mainstream media's image as crass, heartless purveyors of suffering.

Slate's Michael Agger reports that a number of students, realizing they were drawing media attention "rapidly set their journals and MySpace pages to friends-only," to block unwelcome demands for details and emotional reactions that one anonymous poster satirized with the words: "Please let us exploit your grief. ASAP THANKS!"

That was the right decision, but the fact that it needed to be made points out the dilemma of social networking, that it erases the distinction between public and private. By posting personal messages to their network of friends, on a public site, the students opened themselves to this kind of unwanted attention, at a moment when tragedy drew the eyes of the media to their campus.

Robin Hamman urges the news media to "Think before you link. Understand that some content published in public was never intended to be seen by a mass audience." He's drawing an intriguing and subtle distinction between the "public" and the "mass" -- probably too subtle for anyone to expect a reporter hot on the trail of a breaking story to observe, though.

Sadly, this issue will come up again, during some future crisis or catastrophe when social networking once more becomes citizen journalism. But a richness will result from the ability of individuals to tell their stories at first hand, unmediated, and for those stories to link organically, for a fuller picture to emerge.

As TextualDeviance has pointed out of the Virginia Tech tragedy, "the students and student journalists at this school have done a better job of covering it than the mainstream media have, by not only being more on top of it, but by integrating content from multiple sources into a cohesive, continually updated story that still manages to be journalistic despite much of its amateur origins."

The price of that richness will be a further sacrifice of the personal and the private.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dionysos, Apollo and the Blogosphere

I've been following the debate this week over Tim O'Reilly's call for civility in the blogosphere and his suggestions for a code of conduct governing what kinds of behavior will or won't be permitted on individual sites. Included in the program is the elimination of anonymous posts.

Online response has been, overwhelmingly, negative. So I find myself on the minority side of an issue -- certainly not for the first time in my life. I fundamentally agree with O'Reilly and with Tony Long's tongue-in-cheek challenge on Wired to anonymous posters:

If you're going to fire a rocket at someone in a blog post, or anywhere else, at least have the class to use your real name and stand behind your vitriol. Anything less makes you a coward and invalidates whatever bile you've spewed. My name is on this, and I'm calling you gutless if you don't sign yours. What are you going to do about it, blogger boy?

The arguments in defense of anonymous posts, which I admit have some merit, include contentions that anonymity encourages more people to join an open discussion, and that it minimizes the ego battles that interfere with fair debate when the identities of the parties are known.

But I suspect that something more fundamental is at stake here than online manners, or even morality. This is an issue about the fundamental character of the medium, whether it will be Apollonian or Dionysian.

The O'Reilly camp upholds Apollonian ideals of order and reason in the quest for idealized truth. Apollo was the god of cognition, individuation and civilization, core qualities of Western culture. In addition, he was the symbol of "ethical" conduct, in the root sense of that word: the idea that what was permitted to and what was expected of the individual was a product of his or her public character. In the Apollonian view, civic order depends on everyone possessing a known and fixed identity. Anonymity or the possibility of shifting identities leads to chaos.

Dionysos is thought of today as the god of wine, but that's simply a shorthand notation for his true significance, which was the power of intoxication in various forms. Intoxication destabilizes fixed identity, leading to a merging with the "other" and a widening of possible experiences. He was also patron of the Greek theater, where actors publicly presented themselves as characters who they weren't. The Dionysian experience is tribal, mythic and communal. It was, in addition, "ecstatic" (again, in the root meaning of the word). Ecstasy is the state of "standing outside" the self, of temporarily setting aside the burden of your quotidian identity, liberating you from yourself.

If this past week's response to O'Reilly's code of conduct is a reliable indication, it appears the blogosphere has a strong Dionysian current that will resist ethical reform -- not because bloggers support hate speech, but because those ecstatic possibilities are a key feature of the medium.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Free speech, hate and accountability

The shameful treatment that Kathy Sierra has recently suffered in the blogosphere has stimulated debate on topics ranging from misogyny to hate speech, anonymous postings, and censorship. The death threats made against Ms. Sierra for her unforgivable act of being a woman with opinions reminded me of a study about what has happened to human decency online.

Psychologist John Suler speculated in CyberPsychology & Behavior that flaming and other forms of anti-social behavior may be caused by a disconnect of "the brain's social circuitry" in the online environment, resulting in a loss of empathy with the person on the receiving end of the message.

Angela Rozas of the Chicago Tribune laments that "The Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate: information at our fingertips, global discourse, every man's opinion could be heard. But 12 years after I opened my first e-mail account, I have grown weary of the hate littering our e-world. Perhaps it's time we start policing ourselves. No more hate messages by anonymous posters. Every posting should require a name, address and telephone number. That information could be shielded from public view, and though some people might make up names and phone numbers, the requirement for submitting them might reduce the number of hate-filled messages left online."

It would seem that a code of conduct is sorely needed. Some have been offered already, by BlogHer for example. Now, as reported in the New York Times, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales have joined the call for greater civility and perhaps "several sets of guidelines for conduct" on different blogs and sites.

The counter argument to this proposal is that limiting visitors to a site in what they may or may not say, or removing comments that violate a site's specific code of conduct, amounts to censorship. Free speech, after all, is the essence of the blogosphere. How do you balance one person's right to express himself or herself, and another person's wish not to become a target of abuse, slander and threats?

Blogs and social networking sites may not be legally responsible for remarks posted on them by visitors. Nevertheless, we're still ethically responsible for safeguarding the rights of everyone who visits our sites. Having grown up at a time and a place where hate speech was all too common -- practically the norm, in many circles -- I can testify that threats and abuse aren't used to stimulate a lively debate or promote the free exchange of opinions. The only purpose of hate speech is to isolate and silence its target.

As a policy for open communication, "Free Speech for Me, but I'm Going to Make You Shut Up" seems questionable. Site owners have a duty to monitor their sites, and people who post comments should be accountable for their words. Abusive anonymous postings are an exercise in cowardice, not free speech.

I'll admit that it's going to be devilishly hard to devise a code that equitably distinguishes hate and abuse from legitimate, reasoned expressions of opinion. But if we're serious about the growth of the blogosphere as an open forum, it's worth the effort to try. I agree with Tim O'Reilly's remark, "one of the mistakes a lot of people make" is "believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech. Free speech is enhanced by civility."

Monday, April 2, 2007

The future of newspapers

A recent blog from Arianna Huffington about News 2.0 presents an optimistic vision of papers like the Washington Post starting to successfully embrace the digital age. The Post, for example, has "gone from a largely local paper with a print circulation around 656,000, to an international paper attracting eight million unique online readers a month."

But I began growing nervous as the article continued in its rosy assessment for the future of hybrid digital-and-paper delivery system like NewspaperDirect. The debate over the merits of the printed page vs. the computer screen has been continued too long. This old debate is wrongheaded in its approach, obscuring how dynamically different hypertext is from hard copy, consumed in tedious discussion about which is more convenient or more aesthetically pleasing.

So I was relieved when Huffington at last turned to a more vital issue, how new media is beginning to affect journalism in its substance, rather than in its delivery methods. She praises, rightfully, sites like Talking Points Memo and TMPmuckracker for bringing together "journalistic doggedness and reader interactivity" in breaking the recent Justice Department scandal involving the fired U.S. attorneys.

It's beyond question that the mainstream media has, for the past decade, failed the public miserably in its duty to inform and watchdog. Witness the lead-in to the American invasion of Iraq, when the only responsible critique of the plan was offered by Knight Ridder and by the online "fringe." Most newspaper, as well as all the commercial broadcast networks, simply yielded themselves to the euphoria and hysteria of the moment.

New media developments may assist in increasing a mainstream newspaper's audience, but they won't save the newspaper industry from its own growing corruption and incompetence. I am myself a daily reader of the New York Times online, but I entertain no illusions that I'm getting more accurate information or improved coverage from the electronic version. It's still the Times, limited in what it can report and predetermined in its outlook by its old political and corporate affiliations.

Never mind the joys of listening to the rustle of the pages and the feel of ink smudging your fingertips. If you're not getting complete, balanced, independent reporting from your newspaper, you're wasting your time. The online press is beginning to flex its muscle and prove its potential for wedding professional journalism with citizen journalism.

Huffington herself points out that "breaking a big story isn't always about getting the inside tip from a Deep Throat -- many times it's simply the piecing together of seemingly random bits of information there for everybody to see. But when they are assembled together, suddenly a big story can emerge. The blogosphere excels at this."