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.

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