Ramblings in Blogland

I’m having a lot of trouble with experts lately. Not necessarily all of them – I quite like my obstetrician, for example, and I tend to trust that my advisers know what they’re talking about when we talk history. But lately I’ve been expanding my blog reading beyond the little group of grieving moms with whom I started in February. As I mentioned weeks ago, I’ve already had to ban myself from one particular blog because it depressed me. Since then I’ve found a few others that are pregnancy/labor/premature labor related and even ventured beyond that to Salon and Huff. Post, in addition to some of the more left political sites I’ve read for a year or more. I’m excluding the grieving mom group from the rest of my thoughts here, because with these I’m personally invested and often really impressed by the posts and comments.

With blogland in general, however, I’m finding the level of discussion in comment sections obnoxious and discouraging. Even still, I’m more and more fascinated by it. Particularly when otherwise interesting discussions descend and include phrases like the following, “I suggest a good course in biology to anyone who thinks….” or suggestions that one commenter or another learn to read or get spelling lessons. The reader who can take these proposals in good spirits would be few and far between I’m sure, so they mostly have the effect of destroying the conversation entirely.

We’ve all been attacked by trolls, I think, but the situation I’m describing is different. Participants who enter the public sphere of a blog and decide that they hold knowledge superior to almost anyone else writing there and who think it’s their prerogative to declare other people functionally illiterate seem to play a particular role, and it’s not a good one. Perhaps because they don’t often demonstrate their expertise in any other way beyond declaring it – they might say something vague, like “I have advanced degrees.” I suspect more so that they’ve forgotten the virtues of that widely praised and useful character trait, humility. The image of themselves they forward assumes it’s self-evident that they’re somehow extraordinary. They’re almost becoming a “type” in my mind – and I’d love to spend time compiling examples, to see if I can discern something special about them and how they function in blogs.

It doesn’t give me much hope for the democratic possibilities of this new sort of print discourse. But that’s a normal state of affairs historically. Sources for my research include, fairly exclusively, examples from the sorts of print discourse that were new in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lots of people celebrated the democratic possibilities there, as well. Others were frightened by them, and historians have spent the last 30 years talking about how they weren’t so democratic anyway.

I have many more thoughts about the “average” characters who post so avidly on forums that are either electronic versions of a “letter to the editor” section in a periodical or blogs that straddle the categories of personal/political/activism sites – most of the thoughts being purely academic and non-judgmental. I’m wishing, actually, for some cultural studies scholar to write about it, and if I weren’t already overwhelmed with things I ought to be doing instead, I’d take it up and try to publish something.

But for the moment, do any of you understand what I’m talking about? What are your thoughts?

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13 responses to “Ramblings in Blogland

  1. I know what you are talking about. And I think commenters like that are distinct from experts in a particular field who happen to also be contributors to a given blog, but who respect the intelligence of their fellow blogizens. The latter type might succinctly summarize key facts from the discipline that are relevant to the ongoing discussion and then proceed to make a substantiated argument based on those facts. The type you describe do what was known in the Old Country as “cover someone with thrown hats” (bad translation, but the essence is that the argument is won by unrelated means via simply preventing the opponent from arguing back, i.e. by covering them in hats such that they can’t speak).
    Although I do have to admit to having to pull rank on occasion, but only when the person I was pulling rank on was saying something like “it’s a well-known fact that X,” where X is not a fact, but is usually a fabrication. In those cases I have had to occasionally preface my fact recitation with some of my credentials. I try not to do it, but since the arguments of this sort that I usually get into are about evolution, I sometimes feel that I have to.

    About publishing something on this… As I recall, you are not that excited about your dissertation topic anymore, no? So maybe you can write your next grant, for when you begin your faculty position, for this new topic instead? Because the only people I have heard talking about online discourse are pretty much blowhards, and I would much rather read a reasoned and thoughtful study that I am sure you would produce. Just sayin’.

  2. I agree with Julia, this might be something you could pursue when you start your faculty position. However, aren’t you early American History? But good academics can tie two seemingly unrelated things together.. or as you mentioned, the type of discourse is not that different from your early American sources. I’ve witnessed what you describe and it isn’t too different from the usual blowhards I know IRL. I think perhaps being able to go “anon” too might bring out people who would normally stay quiet on an issue.
    I think it would be just peachey if the next time you observed this that you got on and wrote, “I’m researching A-holes on blogs, can I ask you a few questions?”…

  3. I love Monica’s suggestion!

  4. There’s really not that much of a parallel between what I read from the 18th and 19th centuries and the level of discussion I’m seeing – it’s the doubts I have that ring familiar to me. So I’d never want to make too many parallels. I wouldn’t do anything strictly academic, more just an attempt at a fun piece of social criticism.

    Monica, your suggestion made me laugh so hard!

  5. This sounds like the way I view political blogs up in my neck of the woods. Liblogs and the Blogging Tories do a lot of this, in fact, I view most of them as a sort of echo chamber.

    Red Tory has a good blog, although a lot of those type of comments. He tries to drown them out. Other political bloggers I know either prohibit comments, like Warren Kinsella’s site, or like Cherniak’s blog, moderate comments.

    It’s a bit of a toss up really because many real life experts read those blogs but are reluctant to put in writing what they would say in real life over a beer in a bar. So they go anonymous and can’t really state their expertise, but want to correct the record. Telling them apart from the jerks can be a chore.

    I’ve often thought about starting a politics only blog and feeding into liblogs, but I haven’t simply because it would take more time. I’ve tried crossing over the political stuff into this blog, but it can be difficult.

  6. Cover someone with hats? That’s such a surreal image, but I could totally see it in some 1960s era cartoon from the “old country.”

  7. Oh, and in a related story about experts

  8. Well, first, I am glad to know you are keeping your end of our pact to stay away from *that* blog. I am too, and I am much happier for it!

    Yes, I do know what you are talking about, and it is exactly what chases me away from most blogs that fall outside either the “bereaved moms”, or just regular ol’ “mommy blogs.” I tend to find the well written personal blogs more interesting than those centered around a specific topic, or genre. And I have also discovered I don’t have the stomach for the more controversial or contentious conversations in blogland (or in real life either). I had one exchange, perfectly civil, with one doc but I had to really defend my position. And even though I felt comfortable with my perspective, and how I articulated it, the exchange rattled me for days. I don’t need that in my life. I knew it was crazy to get flustered over the thoughts of one anonymous doctor who I will never meet in person in my life, but yet, there I was.

    I too though Monica’s suggestion was hilarious!!

  9. I guess I think of comment sections — at least for those blogs that I don’t really have any personal emotional investment in — as kind of performance art. In other words, I don’t really associate the comments with actual people or take them all that seriously. When someone is flamboyantly obnoxious or condescending, I find it kind of amusing in an unpleasant way, as though they’re a cartoon character hitting another cartoon character over the head with, say, an anvil — something that would be horrible if it happened in real life, but that seems much less important (to me, anyway) when it happens in cyberspace.

  10. I love debate and argument so long as it doesn’t descend into insult. I think that’s really why I love my period of history. White men may have owned their wives and children, and prosperous men their slaves and employees but even yet they made impassioned discussion & other forms of public speech into an art form. As Niobe points out, perhaps these comment sections I obsess over are art as well. Maybe I don’t like them for the same reason I never quite came to enjoy Karen Finley. I prefer more subtlety. I’m also more of an appreciator of dry humor. I just don’t like arguments to be “in my face” or shocking, as much because of the content of the speech as its tastelessness.

  11. Ha! I found where you were, i thought i told you not to go there! Bad girl! LOL

    Seriously, there are some people who, though they do have knowledge and experience, also have certain pathologies that show up in these discussions. Some people cannot admit they are wrong, or even that they wrote something which could be construed badly, or was hurtful. That doesn’t mean they know nothing, but that does mean that trying to deal with them honestly is a total waste of time. Just my experience 😉

  12. Hey, i got a smiley face to appear! Whoo-hoo! This wordpress is kinda cool.

    I am easily amused.

  13. Yeah, you’re right, Kate, especially in the context of “where I was.” And it is a bad place to go – not as bad as neonatal doc though. I can’t help myself sometimes though.I’m such a voyeur. Before it used to be celebrity news, now I have no interest in that.

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