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Thursday, January 29, 2015

17th century solutions for 21st century problems: internet mobbing

Michelle Goldberg, via JTL:
Social media has done away with all that. Nobody gets a presumption of good faith anymore, and we’re all subject to loud, public judgment by people who might not share any of our underlying assumptions about the way the world works or the rules of intellectual debate. In the past, The Baffler might have published something that pissed off feminist readers, but most of those readers would share The Baffler’s broader worldview, and would be less likely to excoriate it. Even if they wanted to publish a response, there wouldn’t be many venues except the publication’s own letters section. Outsiders simply wouldn’t notice. 
There is value, of course, in the new regime. The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed. But the pressure to conform is also far more intense. The distance between what writers—or, at least, some writers—say to each other and what they say publicly is growing. That’s not oppression, but it is a loss.
This is essentially a description of the problems of over-exposure. I've been thinking about this for a while with respect to student journalism, which illuminates the problem more clearly, since most people will agree that no mere college student deserves be subjected to an online mob for writing a dumb op-ed, even if they're less certain about the extent to which a professional writer could be said to "deserve" such a response. I obviously link student journalism here all the time, though I prefer reportage of the absurd to op-eds. But I also think we were all a lot better off before student newspapers went online.

This was briefly A Topic last spring when that Princeton guy's essay on privilege earned him the vociferous scorn/praise of the entire country and old-new TNR ran a piece attacking adult media for giving this guy a platform. But they never had! They covered the coverage, which we might say (and Phoebe did say) was bad form, but the essay was published in a college magazine. The problem is that college writing is too accessible to, and too eagerly overexposed by the "semi-professional" media (the really professional media only gets to it after it's gone viral). Phoebe pointed out that these are not children and they're old enough to consent to the publication of their work. There is no question of violated privacy in these cases. But there is a question of what effect subjecting 1) inexperienced student writers and 2) even professional writers to the levels of public scorn previously reserved for politicians accused of pedophilia will have on journalism.

The optimistic possibility is that it will toughen writers up. In these early days of massive, personally threatening smear campaigns, writers will still be sensitive, but after such attacks become a regular feature of the job, it's possible that writers will shrug them off more easily and continue to write what they will. After all, the pain is acute but rarely long-lasting; the internet mob needs to be fed regularly, and so rarely spends very long draining a particular victim before being attracted to the blood of another.

The pessimistic possibility is that instead of toughening up sane people who, on account of possessing normal levels of pain, guilt, and fear, react rather poorly to these sorts of attacks, these publishing conditions will instead elevate writers who are not quite as sane and who can withstand such attacks because they enjoy or at least don't mind being the objects of intense universal scorn.* This is something I've particularly wondered about student journalism - whether early and frequent over-exposure to vicious and pointless criticism will inure younger writers to all criticism, hardening their faith in their own (immature) instincts and raising their estimation of writing that is mere provocation and offense.

If Goldberg's account is right, then some types of writing are better when they come out of many small and partially closed-off institutions in which the basic assumptions necessary to build arguments on are broadly accepted, because every debate can't be over fundamentals. Like clubs and cliques, they flourish under conditions that are not perfectly transparent and to some degree exclusive. Exclusion need not be active rejection of would-be members; self-selection is sufficient, as all members of high school social loser cliques know. Subscription to a publication, for example, is a form of self-selecting inclusion. (But active rejection does raise a club's stock, as all sorority girls know.) This dynamic is reflected in the casual experience of  how much more useful and productive it is to argue with your own partisans, and how common it is for even the most sincere "bipartisan" discussion about any concrete topic to end in a standstill over questions like, "But what even is freedom?" These questions have their place, but re-arguing them incessantly is neither useful nor interesting. Even the objections to an argument are often more incisive and compelling when they come from the writer's own side than when they come from the opposition.** So good political writing (maybe also other kinds of writing?) might rely to some extent on what Goldberg calls "ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus."

But, if the internet has made such clubbiness impossible by removing the audience-sorting mechanisms that subscriptions and physical copy once provided, and these institutions wish to persist as clubs rather than universal organizations with no members, then perhaps they will have to revert to some old-timey workarounds. For student journalists, who never relied on subscriptions in the first place, that would mean returning to physical copy so that only your equally stupid classmates will have sufficient incentive to discover and deride your stupid opinions. For professional writers, we might consider that in the 17th century, people who wanted to convey thoughts that could get them imprisoned or exiled sometimes did it by circulating manuscripts (not the fancy kind) through their friends instead of publishing their work through a bookseller. This didn't obviate the dangers of committing thought to paper, of course, but it minimized it. There would only be a few copies of your wayward opinions floating around, and the chances that they might fall into the wrong hands were thus diminished. In the late 20th century, the manuscript form was inadvertently transmuted into the "zine" in some quarters and the "academic book" in others. The former was a very cheap but extremely physically inaccessible manuscript, whereas the latter was in principle widely accessible, but so prohibitively expensive and forbidding that it was in fact rarely accessed. Although neither was expressly created for the purpose of providing cover for clubby speech, they are both well-constituted to have this effect. So, just a suggestion.

Besides, ever since the beginning of the internet, people have been worrying that it's going to destroy real friendship. Maybe the perverse result of making published writing a danger zone of 17th century proportions will be to force writers to rely on actual friends if they hope to disseminate their ideas. Or maybe, this new development in public discourse will demonstrate the utility of the old subscription + print magazine format in a way that the previous efforts to defend print media by fetishizing how amazing it feels to touch paper utterly failed to do.


*Sayeth Locke, clearly anticipating Johnson: "He must be of a strange and unusual constitution, who can content himself to live in constant disgrace and disrepute with his own particular society...Nobody that has the least thought or sense of a man about him, can live in society under the constant dislike and ill opinion of his familiars, and those he converses with. This is a burden too heavy for human sufferance: and he must be made up of irreconcileable contradictions, who can take pleasure in company, and yet be insensible of contempt and disgrace from his companions."
**Exhibit A: Criticism of Straussians from Straussians vs. criticism of Straussians from conspiratorial paranoiacs.

1 comment:

Phoebe said...

I liked that Goldberg opened with that Baffler column. I was also struck by the response it elicited, although my take was, as usual, that it's yet another example of fiction being better than personal-essay-writing to convey anything with a let's say unappealing protagonist. The problem today is the combination of viral outcomes (not an issue when the Maroon, etc., were merely online) and the requirement that everything be first-person non-fiction.