One of the topics that often floats around the blogosphere concerns the nature of disagreement between bloggers. Larísa wrote one a long time ago on Blogging PVP, Grimmtooth wrote up his typical calm take on the matter, and just lately Alas has waded into the fray. You can plot these posts pretty much on a spectrum with Grim in the middle (oo-er) but, without wishing to open myself to a charge of blog-bullying (or, actually, what does it matter if I do?), I disagree sufficiently strongly with the end of the spectrum covered by Alas’s post that I want to write about it. And to think I thought I was done with this stuff!
Don’t be perceived to be a dick
One of the oft-quote ethical “laws” of the internet, made up by some dude like most internet laws, is, of course “don’t be a dick.” And this is, of course, a wonderful idea. If nobody was a dick the internet would be full of heart-to-heart conversation and intelligent debate! Except “being a dick” is not an objective state. You can no-more point at somebody and say “he’s being a dick” than you can point at a shade of purple and say “yep, that’s definitely lavender.” Or, at least you can but you have to also accept that someone will come along any minute and say “no, that looks more like heliotrope to me.” I mean, to reference blogging drama long dead (as I intend to do often in this post, by the way) one of the points of contention in the whole Frostgate thing was the notion that he had set a bad example through his behaviour. However, this whole line of argument rests on the assumption that his behaviour WAS bad. Whereas more accurately it might be said: “some people perceived that his behaviour was bad.” Frost didn’t set a bad example to me because I didn’t think he behaved all that badly.
The problem with the law of be notteth a dicke is that it gives us a glib soundbite and allows us to forget that such things are largely subjective. Of course I’m not arguing that some things are not definitely dickly BUT when it comes to the complexities of human interaction “don’t be a dick” is basically equivalent to “behave in a way I like.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this – we all like people to behave in ways we approve – BUT it cannot constitute a universal law of ethical or social conduct.
There’s a bit in Beowulf when our hero rocks up to Heorot and Unferth greets him at the door with a bit of light flyting. It’s a rather odd sequence but it goes something like this (forgive the liberties in translation):
Unferth: I heard you entered a swimming competition and you totally sucked!
Beowulf: That’s not true. I was awesome! I was so awesome I not only swam faster than any other man in the universe has ever swum but I killed like eighty million sea monsters as well.
Unferth: Yeah right. You’re totally lying, bitch.
Beowulf: I am totally not lying, bitch. And by the way you fucked your sister and killed your mother.
Everybody else: OMG HE FUCKED HIS SISTER AND KILLED HIS MOTHER.
As is often the case with Anglo Saxon texts I have no idea how we’re meant to interpret this. It’s genuinely hard to tell, isn’t it, whether Beowulf is being a total dick, whether Unferth is being a total dick, if Beowulf has no idea how this flyting thing is supposed to work and whether Unferth had it coming. But ultimately there’s some pretty serious escalation between “you lost a swimming competition because you’re as weak as a little girl” and “you killed your family, fucker!” It reminds me a lot, however, of the way disagreements in the game, and in blogs, tend to pan out. I mean to relate it to Frostgate again, he basically dropped the equivalent of “And by the way you fucked your sister and killed your mother” on his pug. But then he was there to help them kill
So what you get there is a case of being-a-dick escalation. Because we accept at face value the great law of don’t-be-a-dick we have to enter every situation like Debbie Does Dallas: looking for the biggest dick around. You win “don’t-be-a-dick” by making sure somebody else comes off as a bigger dick than you and points of contention occur when we can’t decide. Chas commented on Frostgate that if Frost had spent a bit more time tarring his fellow pugees people probably wouldn’t have given a damn. I’m reminded, in fact, of an old post of Chas’s in which he is a total and irredeemable twat to a group of strangers but it’s hard to condemn him for it because he’s gone to such trouble to make sure we could all relate to the awfulness of the pugees.
Another example of this was when I wrote about refusing to rez the whole group after a wipe (back in the days when we had to corpse run, remember those?) and because of that refusal brought the whole group to a screaming halt. One the things that infuriated me about the debate at the time was that I was dead set certain that refusing to run your lazy arse back to your corpse was by far the act of biggest dickliness but many, many commenters were convinced that holding a group hostage to my principles when all they wanted to do was get their badges and get out was far more dickly than the act that inspired my stand.
History is Written by the Whiners
And never have the problems attendant on looking for the biggest dick been more apparent to me than when I read perspectives on the Too Many Annas / Cranky Healer debacle. I mean, there’s not only the commentary in Alas’s post but I also remember a commenter cited it to me once upon a time as an occasion on which a large blogger bullied a smaller one into giving up blogging. Just to refresh our memories, this is what actually happened:
1.Crankyhealer wrote a post inciting members of the blogging community to grief RPers. It was meant as a joke.
2.Anna wrote a post in response to the post. She said it “upset” her, explained why and talked more generally about godmodding and griefing. She also spoke a bit about “bad RP”, and reminded us that no matter how risible half-vampire, half-demon bunny girls are, they are still played by real people. (You could argue, in fact, she is essentially reminding us “don’t be a dick.”)
3.As a consequence of Anna’s post, some of Anna’s more aggressive commenters swarmed over to Cranky Healer’s blog and weren’t very nice to her.
4.The blogosphere factionalised.
5.Cranky Healer CHOSE to stop blogging.
Now I am no way supporting the act of charging over to people’s blogs and yelling at them. HOWEVER, it also strikes me as profoundly unfair to hold Anna responsible for the choices of other people: the choice to attack a blogger (just because something isn’t very nice doesn’t mean individuals don’t have the right to do it) and the choice to stop blogging. Deliberately inciting others to go to a blogger’s blog for the explicit purpose of insulting and attacking them (as, for example, Total Biscuit did when he sent his army of fanboys to Dwism’s blog with the following tweet: "Retard on the internet blogs about how I am a 'sad man'") is one thing. Responding – passionately – to something a blogger has written is another.
Of course, it is not unreasonable to be upset when somebody doesn’t like something you write, nor is it unreasonable to be upset when people leave you nasty comments. But it is important to distinguish between the two. And I have to say it goes with the territory – it’s been something I’ve personally found rather a relief to leave behind, to be honest. It is nice to wake up the morning and have some control over whether somebody is going to say something shitty to you today. But this is a choice - or a sacrifice, if you prefer – you make when you publish something in a public space. You cannot hold other people accountable for your feelings, just has I have never held Alas accountable for the fact the seemingly endless saga of Dino-Tam has always made me uncomfortable as fuck. Just as you have the basic human right to be upset, other people have the basic human right to say things, and do things, that you MAY find upsetting. And I shall just flag up again for emphasis that I am not talking about explicit and specific attempts to attack and wound. I mean I remember quite recently Larísa had a post linked by WoW.com and somebody thought it a completely worthwhile expenditure of his time to write a paragraph about how he thought her post was banal and self-serving. That was nothing but criticism for the sake of criticism; pointless and disgusting. So, yeah, fuck you too, random guy. I hope you trip over a lose paving stone on your way to your unfulfilling job and mildly hurt your knee.
To put to put this whole incident back into the context of “don’t be a dick” what we have is a situation in which Anna called Cranky out on what she perceived as being a dick (inciting people to grief RPers) which several people then interpreted as Anna being a dick to the Cranky Healer. Again, we return to the subjectivity of dickishness – is it “worse” to (mistakenly) do something dickish, than it is challenge someone on it? But then of all this was topped by the fact Cranky Healer chose at that juncture to stop blogging. Now my respect for Cranky Healer leads me not to draw a direct connection between the two events – as it would honestly be pathetic to stop blogging because somebody called you out on a bad thing you did. I think, like any of us, she looked at what blogging is, and what it involves (which is taking a degree of shit because you think the rest is worth it) and decided she didn’t want to deal with it at the time. However, other people chose to establish the link which leads to the following, err, reinterpretation of events: “blogger is SUCH A DICK that it makes another blogger stop blogging.”
What really makes me want to stab my own eyes with a fork is that it is this misreading that seems to have gone down as the official history of what happened. To look at it in bald terms: Cranky Healer “won” because, by choosing to stop blogging, she (unintentionally I’m sure) succeeded in making Anna look, to some people, like a bigger dick than the Cranky Healer. Thus the actual issue – the treatment of RPers in the game – became lost in a welter of meta-textuality about whether it was okay for Anna to write a post about the Cranky Healer’s post in the first place.
Which of course it bloody well was.
It’s what you do with it that counts
Of course, a related issue to the whole debate comes down to the relationship between so-called “big” blogs with smaller ones. Alas writes:
And guess what? If someone is bigger than you are, it’s really easy to feel threatened. To use a real life example, the skinny guy who wears glasses and weighs maybe 90 pounds isn’t going to get taken as a serious threat to anyone who isn’t, like, five years old or younger
The thing is, this analogy cuts both ways. And, although, yes I agree a size differential can make a situation feel unbalanced to the more vulnerable participant ultimately there are plenty of things skinny guys can do to hurt, embarrass and threaten people who are bigger than they are. Bullying is not limited to threats of physical violence, and it is genuinely damaging to pretend that it is, even in analogy.
I mean, I remember a few summers back I was out punting with a group of friends and we went past a bit of the river called Parsons Pleasure which is a nice hang-out spot. There was a group of grim-looking fourteen year olds sitting around there, smoking and drinking, and as we went past one of them took it into his head to call one of my friends a fat cunt. I was out of that boat like someone had set it on fire. They scattered pretty quickly but I was furious enough to grab the kid who’d called out. And I remember standing there, having this struggling, cursing brat by the collar, thinking to myself, “oh shit, what do I do now?” I mean you can see the headlines, can’t you? Twenty Eight Year Old University Employee Beats The Crap Out of Child. I genuinely can’t recall a time of feeling more helpless or impotent. To be honest, I’ve never raised my hand to anyone in anything other than self-defense in my entire life and “Now, see here young man, don’t say rude things about my friends” wasn’t exactly going to cut it. In the end I just had to let him go and slink back to the punt feeling about 2 inches tall.
In short, size and apparent strength are no guarantee of security and it is just as easy for smaller bloggers to upset bigger ones, for example by misguidedly attacking RPers, than it is for bigger bloggers to upset smaller ones, for example, for calling them on their misguided attack on RPers.
Like Larísa, I have to admit I find the notion that relative size should influence our treatment of each other utterly absurd. One of the most liberating things about blogging, I would argue, is that it is an equal playing field – anybody can respond to anybody else. It’s not, y’know, boxing where you can only take people of equal weight or get smashed into the ground. And you may argue that this isn’t true, and that larger blogs have stables of fans, ready to rush forth and emit the prescribed opinion of the blogger, but this actually nonsense. Bloggers are separate entities from those who read them, and, for God’s sake, have some respect for your readers. Last time I checked, they were capable of independent thought. As much as I like the idea of sitting here on my dark throne, saying “Fly, my minions, and disagree with this person until they cry!” I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way. I think we forget just how meritocratic the blogosphere really is. It’s very easy to get all bulverist and assume that Xs readers only agree with X over you because X is popular, but actually we are broadly judged on our content, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
I also dislike the idea of a blogging culture in which size is the thing that matters, and defines how we interact with others. Doesn’t that turn us all into Matticus, wandering around with our subscriber numbers hanging out of our trousers (5th comment from the bottom) so everybody can see? Such a mentality is profoundly harmful to the life and energy of the blogosphere – you leave your bigger bloggers paralyzed with angst over whether they’re going to upset someone and your up and coming bloggers get fewer readers because nobody dares actually send them any traffic. I remember one of my final posts – one of my favourite posts to write in recent times, actually – was about the forthcoming changes – “nerfs” - to the heroic dungeons. I wrote it in direct response to a post I read over on Mauradin Musings, and I wrote it specifically to disagree, loudly and aggressively as is my style. Not long after hitting publish I had a little emotional meltdown and wrote to Janyaa to check she wasn’t weeping into her keyboard and sticking pins into a voodoo doll in a sissy robe. Of course she wasn’t. Duh. She was happy for the discussion, and we exchange a few cheerful emails.
And that was the point at which I realised how fucking stupid things had become. That I didn’t dare respond to posts any more. I mean nothing – to my mind – could have been more innocent or more gentle than Larísa quoting Xeppe on the occasion that she did. And yet no. It upset the blogger to the extent that she made her blog private – which, again, was a bit saddening because I always enjoyed Xeppe’s blog. Once more, as Larísa herself says in her comment, this has been chalked up to the long dark shadow of the big blogger. I genuinely don’t understand this. Even at the end of my blogging life, a link from Larísa, or Spinks, or Tobold – even if they weren’t agreeing with me – made my damn day. For that matter I even like seeing that little trackback from Gevlon or Adam calling me out for being a moron, and/or slacker, or some other flavour of idiot, because at least it reminds me I’m living in interesting times. It is discord, not accord, that keeps us honest with ourselves.
The Rules of Engagement
I suppose a thing that we might pick up from my previous point is that I took the trouble to email Janyaa about disagreeing with her. It’s also something that comes up with reference to the Cranky Healer / Anna issue. Here’s Alas on the subject:
There were plenty of other options for that blogger, including emailing Zel or leaving a civil comment with the reasons why they disagreed with Zel’s post
The thing is, (sorry Janyaa) but there’s an extent to which my email was an act of arrant and self-serving hypocrisy, although not consciously of course. What if she had been upset? Would I have taken down the post, moderated my language? Nope, nope, it’s all nope. I’d have said sorry, of course, and emphasized that it wasn’t my intent to cause distress but there was no way on this earth that the best post I’d written for ages was going away. Also I did email her after the fact so, again, it was more of a “I hope to God you’re not going to take this badly” email than a “I sincerely care about your feelings” message.
Okay, I’m over-stating my case here. Of course I sincerely care about the feelings of other bloggers. But there’s a huge difference in emailing someone to keep lines of communication open – I’ve often had email exchanges with bloggers and commenters when discussion has grown heated in public places – and emailing someone in lieu of writing a blog post. I mean they are both personal choices, one is not necessarily more moral than the other. It’s kind of like when you date somebody’s ex – you can, if you care enough about the other person, let them know but you’re not doing anything wrong by dating the ex in the first place. The point here is that not only you do have a right to date someone's ex, you are fully morally justified in doing it.
But many people seem to believe (as Alas suggests above) that Anna SHOULD have done something other than write the blog post she did. By emphasising options other than blogging, Alas seems to be suggesting that it is inherently more moral to discuss points of contention privately rather than publicly – which is not only absurd, because we are all part of a public community, but harmful to that community because it stifles discussion and imposes arbitrary limitations on certain people but not others. Little bloggers, for example, having the freedom to say whatever they like but bigger bloggers restricted to posting things only with permission.
There's a big difference between "it is courteous to tell somebody you intend to do, or have done, something to which they may have an emotional reaction" and "it is morally wrong to do something to which another person may have an emotional reaction without first seeking their permission.” It’s like saying instead of writing a review of Twilight, in which I castigate it for sucking, I should write privately to Stephanie Meyer and tell her I didn’t like it much, on the off-chance a bunch of people who don’t like Twilight either take encouragement from my review.
I know blogging does not have an established code of ethics but I would in no way expect an email notification of another blogger’s disagreement with me. That notification is already built into the system. It’s called a pingback. The “correct” way to respond to a blog post is by writing a blogpost. If someone says something in a public space that you feel needs to be challenged, there is no point in challenging it quietly. If for example someone writes a blogpost that (however inadvertently) encourages griefing, when you challenge it, you want to address that challenge to the people who read the original post and saw it as encouragement to grief. In an extreme case you might feel you have an actual moral imperative to publicly denounce a public statement you consider to be unacceptable – as I believe was the case for Chas during the wow-feminism ruckus. This is not bullying.
The other thing that makes me suspicious of the whole “there are better ways to respond to a blog post than writing a blog post” mentality is that it seems to be one of those rules that applies to certain people in the blogosphere and not others. I mean it’s fairly easy to call out Larísa for being a big meanie because she’s so nice and you know she’ll at least give you the time of day. But would you do that to Gevlon, or Rohan, or Spinks or Ophelie? Well you could try but you’d get laughed out of the house. And I kind of think that’s fair enough.
Don’t Learn to Read, Learn to Write
One of the points Grim mentions in his post is the importance of L2read. Again, perhaps it is because I am accustomed to having to defend what I write, but one of the things I have tried very hard to avoid – not always successfully I’ll be the first to admit – is whinging, and getting defensive, when readers have taken something away from what I have written that I did not intend to say. And to be fair, written communication being what it is, this happens a lot. And, sometimes, yes, the problem is that someone needs to L2R Noob and you’ll find yourself arguing with someone over something you never said, and certainly never meant. But far more important than L2R, to me, is L2W. And I don’t mean putting your commas in the right place, I mean taking responsibility for what you say and how you say. For the implications – intentional or otherwise – of the words you write, in the context you put them. And this isn’t meant to be a lecture. It is a lesson I am, myself, still in the process of learning.
One of the most difficult things, for me, about this particular post is the fact it takes as its starting point the encounter between Xeppe and Larísa. Yes, there is no particular commentary or judgement about the incident itself BUT nevertheless in presenting a discussion about the inherently threatening nature of large blogs to smaller ones it presupposes the fact that smaller bloggers ARE threatened and that this was an example of that in action. The thing is, I’m genuinely not sure smaller blogs are these shy and vulnerable flowers who would rather close down than experience a moment of conflict - many of us, I am sure, respond to the attention of larger blogs with relish. I know I did.
Mainly, however, I can’t help but feel it’s an incredibly bad example to use. Firstly because it’s profoundly unfair on Larísa who has to be the most diplomatic and generous-hearted blogger out there, and secondly because, although poor Xeppe had to deal with some unpleasant fallout (which makes me sad), the disconnect between Larísa’s link and the consequences of it could not have been more marked. I mean Xeppe writes here:
When a big blogger holds up the work of a smaller blogger to ridicule, my experience of what happens is that a whole lot of the readership of the big blog go across and leave comments on the smaller blog.
This is, err, the ridicule in question:
It's a great list and I won't belittle anyone following it, not at all. It was just that it became clear to me how little I have done. Out of 10 possible points of preparation, I failed at 8. Bad, bad Larísa.(take from here)
If you want to see a blogger – size irrelevant – hammering, with and without ridicule, another blogger, you can look at RO Versus Codi or RO Versus Adam, neither of whom, incidentally, have been so traumatised by the experience that they felt the need to stop writing, and neither of whom, incidentally, received the courtesy of a “I’m about to disagree with you loudly” note. With hindsight, I do feel quite bad about how fervently we all disagreed with each other but I don’t think any of us believed we acted immorally, unreasonably or unfairly by blogging about it in the way did. If you want to see the real effect of an internet personality actively rallying people to attack someone else, go and read the comments on Dwism’s post here. If anything, what the Larísa example demonstrates is that you can link to someone with the best will and the most innocent heart in the world and sometimes it’ll just go wrong. Should Larísa really be accountable for her readers just because she has some? No.
Of course, what’s interesting about the whole business is that in choosing to situate the discussion in the context of an accusation of cruelty directed at Larísa, what we have here is an excellent example of a smaller blog – however unintentionally - casting a larger blogger as a bully, admittedly through context and implication rather than directly. And, of course, were Larísa to respond this, or blog about it, I’m sure that would only play into the points made in the post, especially because I imagine some of us might want to go to Larísa's defence. It really is a lose-lose situation for the bigger blogger.
If you don’t want to get hit in the face, step out of the ring
I guess it sounds harsh but, seriously, this is what publication – even publication on the internet – is. Do I think it’s right that it includes people who just want to demean you, ridicule you, criticise you and rip you apart? No, I don’t. But attacking our own, accusing each other of bullying, won’t help with that. Blogging is a choice. It’s worth it until it isn’t.