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The Painful “Art” of Blogging

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Once upon a time, writers and journalists wrote editorials or op-ed pieces for that special section of the paper, and then, if people wished to respond they would write a letter to the editor and hope it would get published.

If the paper was the New York Times or the Washington Post, the chances were, well, slim, while small town papers afforded a better chance that your opinion could be heard; but in all cases the letter writers had to sign their names and addresses and were often called before publication to verify that information (I know, as I published many letters in both newspapers and magazines).

Most people, however, did not respond to an editorial with their own letter to the editor; if they disagreed with the opinion proffered they shook their heads or showed it to their spouse with disgust. If one agreed with the editorial, one often clipped it and mailed it to others of like mind.

All very civilized most of the time, although angry, bizarre, and off-the-point letters did, of course, show up from time to time.

But that was the back in The Day — before computers and emails were ubiquitous. The new form of “letters to the editor” is blogging. Because it’s usually done as a reflex, it is not considered. And so it follows that the level of discourse has seriously deteriorated.

Although I have only been blogging personally for two years, I’ve been reading newspapers online and websites and blogs for many years. Some few of the sites I visit regularly manage, with moderators, to remain (sort of) civil and even stay on topic for more than a comment or two.

But most sites, even those with intelligent information in the blog itself — and there are, fortunately, many of those — quickly veer off topic and just as quickly degenerate into name calling and diatribe, whether political (where I spend most of my time lately) or social (as in who’s doing what to whom and what it is supposed to mean for us, Al Franken).

In addition, anonymity seems to rule with many of the commentators. They use clever, silly, or downright ridiculous pseudonyms to protect their identities, which is one of the main problems with the comments in the first place. Who is that person yelling and screaming in all caps? Who called the blogger a name or made an assumption based on nothing in the article? Who is it that can’t seem to say anything but the same thing over and over and over and over…? And who is that one-note wonder, the one-issue “voter” who needs to publish his screed wherever and whenever possible?

I fear that polite discourse has gone the way of table manners and men removing their caps in restaurants. Polite discussion on issues and facts and information has descended to the netherworld of “my opinion counts as much as yours” (only if one is counting) and “you’re a jerk.” Tiresome. Dispiriting. Depressing.

Part of this, I believe, stems from our unwillingness to consider our own entrenched opinions. Bill Bishop, in his book, The Big Sort, made a lot of sense when he, in an interview on The Daily Show, said that most politicians work their magic by holding up a mirror in front of a group of people so that what they hear being said is what they already believe. As one reviewer of the book put it, “We can no longer even agree on what used to be called facts: Conservatives watch Fox, liberals watch MSNBC, blogs and RSS feeds now make it easy to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit your social values, your musical preferences, your view on every single political issue.”

While he may be reductive, he has a point.

As Bishop points out, many of us, perhaps even most, live near, socialize with, and listen to other like-minded souls, and we are hard pressed to get ourselves around another’s opinion, no matter how much sense it makes. We are also hard pressed to hear our views critiqued, even if the critique seems to have some value.

Are any of us going to change our minds after, say, the age of twenty? Probably not. So what does that mean? No more opinion writing? Or no more publishing of one’s opinions in places where every reader might not agree? Or, just no more reading of anything that doesn’t mirror what we already think?

The closet optimist in me hopes that isn’t true.

Of course, there those reading this who are already girding their loins to call me an elitist or a pompous ass or something even more defamatory. There are those who will write to point out that we live in America, the greatest, most free country in the world, and therefore it is everyone’s right to say whatever he or she wishes, however vituperative, however wrongheaded, however downright nasty. And it is every man’s and woman’s right to say whatever he or she feels anonymously.

The problems with the relatively “open” blogging all over the Internet, and the subsequent online sites for more staid and entrenched news media (Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc., etc.) are therefore two-fold. One can use any sort of pseudonym one wishes and one can yell and scream nonsense and insults at will, at the same time veering far off topic and rendering whatever discussion might have been humanly (and humanely) possible unthinkable. It’s wearying.

What was probably meant to provide an open forum for discussion and opinion has in some cases completely disintegrated into a free-for-all of “opinions,” which we all know are like, well, you know. It’s all fart and shit, with no one taking responsibility for what he says. There is little or no consideration of what one has written before one just hits the “send” button and delivers the screed. Perhaps we would all do well to remember a couple of pieces of advice that I expect we all got from our parents: One, when we are angry, count to ten before responding, and two, when one wishes to write an angry missive, whether on paper or online, one would do well to write the thing and then put it away for a time before sending it out. Then, and only then, should one sign one’s name to it, mail it away, and prepare oneself for a response.

Blogs began as diaries, intensely personal, often sentimental: they referred to events in the diarists' lives and were not open to dissent. Now blogs are often political or social commentary, and it behooves the writer to back up his or her commentary. It also behooves those commentators to do the same, rather than just vent.

So How About a Blogger Code of Behavior?

I propose the following and I encourage those who wish to comment to add to the list, with constructive advice for a more compassionate, reasoned, less hateful, and more rational dialogue:

  1. Do your research. Back it up.
  2. Be prepared for ugly responses but do not succumb to the same name calling.
  3. When commenting, use your own name so that others can know who you are and what you stand for.
  4. Dissent at will but stay on target.
  5. Check your grammar, word usage, spelling, and logic. Do not get so angry that you type quickly and send quickly and wind up looking like an idiot.
  6. Be considerate.
  7. If you only have an opinion, keep it to yourself because you are the only one worthy of hearing such an opinion.
  8. If you have an actual point of view on a matter that actually matters, make it as you would in front of your mother or, say, the P.T.A.
  9. Take copious credit for the quality of your cogency.
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About Lisa Solod

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Interesting article. I think the biggest potential problem of so-called “blogging” though is the way that what was once called “writing” is for the most part reduced to something now called “content” on the internet. Doesn’t really matter how relevant it is to anything, whether it sheds any new light or perspective on a given subject, or even if it is particualarly well-written, just as long as it is “out there” drawing attention, advertising, and traffic.

    I can deal with all the idiots who post comments simply because they enjoy seeing themselves online (even under a fake pseudonym). What I find more troubling is how “quality” is being sacrificed upon the altar of that which draws the most gawkers to the scene of the accident.

    -Glen

  • http://bylightunseenmedia.com Vyrdolak

    I enjoyed your piece, and to a great extent, I agree with you. I was struck by this irony, however. When you write:

    Of course, there those reading this who are already girding their loins to call me an elitist or a pompous ass or something even more defamatory. There are those who will write to point out that we live in America, the greatest, most free country in the world, and therefore it is everyone’s right to say whatever he or she wishes, however vituperative, however wrongheaded, however downright nasty.

    …doesn’t the very fact that so many people write dissenting, if not flaming, comments to blogs prove that people aren’t reading only the material they agree with? I also think that people definitely change their opinions and attitudes after age 20, in fact, throughout their lives. It may be that the people we disagree with don’t change as much as we’d like them to, of course!

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Glenn Boyd. Quality is sacrificed. The idea of writing well is being subverted. Gawkers and their initial reactions abound. Content, alas, is all….

    As for your comment, Vyrdolak, good point. Although I happen to believe that people read blogs that they don’t agree with just to comment flamingly, too much of the time.

    I wish I could agree that people do change their opinions and attitudes after age 20, too, and, granted, some do, although not most. Most seem to stick to what they were taught to believe, or were brought up to think–and too many don’t question those beliefs or opinions when grown and on their own.
    Of course, there is always the possibility that I am wrong:)

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    *Gawker strides on in*

    Sure, one half of me agrees that the internet can be full of unstructured “content” that reads like a ten year old wrote it…But, guess what?! These are the people who embraced the technology. Most of the time I read on this very website that the internet is the total demise of mankind. That digital music could never replace the physical media. That the news isn’t necessarily accurate because we can’t verify the source. Yet,what’s funny is that the majority of the people who complain about quality of blogs are the same people who get offended by technology & don’t find a way to use it to their advantage!

    Of course, this author tries to hide behind some sort of reminiscence of a better time. That the few voices that were heard via two or three channels equate to quality because they were edited & reviewed to please the consumer that purchased said paper. AND that those views were hardly contended because the editors controlled what response letters were published. You still see it nowadays in those finger blackening waste of natural resources. Most of it is a political rant and to one side. Finally, when they get around to any kind of entertainment news, that section is loaded with ads. The few articles there are about as relevant as last month’s blog. We all know that we could easily question the validity of their sources as well because even the well known journalists rush stories to meet quota & drum up ratings!

    So, I don’t see how those Flintstones days were anymore challenging to my opinion than these digital days.

    But, of course, I cannot type as well as most other people to get my point across without offending anyone who isn’t used to getting “real-time” feedback.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    *I’m sorry…Was that off the point & out of context??*

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    cool article! i read something recently about the extended period of transition we’re in where new and “old” media are co-existing…and we don’t really know what things will look like when it’s all over.

    that much is true, i think.

    however, i do think that the conversations and “discourse” that go on in commentary on internet forums (bc included) can be kind of sad. it usually involves the same handful of people flinging the same tired labels and cliches at each other over and over and over and over…..bleah!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/diana_hartman Diana Hartman

    Brian says: Of course, this author tries to hide behind some sort of reminiscence of a better time. That the few voices that were heard via two or three channels equate to quality because they were edited & reviewed to please the consumer that purchased said paper.

    I didn’t interpret the article this way. Your comment sounds like you think editing and reviewing is a bad thing. All the tripe of the Internet would at least be quality tripe, as it were, if it first had to pass through the hands of someone willing to edit or decline the content.

    In the days of old, grotesque syntax was rejected. These days, it’s regarded by some as an art form.

    Perhaps we do subscribe to information that mirrors our beliefs the majority of the time. Perhaps we do the same with the quality of content we’re willing (rather, able) to read. This would certainly explain the rampant literary squalor now available.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Diana,
    I don’t have a problem with the editing process when it is used to fix the grammar of an article. However, I do have a problem with editing when it is used to censor & decline the content.

    The internet may have its fair share of “literary squalor” but at least you actually get to read what people think. The formal outlets are still available but you have a lot more to choose from.

  • http://www.communicateit.co.nz Karen

    I agree with much of the content of this piece … but i also suspect that what you are talking about is to a degree the teething process of our online interactions. At some point, the flamers who simply dissent for the sake of it, will get bored and go away. And those who actually have opinions and points of view to share, who are interested in fairly informed discourse and debate … hopefully will remain, seeing the potential of the net to support change in the world.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    I hope you are right, Karen

  • http://www.blogtap.net Blogger

    Ah, I’ve had this discussion before.

    In my opinion, the internet is the greatest benefactor of the freedom of speech since … the mouth was invented! OF COURSE freedom comes at a price. People have the freedom to kill and we could simply take that away by putting each individual living in the world in individual metal crates. Then they would not be able to kill each other.

    But freedom give more than it takes. Putting up with a negative comment or ones that are just plain asinine is a small price to pay. I still read blogs a hell of a lot.

  • Lisa Solod

    Be that as it may….. anonymous comments which are cruel and asinine seem to have lowered the level of civilized discourse and that is never a good outcome….

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Lisa,

    You wrote an interesting piece – but you did not point out the other side of the coin of the “good old days”. A small élite of “opinion makers” held sway over what was written and said, and published in various media throughout the world, not just merely in the States.

    Here in Israel, where the two or three families control what passes for “jounalism” here, a foreigner, Shel Adelman is being ferociously opposed by the owners of Ma’ariv and Yediot AHronot, and they are trying to shut him down using legislative remedies.

    Yes, you are right about the atrocious manners of the “anonymous” commenters who make drive-by attacks and think that opinion is more important than fact, and with their pathetic use of language, drag written English into the gutter. But that is the natural result of democratizing communications and opening it to the great unwashed – like me. Centuries ago, Roman grammarians complained about how people said “oclus” in place of “oculus”. Living languages change and manners and customs change as well….

  • Lisa Solod

    I don’t disagree, Ruvy, that censorship or an elite being the only ones to have an opinion is wrong…. I have no truck with people who write and blog intelligently, no matter who they are (what class, what income). What I do take exception to is the commenters…those mean-spirited, nasties who decide that under the cloak of some stupid anonymous name, they can be vile attack dogs. They don’t write anything of substance or offer an alternative opinion. They just decide they are valid critics who have the “right” to voice whatever ugly crackpot criticism of the blogger or writer that they choose. The immediacy of the internet allows them to vent their spleen without thinking or considering.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    The immediacy of the internet allows them to vent their spleen without thinking or considering.

    and sadly, spleen-venting, repeated often enough, becomes established ‘fact’.

  • Jordan Richardson

    I think we run the risk of blaming the medium for the message. Sure, the internet “allows” people that we otherwise may have had the luxury of ignoring to get their bits and pieces in. But it also allows for a whole lot more by way of research, information and social interaction.

    People should focus on educating themselves more, sure, but that’s just not going to happen no matter where the technology goes or what technology does or does not exist. It’s just human nature; we love to spout off.

  • Lisa Solod

    You have a point, Jordan, but I am not as optimistic as you. If people spent more time getting information and thinking about it before they spouted off, we would be in a much better place. Everyone seems to think that their opinion is fact, yes, Mark.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I don’t think Jordan disagrees with you, Lisa, concerning the human prospect. Technology has never made a person, just as the availability of books never made one into a reader.

  • Lisa Solod

    So, true, Roger.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video/feature/conspiracy-theory-with-jesse-ventura/ Alan Kurtz

    Lisa, you certainly practice what you preach. Unless the date stamps associated with comments to this blog are awry, you counted to far more than ten before responding to Karen (#9). Between her 88-word comment and your 6-word response, FOURTEEN MONTHS elapsed. Now that’s what I call carefully considered.

    It also illustrates how inapt is your advice: “When one wishes to write an angry missive, whether on paper or online, one would do well to write the thing and then put it away for a time before sending it out.” As applied to the Internet, that’s just plain silly. Let’s say you’re a child attending the carnival. When you spot the merry-go-round, your eyes grow big as saucers. But instead of spending your quarter to ride it, you follow Mom’s advice. You run home and give the idea a tremendous amount of thought. Fourteen months later, you decide to ride the carousel. But of course by then the carny has long since moved on, and you’ve forever missed your chance to sit astride that painted wooden pony that turned your eyes to dishware. Mom, ever the fount of wisdom, says, “Don’t fret, dear. Now you’re big enough to visit the amusement park. Imagine the fun!” So off you go. Their carousel is packed with little kids years younger than you, so you skip that attraction. Instead what catches your saucer eyes is the Tunnel of Love. This, however, has even more serious implications than the carousel, so naturally you run home to ponder every possible ramification. Fourteen months later, you decide it’s OK, but by then the Tunnel of Love seems juvenile and you’re no longer interested. Lisa, a person can waste her entire lifetime deferring gratification this way. And, as I can testify from experience, posting an angry missive online is gratifying.

    I also take issue with points 7 and 8 of your Blogger Code of Behavior. “If you only have an opinion,” you advise, “keep it to yourself…. If you have an actual point of view on a matter that actually matters, make it as you would in front of your mother….” Lisa, who decides when a mere opinion becomes an actual point of view? That’s the stage where Mom with her golden homilies begins to resemble Joseph Goebbels. Thanks, but no thanks.

    Finally, you missed the point made by my friend Mark Saleski (#15). “Sadly,” Mark commented, “spleen-venting, repeated often enough, becomes established ‘fact’.” To which you replied (#17), “Everyone seems to think that their opinion is fact, yes, Mark.”

    Saleski is sometimes esoteric, and I’m not authorized to interpret his words. But his meaning here seems clear. He’s not referring to people accepting their own opinions as fact. He’s talking about spleen-venting becoming established “fact” across the Internet. And that’s where I differ with him. In your blog, you write: “It behooves the writer to back up his or her commentary. It also behooves those commentators to do the same, rather than just vent.” Mark’s comment falls into just that category. I’m sure that unsupported rants have been accepted as fact. But I imagine such cases are infinitesimal compared to the enormous totality of rants that have appeared on the Internet. To me it’s an acceptable tradeoff. In exchange for the Internet’s unprecedented freedom, we must be vigilant lest rare cases of rant become accepted fact. In any event, before we accept Mark’s allegation, Lisa, shouldn’t we hold him to your high standard of backing up his commentary rather than just venting?