Weblogging is for winners

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Marc Canter called me a couple of months ago about a new concept he was working that would help webloggers make money. The concept became reality today, as several people started making 800.00US a month to promote a new CMS called Marqui.

When Marc and I talked, I was ambivalent about the idea and whether it would work. Ben Hammersley has been a sponsored site for some time, but it worked with Ben because he could be enthusiastic about the products of the company that was paying him bucks. Ben likes cigars, and the ambiance associated with cigar smoking, so being sponsored by a cigar company suited his site. I remember reading one of his cigar reviews and being surprised at how much I enjoyed it, precisely because he does feel enthusiastic about cigars.

But I don’t know of many people excited about Content Management Systems, or CMS. I’ve used too many commercial variations of these product to have anything even remotely resembling enthusiasm for them, myself. And if you couldn’t be enthusiastic about the product, wouldn’t the sponsorship come off like the old Geritol television show sponsorships of the past? You know the kind, where the host would stop whatever he or she was doing, plant a fake, bright smile on their face and extol the virtues of a product that would re-build tired blood?

Still, there is a great deal of discussion about the ‘purity’ of this environment and compromising the faith with our readers and that sort of thing, all of which gives me a rash. It’s as if weblogging is for winners only — people who are supremely successful and need no other help; or independently wealthy, and couldn’t use a few extra bucks. Let me tell you something: only the rich can be Saints, and the rich weren’t Saints to become that way.

Or as Alan, Head Lemur, wrote:

This is going to facilitate a dialog, between the company, me and most importantly you. They are paying us for this. They are paying me to tell them and everyone else who reads me what I think. It may not be what they want to hear. This is a risk they are taking.

I do not need the money, I have a day job.
Can I use the money? You bet!

Here are my risks.

Will I be regarded as a whore for taking money?
I already have. And if I am successful I will become a call girl.

Isn’t that ‘call boy’, Alan?

Can I use the money? Damn straight. I had a hard time making enough money to keep this site going, without having to pass the hat not once, but twice in the last few years. So which is better, and more dignified? The hooker on the corner, or the beggar across the street from her?

Still, I write tips and techniques and help folks and I like to think that when the people have contributed to keep the site going, it’s because I’ve provided something that’s been helpful a time or two. But it would be nice to be able to do this _without_ having to pass the hat.

*sob*

(Of course, what I really need to do is finish my own weblogging tool, Wordform, and then I will automatically become both wealthy and hugely popular.)

So what’s stopping me from tugging at Marc’s shirt and saying, “Hey buddy of mine, can I get back into this deal?” It’s that old Geritol thing, I can’t get it out of my mind.

Stowe Boyd covered some of this in a writing about the Marqui Effect, saying:

Note: I am not a purist who turns away from ads. On the contrary. But I think there needs to be a clear separation from content and commerce. I don’t say good things about Silkroad just because they are sponsoring my blog and the True Voice seminar series. Their ad occupies the upper right rectangle on the blog, and by all means, click through sometime and see what they have to offer. And if they don’t get enough traffic, I am sure that they will put their ad dollars elsewhere. But I am not being paid to write about Silkblogs once per week. And that distinction, although nuanced, is important.

Mitch Ratcliff responded to Boyd’s assertion, writing:

Of course Corante has incentives to increase click throughs, because most ad programs are priced based on click performance. Sorry, but the condescension here is just annoying, since the substance of the Marqui agreement seems to be identical to the ads placed on Stowe’s site, from the simple click through on the SilkRoad ad to the “free” seminar offer (Corante presumably gets some kind of compensation for promoting the conference, even if it is sponsorship placement at the event) that are clearly compensated placements or else they would not be on the page. I’ve been a publisher and editor and trade show producer, so let’s step back from the ledge (or “Get Real,” as Stowe’s blog is called) right here and now: Admit that publishers, especially early-stage publishing companies, exist on in-kind trades. If these are not “not evil,” how are they qualitatively different than what I am doing in relation to Marqui? I put a sponsorship graphic on my site and say thanks once a week, creating a kind of periodicity in the appearance of the company’s name in the blog, just as Corante creates a special section sponsored by Zero Degrees that features fresh links.

Ratcliff’s point is good, as is his earlier notes in the post about how at one time he used to make a lot more money for his writing. Hey, if a few bucks can help Ratcliff and others continue writing, where’s the bad?

Boundaries. I’m hearing people say, “boundaries”. As if Technorati and Google aren’t already placing boundaries in this game.

From the Wikipedia article on the history of commercial television:

In the earliest days of television, it was often difficult to perceive the boundary between the actual television programs and the commercials. Many of the earliest television shows were sponsored by single companies, who inserted their names and products into the shows as much as possible. One of the most famous examples of early television broadcasting was Texaco Star Theater, the variety show that made Milton Berle a household name. Texaco not only included its own brand name as part of the show, it also made certain that Texaco employees were prominently featured during the course of the show, often appearing as smiling “guardian angels” who performed good deeds in one way or another, while the Texaco musical logo would play in the background.

I know Alan, aka Head Lemur, and I have no doubts that he wouldn’t be corrupted for a mere 800.00 a month. A couple of grand now…

Seriously, unlike the television shows of yore, the amount of money at stake, and the number of people involved is going to limit how much the Marqui Effect will impact on the weblogging environment. As for me, personally, at a minimum it doesn’t impact on how much I trust the webloggers involved. If I trusted the weblogger before, I still do now. If I didn’t know the weblogger before now, I don’t have an increased sense of trust because they’re, like wow, sponsored.

In comments to this post at the Kitchen, I wrote:

I have known some people in weblogging for years. I trust them and their judgment. If they were to tell me that a product is great, I would trust what they said. Even if I found out later they’re being sponsored by the company who sold the product, I would still trust what they said. I would be surprised, but my trust would still be in place.

But, and here’s the kicker, the people who I trust and who I’ve known for years would not, I feel, do such a thing. They would either tell me they’re being sponsored or make note of this in their recommendation. So in a way, my trust is based on their past behavior, which would preclude the need for the trust anyway, because their behavior is such that they would issue a disclaimer.

After some thought, though, I realized that even if I trusted another weblogger, and there are some I have known for years now, and do trust implicitly, I would still not likely act on just that trust, alone.

If it comes to buying a product, especially something fairly expensive, I research reviews at publications and read opinions in forums and scrutinize the specs in addition to listening to those I know from weblogging. I would value the other weblogger’s opinion, highly in fact; but would also understand that they bring into their discussion all sorts of assumptions about what is a ‘good’ product that may not agree with mine. A case in point is my recent purchase of a photo printer — I had advice from several people I know and trust, but ultimately made my decision based on which printer fit my needs the best.

And if others are more easily influenced? Well, I guess they’ll have to find room for their boxed CMS software — perhaps next to the Chia pet, or up against the Ginzoo knives.

Sponsorship isn’t the Titanic event of weblogging; our ‘purity’ is not compromised because some people are selling some space and words in their weblogs. Still, those webloggers who protest that being sponsored in this way will have no effect on them whatsoever are being idealistic and even a little naive.

Becoming sponsored does impact on you. You will be made aware of it each week as you write your little thank-you note to Marqui. You will see it every time you access your site and the first thing you see is the largish “Sponsored by Marqui” graphic. Your readers will be aware of it, and it will, even subtly, alter their perceptions of you and your writing. This may not be bad — in fact, you may get increased respect for swinging such a good deal. But your relationship with your readers will be different.

Eventually, the Marqui Effect could impact how you perceive your own space. Being hired to write an article for O’Reilly or weblog posts at a Marqui weblog, still leaves you your space to do whatever you want in it: to write obscene material, and be hateful all you want; or write your most intimate thoughts, which could eventually be equated one in the same. You may find yourself hesitating, even a moment, before you put down those words.

Or maybe you’ll continue just as you are, sane or not. Who knows? Me? I’m still working through that “weblogging is for winners” thing–but I think he or she who has the cutest kitten picture, or the most lovely poem, or is the most amazingly well read and erudite, or can bake a mean loaf of bread, be the best friend, or is the biggest pain the butt (that’s the rest of you), is a winner in my book. But then, I’m a begger on the corner, so what do I know?

I guess only time will tell what impact the Marqui Effect has. Stay tuned, and we’ll return after a word from our sponsor…

update

Marc was kind enough to extend the offer to me once more, and I was tempted. And it was tough to decline, but decline I must. I didn’t know that Marqui used to be Maestro, and Maestro is an ASP (Application Service Provider) — a service that you subscribe to, to manage your content; not a product you install and own.

It’s comparable to using Blogger or TypePad to manage your weblogs, rather than WordPress or Movable Type. This isn’t bad, but it does make you dependent on the service, and that’s something I’ve been rather vocally against for some time. However, I also know service-based products can be faster and easier to use for non-techs.

Personally though, regardless of subscription service or installed product. I think most CMS (and that’s Content Management System, no matter what word games are played) are bloated, over-priced, and over-engineered. They’re the primary reason why I now only work with lightweight, modular, open, PHP-based or comparable technologies. They’re why I’ve rejected ‘frameworks’ or anything of that kind — because the clients of the software more often than not buy into systems more complicated than they need, too costly to maintain, and usually dead-ended proprietary to boot. And I helped by supporting these products.

It would be tough for me to endorse a CMS, but to endorse a centralized one? No, just cannot do it. And endorsement of the product is what this is about. Reading the contract that the webloggers have to sign with Marqui, the following spells out a direct endorsement of the product:

It is our desire that acceptance of this agreement reflects your basic confidence in the product and that it serves as an endorsement on your part of the Marqui product.

I can’t help thinking it would send confusing signals to spend three months being negative about a product that supposedly you endorse.

However, just because I am burned out on CMS and large-scale, complex, proprietary, centralized applications doesn’t mean others should be. Each of us has unique interests and challenges, and one woman’s corrosive drain cleaner is another woman’s fragrant tea.

In other words, lots of really smart and intelligent people like CMS, and have excellent reasons to do so. This, then, could be a very good deal for them, and for those of you who have gotten the golden goose for the next three months, I am glad for you.

And if I were to beg on the corner for alms to support this site again–which I don’t plan on doing but lord knows I change my mind more than my underwear– but if I were, then you’re more than entitled to a ‘neener neener’ all the way to the bank.

But since I’m not being paid, consider this my last word on Marqui.

Architeuthis Dux


Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep,
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
Above his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green,
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by men and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The Kraken — Albert, Lord Tennyson

The Giant Squid

The next time you sink your teeth into some calimari think of this: The giant squid has been measured to a length of 60 feet, and weighs in the neighborhood of between 1 and 2 tons. It has eight arms, each lined with two rows of suckers. The giant squid also has the largest eyes of any known creature, over a foot in diameter.

If the giant squid is like its smaller cousins, it is a predator. To make the giant squid an ideal predator, its suckers are ringed with a hard, jagged edge, resembling teeth, in order to better enable the squid to hold onto its prey. Additionally, two longer tentacles are also used to help move the prey to the large, sharp parrot-like beak.

Needless to say, you will not sink your teeth into this creature without a fight.

The Stuff of Legends

I looked in my turn, and could not repress a gesture of disgust. Before my eyes was a horrible monster worthy to figure in the legends of the marvelous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes.

So says the Naturalist, in the Jules Vern classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 18. Though this book is a work of fiction, the squid encounter that Vern wrote about was based on fact, or at least a story that Vern heard about at the time. The story states that a French naval ship was attacked by a giant squid in 18611.

Since earliest times, there have been legends of sea serpents and large, many-armed creatures attacking boats. One of the fiercest creatures was the legendary beast known as the Kraken.

Now, modern belief is that the kraken was a giant squid and that the size of the creature has grown through numerous re-tellings of ancient stories; from creatures of 50 feet to creatures the size of islands.

A Norwegian Bishop, one Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, wrote in his journals about the Kraken and mentions the size of the creature as being one and one-half miles long 3! More recently, another eyewitness account of the size of the giant squid is given by an A.G. Starkey, who was stationed on a British trawler in World War. Starkey tells of being on deck in the evening when he noticed a light in the water next to the boat. As he tells it, “As I gazed, fascinated, a circle of green light glowed in my area of illumination. This green unwinking orb I suddenly realized was an eye. The surface of the water undulated with some strange disturbance. Gradually I realized that I was gazing at almost point-black range at a huge squid.”

According to the Starkey account, he walked along the boat, measuring the giant quid and realized that it was as long as the boat he was on. It is at this point that accounts may differ. According to a Discovery Channel special on the Giant Squid (telecast July 31, at 8:00 pm in a show titled “X Creatures”), the boat Starkey was on measured 60 feet. According to the account given in the Museum of Unnatural Mystery4, where I pulled the quote, the boat measured 175 feet!

Eyewitness accounts of the size of the giant squid are matched by tales of squid behavior, specifically stories of squids attacking ships.

As said earlier, Jules Verne based his squid fight in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on an eyewitness account of a giant squid attacking a French naval ship1. Another account of a giant squid attacking a ship is given in the logs of the Brunswick, a Norwegian Trawler. In the logs an account is given of a giant squid attacking this large ship three different times, before the squid finally slid into the ship’s propellers and was killed.

A third account tells of nuclear submarine losing the use of its sonar equipment on the ship’s maiden voyage. When the submarine returned to port, the Navy found that the covering on the Sonar had been torn lose and that hooks remained in the material, hooks from a giant squid.

Other accounts tell of giant squid grabbing men from the waters as ships were sunk in World War I and II, and also of the giant squid attacking small fishing boats. Two South African lighthouse workers reported in 1966 about seeing a giant squid wrapped around a baby whale, in a ferocious fight, with the baby whale surfacing and being pulled back under before it finally stopped rising to the surface4

So, are there giant squid lurking off our coasts that reach a size of 150 feet and that pull folks off boats? Well, behind every tale, there is a seed of truth, and now it’s time to take a look at what we do know about the giant squid.

What We Think We Know

Amid rumor and scant eyewitness accounts, we have little knowledge of the giant squid and its behavior. Giant squid have washed up on shore sporadically so we have had a chance to examine dead specimens. We also know that the giant squid forms part of the diet for toothed whales such as the sperm whale. Outside of that, though, we have little knowledge of these of the largest known invertebrate. We have never successfully viewed the giant squid in its natural environment, and we have never had a chance to examine a living specimen. But what we do know makes this an incredibly interesting creature.

First of all, when discussing giant squid, most folks are discussing the squid known as Architeuthis Dux. There are other large species of squid, some of which have been seen in the wild. For instance, the Navy provides an audio account of an encounter between a robotic research submersible and a variety of squid known as Moroteuthis. In the account, the squid was six feet in length5. Compared to its larger cousin, though, Moroteuthis is pretty small: Architeuthis Dux, or the Giant Squid by its popular name, has been measured at close to 60 feet in length.

The first recorded physical record of the giant squid was made by a Reverend Moses Harvey in Newfoundland, based on a dead giant squid that had been caught by local fishermen. Dead giant squid had been washed up on shore before, but this was the first time a person had taken samples of the squid, and made scientific observations of the creature — due to the foresight demonstrated by Rev. Harvey as he sent the creature to Yale University for study6.

Since that time, more creatures have been washed on shore or been pulled up, dead, in fishing nets. However, no live giant squid has been captured, nor has one been seen in its native element. Most of what is known about giant squid has been derived from these specimens and from the remains of giant squid specimens found in the stomachs of whales, primarily sperm whales.

Consider the giant squid: the largest size of the giant squid is between 60-70 feet as determined from pieces of the creatures that have been found7. It should weigh in at close to 1 to 2 tons. In addition to its large size, the giant squid also has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, with each larger than your typical dinner plate!

The giant squid’s territory is in the depths of the ocean, up to 3000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in a world that is as foreign and deadly to us as is the vacuum of space8. It, just like other squid, does not live on the ocean floor, as an octopus does, but lives, instead, between the surface and the bottom, a state easily maintained by its natural buoyancy.

In addition to its size and habitat, the giant squid’s physical makeup also differs from the squid normally consumed by people: instead of sodium chloride in its system, biologists have found ammonium chloride. Snacking on Architeuthis would be similar to sucking on a bottle of your favorite ammonia floor cleaner, without the lemon scent. Nummy.

Other than these small differences, the giant squid is similar to other species of squid. It has a mantle, which is where its internal organs are found. Along the length of the mantle is a funnel, used for expelling waste, water, and for locomotion10 — the squid ejects water through the funnel to push it along the water.

The giant squid has eight arms, each containing several suckers; to make the suckers even more interesting, the edges of the suckers have a jagged set of “teeth”11 to help the squid grasp prey.

The giant squid also has two longer feeding tentacles used to push food into the squid’s mouth, which resembles a parrot’s beak. A large parrot. A large beak. It also can squirt ink to confuse predators, matching its smaller cousins capability 12.

Other than these facts about the squid’s physical makeup, little is known about how the squid acts in its environment, a void that scientists have been trying to fill for the last several years.

In Search of…

There have been numerous attempts to study giant squid in its natural environment. Two expeditions have been sent to Kaikoura Canyon, off of New Zealand, the first in 199713, and the second of which occurred in February and March of 199914. Both of these expeditions were under the leadership of Dr. Clyde Roper from the Smithsonian Museum, probably the world’s leading expert on the giant squid. He is also one of the few people to actually taste a sample of giant squid, and it is from his reaction that I pull my “ammonia without the lemon scent” taste description.

The Kairkoura Canyon is considered a favorable spot for finding the giant squid because several specimens have been found by fishermen in the area, and sperm whales also like to hunt in the area — a good indication as sperm whales feed on giant squid.

While neither expedition was able to capture images of the giant squid, neither trip was considered a failure due to the other information the scientists were able to find, and the observations they were able to make. In addition, during the trip in 1999, Dr. Roper was able to examine a captured, dead giant squid that was in very good shape, something that doesn’t always happen when squid are caught up in fishing nets as the creatures are very fragile.

Using manned submersibles isn’t the only approach to filming giant squids. Another approach used whales, with scientists attaching video cameras to whales before they begin their hunting dives. I have seen these films, and though they haven’t, yet, been successful (the cameras tend to get knocked off by other whales), this approach is an innovative effort17.

Robotic submersibles have also been used to try and capture images of the giant squid, including the MIT Sea Grant Autonomous underwater robot16. Unfortunately, all of these efforts have not succeeded in filming an adult giant squid in its natural habitat.

However, folks like Dr. Roper aren’t giving up in their efforts. Dr. Roper is already talking about an expedition back to Kairkoura in the Spring of 2000.

Unfortunately, the 2000 expedition wasn’t successful.

So What About the Attacks?

One major question that remains about the giant squid is its behavior; specifically, would the giant squid attack boats and people. The more I learn about this creature, the more I wonder whether the giant squid was attacking boats and people as food sources — or perhaps just trying to find a ride home.

The giant squid inhabits that nether region of the ocean that is hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface but not at the bottom of the ocean. Its entire physical makeup is suited specifically to this environment. The main reason that the giant squid has been found dead and washed up on shore is most likely because of clashing ocean streams, cold water meeting warm water.

The giant squid lives in cold water that can get trapped above a layer of warm water. This pushes the poor creature to the surface. The squid’s natural buoyancy makes it difficult for it to sink beneath this warm water, and I imagine the hostile surface area weakens the giant squid to a point of desperation. So, what’s a good way to return to the depths? Why, hitch a ride on one creature it knows dives to the depths: whales. And since boats can look like whales…

Now, attacking a submarine as a food source makes a bit more sense, as these craft are much closer to the giant squid’s preferred environment than a boat on the surface of the water. However, a submarine would strongly resemble a whale, a creature the squid knows it can’t beat, so it’s hard for me to believe that the squid would attack a naval submarine because it considers it “food”.

As for giant squids attacking a whale, a creature the same size as it but weighing many, many times more than the squid — again, this doesn’t make sense unless the squid is desperately hungry. We know, though, that a giant squid defends itself from the feeding whale, which is why there are squid sucker scars found on whales, but the giant squid wouldn’t have a chance against an adult whale. However, it might have a fighting chance against a smaller, juvenile whale, which would explain the sighting of a young whale fighting with the squid, and the squid shown at the surface mentioned by the lighthouse men earlier — the giant squid was still wrapped around the young whale in combat, and the whale dragged the creature to the surface. Going back to my original hypothesis about why a giant squid would grab a boat, the giant squid attached to the young whale is not going to let go when it’s on the surface. Hence, the look of a battle.

Okay, so my guess is just that, a guess, and most likely not an accurate guess at that. But I can’t help thinking its a better interpretation of the boat attacks then the giant squid leaving its perfect little world to venture to the surface, an almost guaranteed act of death for the squid, just to nosh on a tasty new takeout.

The truth of giant squid behavior is out there, waiting for folks like Dr. Roper to find.

Updated for 2004

The majority of giant squid research is moving, more and more, to Australia and New Zealand. In particular, one of the leading researchers now is Dr. Stephen O’Shea at Auckland University of Technology.

In 2002, he managed to grab photos of baby Architeuthis dux, and even keep a few alive for a short period of time for study. (Read a lovely New Yorker magazine article on Dr. O’Shea.)

O’Shea was also the one to tentatively identify the new species of giant squid discovered recently (“giant squid” is really a category of squid, rather than any one species), calling it Colossal Squid, or by its scientific name, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni.

The Colossal is an amazing find, and may actually be the squid at the root of so many stories we hear. However, we’ll never know for sure until we can see it, as well as its cousin, Architeuthis, alive, adult, and in their native habitat.

So even now, the search continues…

The Giant Squid is found

Cephalopod enthusiasts were ecstatic when an excellent video of a giant squid was made after great effort.

Photo of Squid, (c) National Resource Center for Cephalopods2

References:

Don’t just read about the Kraken — hear Chris Hall recite the famous Tennyson poem at the BBC Nature web site.

1 The Smithsonian has an article of Dr. Clyde Roper that discusses, among other things, the french battle with a giant squid in 1861.

2 Image from National Resource Center for Cephalopods.

3 The tale of the Norwegian Bishop and the mile wide kracken comes from the Museum of Unnatural Mystery’s Kraken page.

Image of Kraken from Museum of Unnatural Mystery3

4 Read accounts of the giant squid at the Museum of Unnatural Mystery’s Giant Squid page.

5 Sorry, dead link

6 Read about Rev. Harvey’s squid and other interesting information at the excellent Ocean Planet: In Search of Giant Squid from NASA and the Smithsonian.

7 Read the Squid Educational Page at Chalk Hills Educational Resources.

8 Check out the How Deep can they go page at Ocean Planet — very well done!

Early illustration of giant squid, by Professor A.E. Verrill of Yale, from Ocean Planet6.

9 Diagram of Giant Squid at Ocean Planet. For fun, also check out a robotic version of the giant squid at The Tech’s RobotZoo.

10> Again from the RobotZoo, the mechanics of funnel locomotion.

11 Photo of sucker teeth from the Ocean Planet.

12 See a video of a squid using its ink defense at the Ocean Planet.

13 Read about the 1997 Expedition to Kaikoura, at the National Geographic Web site.

14 Read about the 1999 Expedition to Kaikoura at Ocean Planet/Smithsonian.

15 A day in the logs of the second Kaikoura expedition, Setting up for a dive.

16 Discussion of the use of the MIT Sea Grant underwater robot at MIT.

17 Read an article on the use of Whales to film giant squid.

18 Complete text of the translated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne — from the Jules Vern Collection.

Photo of submersible used to search for giant squid in 1999 expedition, NIWA/NASA15.

Also check out the The Octopus News Magazine Online.

Me and Emily: Sweet Whispers of the Betrayer

Did Emily Dickinson mind that only eleven of her works were published during her lifetime? From her letters, one would assume that she didn’t because she talked about family and friends and seemed content. For all the talk about her being reclusive, she did have the close proximity of her beloved brother and sister all her life, in addition to her long correspondence and relationship with friends and other family members.

Yet what of Emily’s letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his Letter to a Young Contributor? To his challenge to young poets, she wrote:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?

The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.

Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you.

I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.

With this letter she also enclosed four poems: I’ll tell you how the Sun rose, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers, The Nearest Dream recedes unrealized, and We play at paste:

We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,

And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics
Practising sands.

It’s difficult not to think that someone who writes, Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? is indifferent to what others would perceive of her work. However, one extremely thoughtful paper that I found at Kangnam University in South Korea, states that Dickinson never wanted to be published. What she wanted from Higginson was permission not to publish, to quiet the voices of those who hounded her to send in her work. This is somewhat supported by the fact that, with one exception, the poems she did publish were sent to the publishers without her permission.

Higginson, began a many year correspondence with Emily after that unusual opening, becoming one of her most cherished friends. Yet read what he writes about his initial reaction to Emily’s letter:

The letter was postmarked “Amherst,” and it was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town. Yet it was not in the slightest degree illiterate, but cultivated, quaint, and wholly unique. Of punctuation there was little; she used chiefly dashes, and it has been thought better, in printing these letters, as with her poems, to give them the benefit in this respect of the ordinary usages; and so with her habit as to capitalization, as the printers call it, in which she followed the Old English and present German method of thus distinguishing every noun substantive. But the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature. It proved, however, that she had written her name on a card, and put it under the shelter of a smaller envelope inclosed in the larger; and even this name was written–as if the shy writer wished to recede as far as possible from view–in pencil, not in ink. The name was Emily Dickinson.

And it was from this reaction that Higginson recommended to Emily that she consider changing the form of her poems to fit the accepted patterns of the day; to ‘regularize’ them, as it has been termed.

Emily’s response back was a letter that contained the fateful sentence, Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed. Taken in the context of the entire letter, it seems more optimistic than not but looked at in its singularity and we can see a finality to Emily’s dreams of publication — instead of embracing her form and publishing her work, Higginson had recommended that she remove those distinctive aspects of her writing.

Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed.

This sentence takes on a new dimension when one looks at her earlier publishing experience. Her first published work was a mock Valentine called “Magnum bonum”, sent without her permission to the Amherst College Indicator by her close friend (and one of the many supposed loves of her life) Ben Newton. The gratification of publication was somewhat lessened when Emily saw that they had corrected her punctuation.

Her second publication, again a mock valentine, but this time a poem, “Sic Transit”, was sent without her knowledge to the newspaper, the “Springfield Republican”. Again the work was published anonymously, and the introduction was flattering. Again, though, the paper ‘regularized’ Emily’s work.

This was to continue with all of Emily’s works up until she wrote her first letter to Higginson, and on receiving his recommendation to alter her writing style, she responds with, “Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed.”

I worked for chaff and earning Wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had Fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted Wheat and hated Chaff
And thanked the ample friend –

Wisdom is more becoming viewed
At distance than at hand.

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If Emily but put her mind to observing proper form, she could have been famous within her lifetime. Her choosing not to do so was a source of frustration to many of those around her, including Higginson, who would write of another poem sent to him:

Here was already manifest that defiance of form, never through carelessness, and never precisely from whim, which so marked her. The slightest change in the order of word–thus, “While yet at school, a girl”–would have given her a rhyme for this last line; but no; she was intent upon her thought, and it would not have satisfied her to make the change.

When viewing Emily Dickinson in a modern context, I can’t help thinking that she would look upon the Creative Commons Licenses with horror. After working so hard to maintain the nature of her work, to then freely allow someone else to alter her work based on their own artistic interpretation? Impossible? Unthinkable!

Even slight changes in punctuation would leave her feeling both angered, and betrayed. She would never understand. As she wrote back to Higginson in her third letter:

If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would forsake me then. My barefoot rank is better.

You think my gait “spasmodic.” I am in danger, sir. You think me “uncontrolled.” I have no tribunal.

Would you have time to be the “friend” you should think I need? I have a little shape: it would not crowd your desk, nor make much racket as the mouse that dents your galleries.

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Some — Work for Immortality –
The Chiefer part, for Time –
He — Compensates — immediately –
The former — Checks — on Fame –

Slow Gold — but Everlasting –
The Bullion of Today –
Contrasted with the Currency
Of Immortality –

A Beggar — Here and There –
Is gifted to discern
Beyond the Broker’s insight –

One’s — Money — One’s — the Mine –

In many ways, Emily’s refusal to conform in writing style was of a piece with her defiance against the Church; her refusal to be ‘born again’ as it were, manifested in some of her most satirical, and brilliant, work.

Now I lay thee down to Sleep-
I pray the Lord they Dust to keep-
And if thou live before thou wake-
I pray the Lord thy Soul to make-

While away at school, she was the only student who would not conform to the accepted religious beliefs of the time and was marked so. Later at home, all around her those she loved and admired succumbed to the same church she could not accept, until even the mildest reference of it would invoke her wrath. She and her brother and sister received a letter from a cousin that spoke glowingly of the Church, and her brother had to reply that it would be best that any correspondence of this nature be addressed only to him and Vinnie, because the topic would drive Emily into a rage.

Thus the brother who was always Emily’s most trusted confident, became the first of many who would act in Emily’s interests, though the act would itself seal and set Emily’s status of Outsider.

God gave a Loaf to every Bird –

But just a Crumb — to Me –
I dare not eat it — tho’ I starve –
My poignant luxury –

To own it — touch it –
Prove the feat — that made the Pellet mine –

Too happy — for my Sparrow’s chance –
For Ampler Coveting –

It might be Famine — all around –
I could not miss an Ear –
Such Plenty smiles upon my Board –
My Garner shows so fair –

I wonder how the Rich — may feel –
An Indiaman — An Earl –
I deem that I — with but a Crumb –
Am Sovereign of them all –

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Emily Dickinson was an explorer in her youth, vivacious and outgoing. She once joked in a letter about her ‘devastating beauty’, and later at school would compose letters that were signed by all her friends. But her writing, as with her views on religion, would set her apart, and over time, the adventurer would withdraw ever inward.

Susie–

You will forgive me, for I never visit. I am from the fields, you know, and while quite at home with the Dandelion, make but a sorry figure in a Drawing–room–Did you ask me out with a bunch of Daisies, I should thank you, and accept–but with Roses-“Lilies”-“Solomon” himself-suffers much embarrassment! Do not mind me Susie – If I do not come with my feet, in my heart I come-talk the most, and laugh the loudest-stay when all the rest have gone-kiss your cheek, perhaps, while those honest people quite forget you in their Sleep!

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However, the world of words was still Emily’s and she continued to write her poems (sewed into little booklets known as fascicles and stored away, secret from prying eyes), and her letters to friends. She put much of herself in her writing, trusting the confidence of the recipient, because, as she noted in her letter to Higginson “…honor is its own pawn.”

But Emily’s reliance on Higginson’s confidence was misplaced. He would share her letters with his friends, going so far once as to take her work and her letters to a meeting of women scholars, trusting that to keep the writing anonymous would not be a breach of honor. More, he called her his “partially cracked poetess at Amherst”, and an act of fun among his intimate acquaintances was to emulate Emily’s writing style in writing letters to each other.

Look back on Time, with kindly eyes –
He doubtless did his best –
How softly sinks that trembling sun
In Human Nature’s West –

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We talk from time to time about the animosity with which we write about each other, in postings in our weblogs and in comments or elsewhere. We cluck our tongues and go, ‘Tsk, tsk’ at the act and condemn those who would speak so bluntly. But consider the alternative–that the words of fun or condescension, delight or despair are hidden; whispered words just beyond our hearing. No harm you might think if you don’t hear the words and are not impacted by them. However, no matter how skilled we are at writing, we are not so skilled at disseminating, and the words will eventually bleed through–a half-understood inside joke, or a knowing wink in writing.

I can think of few things more painful, or more betraying, and I don’t have half the sensitivity that Emily had. Or her perception with words. Emily must have known.

They might not need me yet they might
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight

A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity

A few years before her death, her oldest nephew died, and two month’s later Emily’s brother Austin, began an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, an act that Emily felt painfully and deeply because of her love for her sister-in-law, Susan, and her esteem for her brother.

Mine Enemy is growing old –
I have at last Revenge –
The Palate of the Hate departs –
If any would avenge

Let him be quick – the Viand flits –
It is a faded Meat –
Anger as soon as fed is dead –
‘Tis starving makes it fat –

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Emily Dickinson sickened one last time and died peacefully at home, cared for by her sister, surrounded by those she loved. At her quiet memorial–she refused church services–Susan said:

To her life was rich, and all aglow with God and immortality. With no creed, no formalized faith, hardly knowing the names of dogmas, she walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints, with the firm steps of martyrs who sing while they suffer. How better note the flight of this “soul of fire in a shell of pearl” than by her own words—

Emily Dickinson had left instructions with her sister to destroy all the letters she kept and all her writings, but when Lavinia found the trunk with all of Emily’s poems, she couldn’t bring herself to destroy them.

She asked Susan to edit them for publication, but Susan never followed through, and Lavinia finally turned to Higginson and Mabel Todd Loomis–yes that Higginson and that Mabel Todd Loomis–to edit the poems for publication.

Mabel did so, but only after altering them to fit the standards of the day, and after the publishers broke apart Emily’s careful little booklets, and arranged them in categories popular at the time. It was not until the 1950’s that Thomas Johnson began the work to publish the poems in the original form.

After reading so much about Emily Dickinson, I wonder about the act that saved her work. Did Lavinia betray her sister in saving the poems for publication? Or was the act redeemed when the poems were returned to their original form?

As for our own culpability, do we betray Emily when we read her poetry these many years later when each poem should have been its own bit of flame and ash? Or would it be a greater betrayal not to read them, and cherish their uniqueness?

“People say a word dies when it is written by the pen,
but for me that word’s Life is just about to begin.”
– Emily Dickinson

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Me and Emily: Getting to know you

Today I packed my trunks with borrowed books and made my way through the gray and thoughtful day to fulfill my duty returning my overdue books to the library.

The library is my main charity because I am almost always late returning books and consequently pay nice fat fines. We have a very good deal worked out between us: I check out books whose yellowed pages crack with unused age; and in exchange give them money they can use to buy bright, eye-catching masterpieces of the moment, such as Who Moved my Cheese.

Still, my room has taken on a slightly acidic smell from failing books and my cat can’t lie in the sun on my desk, and it’s time to return my library and begin anew.

Among the books I returned today were Emily Dickinson books: the spine stretched Complete Poems of Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson: Woman Poet, the book that roared; Portrait of Emily Dickinson by Higgens with is mention of Emily like bits of candied pineapple among the cake of others faces.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

There was the enigmatic Open me Carefully with letters from Emily to her sister-in-law with little interpretation, which was remarkably refreshing. Fisher’s We Dickinsons was an easy read, a fanciful tale of Emily told from the perspective of her brother and geared for young high school eyes and ears — all goodness and humor with nary a dark spot to spoil the white pages. It’s badly out of print, having scrubbed all the parts suited to the macabre nature of youth.

There was Habegger’s My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickson, with a minimum of all that sentimental rubbish about the poet. There was another book, and now I can’t even remember the name but it had a green cover, an author whose name began with ‘H’ and repeated bits and pieces from most of what the other books said, which is probably why I can’t remember it and didn’t bother to write down the title. I am not a biographer or responsible historian. I am only a curious person.

If you search for books on Emily Dickinson at Amazon or some other online books store you’ll literally find thousands about her, covering every aspect of her life from sex to prayer:

Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, by Roger Lundin

My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe

The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, by Genevieve Taggard

Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul’s Society, by Barton Levi St. Armand

Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge, by Daneen Wardrop

Feminists Critics read Emily Dickinson, by Suzanne Juhasz (ed)

Visiting Emily, The Diary of Emily Dickinson, Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes, A Vice for Voices, Emily Dickinson the Metaphysical Tradition…

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After a while, though, the books begin to blur together, differing only in their amazing variation of interpretation of a single word or simple act.

There are online sources devoted to Emily, too. One only has to search on Emily Dickinson to return hundreds of thousands of pages, including complete collections of her poems — in two different spots. Considering the number of poems in question, that’s a lot of poetry. Emily Dickinson wrote close to 2000 poems, and over 1000 of her letters to friends and family have survived, though not always unedited.

And the conjecture about her life! There is much fascination with the fact that she only wore white later in life, but if she had just chosen to wear black, nothing would have been said about the sameness of her dress. Her letters and poems are pulled and used as proof of her erotic love for both man and woman, so much so that it began to irritate me greatly, the historians can become so self-sure about their interpretations. I have to think that if she had truly loved as many people as has been claimed, there would have been no room left for writing — all her time would have been spent in a tizzy of frustrated longing with swirls of faces floating about.

Then there are the bees. She wrote passionately several times about the bees. I am sure there was something kinky about that.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

We hear stories about her reclusiveness, but facts surface and we find out that she actually attended church from time to time, or would visit a friend, and see people who visited. In truth, if she weren’t Emily Dickinson we would look at her life and not see anything more than an affluent, educated woman with a small circle of friends and family who liked to write a lot, was generous with those in need, but reserved and even shy around strangers and larger crowds, liked to cook and garden, didn’t like to travel, and didn’t go out very much.

There are facts we know: Emily Dickinson was the middle child of three children, born to affluent parents in a town, Amherst, Massachusetts, steeped in family history. An Older brother named William Austen, a younger sister named Lavinia. Mother ill much of her life, father domineering, but not punitive, and brother leading an interesting but not outstanding life. She and her sister were educated, and were encouraged in their education but not to the point of independence; neither married, both lived at home, took care of their mother, and then their father and then each other.

They had a considerable number of friends who held them in respect and affection, and both were regular correspondents, even with those who lived in town. Both did travel some, but not much and primarily to visit family, or in Emily’s case, to get care for her eyes, which troubled her most of her life.

Emily was interested in books and magazines and journals and was very well read; she loved her dictionary and liked to spend time just reading its pages, discovering new words. To some extent she was interested in the politics of the time, being for the freeing of slaves, but resisting the popular call to join the Christian revolution sweeping New England when she was younger. In fact, if she stood out for any one thing more than another, it was her ambivalent feelings about religion.

“Heavenly Father” — take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband –
Though to trust us — seems to us
More respectful — “We are Dust” –
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity –

Emily was a good cook and had a passion for gardening but was indifferent to most other housework. She would make care baskets for those ill, worry about those in trouble, mourn, greatly, friends and family who died, and liked to tease those she cherished. She was friendly with neighborhood children, but didn’t attend many functions, nor did she see many people. One can sense in her letters and in letters about her, that she lived the life she wanted, not one forced on her, by either family or circumstances. In my favorite letter to her sister-in-law Sue, Emily wrote:

We go out very little – once in a month or two, we both set sail in silks – touch at the principal points, and then put into port again – Vinnie cruises about some to transact the commerce, but coming to anchor is most that I can do. Mr. and Mrs. Dwight are a sunlight to me, which no night can shade, and I shall perform weekly journeys there, much to Austin’s dudgeon and my sister’s rage.

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I could go on and doing so repeat other facts easily found online (thus forcing that student coming here to seek answers for their paper, “Who is Emily Dickinson” to give up in frustration at this point and move on…). I think the important thing to remember, though, is that Emily Dickinson wasn’t that different from many unmarried, affluent, strong-minded, white women of the time except for two important things: she loved to write, and she could write. Whether you like her writing or not, it was and is powerful and complex, and I think that’s why so much conjecture happens — how could someone who writes like this lead such a simple life?

The answer is in her work. Emily saw the richness, the nuances in everyday life — of simple likes and dislikes, bees in the spring, autumn leaves, books, family and friends, dictionaries and words, questions of God, slavery, and dying.

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears –
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –

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I started this quest trying to better understand Emily Dickinson but after reading page after page about her life, I find myself no closer to understanding what she was like, fully, as a person. All we know about her is through her writing: her poetry and her letters. Unfortunately, writing allows the writer to hide in plain view.

The funny thing about this research is that I am not, or was not, a fan of Dickinson poetry. Oh, there were some poems that I liked, but for the most part, I found her work to be cryptic: too verbally rich with too many impressions compressed into too few words. I could not find the key that would open her poetry to me and allow to read poem after poem without feeling an ache in my neck, product of restlessness that lets me know that no matter how much I try to discipline my mind, what I am reading is not connecting with me.

It was a chance remark that sent me on this quest: about Emily Dickinson being unpublished except for a few friends and family while she was alive. I had not studied about Emily Dickinson in school and didn’t know about her obscurity in her lifetime. It amazed me that she wrote thousands and thousands of words that went unpublished during a time when all intellectuals — male and female — aspired to appear in print in one way or another.

I wondered, did she mind?

He scanned it-staggered-
Dropped the Loop
To Past or Period-
Caught helpless at a sense as if
His Mind were going blind-

Groped up, to see if God was there-
Groped backward at Himself
Caressed a Trigger absently
And wandered out of Life.

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Did she mind that she was unknown? Did she mind that her works weren’t being read by many others? We talk about the writer who loves to write regardless of the audience but scratch this insouciance ever so slightly, and you’ll find that there is a drive within most of us to be read. I am not so ‘pure’ as a writer as to be indifferent whether my writing is read or not.

Was Emily indifferent? This sent me to the library and the Internet, and eventually, to a deeper look at her work. In them, over time, I found a connection to Emily Dickinson and her work, and I wonder if that is the strength of her longevity and the root of her popularity — she articulates our formless thoughts and that’s why her writing is so unique, and sometimes so difficult.

Before my readings, I found Emily’s poems difficult to read, and could count on two hands ones that I liked; now, I find I can read all of her work and it means something to me and I can’t bear to choose between the writings to find favorites.

I found the key to Emily Dickinson’s poems — it was within me all along. But it was in her letters and in the words of those who discussed her after death that I found the answer to the question, “Did she mind?”

You cannot make Remembrance grow
When it has lost its Root –
The tightening the Soil around
And setting it upright
Deceives perhaps the Universe
But not retrieves the Plant –
Real Memory, like Cedar Feet
Is shod with Adamant –
Nor can you cut Remembrance down
When it shall once have grown –
Its Iron Buds will sprout anew
However overthrown –

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Guest Blog #3

First published at Many-to-Many now archived at the Wayback Machine

Years ago, long before the web, I was involved with a Usenet group surrounding the POSC data effort. I remember getting into a conversation with one of the folks about the inevitability of disagreements. His belief was that people naturally were cooperative and will argue only under extreme circumstances. I disagreed and stated that, in my opinion, it’s more natural for people to be competitive. “If there are two people in a room,” I wrote. “They would squabble with each other, until a third enters, at which point the first two would join forces and go after the new person.” Years later, what I’ve found is that neither of us was completely accurate because humanity is both cooperative and competitive; we need both of these facets in order to be truly effective. One of my biggest criticisms of the ongoing social software efforts is that there seems to be an assumption that Man is inherently a cooperative, social animal. I agree that we are social — even the most anti-social of us needs human company in some aspect. It’s also true that we can be cooperative if we look at all we have built and accomplished by working together. However, we are also argumentative, opinionated, passionate, angry, and defensive; equally capable of acts of nobility and cruelty. Social software, to be truly successful, must embrace all aspects of being human — the good and bad — if it is to succeed. This leads me back to the first part of this essay, and the discussion on flamewars, comments, and censorship.

Earlier this week, I wrote what I will admit was a irritated and snippy comment within a weblog posting at Sam Ruby’s. Others also wrote comments that some might consider snippy or flammable. Since the topic was RSS, this isn’t that unusual because, as Sam wrote …mention RSS and RDF in the same sentence, and all the same people come out of the woodwork, like moths to a flame. Business as usual…until the strike-through font started showing up with some of the words. I noticed that several words in one comment had lines drawn through them and assumed that writer did this as a way of making a point in his comment. It wasn’t until the strike-throughs started appearing in my comments that I began to realize that this was being done by Sam rather than the author of the comment. He was trying something new: all writing in all comments that Sam deemed ‘flamebait’ was going to be designated or marked in such a way to signify his disapproval, starting with a strike-through originally, and now showing as a different font. I was appalled. I have never had one of my comments edited in any way. To see this happen to my writing, without my permission, was, frankly, a shock. Now, instead of my words just sitting on the page, not given any attention, which they really didn’t deserve, they’re marked and highlighted, branded with a scarlet or blue striped font of shame. Shame on you, Shelley, the annotation says. What was worse is that the lines also started appearing in another comment I wrote, one that did not contain material that I would consider flamebait. I wrote:

What was the biggest disappointment was when Sam Ruby edited my comments. I can’t think of anything worse than to edit other’s comments. I can see deleting abusive comments in weblogs, or editing them on the request of the person who wrote them, or banning someone who’s abusive — but not editing comments without permission. I’d rather all the words be deleted.

Sam wrote his own posting on this issue, as well as responding to my comments, saying:

I am trying to annotate things as something that I do not endorse or approve of on my website.

What followed was an intense discussion, in comments and other weblogs about the property rights of the weblog owner versus the rights of the original comment writer, the necessity of controlling flamewars in comments and whether an action of this nature was acceptable. James Snell wrote:

Compare this Weblog to a painting. I, as the owner of the blog am the painter. Whenever I add a stroke to the canvas (in the form of a blog entry), I invite others to add their own strokes (in the form of comments). But, as the painter, I reserve the right to edit, annotate or remove those strokes whenever and for whatever reason I see fit, because, afterall, it’s still my painting.

I had always considered my contribution to my weblog was the writing of the original essays, the photography and the occasional code. It’s then up to my readers if they want to say anything or not, but I’ve never considered their comments as an integral part of the writing. Yet, I have seen instances where comments have resulted in completely different interpretations of the original writing, so I can understand this point of view, but I still can’t condone an author annotating or editing another’s writing. Not all people agreed with me. Most people felt that Sam’s initial effort was inappropriate because there was no warning, but rather liked the idea of managing acrimonious discussions in comments by selective editing. As Tim Appnel wrote:

I didn’t even think twice about the practice Sam started–I actually thought it was a good idea. Sam has my utmost respect and I trust his judgement when he marks something as flamebait. I will take that into consideration next time I comment.

Therein lies what I see is the danger in this practice: that one person is altering how others view the words rather than let them make a determination for themselves. Yes, even with derogatory material. What one person could consider a flame, others could consider a passionate disagreement. Though this is not as critical an issue when associated with a technical specification such as RSS, what of topics such as the war in Iraq? The Patriot Act? People such as the USA’s Bush or Israel’s Sharon and Australia’s Howard? With subjects such as these, where it’s virtually impossible for the participants to remain dispassionate, one could see the weblog owner’s viewpoint clearly, even with the best of intentions to remain unbiased, just by following the ‘annotation’ within the comments. Others shared my opinion and were equally disturbed by this new comment management practice. Pax Norona wrote:

Fair discussion requires that remarks be unedited except as requested by the writer. Many years ago, when I was in high school, I wrote a letter about our school newspaper putting a front page story honoring our losing football coach. In the story, the coach was quoted as putting the blame on his players. I suggested that a man of integrity should shoulder the blame himself. My letter was not printed in the next issue, but a rebuttal was posted — naming me, pulling quotes out of context, and accusing me of saying things that I did not. My parents were never ones to stand up to authority, but that experience solidified certain principles. Foremost: Rebuttal must appear in the context of the message. Sam Ruby’s marking of Burningbird’s remarks as “flamebait” violates this principle. He has, himself, indulged in flaming. Furthermore, he’s chickened out. Being without words for a reply, Sam merely casts red paint on Burningbird. If he does not like the remarks, he should, as Burningbird suggests, delete the comments.

 

Martin Wisse was more ambivalent, writing, _I don’t think Sam Ruby was wrong in taking responsibility for the comments on his blog, but I think the way he went about it was a bit stupid._ Martin doesn’t care for Sam’s efforts, but also doesn’t see them as censorship because he doesn’t see speech being denied. However, censorship isn’t just the restriction of speech, it’s also practiced when speech is mocked or derided. By mocking speech, we seek to censor by lessening the respect with which the words should be heard. A few, very few, thought the issue was much ado about nothing. Yet this issue isn’t much ado about nothing as much as it is symptomatic of an overall concern — how do we manage disagreement within a social software context? For instance, how do we manage disagreement within weblog comments, as compared to discussion groups, and even collaborative software? After all, we have laws and social custom controlling our interaction with each other physically. I can’t physically hit Sam because I’m mad at what he’s done, and he can’t physically restrain me because I wasn’t playing well with the other children. In some ways, that’s the point — we must have laws and custom to control physical interaction because of the very real damage we can do to each other when in close proximity. The damage we can inflict on this virtual world may hurt, but not permanently, and not enough to send each other to the hospital. If this were so, why, I’d be dead. Right now. In a comment in Sam’s original posting, he took me to task for my comment, and previously I would have apologized for the inappropriate words, but lately I’ve been finding myself less and less patient with the concept of adults chastising each other. Anger, and expressions of anger, are not childish, no matter how we try to reduce these basic and very real and natural human emotions. Anger can be very deep, very dark, motivating as well as destructive. Most of all, anger can be very adult. To treat it otherwise not only doesn’t defuse the situation, it can make it worse. Earlier I said that I both did and did not regret my original comment. I don’t regret that I raised, indirectly, an issue related to the topic but of a much broader scope that gave me deeper concern. However, a more appropriate response would have been for me to respond to the topic at Sam’s and then write a separate weblog post on the other issue. I did regret that the comment fanned the inevitable flamewars surrounding the topic of the post, and did so in someone else’s space. What I regretted more, though, is that I chastized another member for his behavior — a part of the comment that Sam did not mark out. Those were the truly offensive words. When I chastised the other person, when I suggested how they should change their interaction and behavior, we were no longer peers discussing a volatile subject — I had assumed a parental role, trying to force a child role on the other person. And, in some ways, Sam assumed a parental role when he chastised me. So now, in addition to the message of -Shame on you, Shelley-, attached to the writing, there’s now also a touch of -No cookies and milk for you young lady. And just wait until I talk to your mother when she gets home.- Coming up: The Tyranny of the Commons