Weblogging Writing

Community member or writer?

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Don Park published a post today titled “Eye of the Beholder”. It has a photo that had originally been at Marc Canter’s site, associated with a party that Marc was putting together for folks. However, some people took offense at the photo and Marc took it down.

Don wrote:

This is the picture Marc pulled off his blog because Danah, along with Joi and others, thought it was tasteless. I am putting it up here because I don’t like seeing people, particularly bloggers, pressured into political-correctness. As far as I am concerned, a blog is not a taste test.

Danah Boyd (who is figuring too much in my posts lately so this will be the last time in a good long while where I will shine the spotlight on her) wrote:

How exciting – Marc Canter is organizing a party at Etech. Of course, in announcing it, he sweetly through up a picture that offends me at my core. “It appears that Jenn is quite a partier herself.” refers to an image where a grinning man is holding on to a bent over woman with a face that’s either in ecstasy or agony. But she’s down on all fours, submissive to a man in a Santa suit. C’mon now. How welcoming is this party to the women???

In comments, Adina Levin wrote:

Marc is being a jerk here. No reason to let this tastelessness make this place be less like home for us.

Joi wrote:

I agree. That’s pretty tasteless Marc..

Cory Doctorow wrote:

What they said.

The reason I pulled these particular comments out is that I believe these are all people who attended the Digital Democracy Teach-In on Monday.

These are the people that talked about how weblogging was different than Big Media, because it puts publishing in the hands of the people. I have to presume they think this is a good thing because webloggers can write what they want, and aren’t censored. Unlike Big Media, we aren’t accountable to an editor, or big companies, or important politicians.

But I guess we’re accountable to each other, and that’s the most dangerous censorship of all – it’s the censorship of the commons.

I didn’t care one way or another about Marc’s photo. I thought it was two people at a party, mugging for the camera by imitating those fake porn shots that we all see pop up into our face with annoying regularity. Marc knew the woman, the photo was at the place where the party was planned, so I’m assuming that’s why he posted the pic.

Would it have stopped me from going to the party? Not a bit of it. My femininity is not that fragile. If anything, I probably would have brought a spiked dog collar as a host gift for Marc.

I’m not writing to defend Marc –he’s a big boy and can defend himself. I’m not even, necessarily writing to support Don, though I admire him for taking this stand. I’m writing because it’s so much in line with what’s been on my mind lately about writing and community. Writing, community, and making choices.

(Note that Don has since taken down the post. As a fellow community member, I should pull his quote. As a writer, I should leave it. Ouroboros still lives within weblogging, I’m glad to see.)

Let me digress for a few minutes. In January, a close friend who also happens to be a weblogger told me that I sought reassurance in my weblog and among my friends too much. Paraphrasing what he wrote, he asked me why do I say the things I do at times? Why do I seek reassurance so much? Is it that I need people saying, “No, no, Shelley! Stay! We love you!”

Ouch! Damn! Zing!

I cringed when I read the words. For the next couple of weeks I wavered about like a drunken sailor not used to the roll of the land beneath my feet. I was angry at the person, furious! I was hurt, crushed! I wasn’t going to write to him again. That will show him. I’ll stop writing to him, make him pay. Yeah, that will teach him to be…to be…what? Honest? Blunt? A good friend who doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear?

If I am nothing else, I am, at least, honest with myself. (A trait I don’t necessarily recommend, either – its badly overrated, being honest with oneself. One can go an entire life happy as a grig, never being honest with oneself.)

My friend was right. I can go back now and read certains posts and emails and see woven throughout them a plea, no, a demand, for reassurance. Thought the words weren’t there specifically, the meaning was loud and clear: “Please tell me you love me!” “Please tell me you like (me, my writing, my photos, my tech)!” “I have a cute cat, see?” “Please, please, please!”

If you feel a personal attachment to me, it must have been exhausting. About as exhausting as me trying to please all of you.

We all need reassurance at times. Bad stuff happens and we just want people to say, “it’s okay. You’ll be okay.” And wanting attention isn’t bad. The same can be said for wanting to get compliments, or to spark conversations – it is a perfectly human behavior. We all want to feel part of a community.

There is a line, though, where ‘community member’ and ‘writer’ intersect, and sometimes to be the one, you can’t regard the other. I’ve written about it before, but I’m still coming to terms with it.

Not long ago a conversation arose about weblog categorization. I deplore the concept, especially if you’re categorized without your consent. How dare anyone bit bucket us? But I think I was wrong about one aspect of this conversation: I think there is a very real difference between having a personal journal, and being a writer, and it has nothing to do with the style or the quality of the writing or the mechanics – it has to do with your own head.

Do you write to be part of a community? Or do you write to write, and the community part either happens, or doesn’t? Depending on where you’re at within this space can influence your writing. If community causes you to alter your writing–not to say something you think should be said, or to write a certain way to get attention–then you are betraying yourself as a writer. Worse. Lose yourself enough in the community and you’ll start to do what I did: embed a tiny demand for reassurance and approval in everything you write, until you exhaust both yourself and everyone who reads you.

Now, Marc’s photo isn’t really anything to rally around as a cry for each of us to exert our independence, but it is symptomatic of the community’s influence on its members. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, or with choosing to be community member first, writer second. It’s when the lines get blurred that we start losing a lot of honesty. Honesty, not truth, an important distinction, because here’s nothing false about not speaking out, but there’s nothing honest about it, either.

We talk about the power of this medium, and how its going to be an influence in politics and journalism. “Power to the People!” Yet it is also the most vulnerable to pressure from the ‘community’, and therefore the least reliable. Weblogging as a community tool is no different than any other social organization – there will always be subtle, or not so subtle, clues about how you should adjust your behavior to stay a part of the community. Adhere, and you’ll be rewarded; ignore them enough, and eventually you’ll find yourself cut adrift.

The best damn thing that can happen to many of us is being cut adrift by our communities. It’s wonderfully liberating. It also frees us to find new communities where we don’t have to choose between being a member, and being a writer. We may even discover that the community we end up a part of of isn’t much different than the one we left, because the only member cutting us loose, is ourselves.

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