Guest Blog #2

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

Every once in a while I let someone talk me into using an instant messaging service, such as ICQ. I would forget that I had it installed and be working happily away on some book or article, or doing my taxes when there’d be this knocking sound coming from my computer, and the little ICQ flower would change appearance — someone wants to message me, the flower would say. I would think to just ignore it, but this seems so rude because the little ICQ spy I allowed to be installed on my machine would be telling everyone that I am online, I am home, I can’t close the curtains and pretend otherwise. I would go online and have this typed conversation with the other person, which usually consisted of me frantically typing away as fast as I could while the other person, more adept at these sorts of things, would be using this cryptic pseudo-underground language endemic to the medium to send me short bursts of compacted meaning. ROTFLOL! (Real Off The Feeder Looping Out Lonely? Rather Old Testy Fart Laying Out Licenses?)

The thing that sets social software apart from the software we use to balance our checkbooks and order our next book is the interactive element of it: Instant messaging implies there’s someone to answer one’s virtual knock at the door; file sharing implies one person is out there sharing, another borrowing; discussions groups have, well, discussions. And weblogs have all the trappings of a personal journal, but one whose pages are instantly ripped out and passed around to a host of people, some known, some not. For most of the software, the interactive element is quite obvious, as in your face as that annoying little ICQ flower; but with

For most of the software, the interactive element is quite obvious, as in your face as that annoying little ICQ flower; but with weblogging the interactive element is more subtle. Within these journals, we can turn off comments and trackbacks, not provide RSS files, and even remove any concept of a permalink to discourage anyone from linking to something we write. We can disdain reading other’s work, and never reference other webloggers in our writing. We can refrain from leaving comments in other weblogs, and even forgo pinging weblogs.com. Once we’ve done our best to isolate ourselves we can congratulate ourselves about our independence, but really it’s a sham, a mockery, nothing more than feeble self-delusion. Weblogging by its nature is a social animal, and if you ignore that aspect of it too long, it will destroy your furniture and eat your best plant. Metaphorically, of course. No matter how much we may say we’re writing the weblog because we want to write, for self-discovery, or for posterity, we are impacted by our surroundings, by the very nature of the beast. Eventually, we find ourselves being influenced by the medium. Over time, we may be forced to make a decision: to either accept the ‘social’ aspect of

Weblogging by its nature is a social animal, and if you ignore that aspect of it too long, it will destroy your furniture and eat your best plant. Metaphorically, of course. No matter how much we may say we’re writing the weblog because we want to write, for self-discovery, or for posterity, we are impacted by our surroundings, by the very nature of the beast. Eventually, we find ourselves being influenced by the medium. Over time, we may be forced to make a decision: to either accept the ‘social’ aspect of weblogging, or abandon weblogging altogether. Since this is about social software, I won’t focus on the person who decides that the interaction takes more energy

Since this is about social software, I won’t focus on the person who decides that the interaction takes more energy than they have at the moment and leaves weblogging. Instead, we’ll look at the people who have decided that they’re game and ready to join, or stay with, the party. People like me. Perhaps people like you. We implement the permalinks and publish the many different versions of RSS files — plain XML, RDF/RSS, Blue RSS, Red RSS, RSS for Bad Hair Mondays. We also enable comments and trackbacks and all the other accouterments that say “Come on in, join the fun!” Once we’re ready, we introduce ourselves to the neighborhood by writing comments in other weblogs and referencing other’s work in our own writing. Pretty soon, we find ourselves surrounded by a friendly group of supportive new friends. Nothing but grins and giggles. That

Pretty soon, we find ourselves surrounded by a friendly group of supportive new friends. Nothing but grins and giggles. That is, until someone comes along and drops The Bomb. What is The Bomb? It’s different for everyone, and for every post. It’s the comments by the person or persons that criticize the original posting, or something someone else has said in an earlier comment. Many times the comment is thoughtful, perhaps even brilliant. Other times it’s taunting, provoking, even downright nasty. Regardless of the tenor, it’s the introduction of a discordant note into an otherwise harmonious whole. Now the introduction of this note isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we all thought alike and agreed on most things, we’d all be pretty boring and would spend our time sitting around, exchanging daily epiphanies with each other. However, depending on the nature of The Bomb, your comment thread either excels to new heights of intelligence and insight, leading you to congratulate yourself on attracting such witty and urbane contributors; or your comments degenerate into a slugfest that would make the back alleys of your nearest Big City seem tame by comparison. Regardless, your comment thread most likely has now taken on a life of its own, one that’s not quite in your control anymore; and that’s a bit tough to take because, you say to yourself, you are the Writer of this Weblog. The Leader of this Little World. You are King or Queen of your Domain. Who are these people who just come on in and lay their thing in your space, without a by your leave? Shit on a shingle, but what did we do to bring this down on ourselves? Personally, in my comments I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come

Now the introduction of this note isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If we all thought alike and agreed on most things, we’d all be pretty boring and would spend our time sitting around, exchanging daily epiphanies with each other. However, depending on the nature of The Bomb, your comment thread either excels to new heights of intelligence and insight, leading you to congratulate yourself on attracting such witty and urbane contributors; or your comments degenerate into a slugfest that would make the back alleys of your nearest Big City seem tame by comparison. Regardless, your comment thread most likely has now taken on a life of its own, one that’s not quite in your control anymore; and that’s a bit tough to take because, you say to yourself, you are the Writer of this Weblog. The Leader of this Little World. You are King or Queen of your Domain. Who are these people who just come on in and lay their thing in your space, without a by your leave? Shit on a shingle, but what did we do to bring this down on ourselves? Personally, in my comments, I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come

Personally, in my comments, I’ve been told to get a life, to stop doing drugs, to start doing drugs, that I’m sad, bad, and mad, and words that have come perilously close to all I really need is a good medicinal f**k. And I’ve been known to come back swinging. A time or two. During your first few flame wars, at your weblog or within others, you might be invigorated, even refreshed. After a time though, after your fifth, tenth, or Nth flamefest, you wonder whether you should just turn comments off, and stop commenting elsewhere. You see promising thread after promising thread breakdown into name calling and accusations of the worst kind. You see people call each other names you haven’t heard since puberty, and there’s more than a whiff of the schoolyard dust about the exchanges. You just get tired of it. Depressed. Discouraged. Tired. You think about that lone weblogger who doesn’t have comments, or trackbacks, and who ignores others as they are ignored themselves, and you find within yourself a wistful thought that you wish you had taken the path less stomped. But then, just when you’re about to turn off comments and pull into your hermitage, someone comes along and writes something absolutely breathless, and you think to yourself, how could you cut something like this from your life? Dilemma. You start thinking about how you can control the ‘bad’ but encourage the good. Things to Do to Control Comments in a Nutshell. You might ban the IP addresses of repeat offenders, or disallow anonymous commenters. Perhaps you’ll force registration, with the hope of forcing people to identify themselves, and thus be more responsible with their words. However, none of these truly eliminate

Dilemma. You start thinking about how you can control the ‘bad’ but encourage the good. Things to Do to Control Comments in a Nutshell. You might ban the IP addresses of repeat offenders, or disallow anonymous commenters. Perhaps you’ll force registration, with the hope of forcing people to identify themselves, and thus be more responsible with their words. However, none of these truly eliminate flamefests because most are started by people who would gladly register, who give their names freely, and you can’t ban because they log on with different IPs all the time. At that point you might start getting a little more determined. For instance, you’ll delete comments from spammers, or from anonymous cowards who slam and run. You might warn specific people that if they continue to post Nasty Things, you’ll start deleting their comments. In other words, you start policing your comments — your weblog is no longer a journal but a country, with its own set of rules and regulations; it’s up to visitors to learn these or suffer the consequences. Still, even the thought of comment deletion won’t stop all folks, and sometimes there’s more than one person slamming away. So what are you going to do now? Delete all the comments? In this situation, you may decide to take a step in a direction you probably told yourself you would never do when you started a weblog: you begin to edit comments. You annotate, you delete, you edit. Unfortunately, editing comments is a path of no return, and weblogging and the easy communication you shared with others is no longer the same. Issues of blogging territory as compared to ownership of words enters the picture and, for good or ill, the spontaneity is gone. There was a trust between weblog reader and weblog writer and it’s been broken, but who’s to say who broke it first? At a minimum, the next time a journalist sticks a mike in your face, you’ll find yourself stumbling over the description of the open nature of weblogging. We all will. No matter how you wrap it up or what you call it, you’ve just become a

So what are you going to do now? Delete all the comments? In this situation, you may decide to take a step in a direction you probably told yourself you would never do when you started a weblog: you begin to edit comments. You annotate, you delete, you edit. Unfortunately, editing comments is a path of no return, and weblogging and the easy communication you shared with others is no longer the same. Issues of blogging territory as compared to ownership of words enters the picture and, for good or ill, the spontaneity is gone. There was a trust between weblog reader and weblog writer and it’s been broken, but who’s to say who broke it first? At a minimum, the next time a journalist sticks a mike in your face, you’ll find yourself stumbling over the description of the open nature of weblogging. We all will. No matter how you wrap it up or what you call it, you’ve just become a censor. (To be cont…)

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