The Dangers of Online Community

Someone I truly respect, was asking some questions about the culture that has developed at Open Salon— the Salon site with user generated content .  The closest that I could come to was the  pyramid scheme.  If you blog in a small community, there are so  many readers and so many raters.  If you want to be popular you have to participate in a certain quid pro quo of commenting and rating.  In time, the small community, the ratings and comments have no value.

Of course, you can manage to disregard all the comments and the ratings and just use Open Salon for the traffic.  You will get way more reads on any random day than on other sites.  But in the end, does that matter?  Why does it matter?  Part of the challenge as a blogger is to get your own readership.  For two years, I guess Open Salon was a good place for me to get some blogger legs, now I need to do it on my own, away from the noise of the “community”.  I still love to read my favorite bloggers and partake in some of the discussions.  I was grateful for the tool that Salon gave the users, but I have to ask myself what now?

I have walked the internet, the web, whatever you call it from the beginning of time, somewhere in the late 80’s. In that time I  noticed a mythology  take hold, the mythology of the online community.  A Utopian fantasy that still prevails, of all that is good in humanity, with the negative aspects conveniently discarded.  A place where sweetness, kindness, love, generosity and support oozes out of every human involved.   When in truth the dynamic aspect of human society:  dissent, disagreement, confusion, anger, challenge are denied and maligned.  When of course any of those perfectly human qualities manifest themselves, the crowd with the shared utopian fantasy dissolves into despair and condemnation.

Why is that?   It’s because we imagined, that somehow online we humans will leave behind our complex, messy human parts.  That we will transcend the emotions, the character flaws, the deceptions.  The internet is not an escape from humanity, it is humanity.

We forget that the most oppressive places in the world are communities.   Take small villages.  Sure you all go to Greece and places like that and see the beautiful village and imagine this wonderful place of love, dancing and support.   I would rather drink all the poisons imagined in the world than live in a Greek village, any village.  The eyes from the windows, the chorus of criticism.

Well, the truth is that villages  brutish and cruel places.   I take the anonymity of a big metropolis, or American suburb any day.    In small  communities another aspect prevails, a certain notion of civility, or decorum.  A type of civility that mutates into an empty calorie sweetness.   That decorum is a passive acceptance of everything at face value.  The mere act of interjecting a question, or criticism is seen as devaluing the community, an affront.

I achieved a certain level of popularity and I have to say, it felt really good.  But after a while, the community aspect intruded into my psyche and made me angry.  I found that most  people have convinced themselves that good writing is about vulnerability;  a sharing  of personal suffering.  Once you expose yourself, once you divulge a personal trauma, you gain membership into the club.    If you are a victim of anything, you are above reproach.  You are given immediate membership, absolved of all responsibility and relieved of being judged.

Conflating good writing and thinking with personal vulnerability I find distasteful.  If you can make the personal global, then I can see how it is interesting, but if it becomes your red badge of courage, an amulet that you wear to identify you as a person, it is purely pathetic.  I find that this is also something that frustrates me in real society, within minutes, people will disclose personal tragedies to strangers with little self-restraint.  So, if I am such a believer in the open aspect, why does it bother me?  Why does it intrude into my space?
There are a few solid readers and critical thinkers, they will challenge you and they will make you think.  I have had some great conversations with some people who I have later come to have a deep respect, matter of fact, they are the only people who I befriended outside the “community”, my critics.  We have fought on so many issues, but yet, we hold a deep respect for each other and a trust that we are authentic in what we say.

If you do criticize, or challenge, as a reader, you will be marked as a negative and immature person.  If you defend your point of view, you  will be tagged a  “mean girl” if you are a woman, or if you are “mean”  a bitter middle-aged woman,  feminist cow, no, wait, feminist middle-aged cow.  Somehow, women are never allowed to find fault, or to challenge, as a certain blogger at OS, said to me, “it is unbecoming “.  In time you just read and comment less and less.

On the male side we have who I call the  avunculars, or daddies.  Of course, the daddies want to embrace the good girls and attack the “mean girls”.   Mean girls, don’t want a fake daddy, they have one or had one thank you very much.  So, here we are, we recreated the pathology of the middle-aged society in the middle of the internet.

Once you get a victim card you have moral advantage.  Moral advantage then makes it impossible to have real conversations, discussion, or conflict.  That is why, I butt heads time after time with the prevailing culture.  In the end, it does not matter, by the same notion of it being Open, it is open to mutate into regular society.

I, do  not go online for, love, compassion, empathy, sympathy, or nurturing.  If I was I would be a fool.  I am not a masturbatory fool without any connection to reality.  Yet, you will find people who truly need such emotions and you will find those who with a sadistic nature willing to  use the needy ones, for their own need to manifest a certain persona of kindness, generosity and love.  Cause, if you are, or seem to be kind to some poor stranger with a sob story, you must be a good person.  Who am I to want to correct this dynamic?  Why does it bother me?   I should not be surprised.  It’s a natural arc of many online experiments, they become the society that I do not enjoy.

The question is how much power did I give that culture by confronting it?  Did I and those who confronted give them power by confronting them?  I will never know.  Ultimately, the danger is not realizing that online, we bring all our pathologies and our virtues.  We will from time to time find places that we enjoy, but in time, a place will change.

Like a bar, or a café ,   a new crowd moves in.  You can still go to the bar cause they make the best margarita and not talk to anyone.  But, you can also make your own margarita at home, enjoy it in your garden, under your tree and listen to your voice and the voices you choose to be with.

I am neither Don Quixote, or the masked crusader.  I just love to blog and engage in discussion.  Eventually, my voice will annoy others as much as some voices annoy me.  So, we step away from each other and do our thing.  It is the World Wide Web, gatekeepers are not allowed and we have to choose what we wanted to be.

I am not abandoning Open Salon, I just chose to write some where else.  I will cross post at Open Salon out of habit.  But, I officially give up my seat at the bar for a while.   I will watch though to see how the ponsy scheme unravels.



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6 responses to “The Dangers of Online Community

  1. NORM!

    I truly believe this is some sort of entropy situation. No community can hold together without geography or accountability to sustain (restrain?) it. The ability to click away from one’s actions becomes a powerful numbing agent.

    Unfortunately, just knowing everyone’s name isn’t enough. If we can’t humanize the person behind the avatar, we can’t empathize enough to act respectfully when they don’t seem to deserve it. Thus, online communities and message boards will always be hotbeds of sniping and stabbing unless the members agree to a different social construct.

    Personally, I hope this is something that evolves over time. Hopefully we will be able to shift our definitions of connectivity as the internet matures to socially accept that we should treat someone we are speaking to online as if we were standing in front of them looking them in the eye. There will always be people with personalities which would be hostile in any environment, but the vast majority of online bad behavior would never happen if we had to look the other guy in the eye.

  2. Stellaa, you are one of the people I missed the most when I made my absence at Open Salon a feature rather than a occasional bonus. Of course you’re right about the nature of online communities. Self-selection at work. The nature of blogging has mostly been that the personal becomes public, whether it’s profound or not. Some people, (Heather Armstrong of Dooce notably) have managed to make a good living at it. And she’s truly good and entertaining at what she does. But the cabal at OS has finally gelled into a concoction I choose not to live regularly with. Nothing stays the same, but it pains me sometimes to remember the early days with Skeptic Turtle and Madame Bitch and others… before the invasion. But, musn’t sound bitter :->

    I’m happy to see you spread your wings, and with two blogs no less! I’ll visit sometime. And I still crosspost to OS as well, although my posts are increasingly less political. (What’s really new and exciting about politics?) But I’m back to my first homespun blog, Eric Blues, and enjoying the comforts of home.

    Best wishes dearest flâneuse!

  3. Cool, Stellaa! I have your blog in the feed now!

  4. Peter Schmitz

    I’m convinced that one of the most destructive conventions that has emerged in the overall internet culture is the fanatic devotion to anonymity. The libertarian founders of the internet felt that it would encourage more openness and honesty. Instead, it has encouraged a culture of mean-spiritedness, hit-and-run snarkers and grafitti-like dirtiness to the whole enterprise.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that making people being open about who they are will fix this (just watch a video of any tea party protest march), but it sure wouldn’t hurt in getting people to think of it more of the way Jodi would like to see it.

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