Apologies for the hastily written and somewhat confusing post below this one, my dear dear friends. I’ve had concerned e-mails and everything! Bless your hearts!
My recent extended blog silence can mostly be attributed to the usual, fairly routine reasons. Firstly, I did feel somewhat out of sorts for most of last week. If I were the sort of person who was given to talking about mis-aligned energies, then I’d say that my energies were decidedly mis-aligned – not to say severely depleted by the rigours of being stuck with an exceptionally repetitive and mind-sapping work task. (Still ongoing, and in danger of wearing out my CTRL, C and V keys.)
I then proceeded to spend the Easter weekend focusing on matters which took me far away from the laptop – and indeed, as far away as possible from the deafening hum of the accursed de-humidifers. (The affected walls in the morning room are still only down to 80% humidity, so there’s a way to go yet.) Thus did a brief bout of Blogger’s Block morph into a recuperative spell of Blogger’s Holiday.
Added to this, a right old tangle of distinctly jaded thoughts have been swirling round inside my head. These have arisen from various sources, but none of them have been of a particularly personal nature. Ordering them into some sort of coherent Statement of Jadedness Think Piece may well turn out to be a futile task – but let’s have a bash, and see where it takes us.
If you’ve been out and about in Blogland over the past week or so, then you may well have stumbled across the news of a recent court case, in which a UK blogger was found guilty of conducting an eleven-month campaign of harassment against another UK blogger. (I’m deliberately not linking directly, but the whole gob-smacking story can be accessed through the shortlist for last week’s Post of the Week.) The harasser’s weapons included a deluge of abusive and threatening e-mails, accompanied by a similar deluge of malicious and defamatory blog posts and blog comments. The allegations levelled by the harasser against her victim (and indeed against many other people over the past few years) are highly detailed and deeply wounding, clearly intended to cause severe damage to both personal and professional reputations. Since they have been repeated over a network of interlinking blogs, calculated to raise their visibility in search engines, these allegations now show up on the first page of Google searches for several of the victims in question. As such, they are clearly visible not just to the victims’ friends, relatives and colleagues, but also to any potential employers or clients who might be conducting some elementary research. Meanwhile, having failed to show up for her court case, and despite bail conditions which expressly forbade her from using the Internet, the convicted harasser continues to repeat her charges on her main blog, continuously and obsessively, whilst on the run from the authorities.
Two aspects of the case have been particularly troubling me. Firstly, the harasser has never actually met her victim in person, but instead has built up her impression of the victim’s character almost entirely by reading her blog posts and making her own subjective interpretations. The harasser now claims that her own blog forms her legal defence. Not her testimony, but her actual defence. It is as if, by committing her wild and unfounded allegations to a publicly available blog, her words are somehow granted some sort of additional legitimacy. The whole mindset is manifestly delusional, but one of its chief delusions is to substitute online relationships – which can only ever be partial – for fully fleshed relationships in the real world.
Secondly, there would appear to be no mechanism for removing the offending blogs, now that their author has been found guilty of harassment. The allegations live on, and nothing can be done to get rid of them. As the blogs are hosted on the free Blogspot service by Google/Blogger – a US company – Google/Blogger are bound only by US law, and not by British law. This is the standard reply which complainants can expect to receive:
Thank you for writing in regarding content posted on BlogSpot.com. We would like to confirm that we have received and reviewed your inquiry.
Blogger.com and Blogspot.com are US sites regulated by US law. Blogger is a provider of content creation tools, not a mediator of that content. We allow our users to create blogs, but we don’t make any claims about the content of these pages. Given these facts, and pursuant with section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, Blogger does not remove allegedly defamatory, libelous, or slanderous material from Blogger.com or BlogSpot.com. If a contact email address is listed on the blog, we recommend you working directly with the author to have the content in question removed or changed.
The Blogger Team
The only example that springs to mind of Blogger actually taking action over “objectionable content” concerns an extreme homophobic hate blog called Kill Batty Man, which attempted to incite its readers to murder gay men. Even then, the blog ran for a year before such action was taken, and it took a major outcry from major league A-listers before anything was done. (More details here.)
Meanwhile, a prominent US tech-blogger has recently gone public over a series of abusive and threatening comments which have caused her to fear for her own personal safety, and to cancel her public speaking engagements. In the fall-out from all of this – which has been immense – some people have accused her of hysterical publicity seeking, while others have set about drafting a high-minded “Code of Conduct” for bloggers. (It is this latter initiative which Unreliable Witness skewers so deliciously, thus saving me the effort of constructing a skewering of my own.)
Once again, most of these people have never actually met each other. All the abuse, all the second-guessing, all the amateur psychological profiling – it has all been constructed from reading blog posts, forming assumptions based on subjective interpretations, and gathering so much popular support for those assumptions that they begin to look as if they have real substance behind them.
It’s precisely the same mindset that fuels the various bands of conspiracy theorists for whom the “social web” provides such a fertile breeding ground. Cherry-pick your material, garnish it with prejudice, spin it into the juicy narrative of your choice, and defend your position ruthlessly, without need for further question.
OK, time to scale things down a good few notches, in order to illustrate a wider point.
A couple of weeks ago, I began to worry about the apparent disappearance of a normally prolific UK blogger: not someone whom I read regularly, but someone whom I “know” from my various excursions within Blogland, and who is quite a well-known figure within her own particular sphere. I needed to speak to her about something – but she wasn’t returning e-mails, and her blog had fallen silent. I decided to Google around for clues.
Almost immediately, I discovered that this blogger had signed up for various “social networking” and “community building” sites, of the sort that are generally identified with the whole “Web 2.0” phenomenon. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Web 2.0.) Many of these sites are based around the concept of registering for the service in question, selecting a name and a small identifying graphic (or “avatar”), filling in a simple descriptive profile (gender/location/interests), and building up a social network of “friends”, who have also registered for the service.
This particular blogger certainly wasn’t short of “friends”, and yet none of them seemed to be remarking upon her disappearance. Well, why would they? After all – and I don’t mean to castigate these people in any way, but this goes to the heart of the matter – they’re not her friends.
Nevertheless, there was something both poignant and troubling about scrolling through all these public declarations of “friendship”, which didn’t seem to amount to much more than a hill of beans. For me, it gave the lie to the whole concept of Web 2.0 and “social software”. Because friendship – true friendship – is based around a good deal more than assembling a reassuring little cluster of avatars on a web page – as if they were stamps, or realistic indicators of popularity.
True friendship is when your real life neighbours interrupt their Friday night dinner party to spend two hours helping you shift piles of soaking wet plaster from your collapsed ceiling, in their best clothes, with smiles on their faces. It’s not saying “Check out this link!”, or “Nice avatar!”, or “Ooh, I like Coldplay too!”
(She was fine, by the way. An actual friend of hers e-mailed me, and put my mind at rest.)
OK, so you and I are sentient, emotionally intelligent human beings who can easily distinguish the virtual world from the real world. But when you’re taking a quick break in the office, are you more likely to hook up with your online “friends”, or to turn round and talk to the flesh-and-blood people at the row of desks behind you? Which is the default option? Who knows you best? With whom do you have the most in common? In such instances, would you rather be your real life self, or the idealised avatar-based approximation of yourself? And on those occasions when you do meet up with your fellow bloggers in real life, do you ever find yourself “acting out” your online personality, staying true to that avatar? How do you address each other, if one or the other of you writes under a pseudonym? Does it feel more appropriate to continue using the pseudonym, because switching to real names seems a little too forward? And what of those Myspace types, eagerly amassing hundreds of “friends”, some of whom genuinely do seem to be confusing virtual and real life notions of social interaction?
With our shiny Web 2.0 “friendships”, we can eradicate the awkwardness, the mess, the sweat, the lumps, the bumps and the peculiar dark corners, in favour of edited and idealised representations of ourselves. If we’re not careful, these ersatz relationships can start to feel more appealing than the real thing. And if we’re prone to certain ways of thinking, then these illusions can easily convert into delusions.
Reality check: over the course of the past five and a half years, many of the people whom I have met through blogging have graduated into Proper Real Life Version 1.0 Friends. And that’s great. Seriously great. But couldn’t we come up with more fitting words than “friend”, “neighbour” and “community” to describe our Web 2.0 interactions? Or would such a shift fatally undermine the business models that are springing up in the wake of this latest attempt at a paradigm shift?
(Ooh, I think I feel a conspiracy theory coming on! Who’s with me?)