I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the benefits of publicness and transparency. This week also reminded me of the perils.
This was hardly the first time I’ve suffered a personal attack, nor will it be the last. Although I will say that it made for a particularly awful day – bad taste in the mouth, unsettled feeling at the pit of the stomach, vulnerability, disappointment – I’m certainly in no position to seek sympathy. I’m a blogger who has done my share of snarking. I spent years as a critic and got poison-pen responses from fans and actors. I know I’m being blunt with my opinions about journalism because I think that’s both necessary and working, but I also know it rubs some people wrong. So be it.
I was gratified at the support of friends. But I was more bothered than anything that I got email from my parents wondering who this Ron Rosenbaum was (and why was he attacking their son). Even bloggers have mothers.
This isn’t about my publicness. It’s about the next person who hasn’t experienced this before and comes online to create or share and gets stabbed. What happens to her willingness to open up in public? If she reverts to her shell, what do we lose? What impact does this have on the quality of the conversation? What impact does that have on the reputation and value of the medium?
My stock answers to these questions – coming always from my optimistic defense of online conversation – have been: Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff, pay attention to the good stuff. And: We all can tell who the assholes are. And: Don’t judge the medium by its worst. And that’s all fine and true until you are reminded what it feels like to get that dull blade from behind.
I happened to see PR man Richard Edelman yesterday and so I asked for his high-priced advice on what to do in these circumstances, which he gave. No surprise, he advised not to stoop to the level of the sniper, which is exactly what I did, responding in kind, because I felt like it. Edelman said to respond with the facts and to return to the principles, which, of course, is just what I should have done (and will do with another post later). “You must stay in character,” he said. “You must not rise to the bait. You have more to lose.” Actually, I didn’t need to go to a PR expert for that. It’s what my father always advised.
Edelman acknowledged differences in media and time. On Fox and MSNBC, one does respond in kind; the one who’s loudest wins. In years past, PR people might have advised clients to ignore and hide. But that doesn’t suit the blogosphere, he said.
There’s an old social norm at work here that is, I think, an extension of old media, which says: You put yourself out there, so you put yourself at risk for getting attacked. This implies it is almost your fault for getting attacked. This is a basis of the public-figure defense in libel, the presumed right to go after people in the public eye. Once you become public, you give up the cloak and protection of privacy.
But now we are all public. Does that norm still hold online, when 180 million people have started blogs and countless more put videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr? Are they all, should they all be targets for the snipers and snarkers? Well, they all could be. But what’s our attitude about that? Is there a new norm emerging?
Online has developed one system to deal with attacks, and it came into play this week: Someone will remind the participants not to feed the trolls. Feeding the trolls not only encourages them but degrades the conversation and, again, devalues the medium. The trolls and their followers hurt the internet. So don’t feed them. Another system, also in play this week, kicks in when someone tries to get the discussion back on track to talk about the issues and ideas that are being ignored. One norm that has developed is that it’s proper etiquette to link to responses to an attack (note that Rosenbaum has not granted even that simple courtesy). Finally, there is humor.
Other systems don’t work. Sites are forever looking at automated means of getting rid of the dross. Where is the troll algorithm? And I hope we don’t revert to suing for libel, for that will put a chill on conversation and, as Susan Crawford has pointed out, libel law becomes irrelevant as we all have the means of response (which I took).
I wonder whether more new systems will emerge. I’ve argued that violating one’s own privacy with beer-party pictures will become less important thanks to the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation. That will become more and more the case under Zuckerberg’s Law, which decrees that “…next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.” We’ll all be vulnerable. In the company of nudists, no one’s naked.
The conversation is well worth the trouble. I am the obnoxious optimist. I do trust the wisdom of the crowd, the market, the public and I believe that we will all benefit the more that we are all public and the more our institutions are all transparent. But I fear losing the conversation and wisdom and contributions to it from people who get the shiv in the back once too often (which for some will be once). It’s one matter to read stupid attacks and gather around them as entertainment. It’s another to be on the wrong end of them and I need to be reminded of that as I was this week.
Maybe that’s what happens: We all get attacked once and become wiser for it. Or we all get attacked and become nastier for it; that’s the fear. There were always be trolls, fools, idiots, and assholes; there are in life and so they will be here on the internet. That doesn’t ruin the internet any more than it ruins New York. The question is whether and how we can see and protect the value of the internet. Optimist that I am, I believe we will.
: LATER: By the way, I see I’m being baited by another person who only attacks people and only to get attention and links. I’m not even watching what he says; I stopped watching him two years ago. Just a note: This is why I love Twitter. I blocked him. And now my world is free of this troll. It feels good. And, no, I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of a link, either.