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Dr. Jim Taylor Headshot

The Blogosphere Jungle

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I can tell you this: It's a jungle out there. I don't mean the real world in which most of us inhabit; that world is pretty tame. I'm talking about the blogosphere. I've been blogging for some time now on a variety of different web sites and, up until recently, it was a pretty unexciting experience. I would post a...post (I still haven't figured out how to use post when it is both a verb and a noun, but that's another discussion) and receive responses that were thoughtful and reasoned.

But then I began blogging on topics that were, shall I say, a bit more controversial. When I would first log on after such postings, I would notice that the number of comments was much higher than usual. I then went to the comments and was totally unprepared for what I read.

Now, I understand that blogs are often opinion pieces and not everyone is going to agree with me. I also acknowledge the risks of expressing one's opinions on topics that are both controversial and for which people hold very strong views; some of my posts qualify on both counts. But, as I have read through the comments, I felt like I was thrown into the jungle among a pack of ravenous beasts, so ferocious were the invectives that were hurled at me.

Yes, some -- but not all, thankfully -- of the comments disagreed with me. I'm fine with that. I'm not the final arbiter of what is right and wrong on any given topic. And many comments offered intelligent perspectives and information that were both enlightening and softened my stance on various topics on which I wrote. But to say that many of the comments were unkind is to say that Yao Ming is pretty tall or Megan Fox is reasonably attractive.

To give you a flavor for some of the less supportive comments, I have been called a clown, narcissistic, a nobody, arrogant, envious, holier-than-thou, a blowhard, self-obsessed, an idiot, puritanical, misguided, a hater, a fascist, a moron, a pinhead, and ignorant. And that's just a short list. I admit that the veracity of these descriptions are up for debate, but I'll leave that discussion to the readers of my blogs.

Though I acknowledge that I can get a bit snarky at times, I try to focus on issues rather than on the people behind them. So I was really surprised by these comments, in both volume and tone, because they were personal, inaccurate, and just plain mean. No doubt I touched a lot of nerves on topics of some debate with people who have very strong feelings about them. But, as I have noted in a previous post, I wonder if civility in public discourse is dead. As these comments and many more written to other bloggers attest, civility appears to have been buried some time ago in the blogosphere.

Thankfully, I read an appropriately-timed commentary on blogging in the New York Times by the columnist Maureen Dowd, a much-better-known and decidedly more controversial figure than I will ever be. The column began: "If I read all the vile stuff about me on the Internet, I'd never come to work. I'd scamper off and live my dream of being a cocktail waitress in a militia bar in Wyoming." Though my dream is a bit different from hers, my feelings were the same.

After my painful rite of passage into the blogosphere jungle, I began to think about the psychology involved in this "Wild West" of a technological frontier. As I'm not planning to stop blogging, I thought I would share some observations I've made about life in the blogosphere.

The blogosphere has opened a seemingly infinite universe for exchanging and debating ideas. Blogging has given voice to many people with important things to say, but who didn't previously have a soapbox from which to express themselves. Of course, blogging has also given a platform for narcissistic, angry, and attention-getting rants by people who think they have something of value to say, but really don't. In which category I belong is a matter of opinion (that I'm sure will be strongly expressed in comments to this post).

Because bloggers and their readers seem to have stronger and more polarized opinions than the general population, these exchanges tend to be little more than volleys of mutually lobbed grenades aimed at not only proving the other person obviously, entirely, and undoubtedly wrong -- and stupid and ugly and fat to boot! -- rather than exchanges of mutual respect and interest in hearing other perspectives.

Before the birth of the blogosphere, most people with an opinion on a topic could share it with a few friends at most and have disagreements of varying intensity. Today bloggers open themselves up to potentially millions (though more typically tens, hundreds, or thousands) of supporters or critics. I have a new-found respect for bloggers who address topics of real import and sensitivity such as politics, religion, or sexuality.

The vitriolic commenters obviously believe fervently in their points of view and find opposing opinions so repugnant that they have to attack the messenger rather than respond to the points of disagreement. What the commenters don't apparently realize (or don't' care about) is that, by using ad hominem attacks, they are weakening their own positions. When people get personal in an argument, they likely don't have a strong argument on the issue. Certainly, vicious and childish rants don't reflect well on the attacker and don't present well to others, whether toward a spouse, a business colleague, or in the blogosphere.

These heated reactions certainly say something interesting about the psychology of the commenters. Such strident emotional reactions occur in the face of an extreme threat to one's world view and, by extension, one's self-esteem. In other words, when angry commenters read something that challenges their perceptions on an issue in which they are highly invested, their primitive survival mechanism is triggered and they do what prehistoric cavemen did when they felt threatened, they attacked. Of course, opinions and facts shouldn't be as menacing as spears and saber-toothed tigers, yet they seem to be for many commenters.

You also can't get away with anything in the blogosphere. There are just too many well-informed people out there who are perfectly willing to set the record straight. You have to not only have all of your facts straight, but you better also have good spelling and good grammar. Nothing in a blog post is too trivial to be dissected, judged, and ripped to shreds. Of course, there are also an equal or greater number of ignoramuses willing to set the record "straight," the facts be damned.

One unfair aspect of blogging is that, while most bloggers are clearly identified and, as a result, out in the open and easy targets, many Web sites allow commenters to be anonymous which gives them cover from responsibility and license to say whatever they want in the harshest possible terms. Yes, many Web sites require registration, but identity, besides some attempt at a clever username, is still not readily evident on the blogs where the attacks occur. At most, abusive comments can be reported and removed by the Web site administrators and serial abusers can be banned from sites. I'll bet if commenters were required to post their real name and email address with their comments, the tone of comments would soften considerably.

Here's a rule that I think bloggers and commenters alike should follow: If you wouldn't say it to someone's face or in front of your grandmother, don't say it on a blog.

One could argue that the blogosphere is self-correcting, that is, supporters will confront the attackers and defend the blogger and the karmic balance in the blogosphere will be restored. And, thankfully, this happens to a degree. Unfortunately, it seems that people are more likely to respond to a controversial blog post that challenges rather than buttresses their own views, so bloggers' gallant defenders are typically few and readily overwhelmed by the marauding onslaught of Visigoths.

With this critique of blog comments, you'd think I would want comments moderated or have them disabled all together, but I don't. Would I love to see a civil tone in blogs? Of course. Do I expect that to happen, ever? I'm not optimistic. My feeling is that, to use an old cliche, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." So, instead of running away from the blogosphere, to quote Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses, I say, "Welcome to the Jungle."