Reaping the Snark-Winds*

I was talking to serious businesspeople about the blogosphere the other day, explaining what I saw as the potential to gain credibility and respect by connecting with bloggers who have a particular expertise, or who cover a particular niche.

We were on a conference call; the participants were also on the Internet, and we were telling each other about sites we found.

One of the others on the call interrupted me to say, “I found this headline,” which was something to the effect of “Those Cocksuckers Should Die.”

“Yeah, well, there’s that element too,” I said sheepishly, feeling for a moment like I’d accidentally taken a client to lunch in a strip club.

If you are a blogger, there’s no one censoring you. At least up ’til now, the companies that host blogs don’t step in and say “mind your language,” or “that’s libel.” And if you’re really angry about, oh, George W. Bush, or Joe Lieberman, or Hillary Clinton, or Howard Dean, sometimes all you want to do is curse at them, and blogging lets you do that.

If you’re a bit more clever, perhaps you don’t just curse, you get “snarky” — a kind of mean-spirited cleverness. Some snarky sites are funny, but some of them get a little dark. Not that journalists of past eras were models of courtly behavior. But, for a lot of writers, the ability to set one’s own standards equates to no standards.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the recent episode involving the political satire site Protein Wisdom shows how a playground without monitors can sometimes degenerate. Protein Wisdom’s Jeff Goldstein strikes many conservatives as hilarious. His politics are a little less harsh than Ann Coulter’s, but his taste for the outrageous outpaces hers by quite a bit. Some left-wingers are drawn to his site like the proverbial moths to a flame. One of them was Deborah Frisch, a college teacher out of Arizona.

Here’s a Protein Wisdom post that summarizes the fray. Basically, Ms. Frisch lost her mind, deciding to react to Goldstein’s outrageousness by posting weird, obscene and threatening remarks about Goldstein’s 2-year-old son. As a result, she is no longer teaching college in Arizona. Many conservatives rallied to Goldstein, relating to his concerns as a parent. Some (not all) leftists agreed; Hirsch was way out of line. She herself apologized, somewhat equivocally.

The sober, witty law-prof blogger Ann Althouse, though a moderate conservative, is no fan of Goldstein’s. She assesses what happened this way:

I agree Frisch has a big problem. She’s the weakling who entered a drinking match with a man who can drink you under the table. She lost control. She paid the price — a big one. Goldstein’s you-talked-about-my-child move is a strong one, but it’s a move nonetheless, made by a person who likes to play the game… hard. He’s not a victim. He’s one of the people who has advanced himself in the blogosphere by making it hostile and ugly. Like all of us, he is capable of being hurt by a genuine crazy. But why not just delete the trolls? Why rile them? Some of them really aren’t playing with a full deck. Why push weak people until they lose control? It’s an ugly game, and I think Jeff knows he plays it.

Standing back from this, what I see is a inherent feature of putting the power of publishing in individuals’ hands without barriers to entry of any kind, and combining that power with the power of social media to create conversations within and across various blogs. When the only control is self-control, in an environment like this, that’s no control at all. When a snarky blog that permits comments avoids evokes this kind of ugly incident, one might eventually see that as the exception, not the rule.

It’s no reason not to play. But it’s a reminder that the blogosphere is far from Paradise.

*Corrected, thanks to an alert reader, to get Ms. Frisch’s name right throughout, 7/12.

4 thoughts on “Reaping the Snark-Winds*

  1. Standing back from this, what I see is a inherent feature of putting the power of publishing in individuals’ hands without barriers to entry of any kind, and combining that power with the power of social media to create conversations within and across various blogs. When the only control is self-control, in an environment like this, that’s no control at all. When a snarky blog that permits comments avoids this kind of ugly incident, one might eventually see that as the exception, not the rule.

    Translation: Grownups can’t decide for themselves what to read. So we need internet “editors.”

    Incidentally, here’s the post that Frisch first commented on. Read the post. If she is responding to my “outrageousness,” please tell me what that outrageousness is.

    Also, go through the thread and see how she acted. And then maybe you’ll reconsider.

    Oh. And Althouse and I have a chequered history. She admits she didn’t follow the story. Yet she pontificates on it as an expert, and you quote her as such.

    Interesting, that.

  2. Jeff,

    Outrageousness is the whole gestalt of your site! That’s what your fans love about it.

    Your translation is a mis-translation. I don’t hold you responsible for Frisch. I’m just saying that we’re likely to see more of them, because the Internet is…well, what I said. Unfettered expression plus social engagement of readers. It’s the combination that’s volatile. It potentially exists on every website, but I don’t think it’s an accident that it happened on yours.

    You’ve got the gift of being able to write commentary and satire that arouses people. You probably know that in early history, the satirist was seen as having supernatural powers. Satire is inherently divisive. For all those who cheer you on, there are others who feel the causes with which they identify are wounded by your invective.

    Your fans try to imitate you. Your foes try to out-do you. That’s how I read Althouse’s point. Frisch, pathetically, thought she should try to out-do you, and instead made herself look like a sociopath.

    But that doesn’t mean I believe the Internet needs editors. As I said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Freedom has intrinsic value to me, even though I predict this kind of thing will become a more frequent occurence. I’m just picking up from this sad little story the possibility of a trend.

    Keep on keepin’ on, Jeff. I should give your site another shot: As they said about Frenchmen and Elvis fans, five million hits can’t be wrong.

    John

  3. One more thought. My last sentence was the real point of this post. There are a lot of blog-evangelists out there. As much as I love the medium, this story shows its limitations and pitfalls. Not to say it should be “fixed” by some committee. Only to say it’s a tough environment, and no one should be naive about that.

  4. Jeff makes the same mistake many lefties make (and that Frisch herself initially made) in not getting the feel for this joint before commenting. This post isn’t really about whether it’s Jeff’s fault that Frisch is a jerk. Jeff didn’t make her a jerk, she always was one. There’s a reason she picked his blog to have her grand coming out party, though. Without causing it, without being responsible for it, the way Jeff writes, and the way his commenters write, puts people who are of a mind to be put there, in the mood for thinking up and publishing the nastiest things they’re able to. It puts most people in the mood to not hang out in his comments section.

    It’s not just political blogs, either. The DodgerBlues forum is unfit for human consumption (jmo) so it seems like blogs of any genre can be rendered inhospitable, and so commercially dangerous. But I think it is, and always will be, the exception. Most people don’t want to be a part of that. I think bloggers (currently a relatively very small sample of humanity) are much more likely to change toward the less snarky (read: mundane), than everybody else is to change the other way.

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