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.