Sunday, August 24, 2008

Random Thoughts on Blogger Conferences

OK. So I attended my first Blogger Conference yesterday. By all measures, it was a wonderful event. I very much enjoyed putting names and faces to blogs. I'm sure others did, too. That's part of the attraction of this kind of event, I suppose.

And yet I had (have) mixed feelings about it. Don't get me wrong: (1) I love reading the NOLA blogs and I am not only much better informed about many things both local and national because of them, but I have been inspired by them to become much more actively engaged in civic work. So I owe a great debt of gratitude to NOLA bloggers for that. (2) I love the conference format for exchanging ideas, for networking, and for professional development. In fact, such kinds of meetings are a big part of my regular job as an academic.

But one of the things I have come to especially like about blogging (and perhaps the most important thing that I like about blogging) is its raw, hard-hitting, and unapologetic commentary and reporting. Blogging provides a sharp edge to opinion-making, critical thinking, and intellectual debate. And I think this edge, which is exciting and challenging, requires to some extent the absence of personalized human contact. When you share a beer with someone, get to know that person better socially, talk about the mundane things of life like jobs and families, etc., it becomes infinitely harder to maintain that sharp and critical edge in a blogosphere debate that pits two bloggers who are passionately committed to opposite sides of an issue. Let me give a couple of examples just from my own experience: (1) Oyster of Your Right Hand Thief and I have very different reactions to and postions on reforming the Assessors offices. Over the past few years, this issue has flared up as a hot item in the blogosphere. It even spawned a movement (the "IQ" movement) that I viscerally opposed. Oyster passionately supported the cause; I passionately opposed it. I don't think we disagreed on the need for reform; but we definitely and strongly disagreed on the "IQ" movement as a tactic and means to carry out such reform. So we aired our thoughts on our blogs and we pushed, challenged, and criticized each other in the comments sections. Not to say that we weren't civil and nice to each other. We were. But the lack of any kind of substantive personal contact between us made it possible for us to be stronger advocates of our positions and more forceful critics of each other. Now that I've had the chance to meet Oyster personally a couple of times, I think it will be much harder for me to be as forceful a critic of Oyster when we might disagree. That's not to say that I won't hold back in my criticisms, but I know myself and I know that I will be much more gracious in my criticisms. My comments will undoubtedly be tempered as a consequence of having gotten to know Oyster as a person, even if only a little bit more than before. (2) This is perhaps more poignantly so in the case of Jeffrey of the Library Chronicles. Before I ever met Jeffrey, I found his cynical style of blogging to be really rather annoying. And I often let him know this in pretty snarky ways, usually in comments to his blog postings. And then I met Jeffrey, first at Ashley's funeral, and then with my kids at the Library where he works. And my kids actually know Jeffrey from their frequent visits to the Public Library (and, get this, they actually like him! They think he's helpful, nice, AND funny!) And finally I got to see and hear Jeffrey perform as moderator at Rising Tide III. He was great and funny and thoughtful and good-humored. Absent was the acerbic cynic and critic of the Library Chronicles. And though I still think Jeffrey, the "cynic" blogger, is annoying, I've come not to think of him really as a cynic; thus I'm much more likely to be able to swallow his cynical blogging much better for having gotten to see him in person and to know him a bit better as a person. As much as I might want to try to maintain my critical posture towards Jeffrey's style, I know that there's no way I'll be able to do it in the same way.

And these are just two examples from folks with whom I basically share an ideological affinity. But I have to say that, given the fact that I'm a frequenter of a number of conservative blogs, the same would apply to ideological rivals that I have come to know from the blogosphere.

The fact is that the degree to which the shroud of anonymity disappears, and the degree to which bloggers become personalized and humanized to each other, the more likely it will be for the sharper critical edge of blogging and commentary to become tempered. And I do lament the loss of that to some extent.

HOWEVER ... And this is a BIG however ...

I am also increasingly becoming more and more convinced that Bloggers need to find more plentiful and more frequent opportunities to socialize and come together in environments that facilitate human contact and human exchange. And I think this is an imperative for two main reasons:

(1) There is a kind of narcissism among bloggers that is troubling to me. [And I am not immune to this tendency myself.] Jeffrey's comment at the conference yesterday about "Vanity blogging" really resonated in this regard. And it should resonate. Blogging, and the isolation that surrounds it (after all, most of us bloggers are usually just sitting in front of our computer screens with high speed internet connections when we put on the blogger hat and tap away our ruminations on the keyboards), tends to naturally lead to what I see as a kind of self-congratulatory smugness. We secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) pat ourselves on the back for unearthing some obscure nugget of information. And we are proud of ourselves, sometimes with good reason, when we can convert that nugget of information into a story that generates a buzz beyond our little blogging community. But without putting our blogging into a more personalized social and professional context, we can walk around during the day and do our routines with work and family without ever having that blogger's pride or accomplishment subject to the molding and shaping of our real world. Our blogging is insulated from the impacts of our real and human lives. Think of it this way: if we went around and talked to our friends, family, and colleagues like we talk on our blogs and to one another in comment threads, we'd be very lonely (and maybe even despised) people. And so getting bloggers as bloggers out into the world of other people who are also bloggers humanizes us as bloggers. So, events like Rising Tide III, and other blogger conferences are essential to pushing us bloggers as bloggers out of the insular and narcissistic world of our own (and others') blogs.

(2) The second reason why I think blogger conferences like that of Rising Tide III are imperative has to do with ideas of civic engagement that I've been mulling over for the past 8-9 months or so. As I said earlier in this posting, I love the NOLA blogosphere because it has informed me about my community and has cultivated an activist consciousness in me that was not as present in my life previously. The fact is that I am much more civically engaged now than I ever was before; and the NOLA blogosphere (along with my involvement in the Service Learning initiative at Tulane) has played a major and significant part in this evolution of my life. Now, I've always been concerned about such things notionally and as subjects of personal interest and even professional study; but I have not always been drawn to put this into some kind of civic action. And though I have the NOLA blogosphere to thank, in part, for creating in me a civic consciousness and thus pushing me to become more active, the fact that Tulane's Public Service initiative also gave me a very concrete push helped to make civic engagement a more fundamental aspect of my life. The problem with the blogosphere in general, though, is that even though it might cultivate a civic consciousness in bloggers and blog readers, there is nothing inherent to the blogosphere that translates this consciousness into civic action. Someone can be a great blogger, but an absent participant in what Harry C. Boyte calls "everyday politics." Conferences like Rising Tide III can be a means to address this real weakness in the blogosphere. In fact, with proper planning, Blogger Conferences can purposefully address this weakness. And though I couldn't participate in the Community Service project scheduled for today as part of the Rising Tide III Conference, I am glad that it was part of the program. But I do think that half-day service projects are not enough. We bloggers need to find more ways to convert blogging into sustained civic action and active participation in the project of everyday politics with real people in face-to-face contexts.

So, I remain with mixed feelings and will continue to sort through them. As an academic, one of the ways I am trained to do this is through pondering, studying, researching, and writing. And I have bubbling in the back of my mind a book project that will treat this subject more completely and thoroughly. So, if any bloggers out there might want to participate in this project, and perhaps contribute an essay to such a book project on the subject of blogging and civic engagement, drop me a line.

In the meantime, keep blogging! Oh, and if any of you have posted anything along similar lines, or if any of you have read blog postings that treat this subject, please let me know that, too.


Tim said...

True, it's harder to attack someone you know in person, someone you might actaully like. But does that *prevent* more meaningful discussion, or does it *promote* it? I say the latter. I say that if the purpose of blogging is to share and communicate, there needs to be constructive discussion. Yes, many bloggers take to their blogs like a preacher climbing the stairs to the pulpit, fully confident that their message is RIGHT, and that no one can challenge them. And anyone who does offer challenge is cast out as a demon or heretic. But if we believe in democracy, if we believe in the inherent worth of each human, we should be willing not only to give opinions, but to recieve. I think meeting my fellow bloggers has made me more receptive to their ideas and added credibility to their online voices.

I'm glad you conclude that more meet-ups would be good for blogging and the movement in which we are participating. Geek dinners are on the horizon--see you there!



Kevin Allman said...

Hi, Jimmy -

You raise one of the questions we didn't get to on the journalism panel: at what point are we just talking among ourselves? It's great to have more voices and comments on the Gambit blog, for instance (and I love them), but how do we get more people talking, participating, etc.?

I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from participating, but I think if there's "vanity blogging," there's also a thing called "vanity commenting."

Anyway - I read the Upchuck and like it, and I wish we'd had a chance to hang out at RT.

Huck said...

Thanks, Tim. I look forward to those (in)famous "geek" dinners. You raise some good points. Ones I agree with. As I said, I've got mixed feelings. But if someone asked me where I would fall out in balance, I'd say that I'm pretty much in line with where you are. Humanizing and personalizing bloggers may not only be better for blogging overall, but it is certainly better for the soul. And I'll go with sacrificing cutthroat blogging over hanging with some cool folks and making new friends anytime.

Huck said...

Thanks, too, Kevin. Yes, it would have been nice to have the chance to meet at RTIII. I really enjoyed your comments on the Journalism Panel. Interesting point on the "vanity blogging" versus "vanity commenting" distinction. I think you're on to something there. That's worthy of some more thought. Maybe we'll have the chance to meet again sometime beyond the blogosphere!

Anonymous said...

The vanity blogging is a struggle. I am aware of my own ego and try hard every time to phrase things on my blog in such a way as I don't appear to be stating I know what's best for people. It's hard. Most of my posts are inspired. That is, I read or hear something and immediately begin hammering out the words to a post. So the passion comes through.

That said, I always come back to being clueless in my own head.

But the narcissism is the nature of the beast. Eventually anyone but the most anonymous creative minds of our world will be accused of it. It's really not so horrible. It's fine to think you are the bees knees. The sin is when you demean others (your peers) as a means of elevating yourself.

I saw a very inspirational group of people yesterday. While I certainly think a lot of myself, I think a lot of those other brilliant and beautiful hearts and minds as well.

Huck said...

varg - Thanks for the comments. Yes, the "sin" in the narcissism is when that translate into some ad hominem nastiness. But that's precisely why I think Blogger Conferences (and other such fora) are important: we need to get to know those other hearts and minds a bit more personally so that we can respect them all the more.

Anonymous said...

It's been pointed out before that NO and it's current situation presents an incredibly atypical situation. I really don't think things like Rising Tide happen in other cities. A towering inferno of flame wars is often what you find. I believe Ashley said that in some sense we are all on the same side in the recovery and righting the broken apparatus of Government we are saddled with.

And some of the most intense and heated (and fun) debates I've had in my lifetime came with good friends with whom there was a mutual respect (even if they were all wrong).

And it's hard to generalize across the spectrum of Bloggers.

Anonymous said...

Whoops! I forgot my last comment on "vanity". Please find the following quote in the sidebar of my blog:

"I do think that the quality which makes a man want to write and be read is essentially a desire for self-exposure and is masochistic. Like one of those guys who has a compulsion to take his thing out and show it on the street." - James Jones

It's all vanity.

jeffrey said...

I like everything Celcus just said.

I'll add that it's been three years now since I've put faces to most of the names on my blogroll... and that I genuinely like most of these people. But you have no doubt observed that this fact has not yet deterred me from ripping the shit out of them as regularly as the mood strikes.

Huck said...

celsus - Perhaps N.O. is an atypical situation. No ... it most definitely is so. But I would suggest that it may be so precisely because of things like the Rising Tide conferences that temper flame wars.

And, sure, it's "all vanity" -- as is every reflective exercise destined for public consumption. But I would point to the differences between where this vanity and narcissism leads in terms of how others are treated and suggest that personalizing contact means our hubris is tempered in ways that do create a bit of genuine humility -- at least if we care at all about the feelings of others. If they are friends, they still might be all wrong and I still might engage them forcefully on issues; but that attack on the intellectual jugular isn't going to be so brutal.

jeffrey - yes, I imagine you do rip into folks whom you may know personally. But when you know them, there is a line that one doesn't tend to cross. Maybe you don't cross this line; but I'd say that you probably have a good sense of where that line is for many of the folks you rip into. And perhaps knowing someone gives you license to rip a little more deeply because there is a more profound respect built on a cultivated personal relationship, but that's still a negotiated pact and you know that there are limits to it. I find it hard to believe that personalizing a relationship doesn't impact how you would treat the person on the other end of that relationship. Heck, even our rivals (and enemies, if you want to go that far) whom we do know personally, we probably treat more seriously and carefully because we know that the personal aspect of the relationship comes with boundaries and consequences that are more real to us.

Don't get me wrong: I'll still dish it out as much as I am used to doing; but I'm not naive enough to think that there won't be some kind of tempering that comes with it the more personalized and humanized the relationship becomes.

oyster said...

Huck: it was great meeting you in person and I wish we had more time to chat at RT3. However, I sincerely encourage you NOT to hold back the next time we passionately disagree on some issue. Seriously, I would be disappointed if you held anything back on account, should such a situation arise again. (Although that's probably doubtful because we agree on so many things.)

Please feel free to "err" on the side of "too much", rather than not enough. I honestly enjoy the friction that generates thought.

(Now, I fully grant you that "personalizing the relationship" does change things. However, if you get the urge to "temper" anything in response to a oyster, please feel free to "correct" that by consciously going the other way-- even if it means a slightly less charitable interpretation of my arguments or a slightly edgier response.

In the long run, I really don't mind. (Although I'm not saying my blood pressure doesn't elevate when someone blasts one of my statements, I ultimately calm down and enjoy the jousting.)

Huck said...

thanks, oyster. I hope I didn't convey the sense that I wouldn't be critical and passionate in expressing contrarian or divergent opinions. I am, by nature, oriented that way. And like I said up front, there is a part of me that likes the edginess and hard-hitting nature of the blogospher. So, rest assured I won't hold back. But it's how I sally forth that inevitably will change somewhat. It's not that I start out as a blogger meanie. In fact, I generally shy away from this. But I just can't help but be a bit nicer to people with whom I've broken bread and shook hands. And this is true even if I'm not particularly fond of them.

But I don't think that's a bad thing. That's why I think events like RTIII are important. In the real world, I sometimes wish folks would hold back a little more when they're dealing with strangers on emotionally charged issues. And, yes, there are those for whom developing more personal contact affords more probing and even perhaps some uncharitable criticism; but it comes with a clear awareness that, in the end, there is a measure of good will and respect behind it.

My posting was just recognizing the tensions between blogging and respectful citizenship. That's all. Again, thanks for the thoughts.

jeffrey said...

I promise I'll continue being as mean as I possibly can to Clancy Dubos... even if he did buy me beer on Friday.

Anonymous said...

I just took my thing out in the middle of the street. The woman in the 900 block saw me and I am pretty sure she called the cops.

It wasn't the same as blogging.

Whoa! Hey!

Anonymous said...

There's something I'm not sure was said in this discussion: blogging doesn't have to live up to anything at all. It can be whatever the author wants it to be. And readers who don't like it, don't have to read it. It happens that most of us are passionate about recovery issues, so we tend to want to be on the same team, but as was observed with the drama that played out on Saturday, we aren't always immune to lashing out occasionally, and sometimes for really stupid reasons.

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