Salon: Readers Strike Back, Writers Weep
Gary Kamiya explores the ramifications of Reader Feedback (mostly of the public variety) on writing. At its core, the piece is a lamentation of the professional writer's diminished place in the social order (bummer for you, dude!).
Although he fails to distinguish commentators from writers (a blurry but significant distinction where it can be made), Kamiya nonetheless makes some interesting observations that, when taken as a whole, point the way toward ever increasing white noise and stifling cultural enforcement of the delusion known as consensus reality:
And, of course, for a writer there is the guilty narcissistic pleasure, which can become an addiction, of wallowing in what other people have to say about you. If you have a blog, as New York Times media writer David Carr noted recently, this temptation is even more powerful. In the Balzacian -- some would say baboonlike -- game of status-affirmation that we are all tempted to play from time to time, the number of letters you get, blogs that deal with you, or the number of times your name comes up on Google is an index of higher rank.-snip-
Miller, who says the tendency of discussion threads to degenerate is an example of "the tragedy of the commons," believes that the worst online abuse is directed at writers who make themselves vulnerable by revealing intimate things about their lives. "I don't think people who write stuff like that should read their letters," Miller says. "If you write something revealing, people mob up and become predatory." Miller attributes this to a rampant cultural self-righteousness: "It's like a virus in society -- the policing of norms." As every online editor knows, pieces about child-rearing, sexual mores and the like provoke remarkably virulent outbursts of reader self-righteousness.-snip-
However, the real danger posed by the reader revolution is subtler. As writing becomes more of a dialogue and less of a soliloquy, the risk is that it will flatten out. That the new ideals of consensus and saturated information will replace the old ones of creativity and individuality -- what Powers called "the age of personal reflection."
Self-censorship has its place - assessments of vulnerability and exposure are especially critical in the age of online publishing - but nothing kills creativity like caution. In an increasingly risk-averse culture, the effect of mob rule on good writing cannot be easily dismissed.
Since Kamiya's article is about reader feedback - and also because I'm a lazy, lazy blogger - what follows is my response:
The Age of Personal Reflection is over.
No worries. Writers *will* write. The courageous ones, anyway. And they're the only ones who matter. That part hasn't changed, nor will it.
Whether or not there continues to be an audience for creative, reflective, insightful writing remains to be seen. My experience with adults under 25 - hooked, as they are, on a constantly charged neurological I.V. of text messages, voice mail and entertainment media - provides little reason for optimism.
The entire political-media establishment is "concerned" about self-publishing and open publishing, but the *coarsening of society* is far from the primary source of its discontent. Losing credibility, prestige, attention, advertisers and market share to writers and commentators who aren't in the club - that's a problem. Not having a monopoly on setting the parameters of public discourse - determining what views should or shouldn't be taken seriously - that's a problem. And, of course, accountability is always a problem.
As someone who has long felt completely alienated from traditional top-down information outlets - and repeatedly betrayed by the [non-existent] Fourth Estate - I'm delighted to see the old order subverted. Online media isn't pretty, but it's far closer to the spirit of truth than the old self-contained, insular, ivory tower model of journalism and editorial commentary.
People know trolling, misogyny and canned talking points when they see them. If an audience can't be trusted to discern pathos from reasoned discussion, it's time to start cultivating a more sophisticated audience.