Online conversations: some observations

by Yule Heibel on February 20, 2014

I don’t blog anymore and instead I occasionally scatter my thoughts on Facebook, or, in 140-character shorthand form, on Twitter. For some years now, I’ve been using third-party applications, which are “free,” but which I don’t own.

I don’t post to my “Harvard/Berkman” blog, nor to my own yuleheibel DOT com blog. (Update: since writing this the other day, I opted to post here after all.) That Berkman blog is also free, just like those third-party applications mentioned above. But, as is the case with other free blogging platforms (Blogger, WordPress, e.g.), blogs give the content creator a greater sense of ownership over that content. Meanwhile, my own paid-up-and-self-hosted domain, nearly empty like an unwanted house, gives me full control and ownership.

Yet I don’t post there. (Till just now. See update, above.)

And what does this mean? It means that I don’t value my thoughts, I don’t value what I come up with. This absence of self-valuation shows in my increasingly exclusive tendency to “present” content produced by others (not by me) on the so-called free social media platforms. In other words, I re-post articles I found interesting for some reason.

So I’m helping some kind of machine go round, and have resigned myself to being a mere cog in its functioning. I’m reduced – have reduced myself, actually, by taking myself out of the content creator game (why did I do that, really?) – to someone (something?) else’s currency. I’m the risk-free collateral and accrued interest of other people’s thoughts.

It’s worse than grad school, in a way.

Because… now I seem to devalue the thoughts of others, too.

My passive morphing into a posting-machine on Facebook or Twitter, a kind of ATM spitting out currency that isn’t mine, has let a general feeling of misanthropy settle on my psyche. I know this game is rigged, I think to myself. I know there are winners and losers in this game (which mightn’t even be worth the candle), says the inner judge (thou shalt not judge, perhaps?).

But I can’t help judging the currency based on who blessed it before I clapped eyes on it: Were these words given the imprimatur of a respected media outlet? A coveted well-known magazine? Is the author/content creator, even if he or she has just produced something good on his/her blog, anointed by some other authority – perhaps an affiliation with a think tank, or one of those busy, busy magazines that dishes out subject matter expertise? What’s the pedigree?

My words in comparison seem unblessed, wild, without provenance – and therefore without destination, falling on barren ground. Who would want to read them?

Misanthrope. We really only thrive in community (even if hell is other people), and the business of online content creation has soured for me, profoundly. Don’t get me wrong: if I could run it like a business, I would. I don’t have problems with Facebook or Twitter being businesses, using the content and data we users create to drive advertising. That model was obvious when I signed up all those years ago (and my Facebook is set to public, because I have no illusions about it being private). I’m just disappointed (in myself) that I’m bad at cashing in, I guess.

Disappointment or misanthropy? Does one drive the other? My increasing inability to value my own words and thinking has led to my devaluing the thoughts of others, too. Not all others, mind you. But seeing how online content creation is now more than ever a commercial venture (“markets are conversations,” remember? and now the conversations are geared to fit the markets…), my sense of value is affected, and, ever so subtly (or not), I judge all of you online content creators by how successful you appear in this game.

This saddens me. It should sadden you, too. It seems I don’t value my means of content production, …and, well, I don’t value yours, either.

footprints

This thing on the internet – blogging – which initially brought us so much community (and a few flame wars) has withered in the face of platforms owned and developed by bright young men, fueled by advertising dollars of the oldest, most proven, been-around-the-block gray-haired kind. (Full disclosure: I’m gray-ish, and I’ve seen this before, grasshopper.)

It just seems harder now to keep a sustained interest in independent voices, to figure out why one should bother, given how our attention is already monopolized and frazzled into multitasking splinters. Feeds (blog rolls, aka “linky love”) are hardly featured prominently anymore on blog sidebars. So-called re-blogging (favored by platforms like Tumblr) or re-pinning (Pinterest) is essentially another version of re-posting links on Facebook or Twitter.

What else? Online conversational exchanges seem increasingly ephemeral: they’re scattered across many platforms, they’re unarchived, appearing and disappearing according to algorithms (Facebook, I’m looking at you), their value accessible only to accountants who tally up advertising revenue and traders who determine the conversational platform’s stock value.

Meanwhile, the conversations that do happen on blogs are changing, affected, dying, or becoming death-rattle shrill, as many blogs assume a different shape and feel.

Conversations are migrating to comments boards (often powered by Disqus) on big-name blogs. Well, they call themselves blogs, but, really, when the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, or any version of The Atlantic claims to “blog,” I see 800-pound gorillas who eat the little uncredentialed and unsanctioned guys for lunch. Yet again and again, we see online content creators who use words, and who are wordy, more likely to expend their energies on the comments boards of those Big Guys than to post to their own blogs.

So I’ve stopped reading the comments. It’s part of my new Misanthropy Policy.

I guess I hate that we’re all working for The Man (if that’s not too morbidly retro), and that The Man doesn’t even have the cojones (or ovaries) to show him-/her-/whatever-self. It’s invisible capitalism, you losers. No, wait. I take that back. It’s not really invisible. It’s a horizontal slicing (financialization, unlocalized market forces) through vertical slices (local/national structures that are social, political, and economic). (Big tip of the hat to Ursula Franklin for the metaphor; I hope to write about and explain it in more detail in the next installment).

Those digital changes are a big deal, as anyone can tell you. We’re living in a strange revolution – of bits and capital and the shape of governance. And some of us may have been jerks, trying to play earnestly in this bonkers sandbox shark tank. Online is where people go to sell something. Have nothing to sell? Either go away …or make something freaking beautiful.

So, if you still have the energy, go out and create something beautiful (on a platform of your own – it could be a garden bed, but it must be yours). It might just be the thing worth doing.

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