A culpable victim of the electronic mob

In September 2006 New Republic columnist Lee Siegel was suspended for participating in online discussion following his articles through the device of a sock-puppet dubbed “sprezzatura”. Caught bang to rights he was, praising himself in response to the stream of anonymous abuse with which all of us who have engaged in online journalism are familiar.

Siegel has since resumed working for New Republic, and has hit back at his abusers in a book titled “Against the machine: being human in the age of the electronic mob”. He was also interviewed recently by New Scientist and New York Magazine.

There are a number of sound reasons for adopting pseudonyms in online discussions, and even adopting false names so that one can ridicule others without fear of comeback can be justified in certain circumstances. There are no hard and fast boundaries, and in the end it all comes down to personal responsibility.

And with his personal irresponsibility Siegel came a cropper. He failed to see even the fuzziest line in the sand, and his petulant response to the blogofascist mob was out of order. Siegel at least partly acknowledges this, as the following quote shows:

“I react very badly when mediocrity throws a tantrum of entitlement. And that’s what those people were doing.” [New York Magazine]

Until the creation of the blogosphere, opinion journalists were accountable to no-one bar their editors. They could get away with writing any old shite, and frequently did. Readers could send letters, but no more than a tiny fraction of such missives is ever published. Celebrity columnists have grown fat and lazy, and readers ever more contemptuous of the journalistic profession.

Today the masses have the opportunity to answer back, and are doing so in increasing numbers. In the best online forums they are allowed to write what they will within the limits of decency and legality. Lesser forums, on the other hand, are little better than letters pages, with moderation influenced by editorial prejudices.

Siegel deserves no sympathy for his public shaming, but he is on the ball when it comes to the way in which political blogging is reducing journalism to the lowest common denominator:

“[Bloggers] are subject to the worst kind of pressure: popularity. It is the bane of the Internet. Popular culture is becoming popularity culture, where quality no longer matters. News, for example, is becoming a popularity contest as never before. Editors always had an eye pleasing the public, but not like this.” [New Scientist]

That, in my opinion, is a little too sweeping. Even in the ranting, raving Interweb, quality can rise to the top. It frequently does in the case of websites that focus on subjects about which the writers are qualified to comment. Blogs included.

But Siegel’s basic point stands. Whether they be commercial ventures such as the websites of serious national newspapers, or political blogs, online discussion forums feed on visitor numbers and comments, and disagreement. That influences the way in which article writers go about their business, even where there is no explicit pressure from editors to deliberately provoke readers.

Siegel turns his attention to the psychology of the Internet:

“I think people are ‘acting out’ their lives much more, in the psychological sense of doing things which show their subconscious conflicts. It’s making life more fantastical. It’s teaching people, especially young people, to be predatory, in a very sneaky passive-aggressive way… Occupying a purely mental space in a physical vacuum, you can be more calculating than you might be in a real social situation.” [New Scientist]

To say that the Internet is a poor substitute for reality is stating the bleeding obvious. But then perhaps it needs to be stated. Repeatedly.

Shameless plug

This evening I shall be indulging in the kind of “live social interaction” of which Siegel would surely approve. I shall be attending my friend and fellow blogger Katy Evans-Bush’s book launch party. “Me and the Dead” (ISBN: 9781844714216) is available from 15 July at all good bookshops.