‘The Fundamental Question Of The Web’
In my recent Writer Unboxed essay about online anger among books people, several readers assumed that I was talking about anonymous people and trolls. I wasn’t.
In Our CyberVillage: So Much Anger is about people in the publishing community who seem to be personally, continually incensed that others don’t agree with everything they say and write. They’re not hiding behind false identities, for the most part. They’re known and operating under their own names.
Granted, there are a few exceptions to the self-identification trend. One who masquerades as “Smart Debut Author” has tried to draw me out here at Thought Catalog in comments. Needless to say, engaging with that person quickly has proven pointless because he or she can’t be held accountable for what she or he says in these comments. Whoever is writing those comments renders her- or himself a non-person by hiding behind a false name. Nothing “Smart” about it.
But for the most part, the kind of associates I was talking about are open about their identities. They don’t seem to understand or care that they’re behaving inappropriately when they make runs at people, knives and swords flashing. They appear to have no interest in good relations with peers in their field. They’re highly confrontational.
One of them, in fact, accosted me in comments on that story, itself, giving me a perfect way to illustrate an example of the problem to my other readers.
Embarrassment seems to be one of their favorite tactics: these colleagues like to make you look bad for a mistake or a viewpoint they don’t share, for something that didn’t go well for you. These are “gotcha!” people who leave you wondering what on Earth you did to them to deserve their goading and slights.
As I mentioned in that article, these people seem to be continually angry. Left on the proverbial desert island, they wouldn’t just raze the palms to the ground with manic energy but would also scream at each tree as it fell over.
One comment that turned up several times makes me know I need to clarify this point: It’s not commitment to an issue that’s the problem; the problem occurs when the commitment is rendered a weapon.
- If someone is angry about an issue, that’s one thing. It might make them unpleasant to be around — maybe it’s all they can seem to talk about — but their anger can, yes, help fuel their efforts to raise and address that issue.
- If someone is angry at someone about or around or because of that issue, however, everything has changed. At the point they turn even righteous indignation on a person, they have become assailants. This is unpardonable, and insupportable in the context of online discussion and debate of issues, certainly in publishing (it’s publishing, for God’s sake, not nuclear warfare) and in many other fields.
You can see author Jessica Bell making this point in a post at the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) site. In Opinion: Online Etiquette For The Indie Author Community, Bell writes:
You read a post that voices an opinion on a topic you are passionate about and want to engage in the conversation. Go for it! But engage in the conversation. Not in fleeting judgments about the person who posted it for having an opinion that is different from yours.
That’s it exactly. And how simple. How is it that people of letters even have to have this conversation about such disrespectful behavior online?
In looking for what might make people handle associates in mean-spirited, vulgar, aggressive ways, I’ve been helped by a great friend and colleague, Jane Friedman, herself a regular contributor at Writer Unboxed and a reader with a terrific gift of recall for good articles and essays. Friedman suggested in a comment a piece by Paul Ford from January 2011. I want to share some of it with you.
The outpouring of concern and dismay at the tone of so much of our debate in publishing was huge at Writer Unboxed when I published my initial piece. Serious, difficult, worried exchanges made the experience of discussing it a worthwhile one.
Thanks to Friedman and Ford, we can take the conversation a step farther now.
The Crusader Syndrome
It’s not unusual for abrasive people online, especially in publishing circles, to be crusaders. They seem to have to “win” something, even in the greenroom-They have to convince you of something, persuade you to see it as they do. This, in itself, is odd. As I told Donald Maass in our comments exchange, I’m continually baffled by how many of my fellow Americans — people of a nation founded on dissent and the right to it — cannot abide dissent. They can’t bear to have you disagree with them. They must wrestle you into submission or they feel they’ve failed.
Quite frequently, these are the ones who are on a crusade, a mission.
Dragons in St. George’s clothing, they ride into a chat or comments section as if they own the issue. They berate not only those who don’t capitulate to their observations and opinions but also those who don’t recognize them as the key authorities on whatever causes they’re Joan-of-Arc-ing about.
Among the most baffling things about such an angry colleague is that he or she almost inevitably cannot separate issues from personalities.
- Disagree with them and they demonize you. You become the enemy.
- If you don’t nod along on social media when they make their opinions known, they don’t think of this as standing on another side of the question at hand, no, they just hate your guts.
- When you think about it, you can usually discern, then, that the motivator there is not the issue, after all. The driver of such hostility is these people’s need to be right.
This is ego.
And it’s that particular ego-directed performance — “Don’t you know that this is my issue and that I am always correct in these matters?” — that resonates for me in the Ford essay pointed out by Friedman.
Titled The Web Is A Customer Service Medium, the piece begins with people Ford, delightfully, calls Gutenbourgeois:
They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them.
Liking it already? So am I. Ford is the founder and managing partner at Postlight. He’s also a writer; an instructor at the School of Visual Arts; a contributor to New York Magazine.
Ford spends some time here discussing a peculiar trait of the Web, one that can mislead the Gutenbourgeois into thinking they recognize it:
When it arrived, the web seemed to fill all…niches at once. The Web was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. Which meant that people expected it to answer the questions of each medium, and with the promise of advertising revenue as incentive, Web developers set out to provide those answers. As a result, people in the newspaper industry saw the Web as a newspaper. People in TV saw the Web as TV, and people in book publishing saw it as a weird kind of potential book. But the Web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It’s its own thing. And like other media it has a question that it answers better than any other. That question is:
Why wasn’t I consulted?
‘Why Wasn’t I Consulted?’
This is it. Ford’s best insight. I’m going to quote him at a little length on it because I think it tells us all something worth looking for in ourselves.
“Why wasn’t I consulted,” which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web…Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.
I first wrote about this in 2007, after 18 months of isolating and frustrating work on a website:
Brace yourself for the initial angry wave of criticism: How dare you, I hate it, it’s ugly, you’re stupid. The Internet runs on knee-jerk reactions. People will test your work against their pet theories: It…lacks community features; I can’t believe you don’t use dotcaps, lampsheets, or pixel scrims; it is not written in Rusp or Erskell; my cat is displeased. The ultimate question lurks beneath these curses: why wasn’t I consulted?That line was tossed off, but since I wrote it I’ve seen the same pattern everywhere. I’ve explained it to many other web people, and they laugh, but then a few months later some say, “you know…”
So. Let’s look at some of the types this dynamic can generate in publishing, for instance:
- The strident indie authors who have jumped you for suggesting they might need an edit. Often, these are the same selfpub-as-a-cause folks who chide traditionally publishing writers for not self-publishing;
- The dowagers of the traditional, who laugh at indies as if they’re staging a Breugel-buffa peasant frolic on a pageant wagon in the park;
- The marketing people who insist that someone still reads press releases sent to years-old media lists;
- The knights in digital armor, disgusted by the sight of paper and eager to build you an entirely un-navigable Web site for your D2C store;
- The sharp-elbowed millennials who “will never, ever make your stupid mistakes”;
- The condescending booksellers who insist you can’t find a decent read without their hand-selling it to you, you fool;
- The online platform people who claim that bookstores are for chumps and free shipping trumps chumps.
Got some types of your own? Tell me about them in comments here. They all have that tone when they come at you, don’t they? Why wasn’t I consulted?
When we consult Ford, he tells us:
WWIC [Why Wasn’t I Consulted?] is the thing people talk about when they talk about nicer-sounding things like “the wisdom of crowds” or “cognitive surplus.” It has become the first thing I think about when I think about the web. I’ve spent a lot of time with users, and as part of various web communities. I’ve answered thousands of emails about things I built or said. Now…I start by asking: “How do we deal with the WWIC problem?” Everything else comes after.
The next time an angry colleague starts in on you and you’re caught in that Tweeter’s Dilemma (mute or block? block or mute?), listen for the underlying question:
Why wasn’t I consulted?
And then ask yourself — and ask your negative associate, if you dare — why should we consult you? Why would we?
Because our best answer to Why wasn’t I consulted? is another question from us: Who asked you?
And I’ll bet we know the answer already, right?