Things are a little slow at the moment. One reason for this is that I’ve decided to work on a slightly longer project that really can’t be placed online until it’s properly finished. Another reason is that my last review to be published is currently sitting on a hacked website, so I won’t link to it until the thing gets fixed.
In the mean time, I thought I would share a moment of insight that occurred to me courtesy of my daily blog shower. I use an RSS reader to follow quite a large number of blogs. In fact, up until recently, the number of blogs I followed was downright alarming as I was trying to keep an eye on the ruins of what was once the culturally vibrant literary SF blogosphere. Since giving up on doing the links roundup for Strange Horizons (long story but camels and backs may have been involved) I have replaced my SF feeds with feeds devoted to politics, games, comics and film. A rush of enthusiasm brings RSS subscriptions, the chilly comedown of boredom and practicality brings purges that are positively Stalinist in their brutal efficiency. Anyway, shaped by recurrent waves of expansion and contraction, my collection of RSS feeds is now something of a motley array of disconnected minds. A lot of the blogs I follow are followed for reasons that are no longer quite clear to me. In fact, my RSS feed aggregator tends to blur one RSS feed into another meaning that I simply do not have a handle on many of the individual blogs that I do follow. One instance of this process of informational alienation is my following of the BBlog.
I suspect that I first started following the BBlog because it contained thoughtful pieces about video games. X months down the line and the site has morphed away from games and towards a form of techy intellectualism that I find particularly compelling. In fact, I currently provide cheap accommodation to a purveyor of precisely that style of writing. Anyway, the reason why I decided to bring up the BBlog is because a recent post genuinely caused me to stop and think about how I relate to the internet.
Back in the day, I used to prowl the corners of the SF litsphere looking for things to be annoyed about. If an author wrote a book I didn’t like, I went after them with a hammer and an erection. If a blogger said something particularly stupid, I’d hose them down with venom. I was not the only person doing this but my capacity for annoying people (particularly older members of SF Fandom’s establishment) earned me a reputation that still dogs me in certain circles. I mention this neither to brag nor apologise (in fact, SF Fandom’s establishment is more than welcome to go and fuck itself), but because I recognise that I must have said a lot of things that caused people to throw their hands up in disgust and vow never to visit my blog again. I’m sure this happened and yet I can’t remember any particular example of anyone saying it. The reason for this is that the nature of blogging means that people tend to register their disgust in a peculiarly episodic fashion: they’ll complain about a post or call you names but you seldom get people saying “You know, I liked it when you were doing X… but now you’re doing Y and I don’t care for it” and yet, in this post Bbot does exactly that.
One of the things I find most grating about modern society is the taboo on hurting other people’s feelings. Generally, when people moan about this sort of thing they mean one of two things:
Firstly, they often mean that they demand the right to not only be incredibly rude and offensive to people but also that this rudeness should be taken with good grace and without social consequence. This is what people on reality TV are talking about when they talk about ‘telling it how it is’: they want the right to tell you to your face that you’re a fat stupid cow and don’t understand why saying such things should be deemed socially unacceptable. I disagree… such insults are not only childish, they are toxic and their poison carries out into the world and infects other people with the wretched unhappiness that spawned the original insult. So no, you can’t tell someone that she’s a slag even if you think that she is. Them’s the rules.
Secondly, when people demand the right to cause offense, they frequently mean that they demand the power to express ignorant and bigoted opinions in a manner that is not only offensive and demeaning but actively dehumanising. As Stewart Lee suggested in his heartfelt rant on the subject, political correctness is nothing more than institutionalised politeness and if you want to do away with that institution then you are, at best, an idiot and, at worst, an actual bigot. Again, them’s the rules.
Of course, while many of the rules governing social interaction are there for good reasons, some are not. When I talk about the taboo surrounding hurting people’s feelings I mean the fact that many institutions, particularly creative ones, operate under a set of social rules that are not only passive-aggressive, but actively deceitful. These rules are perpetuated by a weird set of social mechanics:
On the one hand, people generally don’t like conflict and tend not to enjoy having to be horrible to other people. Our primary social values are those of pleasantness and stability and people do not like having to step beyond these carefully erected boundaries. However, on the other hand, people are still forming judgements about other people and the things they do. People still react to other people by going ‘Oh My God that guy’s an idiot!’ or ‘That woman is really weird… I don’t want to talk to her anymore’ it is just that they cannot make these opinions public. As a result of this inconsistency, humans have developed a remarkable set of mechanisms whereby people are excluded despite everyone ostensibly seeming to be positive and supportive. In this climate, nobody tells you that you are not welcome, they simply organise themselves around you until you eventually get the message and leave.
Of course, British society has functioned according to these rules for hundreds of years and most adequately socialised people not only know it but possess enough social nous to know when the tide is turning against them and how they can act to prevent themselves from being excluded. Of course, not all of us are all that well socialised and a lot of us spend a lot of time alone in our heads meaning that that this sort of passive-aggressive manoeuvring can be incredibly frustrating and disconcerting as everyone seems to be welcoming and supportive right up until you find yourself all alone. Nobody tells you that you’re not wanted, they just exclude you until you get frustrated and leave. Thus the group polices itself and everyone gets to go to bed thinking that they are nice, positive and supportive people.
While the internet does feature a lot of bullying and ‘calling people out’, the real mechanics of the blogosphere are those of the social world. If you start doing things that alienate you from the group, chances are that people will not tell you that you are acting strangely, they will simply start ignoring you. In other words, they will exclude you from discussion until you get fed up and go away. As someone who struggles with these sorts of group-dynamics in real life, I admire the internet’s potential for freeing us from passive-aggressive exclusion techniques and so I admire Bbot’s decision to tell a number of bloggers that he simply cannot continue to read them. His explanations as to why he has ditched some of his subscriptions are fascinating as they show how a genuine desire to engage with what another person has to say has lead only to frustration, boredom and annoyance:
I don’t really want to watch other people play video games I’ve already completed. What’s even worse is that all of Shamus’ high-level video games criticism work goes into his LP, now, which means no more traditional game reviews. Obviously some people enjoy them, since they get thousands of views. I just have better ways to spend half a hour a day.
Bbot’s thought processes are hardly unique but his decision to make them public is really quite unusual. Bbot has made his frustrations public in a way that reminds me of how much of a gift openness can be. This is why genuinely heart-felt reviews, whether positive or negative, have real value. It means something to look into someone’s eyes and say something on the order of:
‘I have read your opinions on a number of different topics and reflected upon them in some depth. After devoting literally dozens of hours to exploring your ideas I now find myself forced to conclude that you may well be suffering from some kind of neurological impairment. Could you smell burning hair while you were writing that last review?’
As someone who has withdrawn first from academia and now from most fan-based publications, I am quite content writing for myself. In fact, I seldom think about the people who may or may not visit this site and read my words. I assume that nobody cares about what I have to say and I am always mildly shocked whenever someone responds in a manner that suggests that they might actually give a shit.
In a culture that prizes maintaining the illusion of friendliness above acting in a manner that is genuinely consistent with friendship, honesty and thoughtfulness are rare things indeed. There is something truly rare and wonderful about telling someone that they are wrong, deluded and full of shit because saying such things shows a degree of care and commitment that is sorely lacking from all forms of human interaction. Telling someone that they are wrong and that they have lost their way is a gift because it is information passed on in the hope that that person will eventually find their way home. Bbot’s post, though ostensibly a drive-by snarking at a number of blogs, is rare even in the online world as it displays not only thoughtfulness but also a genuine regret about blogs that seem to have lost their way.
The terrible thing about the culture of passive-aggressive friendliness is that it makes genuine constructive criticism seem socially awkward. For example, when the Coode Street Mullahs suggested that the recent online edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction had not had much of an impact, I agreed but when I raised the possibility that the project might be in trouble on Twitter, lots of people started furiously back-peddling and adding caveats. Why? Because we are trained to respond to other people’s endeavours in a polite and friendly manner even when we think that these endeavours are nothing short of awful. The Mullahs were correct when they noted that nobody seems to have discussed the new edition of the SFE and, were I involved in the SFE, I would take this as a worrying sign as the shallow positivity of the reaction to the project may be masking the fact that most people are actually indifferent to the SFE and its content. Of course, if nobody says “I don’t like the new edition of the SFE for reasons X, Y and Z” then the editors will simply continue to assume that everyone loves what they’re doing until the novelty wears off and traffic starts to drop. In other words, when they realise that everyone has been nice and positive but now they are standing all on their own in the middle of the room.
There are times when telling someone that they are wrong, deluded and completely full of shit is the most supportive and generous thing that you can do and the relative anonymity of the internet should free us from the rules of passive-aggressive social interaction that make this sort of honesty so difficult to implement. So next time someone calls you out on the internet, say thank you because having them ignore you until you go away is so much worse.