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You and Your Entire Family Are Full of Shit. You’re Welcome.

November 22, 2011

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.

16 Comments
  1. November 22, 2011 12:47 pm

    The trouble with the internet, and perhaps one of the reasons it encourages trolls, is the way its seemingly limitless audience doesn’t allow exclusion to work in the way it does in the real world. If you’re an ass, how would you know? Website traffic goes up and down according to the whims of search engines, popular news topics, marketing efforts, and sheer luck. There’s no way to tell if Google has burped or if people are really turned off by what you’ve said. And in my experience people are more inclined to hit the back button than they are to make complaints, even if there’s a comment section handy.

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  2. November 22, 2011 2:18 pm

    Hi Ros :-)

    Absolutely. Even the socially unskilled (such as myself) can eventually reach the conclusion that they are doing something wrong when people stop talking to them. However, because there tends not to be that much person-to-person communication on the internet (certainly between blogs) it is very difficult to know what it is that you are doing wrong, particularly if you are trying to get your work included in a particular blogging community.

    For example,I’m aware that my writings on literary SF were failing to find much of an audience because they were a) too long, b) too complex and c) insufficiently clear and engaging to make people want to put in the extra effort required to work their way through quite long and complex pieces. However, while I suspect that this was the problem… I really cannot say for sure as the only real feedback I have ever received (outside of an editorial context) is that my stuff was really really good.

    I know that my stuff is not gelling because I know that a lot of other people working in a similar area get a good deal more regard than I ever did and so I can put 2 and 2 together and realise that something went wrong but this is purely speculation on my part.

    I just don’t know.

    Because of this, I really tend to have no sympathy at all for the people who moan about poor reviews. Dude, at least somebody gave enough of a shit to express an opinion!

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  3. November 22, 2011 7:33 pm

    Well, people change. They are not cast in stone. Keep doing what you’re doing, and you might change some minds. Just sayin’.

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  4. November 23, 2011 9:51 am

    I agree, it’s better for a writer or blogger to be talked about, because at least then they know what might need changing.

    What’s difficult is getting feedback when you’re writing for a niche audience, and that applies to anything remotely highbrow. Certainly literary-style critical analysis of books falls into that category. Personally I avoid reading that sort of review unless I’ve already read the book because I assume anything that in-depth has to be a bit spoilerish, so already there’s a limit to how many people such a piece will reach.

    It’s pretty much the dilemma that faces all academic publishing: it’s notoriously unprofitable because it doesn’t appeal to the masses, but without someone having deep thoughts about literature our civilisation will rot.

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  5. November 24, 2011 8:59 am

    Wait, you’re going to go through all this and you’re not going to tell us who your candidates for call-outs are?

    That’s only a semi-serious question (though feel free, obviously), and it’s meant to illustrate why I think that there’s a huge component of this issue you’re ignoring. Articles like the ones you’re talking about aren’t just honest attempts at creating a better conversation. They’re also huge hit magnets, because everyone loves to watch the mud being slung. The simple fact is that the people who read you online are not, for the most part, your friends. They’re strangers who happen to read what you wrote, and their input – while often valuable and insightful – is in no way comparable to a friend telling you a hard truth. Personally, I get these “friendly” call outs fairly often, usually in the form of condescending, mansplainy comments that try to “educate” me, or correct my opinions, or tell me what I should be doing. The last one essentially boiled down to “I really like your writing, but I just can’t understand why you insist on discussing matters that I have no interest in.”

    You’re right that there’s an echo chamber effect on the internet, and that we’re more likely to hear from those who agree with us (or who disagree with such force and so little nuance that they’re easy to ignore) than with those who have genuine reservations about our writing. But making up for that deficit is a job for actual friends, not readers.

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  6. November 24, 2011 10:03 am

    Hi Abigail :-)

    I do still call people out quite a bit, but I tend to do so on twitter rather than on this blog as I’ve always been a bit antsy about this blog becoming overly ‘social’. I’ve tended to stay away from memes and blogstorms for precisely that reason… I know those types of posts bring in the hits but I think that I only wind up suffering from pursuing that kind of instant gratification. I spent a number of years being a bitch online and I’ve tried to step back from that and while lots of people would like me to continue being that bitch, it only ever winds up making me miserable and so I can’t do it.

    I completely agree that calling someone out in a thoughtful way is the act of a friend and that readers are not friends, which is one of the reasons why I pulled up short on that BBlog post. Usually call-outs are very confrontational things about how the called out person is doing stuff wrong for reasons X, Y and Z. I was just quite unexpectedly moved by the pathos of someone saying “I used to really like what you do, but I cannot stand what it is that you are doing now”. That’s not generally how the internet works and that’s why I found it so arresting.

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  7. November 27, 2011 7:12 pm

    Jonathan, I enjoyed your snarky posts of old and I enjoy your in-depth coverage of whatever interests you now. Personally I think that I enjoy your writing a lot because it stands out as being long, and complex, and most importantly cross-disciplinary. You’ve introduced me to some fascinating new ideas and that’s something I crave.

    I’m mostly commenting, though, because I’m curious about “what was once the culturally vibrant literary SF blogosphere”. Obviously I dropped almost entirely away from that some time ago so am very much out of the loop, but I’ve still enough of an interest to be curious about what you mean. Would you mind expanding on that?

    (Drop me an email if this is something better kept off comment threads?)

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  8. November 27, 2011 10:18 pm

    Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for your support and I am glad that I continue to entertain :-) Cross-disciplinarity is something of a thing to me as one of my great regrets about the internet is its tendency to split itself off into a series of neatly self-contained groups that talk to each other but relatively few other people.

    I was actually moaning about this on twitter earlier today with regards to the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of SF. What got under my skin was the fact that the entry on Warhammer 40K pretty much presents 40k as a self-contained worldlet. There’s scarcely any mention of the fiction that the game has generated or the impact that the game has had on SF as a whole. For me, books are nothing but a delivery system for ideas and if the point of SF (or anything else for that matter) is the ideas it contains then I think you are obliged to follow those ideas wherever they go and deal with them as such. This is why, despite not writing about SF literature anymore, I’m still writing about SF in comics, films and games. People consume all kinds of different media and so are inspired by media of different kinds. In order to understand culture you really need to experience it as a flow that moves across different forms of media and through all kinds of disciplines.

    When have you ever known me to be diplomatic with regards to my opinions on the world of SF? :-)

    I remember back in the day when the SF blogosphere was quite a vibrant and edgy place. Every week there’d be a slap fight and people would disagree violently about all kinds of different things. Now, the blogosphere is practically dead for three different reasons:

    Firstly, publishers did a really good job of moving in and plying bloggers with free books. While some (like me) recoiled in horror from this experience, many people were so delighted that they began to basically suck up to publishers and blur the line between being reviewers and being part of publishing’s PR industry. The path from SF blogger to employee of the SF publishing business is now quite well travelled and the result has been a grand debasing of the blogosphere’s capacity for honestly assessing books.

    Secondly, while a lot of us quickly learned the technical and attentional skills required to follow a lot of blogs for long periods of time, most fans of SF have proved quite resistant to that particular kind of technology. As a result, a number of sites have benefited from a talent drain away from individual blogs and towards larger sites. While this has genuinely resulted in an uptick in the availability of quality writing, it has effectively killed the blogosphere’s capacity for sustaining arguments about books as most people who write regularly now write for websites other than their own.

    Thirdly, one of the unfortunate quirks of human nature at this point in our collective history is that we tend to perceive disagreement as a kind of assault, and rather than be assaulted we justifiably tend to prefer paying attention to the people we get on with. As a result of this, SF blogging no longer has a shared cultural space, it has a series of partly overlapping echo chambers that function with only the scarcest awareness of what goes on outside of their particular chamber. This undermines the blogosphere’s capacity for lively debate as people only rarely encounter people with radically different views.

    While I’ve always spoken out quite loudly about the first problem, I have contributed to the second and third problem in absolute spades. In fact, despite having been quite active in Sf reviewing in the year up to about 6 months ago, only a couple of SF book reviews featured on this particular blog. The rest disappeared off to other websites I write for. The same goes for the tendency to create an echo-chamber about oneself as my twitter account has been ruthlessly pruned of anyone who has rubbed me the wrong way.

    Though I think many of these changes have been positive (not least the movement of corrupt and sycophantic bloggers into the publishing industry) I do think that the upshot is that the blogosphere is now a post-apocalyptic car park. A number of people do very good work but there is no sphere and there is no cross-communication.

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  9. November 28, 2011 6:51 pm

    Couldn’t agree more regarding the way ideas move and change between mediums and generations. (I have recently been re-watching all of Adam Curtis’s recent documentaries and it strikes me that he is obsessed with the ways memes and concepts move through networks of power and influence. It is a much more interesting theory of history than the Great Man theory, or the theory about historical inevitability of certain events/changes – I forget the name of the latter.)

    As for the science fiction blogosphere… well, huh. On the first point, yeah, I see that. I felt a little that way when writing for SF Crowsnest. Of course my own blogs were always too half-arsed and insignificant to warrant freebies, so I didn’t really have to worry. :) But yes, I was struck by the way so many reviewers were hugely positive about books that were obviously terrible. My unintentional little spat with Sean Wright was the most obvious example I personally experienced. Of course that’s not quite the same thing as he has now walked away from SF entirely (hoorah).

    I’m really not too sure what to say about the 2nd and 3rd points. Except that, well, a conversation is usually preferable to reading what is essentially a monologue, but where I’m following a ton of blogs and tend to sit and read a lot of posts at once, I find it easy to slip into a mindset that involves tagging posts for Delicious and not thinking about their content more thoroughly and contributing to any discussions. This is less true of smaller sites or blogs, particularly those where I feel I have some sort of personal connection, such as here or Electron Dance.

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  10. November 28, 2011 9:03 pm

    I adore Adam Curtis. I think his last couple of series have been a little bit weaker but Century of the Self, Power of Nightmares and The Mayfair Set are some of the biggest influences on my way of seeing the world.

    You raise an interesting point about conversation in that monologues are probably easier to read if you are an outsider looking in. It’s easy to read a few essays but having to wade through a load of blogs talking at each other is something of a chore. It’s fun, but purely for the people involved. Hmmm… I hadn’t thought about it that way. I generally tag posts and then wind up reading them when I’m at a family gathering with only a laptop for cover (wot… me antisocial?) but I genuinely cannot remember the last time I followed a conversation online. Hmmm…

    I’m glad you feel a personal connection here. I must admit, you and Herr Raven are now the only people capable of rekindling my desire to pay for music :-)

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  11. December 1, 2011 2:22 pm

    Bounced over here randomly, I don’t know who you are but how dare you insult my family?

    On a more serious note, the things you express frsutration about is something that I struggle with on a daily basis at my work. Everyone is so fucking desperate to get along with each other that no one likes to point out when someone has screwed up massively.

    The passive-aggressive thing is very much a cultural thing as I have mainly encountered this in England and North America. I grew up in Portugal and the Portuguese don’t put up with that bullshit, so when they think you are wrong they will tell you so, generally in a manner so blunt that most would take it as aggressive. The same goes for the Germans and Dutch who really don’t have time to mollycoddle anyone.

    Anyway, I really don’t know who you are but thanks for the article.

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  12. December 2, 2011 8:56 am

    Ah… the great Badger Commander, you may not know who I am but I definitely enjoy your work over at Arcadian Rhythms. Keep it up!

    Yeah, I do think that the passive-aggressive thing is distinctly anglo-saxon in origin. One of the reasons why I decided to write the piece is that I seem to encounter that passive-aggressivity everywhere I go. I’m always meeting people with stories about how everything seemed to be fine until they realised that the smiles and agreements were actually edging them out for reasons completely impenetrable. I not only hate that kind of stuff, I also think that it is really toxic because it effectively creates a vast sub-culture of massively entitled and utterly deluded people who have never benefited from someone sitting them down and saying ‘you know what? you’ve got potential but you’re doing this wrong’ or ‘you’ve started doing this… why? when you were doing that you were doing much better!’ or ‘just stop! you clearly don’t have what it takes to get on with this shit’.

    Even on Twitter, we’re rapidly reaching the point where disagreement is taken as an affront and a major social faux-pas. Ugh!

    I’m sure there are downsides to the more direct form of communication and I’m sure that it’s just as tricky to learn to master it but I think there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand.

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  13. December 4, 2011 4:51 pm

    Heh, well, I’m just pleased to know a few people read NFI with any regularity. ;)

    Shame in a way that I am winding up the music reviews but I’m feeling burned out after writing so many over the last few years.

    I’ve not actually seen The Mayfair Set so will have to go and track that done sometime soon – ditto a number of the older documentaries listed on Curtis’s wikipedia page.

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  14. badgercommander permalink
    December 5, 2011 6:46 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, it is always a bit weird when someone you don’t know reads your stuff and says you should carry on.

    Right, now to get on to doign some work.

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