I’ve been leaving carefully-crafted (vetted for cogency and style) comments, online, since a few years before 2000, when online comments were essentially digital “letters to the editor” (appearing in the section called Letters to the Editor) and only the best handful of comments could expect to be published. I started my commenting history at places like Salon.com when Salon.com was still a dinky little 8-bit novelty. Blogs didn’t yet exist (not in their current, user-friendly form). Because of the “letters to the editor” feel of comments back then, I learned to make my comments short and interesting, in order to see them appear among the other pithy comments chosen. I became fastidious about spelling and grammar because it was quite a wince-inducing Pyrrhic victory, back then, seeing my little paragraphs finally go public, but in a damaged state.
When WordPress blogging technology became known to the general public… and I can still recall the hi-tech smugness I felt in knowing that the word “blog” was an abbreviation of the words “web log” while my friends still did not… that was when the miraculous nature of the Internet finally shined hot and bright enough to inspire me. Because, suddenly, not only could I comment whenever and however I wanted and see the words go live, instantly, without having to worry too much about dazzling whoever was in charge of the blog, but now I could start a blog of my own for the price of a computer (500-megabyte hard drive: only €1000) and an Internet connection and 40 free writing-hours a week and 80 on the weekends. Pirouettes. I was free to generate zillion-word texts about whatever I wanted and respond to the comments of others responding to whatever I had wanted to write. Try to imagine what Franz Kafka would have made of that power.
Before I worked up to actually blogging, however, I continued my apprenticeship as a commenter for about a year, leaving increasingly ambitious, citation-rich comments and/or participating in 2 or 3 or 5-day (Raisinets-fueled) commenting battles (about James Frey or James Joyce or James Wood or Elmore James or Breece D’J Pancake) known as Flame Wars. Honing my rhetorical craft and clarifying my opinions in the eerily tangible heat of psychic battle.
Being highly opinionated, and rarely expressing opinions on topics about which I know nothing, the comments I expressed on the blogs of others tended to be “strong”. Strong, but never abusive (I never, ever, initiated an exchange with an ad hominem, though I could, having had lots of practise in meatspace, give as good as I got). My comments could be long, but were never full of copy-and-paste bombs from Wikipedia. I tried to make each of my comments worth the pixel-count. I did my best, each time, to make the most of the miraculous opportunity to express myself, in a real time, on a global forum… the reality of which still, very nearly, gives me goose-bumps: I don’t get the world’s apparent blasé attitude toward this astonishing super-power, which wasn’t even a dream of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi: any 8-year-old on the planet possessing the potential power to send a letter, a photo, a film or a song to more than half of the planet, simultaneously, instantaneously and virtually free of charge? Even Star Trek, or Space 1999, didn’t promise that.
It was fairly early on that I noticed that while the blog comment-thread format was hypothetically freer than the old “Letters to the Editor” tradition, there was no guarantee that the owner of the blog you were trying to make your opinions clear on wasn’t a petty, anal, insecure nest of Dahmeresque psychoses who might delete your carefully-worded, three-page comment just because you disagreed with him or her.
I’d find myself in rousing rhetorical D-Days, attacking Saul Bellow partisans or defending Harold Brodkey, when, suddenly, my pithiest comment would go “poof” or the blog-owner would shut-down the thread (a totalitarian maneuver I still don’t quite get, if the thread doesn’t consist entirely of Holocaust Denial or pictures from Rotten.Com). These are all (or mostly) people who espouse Free Speech as a fundamental human right and tacitly abhor censorship as a civilization-threatening evil , remember; are they equating blog thread comments they take exception to with yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater? Because, if so, the next time you see them say no one has ever died in a stampede out of a blog.
In 2006 I was debating two blogging chums (each other’s, not mine) about “the James Wood problem” (my words, not theirs) when, to my astonishment, the chum who owned the blog actually retro-edited a comment of mine to make me “wrong” in a part of the exchange I’d just then made him look foolish in. It hasn’t (to my knowledge) happened to me since but it taught me a lesson about my own Candide-ity: of course the idiot did that. He didn’t start his own blog just to be wrong on it, did he? Tempted by the picayune editorial power to make me look dumber (and unable to make himself look smarter) he went for it.
Which is how I learned to copy and save my comments before posting them, especially the comments that I’d put so much thought into that I might care to use them (or their core ideas) in more serious pieces, later, because Writing is writing and whenever strangers are going to read something you’ve written, you should make it count. Which is why having a decent comment deleted is a little like having one of those very strangers appear in big boots on your desk, to snatch what you’ve just written right out of your hand and rip it in half with glee. Is this made less outrageous by the fact that the metaphorical paper you had written the offending comment on, when the stranger snatched and destroyed it, was on loan from the stranger himself? Is every blog/webpage a tacit Banana Republic which each respective El Comandante is free to totally Caligulate, or is there an online code of ethics capable of covering “trolling” as well as “Caligulating”?
Far more common than pathological comment-tampering, and even more infuriating than comment deletion, is the Miltonian purgatory of having a comment stuck awaiting “moderation”. When a blog (reflecting its owner’s mental state) is healthy, the pre-moderation chamber is simply a tool to protect the comment thread from spam. Your incisive comment’s stay there usually lasts, at most, a day: it remains visible to you only… until the blogger finds it with a raised eyebrow of admiration and waves it through the gate.
When the blogger is Blogito Mussolini, on the other hand, his or her ability (however trivial) to deny your expression of a brilliant opinion must become the nearest thing to being able to express an interesting opinion. Or maybe these people enjoyed sprinkling salt on snails when they were children. Whether you’ve spent twenty seconds typing your well-considered three sentences, or fifteen minutes crafting three perfect paragraphs, taking the trouble at all turns out to have been pointless when you’re hanging out at Blogito’s Gulag.
Recently, while Googling around for new Berlin blogs, I found one called Berlin Outsider. On the “About” page, it states:
Don’t take it personally or get wound up, I’m just airing ideas and provoking some thought. Sometimes it’s good to challenge the accepted wisdom, or acceptable opinions.
I don’t claim to be right. I am floating ideas. Be patient. Feel free to disagree, but don’t get upset.
I then read an article thereabouts about Berlin’s enormous “potential” to become a Typical Capitalist Nightmare (my words, not his) and so I felt free to “disparage” the essay, as I was so blithely invited to do on his “About” page. I wrote (without ad hominems or even saucy language, please note):
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
“Clearly as it rises in price, there will be a gradual shift from Bohemians to Creatives, thence to Entrepreneurs, and then to business people.”
And that’s when it becomes Chicago… and therefore very much like all the other nightmare cities of the “developed” world. I much prefer Berlin in its half-developed, chaotic and rather lazy state… which is why I moved here in 1990 and not… Chicago.
Everything that makes this place as humane as it often is, and quite often more delightful and interesting than it is exasperating, is what the *business mind* would consider wasteful, counter-productive, undisciplined, unprofitable and dirty, etc. Every last charming wrinkle and cranny and weird cul-de-sac in this town will eventually be flattened, filled in and paved over with the cookie-cutter “developments” and attitudes overrunning the planet with the hideous tastelessness of the dollar-centric mind.
Not all of the “anti-gentrification” people are xenophobic; some of them are vociferously so simply because they aren’t stupid.
As you can see in the pasted copy, that comment is still “awaiting moderation” two weeks later. If the blog owner is water-skiing in Utah and flies back next Sunday and finally posts my comment, I apologize in advance for including him in the petty, anal, insecure nest of Dahmeresque psychoses blog-owner section of this essay. Maybe he’s just a Cunt.
The very next day (having learned nothing) I had a look (which I do about once a month, these days) over at Joseph Kugelmass‘ blog. I first argued with Joseph nearly ten years ago (!) on the site called The Valve, a place for brainy arguers, some callow, some crusty. Joseph was an undergraduate (aka “callow”) who could often be found arguing passionately, in those days (as many undergraduates could) that the Batman films (the “darker” ones) were adult fare to be taken seriously enough to warrant Lacan-citing exegeses of their hackneyed, baldly propagandistic, written-by-committee plots. (Joseph didn’t seem to want to get that these films are basically venues for the deployment of CGI fireballs , as all films are now). I had great fun, in those days, pointing out, to the undergraduates, that Batman is a fantasy in which an angry millionaire runs around at night, dressed up as a bat (and never has to piss while in costume). Cue: Flame War. Those were the days! But the Flame Wars weren’t frivolous, because they helped to clarify my theories about “Maturity” in Authoritarian Cultures.
So. I headed over to Joseph’s to see if he’s written anything interesting lately; all I found was a strangely charmless, Easter-egg-hunting analysis of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, comparing the text to Joseph’s wild guesses about Kundera’s biography (Joseph likes doing this sort of thing; I can remember the Flame War he started, as an undergrad, by coming to the conclusion that Vlad Nabokov is a pedo). I don’t agree with what Joseph has to say about 89% of the time, but I like his online avatar’s persona well enough, so I left the following jovial comment:
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
What close-reading of TULB can be “complete” without a close-reading of its heavier (only intermittently airborne) trial run, “The Farewell Waltz”…?
That was four days ago… let’s see if Joseph comes back from water-skiing, in Utah, any time soon.
After an orgy of semi-free expression that raged a glorious five years or so, the Online Literary community began to sift itself into the camps it had always secretly represented: The People who genuinely believed in Free Speech and its primacy to the intellectually liberatory, conversational potential of Das Netz… and the Unilateralists, who prefer a docile audience with only enough agency to boost page-click-counts. Between the two camps is a sliver of overlap representing the bloggers who are only comfortable with hearing from the public under such restrictively tidy conditions that the only comments that make it through moderation resemble those of Facebook’s tiresome LOL-and-Awesome (and “Gorgeous!”) brigade. Which is no form of conversation at all.
Q: What kind of “writer” prefers no conversation to a conversation buzzing with the occasional risk of offense (side by side with the occasional risk of enlightenment)?
A: “Writers” I have no interest in reading, although they are certainly free to post their comments on my blog.