Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 'democratization' of news sites

I'm pretty sure that when media theorists praised the democratic potentials of the internet a decade or more ago, they didn't have the comment sections of major media news websites in mind. As my union's nearly three-month long strike lurches to an end - with a whimper, as the government is legislating us back to work - I'm continually depressed at the way in which comments threads are filled with old information, misinformation, or just plain old propaganda - ideas from which the newspaper can distance themselves insofar as they didn't write them, but all of which they nonetheless allow to be said, read, and repeated without any critical filter.

And as if this weren't enough of a problem, The Toronto Star takes the exercise to an additional level of absurdist faux democratic process by allowing people to click 'agree' and 'disagree'. (As you can see here, for instance.) By way of a click, a couple dozen readers of any online story can vote on what politicized interpretation of the news - which the newspaper could not explicitly endorse for reasons of politesse, factuality, or legality - most closely aligns with their own. It isn't an effort in the exchange of information, which is ideally what it should be, but rather a sort of mob forum. (Which, I suppose, simply reduces the standing of mainstream 'legitimate' media to the level of the rest of the internet.) And a quick look at the actual agree and disagree tallies are telling - readers will click to 'agree' with an insult or 'disagree' when a commenter lists information that corrects or casts doubt upon info offered by the paper or another commenter.

For instance: The Star was repeatedly a couple weeks behind in reporting our union's wage demands and were misleadingly suggesting in every update that the university was offering us 'increased benefits', when the 'increase' was only relative to their massively concessionary first offer. But when the 'increased benefits' were compared to the benefits available to each member when our previous contract was signed, it wasn't even close - hence, it was no increase in the sense that most of us would use the word. And every time that I posted corrections in the comments, more people 'disagreed' with me than 'agreed' - on a topic that, one would like to think, is beyond 'disagreeing'. I'm hoping that this will be revealed to have been part of a secret sociological experiment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The curious case of the poet

Like pretty much everyone I've spoken too, I was bored stiff by the poem read by Elizabeth Alexander at Obama's inauguration. It was an awful poem - filled with clich├ęs and trite or just plain boring imagery. It was also read in the most wooden manner. It wasn't good, but it was made several magnitudes worse by the poet's own recitation.

Which causes me to ask - why is it that we always expect poets to read their own writing? That expectation seems non-existent for most other varieties of professional writer: lyricists don't have to sing (and singers don't have to write their own lyrics); playwrights and screenwriters aren't expected to be actors; novelists or writers of non-fiction sometimes read selections, but it's hardly given the importance of a poet's reading - and the book-on-tape is rarely read by the author. So why the different standard?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Atheism, feminism, and Obama - briefly

Actual exchange, while Victoria and I were making lunch during Obama's inaugural address:
Obama: "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers."
Me: "So 'atheist' is a dirty word?"
Victoria: "It would be like saying 'feminist.'"
I get the sense, actually, that all the debate over Obama being a feminist has actually lent feminism a mainstream legitimacy that it hasn't enjoyed in decades - for better or worse. But atheism? Not so much.

Monday, January 19, 2009

It wasn't the internet that changed...

I'm still on strike, but some recent developments have it looking like the strike will soon be over. So I decided to see what the anti-strike contingent (which consists mostly of inactive undergraduate students and some very active anti-union grad students and faculty) was saying. This was a bad idea, as it seems that I somehow forgot how the internet worked - particularly that part of the internet where a) everyone thinks you're wrong, and b) they're mad as hell about it.

Things that I should have kept in mind when entering Hostile Internet Territory (the HIT):
  1. "Logic", like moral authority, is based entirely in consensus. Whenever I'd try to explain a position point-by-point, it was declared illogical. Never was my ostensible mistake explained, though it was often illustrated by means of an analogy that made absolutely no sense. But it didn't matter because everyone else in the thread agreed that the analogy was perfectly apt.
  2. Keep it short.The more I would write, the more often respondents would seize on the parts of my response that a) I felt were least important, ignoring the key bits, b) were the most poorly developed and ripe for attacking, and c) contained misspellings. Engaging an opponent in the HIT should be like running into the Romulans along the Neutral Zone - don't deviate from the course, don't make eye-contact, and say as little as necessary.
  3. Keep it clear. This is not unlike the last point but deserves its own entry. I would use expressions like "I think it's fair to assume" or "my best guess", thinking that they expressed an appropriately casual and open-minded position. But I'm not one to write in a deferential or cautious manner, and so the specificity and strength of what followed those undercut my position. I should have remembered that people's memories in the HIT generally only extend back to the last thing that made them angry, and so the speculative element should have been reinforced.
  4. Keep it serious. Never, never, never try to be sarcastic or ironic in a forum full of people who have previously told you that they hate you. (And who have written death-threats to your co-workers.) It might seem like quite the clever and good idea in the moment, but it never is.
  5. Emasculate, emasculate, emasculate. Being called a "bitch", or some derivative thereof, is the ultimate put-down and sexism - even, as baffling as it seemed, when it's a woman challenging the masculinity of a man by way of comparing him to a woman - is par for the course. I was, at first, shocked to see this kind of thing being written by the people with whom I might some day find myself working or teaching. And then I remember that this is the HIT, where the enemy isn't really regarded as people and so things like sexism aren't really sexism.
(Note: I'm going to be trying to get back into the habit of blogging, though I can't really make any promises. But I'm also going to aim for shorter posts, more speculative and less concerned with carefully articulating and proving a point. Here's hoping.)