Socialization in the Blogosphere

This is one of those “it started out to be a comment on somebody else’s blog but was too long for a comment so I’m making it a post” post. You might want to go read the post that sparked this one before you wade into it. It may not make much sense otherwise.

Chris Bowers at MyDD writes every so often about the phenomenon of blogging itself. His thoughts/insights are usually interesting but it has often seemed to me that he, like a lot of others in the online world, misses a key point:

Online life ain’t real life.

Essentially, Chris is trying to explain the difference between the MyDD and dKos “communities” (you’ll see in a minute why I put quotes around that word). The groundwork:

Literally dozens of prominent blogs and bloggers have arisen out of the Dailykos community, and as such these blogs and bloggers still have a tendency to share links, readers and commenters with one another. In a real way, it is just a new transformation of the community. Considering how much they share, it should also come as no surprise that these blogs also have a tendency to share arguments with one another, and the physical space represented by the many different blogs allows those arguments to create factions, and increasingly entropy, much more so than any other time in the past.

The comparison:

I am not sure at all why so many bloggers are obsessed with their stature within the Dailykos community, and the level of personal respect they receive from Markos. Dailykos obsession actually does not even make sense to me as a way to grow your blog, since if you treat your blog as an extension of Dailykos, it will never truly come into its own. Apart from being stuck on Dailykos, I also wonder if it has something to do with having a close-knit, socializing community on a blog that tends to function at its best (that is, have its most political impact) when it operates in a more work-oriented, professional manner.


As far as I can tell, the reason there is no such thing as Meta-MyDD is because there is no MyDD community, as such. Sure, we have frequent commenters and diarists, but what really separates MyDD from sites like Dailykos, BooMan Tribune, Fire Dog Lake and My Left Wing is that while they build a family-like community, we instead act as though we are political professionals.

The conclusion:

There are benefits to communities, but there are dangers too. The “meta” fights we have seen recently are clearly one of the dangers. How to approach the balance between the serious, political work of a blog and the social, informal, pleasurable work of meeting people online is clearly one of the main dilemmas of anyone with a large blog. On MyDD, we tack hard toward the professional side of things, perhaps to the determent of our community. Historically, on sites like Dailykos, the social side of the equation has been foregrounded to a greater extent, which for most people probably makes the site more fun to participate in than MyDD. However, given the nature of online communication and the difficulty of coherence within large groups, depressing, mean-spirited, fractious “meta” wars are perhaps an inevitable side-effect. Part of the community will always be in turmoil, and for some prominent members of the community, death by meta will eventually result.

Chris has latched onto a half-truth – which is, I suppose, better than none – but his personal/professional categorizing approaches the main truth even as it skips right on by it: online communities aren’t and never can be real communities.

Maybe graduate school stunted his ability to see the obvious (read that first, virtually impenetrable, graf). Wouldn’t be the first time that happened. For whatever reason, he seems to think the “community” breakdown online is a function of size – that as dKos got bigger, the social element got pushed to the back to be replaced by competition for attention. His analysis of the problems size creates is accurate as far as it goes, but size only exacerbates the tensions already present but less visible – and risible – when a blog community is smaller. The bigger it gets, the more competition there is, but getting bigger didn’t create the competition, it only shoved it to the surface and made it more cut-throat.

Let’s start with the basics: blogs are a communication tool. And that’s all they are. Any social function they take on isn’t real. Social interaction absent a focus on a larger communicative purpose is an illusion, a mirror that mimics reality but isn’t itself real.

There has been a lot of guff written over the last few years about how online communities are changing the way we think about socializing and the patterns of that socialization. It’s all bullshit. It can’t be done. Socializing is a personal, irl activity only.

Any decent psychologist could have told you that 20 years ago. They used to point out in Psych 101 that writing letters as the sole instrument of social contact was a subtle way of avoiding true contact because it put the personalization at one remove, making it both safe and – in effect – impersonal by evading the complication of face-to-face interactions. That is even truer online than it is in the real world. What Chris describes as “flame wars” – and what we’ve all seen and would describe with the same phrase – are, if you think back on it, perfectly recognizable as the equivalent of massive, frenzied, 8th-grade note-passing.

To put it bluntly, anybody who thinks online communities can replace or supplant real-life socialization, or are the equal of it, is fantasizing. They can’t. They can be adjuncts and/or extensions, but only if they are tightly tied to a communicative purpose because that’s all words are good for. They can’t replace touch, sight or sound, and without the full involvement of all senses, as well as that invisible radar that operates below conscious level whenever you interact with someone irl, no social contact can be anything more than a thin, insubstantial reflection of actual social interaction.

Words have power but they also have limits, and the limits are pretty severe. The list of what verbal/written communication can’t achieve is far longer than the list of things it can achieve. The turn of dKos into a mecca for flame-wars was inevitable the minute it allowed socialization to become an important element of its identity, regardless of its size. Getting bigger only aggravates the inherent flaws in any verbal-only “community”. An online community that puts purpose above socializing will mitigate the weaknesses of verbal interaction and maximize its strengths. An online community that reverses that emphasis will eventually find itself trapped in the 8th-grade lav, bitching and pitching gossip.

This has nothing to do with good intentions or the character of any given leader. It’s in the nature of the beast. The Gutenberg press did not – because it could not – revolutionize human verbal communication. It only broadened its scope and changed the way it was presented. I don’t want to minimize its effect but it’s important to understand the limits of its core function in this context: the internet is the 21st century Gutenberg press. It can – and has – revolutionized the way communication between human beings is presented and effected mechanically, but that’s all it can do. It won’t – can’t – change our neurological imperatives or the way our synapses fire. It can’t replace so much as the raise of an eyebrow or the curl of a lip, much less tell you whether that curve is a smile or a snarl.

There is a general misperception nowadays that verbal-only communication is as vibrant, as comprehensive as real-life interaction. That’s hogwash. It isn’t. Tone is an incredibly important, perhaps crucial, element in interpersonal relationships but it takes a really good writer to make words accurately reflect the intended tone of a communication. Even a cursory examination of blog-writers, let alone their myriad commenters, proves quite conclusively that good writers are as rare in the blogosphere as they are everywhere else. It’s difficult – when it’s not impossible – to tell whether most writers here are throwing flowers or brickbats, thus the invention of emoticons. Which can be useful in establishing that tone but have limitations of their own.

Worse, it can be difficult – when it’s not impossible – to figure out what somebody is trying to say, or, indeed, whether they’re saying anything at all. I have read hundreds of posts and comments so badly written that they amount to nothing more than gibberish. You don’t know what the writer means, let alone how s/he means it.

Verbal-only communication is rife with opportunities for misunderstanding. It’s hard to fully socialize irl with all elements alive and pumping away. It’s impossible when you only have words. What you can do is pass information and connect with people on the basis of shared interests or purpose. Expecting more than that is bound to be an exercise in futility.

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