Jonathan Alter of Newsweek recently wrote a column on umbrage and the web. While I agree with some of his claims, the article does require a response. As such, I will reply to his main points and offer both commentary and criticism.
Alter begins with a common theme: the umbrage that is present on the web. As Alter notes, the web provides an anonymous vehicle for lies, crudeness and degradation. Of course, the use of the written (or typed) word as a vehicle of umbrage is nothing new. As a philosophy professor I research the time periods and backgrounds of many philosophers and this exposes me to a significant amount of historical data regarding letters, publications and social conditions. I can assure you that umbrage has been with humanity since we started writing things down. Interestingly, after I read the article this morning, I saw a show on the History Channel about two rival Chinese gangs who wrote slurs against each other in the American newspapers. This was during the 1800s. I later read an article in the June 2008 Smithsonian about Darwin (Richard Conniff, “On the Origin of a Theory”, 86-93). The article noted some of the written sniping between various people regarding the concept of evolution. Before Darwin published his work, Robert Chambers wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1845. One geologist replied to the work by expressing his desire to stamp “with an iron heel upon the head of the filthy abortion, and put and end to its crawlings.” (page 90). That is eloquent bit of umbrage every bit as venomous as the comments inflicted on the web today. If one turns to politics, examples of venom throughout history are far too numerous to even begin to list. For those who wish to search for examples, I suggest beginning with political cartoons from the 1700s and 1800s. You will find that the poison pens of old crafted many venomous images. Another excellent sources are various anonymous political tracts from the same time period. As such, umbrage and venom in print are nothing new.
Like Alter, I believe that the umbrage and venom are negative and that they quite undesirable. Such venom adds nothing to the quality of discussions and simply serves to inflame emotions to no good end. It also encourages intellectual sloppiness because people feel that they have made an adequate reply when they have merely vented their spleens (to use the old phrase).
Alter next turns to a matter of significant concern: while bloggers offer a great deal of commentary, they rarely provide people with news in the true sense. While some blogs do post the news, it is (as Alter points out) generally taken from some traditional media source. Newspapers and other traditional media sources are, as he notes, reducing their budgets for actual reporting and laying off reporters. This means that there will be less original investigation and reporting. Fortunately, some bloggers are stepping in and doing their own investigations. I suspect that this might lead to the more substantial blogging sites gradually stepping into the openings being created by the decline of traditional media. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether a web based organization can afford to do robust investigation and reporting. In principle, however, there seems to be no reason why they cannot replace traditional media.
A third point made by Alter is that print media is moving towards the web style of writing. To be specific, there is a push towards short articles like those in blogs. Presumably this is to match the alleged shorter attention span of the modern audience. I do agree with Alter that there can be a negative side to taking this approach. While a short piece can be fine, there is still a clear need for depth and details and this requires more than a blog entry sized block of text. As you can see from most of my own blogs, I tend to go on at considerable length. Hence, it is hardly shocking that I would support him in this matter.
A fourth point that Alter makes is the very common criticism that people exploit the anonymity of the web to launch attacks and spew venom. This is, of course, a concern. However, this is nothing new. History is full of examples of anonymous writings that are quite critical and venom filled. The web merely makes it easier to make such works public and to avoid being identified. After all, if I have to print and distribute an anonymous tract, there will be a fairly clear trail leading back to me. But, on the web I can easily make use of a free service that ensures my identity will remain unknown by making my posting effectively untraceable.
As Alter points out, the “web culture” tolerates anonymity. However, many writers do identify themselves and people are often quite critical of those who hide behind anonymity when they spew forth venom. While there can be good reasons to hide one’s identity (such as fear of reprisals from oppressive governments), most people lack a legitimate reason to remain hidden. My view is that if someone believes what she is typing, then she should have enough courage to actually claim her own words. There is also the matter of courtesy. Anonymous posting is like talking to people while wearing a mask. That is a bit rude. Unless, of course, you happen to be a superhero.
His fifth point is that people often prefer rumors to facts. As he points out, some people believe the emails about Obama being a Muslim. What is new here is not that people often prefer rumors, but the delivery of the rumors. In the past, people had to rely on newspapers, gossip, and public broadsheets in order to learn of rumors. Today, rumors can be sent via email. Same sort of rumors, different medium.
Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that people prefer a rumor that matches their biases over truth that goes against them. I am also well aware that people generally prefer something dirty, juicy, or titillating over dull facts. Hence, the appeal of rumors is hardly surprising. Obviously, people should have better rumor filters so as to avoid believing false things (or even true things on the basis of inadequate evidence). The internet has just changed the medium and not the basic problem: most people are poor critical thinkers. Fixing this requires what philosophers have been arguing for since before Socrates: people need to learn to think.
Alter’s sixth point is about a commonly remarked upon phenomena: the internet (email and web comments) seems to be especially awash in venom. As noted above, this is nothing new. However, as Alter points out, the web and email lead to disinhibition. While he does not explore the reasons for this, there are three plausible causes. First, email and web comments are effectively instant. With a written letter, you have time to think about it as you put it in the envelope and go to mail it. During this time you might think better of what you said. With an email or web comment, you just push a button and it is done. Second, email and web comments are generally not edited. Professional newspapers and magazines are edited and hence venomous comments generally do not get into print. Hence, the web seems like a more venomous place. Since people know that what they type will appear, they are less inclined to be restrained. Naturally, this feeds the beast-when people see the first venomous remark, they are (like someone who sees trash already on the ground) more inclined to follow suit. Third, the web allows for anonymous posting and emailing so people can (as noted above) spew from behind a mask. This, naturally enough, encourages people to be less nice.
Alter’s seventh point is the usual lamentation about how the web was supposed to bring us breadth in coverage but did not live up to the dream. As he notes, the bloggers tend to mainly follow right along with the cable networks. For example, when a major bank was failing, bloggers and the cable news focused mainly on the “satirical” Obama cover on the New Yorker.
Obviously, this behavior is hardly shocking. Bloggers do the same thing the traditional media does: they focus on the stories they think people will want to read. That said, there is actually significant breadth in the realm of blogs. If you leave the mainstream blogs and search around a bit, you will easily find blogs on vast array of topics. For example, there are many blogs devoted to philosophical issues. As another example, there are blogs devoted to science. These bloggers do not blindly follow the main media. However, because they do not they do not get much attention. As such, much of the perceived lack of breadth is merely a lack of looking.