Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Paul Theroux Loathes Blogs

Travel writer Paul Theroux in an interview at The Atlantic--pushing his new book--remarks:
I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It's something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all. It's a chatty account of things that have happened to that particular person.
Ha! That's my blog, although surely there are blogs which do have "literary merit." Still, I'm a bit puzzled as to why blogs as he defines them should provoke such loathing. I rather like babbling and chatty accounts and of course that's what I have in mind for this post.

Daisy's post about the Facebook era still has me thinking round in circles and want to attempt to write more about that.

The picture comes from a National Park Service page, Mississippi River Facts. In case you've missed it big news in the USA is flooding along the Mississippi River. If you look at the right hand side of the map you'll notice the Ohio River. I live about three miles from the Ohio River and about twenty miles from where the Ohio begins at Pittsburgh. The Ohio River is no small river. With the record flooding it's a reminder that the Ohio is just a portion of the great Mississippi River Watershed.

It's wet here. I've got my rubber boots on. The paper today tells us to expect another two months of unusually wet weather. Yikes! In May the grass grows so fast, grass along with everything else. What I can mow now determines what areas I'm able to keep mown the rest of the summer. And there's always a crush because May is also the time for planting. The grass can't be mown when it's too wet, and the rain only makes the grass grow faster. And the ground can't be turned when it's too wet and seeds planted. When I go out to work it starts to rain and by the time it's not raining I'm inside doing something else. I'm not getting much done. Wet weather is part of my personal story right now, but I sure have it better than so many of my fellow Americans, some of them with homes under the water.

Theroux is right that such chatty excursions are outside the boundaries of literature. I'm not sure that blogs are an existential threat to literature, but there's no question media is changing and we are changing along with it.

When I started writing this blog I used a pseudonym. I was also visiting and writing at a social network called Tribe. Tribe was a pretty free-wheeling place at the time, lots of nudity, profanity and the like. Because it was popular with younger folks I was a bit concerned that some of my younger relatives might happen upon my goings on there. But ultimately with all the linking I did at Tribe it became clear to me that because I hadn't organized myself from the beginning for online anonymity the pseudonyms I was using online did little to make anonymous. Web searches clearly associated with my real name brought up links to stuff I put up under screen names, especially at Tribe for some reason.

After using Tribe for a while I discovered the Omidyar Network (ONet), which was sort of an online social network for dogooders. The charitable foundation called the Omidyar Network is alive and well, the social network has been defunct since 2007. The culture at ONet was for people to use their true names. While it's not 100% that's also the norm at Facebook. Anyhow I figured the easiest thing was just to accept that I wasn't anonymous online. There are, however, many good reasons why people publish anonymously online, not the least of which is some people are creepy.

Nowadays I participate at a forum where the convention is for people to participate using screen names. I hesitate to link to that forum because it isn't clear to me what the ripple effects not just to me, but to the users of the forum, might be to linking my pseudonym with my real name. Over at that forum for the last few weeks there's been a long thread on misogyny. The title of the thread seemed pretty generic, but I wondered if using the title links to the forum thread would come up high in search results. Of course they do, and in that search I discovered blog posts, anonymous of course, which were a sort of back channel to the thread.

Certain topics can be quite incendiary and misogyny is one of them. The thread has meandered between talking about misogyny and examples of misogyny, even if providing examples of was not explicitly the intent. Some of the talk was pretty bad but my default reaction was don't feed the trolls because some of the talk seemed pretty good. The problem with that approach was getting called out on the thread for not calling out the BS. I knew that there was some private discussion going on between members, even posting a few private messages myself. What I hadn't known before today was the commenting about the thread and nasty stuff about some of the posters on blogs. Jeez, people can be such dicks!

The xkcd comic pane Duty Calls with the line "Someone is wrong on the Internet" is so often passed around because we human beings seem easily obsessed with being right to the detriment of online comity. Sometimes people anonymously post online because it is unsafe for them to be exposed.

Drima at The Sudanese Thinker probably had danger in the back of his head when he started the blog five years ago. Probably more prosaic reasons along the lines of my not wanting young relatives to stumble upon my Tribe postings seemed more important. Recently Drima exposed his real name at Twitter and at his blog. He didn't offer a long explanation for why he did so, writing:
I have numerous personal reasons for and that I cannot explain adequately in a simple short blog post. Let’s just say the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and the changes sweeping the region now have inspired me and forced me to come to a simple conclusion.

Screw anonymity.
With the events in Tunisia late last fall I began following events at Twitter. Andy Carvin (@acarvin) of PBS was curating tweets, he sort of vetted Tweets. I hadn't been following @SudaneseThinker at Twitter, but had read his blog over time. His tweets came up in Carvin's retweets and I promptly followed him at Twitter. Even though Drima is a pseudonym, I knew enough to have some confidence in him and his tweets. When he retweeted people's tweets, especially in re Egypt, it added to the authority of those tweets.

Dave Kenner at Foreign Policy Magazine recently posted an article Here's your reading list, Mr. President which consists mostly of a list of blogs about the Middle East. The premise of the post is that it's possible to get a realistic picture of political conversations going on in the region. Of course it would be great if the President of the United States sought to hear these views and so as not just to hear the inside Washington policy debate, but the larger point is any of us can be privy to it too.

The impetus for this blog was quite a simple idea of explaining to some of my friends why I was taking an interest in the life of a young Ugandan man. Quickly it became obvious that most of my friends had little interest in blogs, but plenty of Americans were turning attention to Africa often from quite stereotypical frames of reference. As a white middle-aged American the topic of "privilege" come up in many different contexts. It rankles me when it does, but on the other hand turning my attention towards Africa has demonstrated time and time again that there's potency in the construct of privilege.

Offline and online I was being asked about Darfur. In Pittsburgh there are some refugees from the North-South civil war in the Sudan. As I was also trying to find out more about Uganda it was hard for me to discuss Darfur without first making the North-South conflict part of the context. Very often I was sharply criticized for doing so. I'm a fairly incompetent activist in any case so pointing that out comes as no surprise to me. While Darfur was awful by anybody's standards opinions outside Sudan as to what to do sharply differed. Among people I like an admire, my views about US policy towards Sudan were often anathema. Being basically needy, I want very much for people to like me so Darfur was posed something of a dilemma for me.

I read and still read Alex De Waal's blog Making Sense of Sudan. It's really excellent. As far as online discussions about Darfur activism went, De Waal's analysis of the situation was an unpopular. I'm hardly an expert so I didn't spend much time trying to argue from a perspective which was already disparaged. Just in ordinary face to face conversations the sorts of perspectives that The Sudanese Thinker provided were more helpful than the academic perspectives at Making Sense of Sudan.

People wanted to talk about basic information like: Who are the Sudanese in our area? How close is the Sudan to Uganda and what are the relationships? Are Sudan and Somalia the same place? Who are the Somali-Bantu's in our community? The Italians, in Africa, you're kidding me! The tenor of such conversation might seems a little daft. Nobody really likes to be thought of as ignorant, but let's face it I like most Americans are ignorant about Africa. Much of the activism here around Darfur seemed to demand political commitment and such a demand rather pointed up a common ignorance of a large and populous continent.

Here's a post by Drima from early February 2007 entitled Sudan Arab or African? It's the sort of post probably of marginal interest to political scientists and political activists, I guess from an assumption"everybody knows that," but just the sort of post helpful to most of us who didn't know what we were supposed to. I can't remember once Drima writing anything to make it seem that not knowing something was tantamount to being stupid.

I do remember Drima talking about being a college student, hanging out with friends, getting a new CD, eating good food, being exhausted from studying from exams, all of the boring stuff Paul Theroux thinks has no place in literature. Perhaps blogs aren't literature because the boring stuff is important for lots of blogs.

As the events in Egypt unfolded on Twitter, I noted who the Sudanese Thinker was following and often followed those people. People were arrested, people died, sadly Egyptians still are being arrested and are dying. It's hard to have a very detached view of events when following people who know the people arrested and killed, post pictures of them and link to blogs by them.

It's so far fetched to think of Drima, whose real name is Ahmad, as a friend. Ha an Internet-friend, but there's real value in Internet friendships. I was moved when I read the post at his blog giving his name, Amir Ahmad, especially because he connected it to the experience of the the political events in Northern Africa, events which in a way I followed on Twitter along with him and others. I know saying revealing his name comes with some danger attached. I respect that saying his name publicly is to trump fear with love.

Amir Ahmad is writing a book, Islam: A Love Story – How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind, Broke My Heart, and Blogging Freed My Mystic Soul. It's sure to be carefully considered writing,as Theroux maintains literature ought to be. The irony is the book is at least in part about blogs. Ahmad writes:
Set in Sudan, Qatar, Malaysia, the United States and the new frontiers of the Arab and American political blogospheres, Islam: A Love Story is ultimately about my journey of spiritual awakening and why and how the internet will not only help reform the political landscape of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also significantly shape the future of Islam as well.
It's sure to be carefully considered writing,as Theroux maintains literature ought to be. The irony is the book is at least in part about blogs. Ahmad writes:
Set in Sudan, Qatar, Malaysia, the United States and the new frontiers of the Arab and American political blogospheres, Islam: A Love Story is ultimately about my journey of spiritual awakening and why and how the internet will not only help reform the political landscape of the Arab and Muslim worlds, but also significantly shape the future of Islam as well.
I've babbled on about the author Paul Theroux, about the wet spring where I live, about flooding in the American Midwest, about brutishness on Internet forums, and about a blogger named Ahmad, also known as Drima. Is there a thread that connects? I think there is, and imagining a thread is probably why unlike Theroux I rather love blogs instead of loathing them as he does. Love them or hate them, blogs and Internet communications in general are changing how we view and experience the world. Those changes are neither all good, nor all bad.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Riffing About Facebook

The image was lifted from here. If it's hard to read, it says:
Dear Senior,

Please be safe at the prom. I would like you to wear a condom when you are getting freaky.


Emma C.

P.S. Here is a picture for you!
One of my favorite bloggers, Daisy at Daisy's Dead Air has a post ruminating about our Facebook era.

It's definitely worth reading the post and while you're at it reading her wonderful remembrance of Ben Masel* posted earlier. Masel was an old friend of Daisy's and they'd reconnected recently on Facebook, so news of Masel's death seemed to feel different. Feeling a difference led her to write a bit about how Facebook changes us. Among the observations she makes is that she's glad that "the various addled twists and turns of my life are not available for public consumption." That's a luxury today's digital natives probably won't have. Daisy writes:
And then again, there is Gatsby, the quintessential American character. We re-create ourselves throughout our lives, in numerous ways, large and small. Is Facebook making Gatsby more or less possible and is that a good thing?
It's a pretty straightforward question, but the Internet is a big honking question and my mind started circling in various directions when thinking about it.

The way that Facebook makes us aware of friends of friends is something that makes a big difference. I saw the picture of second grader Emma C. that I posted here over at Tumblr. I didn't actually see it originally at the link I posted for it. At Tumblr it's easy to reblog posts that come up in your own feed of people you follow. By the time I saw it it had been reblogged over 8,500 times. I didn't scroll down the list of 8,500 plus names of people who'd reblogged it, but simply that such data is viewable provides an ordinary example of how social networking data makes friends of friends visible to us. The visibility of extended networks seems strange to an old guy like me, but a matter of course for young people today. What stood out to me about Emma's school work wasn't so much a seven or eight year old writing about "getting freaky" so much as teachers nowadays thinking that what a second-grader has to say would influence a senior in high school to behave at the prom. I doubt that back in my high school days teachers would have thought a second grader could have much if any impact on what an older teenager does, now we assume she does.

It's been wet here. I looked at the 10-day weather forecast and rain is forecast for every day. Spring has sprung in these parts and growth is exuberant. The problem with that is both keeping all the growth beat back, in particular trying to keep lawn areas mown without contemplating taking in hay, while at the same time trying to work the soil to plant seeds. Behind the eight ball in the best of years, I'm quite in a muddle with all the rain this year. Yesterday I went down to a Pittsburgh suburb to help a friend with a gardening project of his. Miraculously the rain held off and we managed a complete makeover of his front yard.

My friend was in the music business for more than forty years. He's got a curious mind and is a good writer. Recently he's been talking about a Web site he's beginning to make. I'm very eager for him to launch it. Talking about the site with him it's clear I'm coming to it from a different perspective. My friend isn't being critical so much as incredulous when he says "People must spend hours on the Internet." I do spend hours on the Internet daily and it seems the comments and questions I pose about his Web site are incomprehensible because he does not.

For many people my age that younger people have their Facebook open in a tab and and some sort of chat client open during work seems immoral. I say that, but also since I'm on the Internet a lot I also read what people basically my age write sometimes while at work, so I know this sort of "immorality" isn't solely among younger folk. Closely coupled with this disdain for the sort of news streams online denizens depend on is the lament: "Why can't they just pick up the phone?" A running joke about a good friend is that the best way to get in touch is to write her a letter. In business and life in general what's the right way to get in touch with people is in flux.

Ethan Zuckerman recently wrote a post about the dilemma of not know what's the best way to contact people nowadays. He points to an experimental site called Protocol.by which is a Web site and an email signature which lets people know the best ways to get in touch with you. It seems a good idea, although so far as I can tell nobody has trouble contacting me. Some people do complain that I don't have a cell phone or message machine. It probably would horrify some of my friends to say that Facebook is probably a pretty good option if they want to contact me during the day.

The friend for whom a paper letter isthe best way to reach her, likes to write everything in neat cursive handwriting. Everyone has preferences about writing and probably for most of us nothing seems quite perfect. QuiteWrite is an online text editor whose promise is to reduce the number of distractions. I can see it, but so far haven't actually used it. Right now I'm writing in the Blogger composer. I like to use it for blog posts because it's easy to handle links and certain formatting options. I asked my friend working to create a Web site how he writes. The question I posed really had to do with coping with HTML. His answer was that he writes using Word. It's been years since I've used Word, but I feel sure Word makes it easy to create an HTML document just like the LibreOffice Writer which I use. But he isn't thinking of HTML.

I looked at his Mac with the Safari Browser and wasn't smart enough to go to the View menu to show him the HTML of a Web page. He does get that there's something that has to happen to see a page on the Web, but so far that "what happens" is handled by sending copy to the guy making his Web site in the form of a Word Document. I don't think it's occurred to my friend yet that he's going to want to add links to his online text. As he gets online not only what makes for a comfortable writing will change but his ideas of what it means to write will change too.

All this is pretty far afield from Daisy's question about how Facebook may be altering our capacity for re-inventing ourselves. I'm not tech savvy, talking about things like HTML makes it sound as if I ought to know something technical. But when I talk with my friend about his Web site any technical matters seem so much less important than a shift in perspective which comes along with reading and writing on the Internet. Having Facebook open at work may seem immoral, but if it's a good way to contact people you need to at work, then how different is it from the phone on the desk? The point telling stories about pre-Internet folks like me is to show that the Internet makes a difference. The differences are both hard to see if you're not "swimming in it" and hard to see when you always are.

There's a sweet little YouTube video getting spread around It's Okay to Not Like Things. The punch line of the song is "But don't be a dick about it." It is embarrassing that not only are there pages online revealing me being a dick about things I don't like, but also that I know where to look for them. An example, perhaps not so much of being a dick but of being a total asshat, is that I used a picture of me wearing an Afro wig as my Blogger profile picture for a time. I have a thumbnail copy of the picture up now at Flickr with a link to The Jim Crow Museum. Once I had finally grokked how offensive the image is, it had been on the Internet for a while, and I felt it important to own up to my mistake by keeping it online in some form. I suppose that enough time has elapsed that it's probably alright now to delete the damn thing.

The fact that once something is on the Internet it's not easy to scrub it off has consequences. Everyone knows we ought to be careful and everyone whose been putting stuff on the Internet for any length of time knows some foolishness is inevitable. Often we can remember exactly where an example of our own foolishness lives online. It's not just about foolishness. The life of a thirteen year old seems eons away to the same person at sixteen. But that's only three years, and millions of sixteen year olds now can visit their thirteen year old selves online. Growing up really isn't quite the same as "reinventing" ourselves, it's just growing up. In a sense the Internet keeps a record of it all and that makes a difference.

I don't really know of a good way to go back an see my 2007 Facebook pages. It's quite possible that 13 year olds using Facebook now will still be using Facebook when they're 16. Facebook chronicles our lives, but it isn't so easy to go back and read from the beginning. Perhaps part of the current popularity of Tumblr has to do with blogs being much easier to travel backwards in than Facebook. But while it's hard for users to go back in time on Facebook, the Facebook corporation has been collecting data all along our use, for example keeping track of our "likes" over time.

I've already rambled on for too long, so in winding to a close will point to a much linked to quotation:
if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold
Most of us are content to Google, use Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. without giving much thought to who owns the data. People haven't stopped growing up or stopped re-inventing themselves. As we live more and more connected online, I suspect that more people will see the value in asserting ownership over their own data. Dave Winer has advocated that for a long time. If you're interested in a short snapshot of what Winer is up to in that regard this post by Scott Gilbertson is quite helpful. Tantek Çelik is all over that too.

The difference the Internet makes is a big subject. I like that Daisy is asking questions about how the Internet, and Facebook in particular, is changing our interior landscapes. I've rambled here and there about it only to get nowhere. After reading Daisy's post I left a comment. Marshall McLuhan came to mind. There are many super cogent thinkers about the Internet nowadays, and they're worth paying attention to. But I think McLuhan is important especially for older folks like me. Lots of American Baby Boomers read Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and many more with the gist of McLuhan's ideas about media.

The short version of the 1964 book is that media extends our senses and as a sense is extended the ratios among the different senses are altered. For example with the invention of printed books sight became more important and hearing so important attenuated. So as sight is extended a portion of our hearing amputated. Clearly people didn't loose their ability to hear as books rolled off the presses. What's important is the ways in which the interrelationships between our sense are changed with the development of new media. While these changes are happening to the many, those of us who lived long before the Internet notice the change. Well, and a surprising number of old folks like me feel that resiting such changes is virtuous. McLuhan provides something of an accessible theory for what we fear to loose; for every extension is an amputation. But on the other hand fear without understanding creates moral and ethical confusion which perhaps on a trivial level gets expressed in outbursts of "These kids today!" Old folks would do well to put more effort into understanding rather than leap to ethical judgement. The changes that networked computers and widespread access of people to those networks create require ethical and moral judgments; it's good not to be a dick about them.

* I checked and there doesn't seem to be a Wikipedia article for Ben Masel. A Google search yields dozens and dozens of remembrances. Reading some of those is fun if you're in the mood. It may be helpful for understanding who Ben Masel was to read the Wikipedia article Youth International Party (YIPPIE).

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Another Post About Blogging

Over the last week the leaves on the trees have begun to open and many blossoms burst forth. That has nothing to do with not posting here for months, except that my posts generally begin with an off topic remark and proceed to rambling from there.

This blog has been the place I've most consistently posted about what's happening in my day to day life.

I was surprised the other day looking for something I once posted that I've been posting here since 2005. Originally the idea for this blog was to encourage some of my friends to pay more attention to people in Africa along with a half-baked idea I had for alternative currency scheme to encourage that attention. Quickly it became apparent that very few of my friends pay any attention at all to blogs which exposed the premise of the blog as fairly useless. I posted anyway.

Generally when I comment other places I leave behind the URL for this blog, so it represents something of my online identity. Many who write online enjoy having a large following. I've been content being hardly visible knowing that my opinions tend to rub the wrong way and being fairly thin-skinned happy to have limited exposure. If the purpose of this blog is to somehow represent who I am online, it makes sense to make some changes here, but the revealing aspect about me is my voluminous capacity to shirk anything resembling work. So I just made a few easy changes now and will see what comes up as I go along.

Curious about Tumblr and knowing that the way learn best is to jump right in, I made a blog other there called Three Good Links. The idea was a simple link blog posting three short snippets from daily reading. The blog doesn't add much to the Internet ecology, but it's been enough to discover that Tumblr is fun. While a link blog reveals my interests to some extent, surely what I write offers more clue as to what I'm like than snippets of what others say.

Curious about Tumblr and knowing that the way learn best is to jump right in, I made a blog other there called Three Good Links. The idea was a simple link blog posting three short snippets from daily reading. The blog doesn't add much to the Internet ecology, but it's been enough to discover that Tumblr is fun. While a link blog reveals my interests to some extent my interests, surely why I write offers more clue as to what I'm like than snippets of what others say.

I do want to keep blogging here. Anyone whose read any of my posts knows they're rambling ones, mostly my stabs at trying to make sense of things. I hope that the changes made make the blog more transparent about what it's about.