Who are the bloggers in your neighborhood?

by Henry Farrell on July 2, 2004

Laura at “Apartment 11d”:http://apartment11d.blogspot.com/2004_06_01_apartment11d_archive.html#108847109152995261 posts on the blogosphere as a space for debate:

bq. is the blogosphere a public space, like the New England townhall meeting? Is it a place where individuals can debate ideas and policy proposals and have some impact on political officials?

Perhaps it should be neither. The most attractive ideal for the blogosphere that I’ve come across is in sociologist Richard Sennett’s brilliant, frustrating shaggy-dog of a book, “The Fall of Public Man”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0393308790/henryfarrell-20. Sennett is writing about the eighteenth century coffee-house as a place where people could escape from their private lives, reinventing themselves, and engaging in good conversation with others, regardless of their background or their everyday selves. They could assume new identities, try out novel arguments usw. This kind of polity doesn’t so much conduct towards a shared consensus, as allow the kinds of diversity and plurality that Iris Marion Young (who’s heavily influenced by Sennett) talks about in “Justice and the Politics of Difference”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691023158/henryfarrell-20.

I’m quite sure that eighteenth century coffee houses weren’t actually like that (unless you were bourgeois and male) – but Sennett’s arguments are still helpful in understanding how the blogosphere differs from a New England townhall. Like Sennett’s patronizers of coffee shops, bloggers don’t usually know each other before they start blogging, so that it’s quite easy for them to reinvent themselves if they like, and indeed to invent a pseudonym, or pseudonyms to disguise their real identity completely. This has its downside – “some bloggers”:http://apartment11d.blogspot.com/2004_06_01_apartment11d_archive.html#108854101450715172 take it as license for offensive behaviour – but in general, if you don’t like a blog, you can simply stop reading it, or linking to it. The blogosphere seems less to me like a close-knit community (there isn’t much in the way of shared values, and only a bare minimum of shared norms), and more like a city neighborhood. An active, vibrant neighborhood when things are working; one with dog-turds littering the pavement when they’re not.



djw 07.02.04 at 8:13 pm

Your link for “some bloggers” who behave offensively links to Laura’s post, which isn’t offensive at all. Your point is surely correct, but I think the link is screwed up.


bob mcmanus 07.02.04 at 8:44 pm

“there isn’t much in the way of shared values, and only a bare minimum of shared norms”

Income, education, cosmopolitanism, comfort with technology and belief in “progress”…probably a more homogeneous community than we admit to ourselves. Tho the mix of values and norms may be new.


freddie poo 07.02.04 at 8:52 pm

hy must it be like something that no longer is? Why not simply acczept it for what it is, what it does?


harry 07.02.04 at 9:05 pm

Henry, you should have linked to the later post. djw, scroll up to a later post, and you gte a story abuot an offensive anonymous blogger.


Henry 07.02.04 at 9:48 pm

Should be fixed now (I must have copied the wrong link the first time around).


Laura 07.02.04 at 10:23 pm

Thanks, Henry, for helping me think through this concept. Loved your comparison of the blogosphere to a coffee house.

Yes, it is possible to not read offensive bloggers, but when they attack you, it sure is frustrating to be unable to defend yourself. Even more frustrating when they attack not only your ideas, but your character. Should bloggers be bound to the same rules as the media?


Henry 07.02.04 at 10:42 pm

Hi Laura – I very much agree – it’s frustrating and very unpleasant. I don’t know if bloggers should be bound to the same rules as the media, but I don’t have much of a practical alternative, besides trying to jump over aforementioned dog-turds, and muttering maledictions at the people responsible for them. Who was it by the way, or is that something you’d prefer not to get into?


Adrian 07.02.04 at 10:54 pm

Sennett actually nicks the coffee house thing from Habermas’ ‘Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’.

Sorry to be a nerd.


q 07.02.04 at 11:23 pm

It is worth remembering that research has shown that there is a link between structural DECAY and crime. By actively reducing the amount of petty theft, graffitti and dog turds, the knock-on effects are a better neighbourhood for everyone. Even the BAD boys seems less destructive of the neat and tidy.

So it is worth mowing the lawn, repainting the fence, righting the wooden post every now and then. Community action groups and neighbourhood watch really do work.

In the same way, maybe there are some “neat and tidy” activities that can be carried out on a blog that encourage socially constructive behaviour. Social space cleaning.


Dr. Weevil 07.02.04 at 11:33 pm

I don’t see how the post you link at ‘Apartment 11d’ can possibly show that “some bloggers” use a pseudonym “as license for offensive behaviour”. The blogger described is almost certainly Steven Den Beste, who blogs under his own name and does not seem to be primarily interested in giving offensive, though he’s certainly willing to give offense as part of what he has to say.


q 07.02.04 at 11:45 pm

If your neighbourhood is neat and tidy, but two other neighbourhoods close by are engaged in a tussle, which is affecting their own tidiness, what do you do?

Well, on the one hand, you should leave them alone, as it is not your business or property, and everyone needs to have some freedom to make their own mistakes.

On the other hand, we know that an increase in crime in a nearby neighbourhood could well generate some criminals that might go further afield, and affect us.

Criminal ghettos are acceptable if we can build security fences around our own neighbourhood, so that criminality does not affect us. But to avoid being tarnished at all we would need separate schools, shops and roads.


Henry 07.02.04 at 11:51 pm

Dr. Weevil, I didn’t say that the blogger was using a pseudonym – just that the freedom to create a new identity (and not suffer most of the repercussions thereof) sets some people off on a power-kick. Doesn’t necessarily require a pseudonym – just the ability to spout and not have to face much in the way of consequences. I can see how my wording was a bit misleading though.

Can’t say that I’m surprised that it’s Den Beste who’s responsible for this particular turd in the arena of public discourse. Although he’s always struck me as someone who’s less malicious than utterly socially clueless, and unaware of how offensive he very often is.


Paul 07.03.04 at 12:58 am

I dunno. The blogosphere (especially the political blogosphere) frequently seems to me more like a college (or even prep school) dormitory. Sometimes you encounter ideas that really do change your life. More often, though, it’s just a lot posing and shouting about things the shouters don’t have much influence on at all.

I read SDB’s remarks on the survey. The tone was incredulity at the presumption of expecting him to answer such a survey (and maybe a further incredulity that they weren’t reading him all along). That he felt that way doesn’t surprise me as much as his need to proclaim it. I’ve no reason to think that Den Beste isn’t basically an okay guy in person, but he really is the blogosphere’s Comic Book Guy.

What interests me is how quickly our online writings become avatars of our own identity, how we feel a need to respond whatever the criticism, how criticisms in fact feel like attacks, and how easy it is to give in to the temptation to counterattack. To the extent that some people actually imagine that they’re “fighting.” The kinds of connections between blogospherical rhetoric and real life identity might be a philosophically rewarding subject.


seth edenbaum 07.03.04 at 1:37 am

“Each blog is not a democracy. It is operated by the whim of its owner. Most of the time that is all fine and good. It is interesting to get different people’s perspectives on the news of the day, their views on the latest movies, and even what their kids said at breakfast. The personality of the blogger is definitely appealing.
But when bloggers personally attack others, who are not public officials or celebrities just private citizens trying to go about their work, this undemocratic creation is deeply troubling.

I find that last sentence deeply troubling.


Laura 07.03.04 at 2:31 am

henry – it doesn’t really matter who made the remarks or even what the blogger said. I recovered.

I wrote that post just to point out the problems with defending yourself in the blogosphere. Blogging isn’t always a conversation amongst equals. Some have much louder voices, because of their traffic and loyal linkers. Smaller bloggers are in danger of getting gangbanged by the loyal linkers. And some, like my blogless co-author, have no voice whatsoever. She has no outlet to restore her credibility.


Liz 07.03.04 at 8:40 am

Hmmn. The metaphor Laura has is “a conversation amongst equals”. I’d like my blog to be more of a conversation, but that’s not what I set it up to be…more of a public commonplace book.

I cannot say what the metaphor Mr. den Beste is operating under. But it is important to him that a lot of people read his work, otherwise it is not worth doing, as he says here:


and here:

So I believe that one of Mr. den Beste’s underlying rules is, “If I have more traffic, then I am more important than persons with lesser traffic.”

It sure smarts when you have one metaphor, and somebody else has another, and you talk at cross purposes–or even get yelled at.

Hmnn again. I am sorry, Laura, I can see that the posts in question are annoying, and they have upset you….but I don’t see that you have to take it personally. That is to say, I don’t see that you have been “gangbanged” or that your co-author has lost any credibility. Some man somewhere put some said some rather loud and condescending things about a survey he he was asked to respond to. He also (as we all do, always), revealed more about himself that he told about you. In his statements, he revealed that he is (a) not particularly sophisticated about research methodology in the humanities (b) self-absorbed (“I feel like I am being watched”) (c) willing to jump to conclusions (he seems to be assuming the survey is only addressed to bloggers of his ilk, not across the spectrum).

I also think the metaphor of the “blogosphere” is a distraction or a misdirection. It gives you the picture of a uniform thing–like the troposphere–but the dizzying array of blogs from the opinon journals to the personal essayist aren’t really one thing.


Backword Dave 07.03.04 at 8:49 am

I don’t think I understand the Steven den Beste part of this discussion. What’s the old story about Bob Dylan being asked what his songs are about, and replying “Some are about three minutes, some are about five minutes, and some are even about 11 minutes …”?

Den Beste is only saying if you want to know why I blog, read me, don’t treat me like a lab rat you can just poke when you please.

He was sent a survey and he blogged his thoughts about it, not really a surprise given that’s what he does. It was unsolicitied mail. If you don’t like it when unsolicited mail you send gets slagged off in public, don’t send unsolicited mail. I don’t see anything offensive in what he wrote, still less anything to warrant the description ‘turd.’


Stentor 07.03.04 at 3:35 pm

I think the coffee shop and town hall metaphors represent what we think blogging ought to be. And sometimes — such as at CT — it’s a reasonable approximation. But I think most “political” blogs are better described as cathartic screaming.


Giles 07.03.04 at 4:04 pm

Isn’t the whole point of the Blogsophere that you can be asoffensive and dont need to be polite – because there’s no danger of cooming to blows?

It seems to me that laura has missed the point – why would the blogpshere exist if it was like a new england town hall/pub/coffehouse when you could go to a townhall/pub/coffehouse instead?


djw 07.03.04 at 4:06 pm

he really is the blogosphere’s Comic Book Guy.

That’s not bad, but what always strikes my mind when I find myself exposed to that man’s ideas and prosie is that he’s the blogosphere’s Ignatius Reilly.


Paul 07.04.04 at 5:43 am

Now that you mention it, SDB does seem unduly concerned with his valve.

I wonder if he writes on Big Chief tablets.


Nabakov 07.04.04 at 9:29 am

I reckon Laura had every right to send the questionnaire and Beste had every right to respond as he did.

It’s true certain protocols of discourse are emerging in the blogosphere, but they’re organically evolving as per the nature of the medium itself.

However concepts like “credibility” and “right of reply” are still slippery shapeshifting beasts online. But we do know it’s no place for the thin-skinned.

So get over it Laura. Better still, use some contextual judo and put his response in an entertaining and constructive frame.

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