Why I’m always on the internet…

by Corey Robin on October 1, 2014

I hesitate to post this little item because it involves praise of me (with a term, as you may recall, that I really don’t like), but…John’s complaining that we’re not posting enough, and I think the topic in this item might be of interest to readers.

The context is that my friend, Peter von Ziegesar, who’s a filmmaker and author (of an affecting memoir about his brother that you really should read), was interviewed by PEN America and was asked, “While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose? How about artists? Is it a shared purpose?”

In his response, Peter says in part:

Typically in the past the public intellectual, on the model of Susan Sontag, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Gore Vidal, lived in New York and published in esoteric journals, such as The New York Review of Books, or The Nation, and occasionally appeared on the Tonight Show. A friend of mine, Corey Robin, a professor at Brooklyn College who has written several books and fits the role of public intellectual perfectly, in my opinion, told me recently that he originally moved to New York City hoping to discover just such a vibrant pool of committed intellectuals to join and was disappointed when he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until he started blogging and created his own website that he found that group of individuals he’d been looking for—on the Internet.
Curious what other people’s experiences are, if they feel the same way…




Zamfir 10.01.14 at 5:56 pm

Sounds familiar, including people who live nearby who I would nver have met without the internet. At the same time, people I meet in real life feel ‘known’ in a way that internet people never quite do.


Bruce Baugh 10.01.14 at 6:03 pm

Absolutely, Corey. Most of my closest friends in the world, people I’ve known (in some cases) for 20+ years, are people I met online, and many of them I’ve never been in the same room with. Yet they’ve become my trusted peers, colleagues, collaborators, mentors, folks to get serious with and to get goofy with.


MPAVictoria 10.01.14 at 6:09 pm

Hmmm, well my close friends tend to be people I have worked or went to school with or have known since childhood. However, when I want to read something interesting and discuss it with people much smarter and more knowledgeable then myself I go to the internet.

/Also when I want to see funny cat pictures.


Plume 10.01.14 at 6:15 pm

It’s a trade off, of course. In the roughly 20 years since I’ve been reading and sometimes posting on the Internet, I’ve met some really great disembodied minds — and a few good folks in person. But, to get to those good folks, you have to make your way through an extraordinary amount of truly ugly, disgusting, spirit-sapping static. Corey may not have found the circle of intellectuals in real life, but it’s likely that on his way toward that discovery, he encountered far fewer “trolls” and assorted Internet bullies, racists, homophobes and sociopaths in general.

The Internet gives us more. More of. But that includes more insanity than we’d find normally in a bookstore or a corner pub. And the behavior is different, too. Something about the Internet, the anonymity of it all, either brings out the crazies who would never show up at the library lecture, the university panel discussion, or the lively corner bar . . . . or, it just exacerbates the inner troll in everyone, sometimes to dangerous levels.

A trade off, to be sure.

All in all, CT has one of the best Signal to Noise ratios online. It’s not perfect, by any means. But relatively speaking, it’s top tier. There are other spots along the spectrum which can make you feel the need for a shower or two or three just reading the comments section. I guess it’s a roll of the dice, on a daily basis. Oh, well.


MPAVictoria 10.01.14 at 6:24 pm

“CT has one of the best Signal to Noise ratios online.”

Totally agree. A number of other mainline, less academic liberal sites such as Atrios, Balloon Juice and Digby also have good communities.

I wish I could find a decent automobile website but something about cars seems to attract right wing nut jobs….


CarNut 10.01.14 at 7:28 pm


Assuming you’re not talking about carbon-spewing, human-killing cars, I find http://insideevs.com/ to be a great website/discussion forum …


Teachable Mo' 10.01.14 at 7:56 pm

I abandoned hope of being an intellectual one afternoon during a graduate seminar. And not just a public intellectual. Even private pretense was gone. I had proposed something a wee bit stupid, and everyone — as if they were one being — turned to look at me with a stunned look in their eyes. It wasn’t a slow deliberate movement, either. That would have been akin to sarcasm which I had shrugged off before. What I had said was stupid in a novel way, like getting married while sky-diving, and the rest of the seminar just wanted a closer look. Even my usually jaded professor gave a short laugh thinly disguised as a cough.


anna j clutterbuck-cook 10.01.14 at 8:34 pm

I definitely struggled to find “my people” interested in thinking/talking about my passions before the Internet — and specifically for me “the feminist blogosphere.” I had some decent classroom experiences in college, but for the post part felt very isolated as a scholar beyond the few faculty I connected with. I wasn’t on the same wavelength as my peers, really. But around 2006-2007 I discovered Feministing.com and through them a plethora of other blogs (and thus voices). College and graduate school were both important to my intellectual growth in their own ways, and I met my wife in graduate school so I don’t knock it as an experience! But it was online that I figured out how to write and converse and argue big ideas in a sustained way.


Tom West 10.01.14 at 8:49 pm

Ah, that shining moment when you suddenly realize you are the stupidest person in the room. I know it well :-).

Still, those rooms were where the most interesting conversations were found, so it didn’t stop me.


Tomboktu 10.01.14 at 8:52 pm

While not public intellectuals, I did find a group of individuals I had been looking for when a student in Limerick in 1989 and 1990 I discovered the online gay discussion board soc.motss.


Peter K. 10.01.14 at 8:56 pm

I agree with Robin. And also with Plume about the trolls. What did they do before the Internet? Write angry letters to the editor?

Maybe the Internet is in some way providing an outlet and diversion for these people who would otherwise be harassing family members and acquaintances. It probably stirs them up as well.

I try to cut people some slack though because I can get emotional and trolly when “someone is wrong on the Internet!”

The best thing for me is the international perspectives with easy access to info and opinions from people in Australia, Canada, Ireland, England, etc. See the Scottish referendum.


bob mcmanus 10.01.14 at 9:49 pm

Bunch of disappointed academic manque olds hosted by overbusy nesting fortyish pros edging toward mid-life crises. Where are the kids, the energetic twenty-somethings? Well, our hosts see them everyday under constrained circumstances, but for the rest of us, they are over there elsewhere in the uncivil indecorous obnoxious ephemeral Internet, raising hell. They don’t want us, but we can lurk. Their rejection is good for us.

Back before the Internet, we had these places to hang out called libraries, where exotic and alien viewpoints were available for those who searched. Immediacy and currency was usually considered a tempting vice for the intellectual, and the coffeehouse a place were work was avoided. Insert quote from Present Age.

I suppose I am grateful that the long tail is in reach, wagging in front of me as I follow behind the Peabodies and Shermans with my broom.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 10.02.14 at 2:43 am

My best friends are birds. (I give them suet, just to make sure they keep liking me.)


Tom West 10.02.14 at 2:53 am

And also with Plume about the trolls. What did they do before the Internet? Write angry letters to the editor?

Hung around with other discontented 15 year olds.

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it mixes us with all sorts of people that we would never have met in the real world due to physical and cultural boundaries.

That is also its tragedy.


RSA 10.02.14 at 3:28 am

I’ll cherry pick a few relevant lines from J. C. R. Licklider, in 1968:

What will on-line interactive communities be like? In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest… [L]ife will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.


geo 10.02.14 at 3:55 am

Typically in the past public intellectuals … lived in New York

… and saw one another at lectures, parties, cafes, and in living rooms. All this face-to-face conversation gave fostered a fluency and quickness of wit that, for all its other advantages, Internet exchange can’t match, in my experience. I’ve been in a few situations, usually among people who’ve known one another for a while, where the arguments, anecdotes, allusions, and jokes flew back and forth so quickly that I became light-headed with pleasure.

It’s true that online communities can bring together people at great distances from one another. On the other hand, electronic communication is the reason no one writes letters anymore. Clay Shirky may not care, but I find the thought that there will probably never be any future collections of letters like those of Byron, Keats, Flaubert, Chekhov, James, Shaw, Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, Flannery O’Connor, and dozens of other people pretty hard to bear.


nnyhav 10.02.14 at 4:52 am

It happens I know Peter through the board of directors at Archipelago Books (translated lit-house), another means of pursuing an internationalist outlook (authors published thereby include Mahmoud Darwish, Elias Khoury, Breyten Breytenbach …) Picador picked up the memoir reprint earlier this year, which may be easier to find off-line than the hardcover.

Online communities (not talking social media platforms here) certainly facilitate making the connections but I’m not so sure about maintaining them. Stability issues, but fun while it lasts (eg thevalve.org).


John Quiggin 10.02.14 at 5:53 am

Having spent most the first decade of the Web in Townsville, North Queensland, the decline of the face-to-face intellectual scene in New York City strikes me as an entirely acceptable price to pay for letting the rest of the world join in. I imagine someone in an Internet cafe in, say, Ulan Bator, would express this view even more strongly.


Zamfir 10.02.14 at 6:45 am

If the intellectual scenes in New York were hurt by the jnternet (I’ll trust Geo that was some effect), then the intellectual scenes in Ulaanbator might well have seen a similar effect. It is always a worthwhile improvement to go from having local debate, to having an international debate. Especially as international debates on the internet are not automatically cosmopolitan debates. Sometimes they just mean that people from around the world can debate the American health care system.


Zamfir 10.02.14 at 6:45 am

Error: It is NOT always an improvement…


Corey Robin 10.02.14 at 6:59 am

Having spent the entire evening re-reading the correspondence between Hannah Arendt and several of her closest intimates, for this post below, I can say that I know what geo means. And feel its loss.



John Quiggin 10.02.14 at 7:35 am

“Sometimes they just mean that people from around the world can debate the American health care system.”

Given the continuous pressure, in Australia at least, to adopt American institutions of all kinds, including health care, not to mention going to war whenever America calls, there’s no “just” about this. What happens in the US, where Australians don’t have a vote, matters at least as much to our lives as what happens in Australia.

At least now, we in Australia can talk to Americans about it. More precisely, we can talk back to Americans – there was never any shortage of messages from the US to Oz.


Metatone 10.02.14 at 8:16 am

On the one hand, having lived a roving life I have to agree with JQ, opening up the accessibility of interesting discussion through the internet is a bit positive.

On the other, I think there are non-internet structural issues biting at discussion and intellectual community, at least here in London. Property management, in private spaces and universities seems to dominate scheduling. e.g. The LSE has some very interesting evening talks, but within 10 mins of the end everyone is herded out of the lecture theatre and in 20 mins, the building has been cleared.

Now if you’ve already made a circle of friends you can wander off to their living room – or if you’re lucky you’ll hitch onto a group who knows of a discussion friendly pub, but it seems to me the room for discussion has been shrinking.

As for the events themselves, we’re still stuck in some 20th century lecture mode. The audience sits down and listens. Q&A is invariably a stunted, disjointed affair, again dominated by the demand to finish on time. Maybe the internet is actually just a better place for discussion, but I feel like physical spaces are being closed down by “capacity utilisation” etc.

(A recent episode at the V&A was similar, with the next event scheduled right up against the one I attended. No commitment to fostering discussion, just some speakers talking and then boom, on to the next thing.)


Metatone 10.02.14 at 8:16 am

*big positive, not a bit positive…


Tom Slee 10.02.14 at 11:41 am

I am with those above who have experienced the Internet as a mixed blessing.

It solves the matching problem — it is great to have places like this one right here to “talk” about things I’m interested in with others who share those interests. So I spend a lot of time at a screen.

On the other hand, coherent conversation by text can be almost impossible, at least for me. A recent thread on this very blog found me stumbling over the meaning of others’ comments while being grievously (grievously I tell you) misunderstood myself. Conversing across different cultural assumptions, educational backgrounds, interests, expertise, and more — without knowing what those differences are — is a lot of work.

I did recently leave Twitter because I simply could not converse properly and yet it sucked up a lot of my time.

So from me it’s two cheers for it, I guess.


Tom Slee 10.02.14 at 11:50 am

Typically in the past public intellectuals … lived in New York

I think we should postpone mourning/celebrating the loss of such centres until it actually happens: the Internet has always had both an inclusive effect (hello Townsville, North Queensland!) and an exclusive winner-take-all effect. The massive sucking sound that is Silicon Valley shows that face-to-face geographically-specific communication has lost little of its importance. It’s the “missing middle” that I worry about.


name withheld by flying saucer 10.02.14 at 1:50 pm

Soon we will need a Blogistan that translates from one language to another, so that people from non-Anglophone countries can listen and join in.


Lee A. Arnold 10.02.14 at 1:53 pm

Soon we will need a Blogistan that translates from one language to another, so that people from non-Anglophone countries can listen and join in.

(Sorry, that prior attempt got boggled by an accidental nom de plume.)


Bruce Baugh 10.02.14 at 2:08 pm

John Quiggin: In addition to y’all in Townsville and Ulan Bator being able to join in, there are those of us in major cities or small town in the US who are housebound by disabilities or obligations, shy, in the middle of gender presentation transition, disfigured in distracting ways, or otherwise out of the loop even when it’s physically close. Lots of sorts of us commit suicide less than we used to, because we can share in the meeting of minds.


MPAVictoria 10.02.14 at 2:28 pm

Truly excellent comment Bruce. I actually believe that the internet saved my life.


Bruce Baugh 10.02.14 at 2:55 pm

MPAVictoria, that’s true for a lot of the people I know. Moments came when they really truly needed a particular kind of help, and they found it online.


Harold 10.02.14 at 10:02 pm

The last public intellectual was probably Edmund Wilson. Academia, not the internet, has exterminated the species. There are now only careerists.


ZM 10.02.14 at 11:30 pm

Australia still has public intellectuals. The ones who are not knaves working for think tanks tend to be in the baby boomer cohort I would say – but this could be because the younger ones are not yet so prominent and will grow to be later. Drussila Modjeska wrote about future public intellectuals here, mentioning my favourite australian historian Greg Denning http://www.themonthly.com.au/monthly-essays-drusilla-modjeska-our-future-thinkers-search-next-generation-public-intellectuals-245

As I live in a small town public intellectuals are important not just for their ideas and published writings – but because they very kindly spend a good deal of their time travelling around to places giving talks and helping to catalyse or support local groups or local series of lectures. For instance our local Anglican Church, on Agitation Hill, has Agitation Hill lectures regularly and public intellectuals and also less well known academics kindly give talks. And as well, just to give you an idea – just this year Raymond Gaita organised Helen Garner, Robert Manne, and Arnold Zable to come to town to fundraise for the campaign against the chicken broiler farm in Moolort, and Don Watson was on a panel in nearby Gisborne on the proposed changes to the Senate, and Julian Burnside and David Manne spoke in Daylesford for Rural Australians for Refugees, and later this year Julian Burnide and Louise Newman will speak here on refugees. Probably I have forgotten some other events too.

I think the internet is good for discussing and arguing matters to an extent close to your hearts content – but it is easier to get cross since you can’t see people’s faces and also because changing the topic to a pleasant matter is going off topic on the internet – whereas in day to day life conversations go along that line often, or else you say ‘well if we talk any longer we’ll solve all the world’s problems – sigh’

It is also easier to think of lots of ideas in writing – but I find in our local refugee group carrying out an idea takes a good deal of time and organising and people’s willingness to participate – and that is even considering all the experienced and smart people in the group. So it is much lengthier to carry out just a small idea in town than to write down a big idea on the internet.


geo 10.03.14 at 3:29 am

Harold @33: The last public intellectual was probably Edmund Wilson
One of the last, anyway. Don’t forget about Gore Vidal, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens, Corey Robin.

Academia, not the internet, has exterminated the species
More or less what Russell Jacoby argued in The Last Intellectuals.

There are now only careerists.
Amen. Except for you and me, of course.


Plume 10.03.14 at 4:20 am

Geo @35,

The Last Intellectuals is a very important book. And speaking of valuable elective communities on the Internet, I “discovered” it due to this website, which turned me on to George Scialabba, who turned me on to Jacoby and several writers who are now important to me. I’d say Scialabba qualifies as a public intellectual, and his non-academic occupation within a university setting makes him all the more . . . . unique in that regard.

Thanks, CT.


Sumana Harihareswara 10.03.14 at 11:56 am

I personally moved to New York City for a specific job, but/and have found lots of interesting intellectual people and don’t lack for highbrow face-to-face conversation when I want it. Very few of my local pals and interlocutors are professional academics and I generally did not find them via the academy; I met them via jobs, through the open source software community, at parties, at conferences and conventions (often not in New York City), online via blogs and Twitter and IRC, via Hacker School, and of course through friends of friends. However your standards for high-flown banter/discourse may differ from mine!

I conduct a tremendous amount of my professional and personal life online, yes, and my online and offline lives inform each other, socially and cerebrally.

I agree with von Ziegesar that “I don’t think that the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion. I think that he or she has moved their place of discourse to another location.” Ta-Nehisi Coates springs to mind; his blogging and the conversation in his comments section feeds into the quality and impact of his magazine writing.


dax 10.03.14 at 1:40 pm

Didn’t Krugman say as one of the main reasons of his leaving Princeton and going to NYC was so he could further his ambition as a public intellectual?


nnyhav 10.03.14 at 3:24 pm

In the neighborhood (insofar as journalism overlaps with public intellectuality): Izabella Kaminska, Trolls 2.0


LFC 10.03.14 at 5:01 pm

dax @38
Didn’t Krugman say as one of the main reasons of his leaving Princeton and going to NYC was so he could further his ambition as a public intellectual?

According to the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School website, he’s still on the faculty. Search on “krugman princeton economics” for the link.


geo 10.03.14 at 6:39 pm

Plume @35: I’d say Scialabba qualifies as a public intellectual

I’d say he’s full of shit.


The Temporary Name 10.03.14 at 6:42 pm

I wish this Scialabba guy would show up to defend himself.


geo 10.03.14 at 6:48 pm

@42: No way. He spends all his time hanging out in cafes with other self-important “public intellectuals.”


Plume 10.03.14 at 7:13 pm

Geo @41,

Can you support why you feel that way? I’m no expert on his work and thought, though I have read one of his books and numerous essays online. Admittedly, the sample size is limited, but I thoroughly enjoyed what I did read, and it sparked a lot of additional reading on my part.

(And I really liked the seminar on his book here. Much food for thought)

Can you give specific examples of why you think he’s full of it?


geo 10.03.14 at 7:39 pm

Sorry, Plume, I’ll have to leave that to other people. I don’t trust myself — there’s too much bad blood between Scialabba and me.


Plume 10.03.14 at 7:47 pm

Geo, fair enough. Thanks.


Ze Kraggash 10.03.14 at 8:28 pm

Sounds like you’re not always on the internet, Plume.


Jerry Vinokurov 10.05.14 at 5:45 am

Where are the kids, the energetic twenty-somethings?

I don’t know if I’m “energetic” enough to qualify, but there are likely comments from me on CT from when I was in my twenties. I’ve aged out of that bracket a few years ago, so maybe I’m too old for you now…

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