Sunday, July 6, 2008
Selective Annoyance Internet Disorder (SAID)
I like many blogs, and I like many of the people I know who write blogs. If I’ve gotten to know you through blogworld, you can be sure I like you, even if we’ve never met or have only barely met.
But that’s not what I’m going to write about today.
A post on Stan Apps’ blog last week raised the issue of why so many blog comments are hostile. Speaking for myself, I think I do a pretty good job, if not a perfect one, of not putting hostile notes in blog comment boxes. But that’s not because I don’t feel annoyed at other people’s blogs. Believe me, I do. I feel a lot of annoyance at blog posts sometimes. Sometimes I’ve left hostile comments on people’s blogs, maybe even on your blog, but mainly I succeed in not doing that.
It’s quite likely that you’re a better person than I am, I’ll grant that up front. But maybe you feel annoyance at blog posts sometimes too. So examining some of the reasons I feel annoyed about blog posts might be helpful both to me and to others. It’s important to be open about things when it might be helpful. As with much else, when it comes to SAID, we’re only as sick as the Internet secrets we can’t say. But I have to warn you that doing that this will require investigating some troubling psychological dynamics. I understand why none of us, including myself, would want to do that. So feel free to stop reading now. If you read on, you only have yourself to blame.
The problem is, a lot of blog posts really are annoying and some are quite actively stupid. Comments about blog posts are often particularly annoying and stupid. When I’m in the presence of something annoying, it makes me feel annoyed, and when I’m annoyed, I want to say something annoying. Ditto with stupid: when somebody says something stupid, I want to say something stupid back. And by the way, I know that calling something “stupid” implies a questionable value judgment that nonetheless I often make when somebody says something stupid.
And it’s not simply that blogs and comment box responses can be stupid. It’s also that they can be wrong, inaccurate, self-aggrandizing, ignorant, willfully ignorant, slanderous, paranoid, deluded and dangerous.
When I’m reading blogs, it’s often because I’m too tired or distracted to do anything else. At those times, I’m more easily annoyed. In fact feeling annoyed can be a way to get my energy back, although hardly the most healthy way.
I moved a few years ago from Washington, D.C., where I knew many poets and saw them frequently, to the San Diego area, where I know a few poets and see them only occasionally. I have many less opportunities these days for getting annoyed face to face with my poet friends on a casual, daily basis. So on a Tuesday night after work, instead of being out somewhere with friends getting annoyed by them, and they by me, I’m often reading blogs. I take the annoyance I used to feel at my friends and transfer it to blogworld. All that annoyance has to go somewhere. Otherwise it just festers.
While blogs can create a sense of community and I’ve had many good exchanges on them, nonetheless the physical alienation of the Internet is real. You can’t get to know people that well even when it seems you are. It can be frustrating to feel this alienation and that can lead to being annoyed.
That alienation also fosters a sense of being left out. All these things going on that I’m not part of. That’s annoying. Of course some things I wouldn’t want to be part of. But that’s even more annoying: to want to be part of things but to not want to be part of the things that are actually happening.
Besides, and this is one thing that everybody knows, it’s easier to say something annoying to someone when you don’t have to look that person in the eye.
I have a lot of feelings. But my excellent training in contemporary normative American manhood means that of all those feelings, anger is the one I’m most comfortable feeling and expressing. I express anger mainly as a response to feeling threatened, and I feel threatened a lot. Responding angrily when threatened helps me feel like I’m protecting myself. When I express other emotions, whatever the situation, I feel less protected. Sometimes when I’ve told people I like them, for instance, it turns out they don’t like me back. That hurts. Although anger is often a response to feeling hurt, it also protects me from that feeling. Saying something annoying on someone’s blog can feel like a way of protecting myself.
I feel more comfortable expressing anger around men than around women, since men are more likely to recognize my anger in themselves and to respond angrily, while women are more likely to dislike and fear my anger and respond with silence, even when they also recognize it in themselves, although it’s hard for me to know how often they do since they tend not to tell me. I mean, I can see that many women are angry, but often they won’t tell me directly. When women respond with silence, that makes me fear that women don’t like me, and I feel afraid when women don’t like me. This makes me angry about women and tempted to leave angry comments on their blogs. But I recognize that I have to restrain my anger if I want women to like me, so when I’m annoyed about something that a woman has posted on her blog, I’m more likely to want to leave an angry comment on a man’s blog. I’ve noticed however that other men don’t necessarily restrain themselves this way.
Besides, anger has been a very productive and creative emotion for me. Anger can really get me going. Add to that the fact that alternative arts communities respect and give a lot of credit to anger as long as it’s seen as the right kind of anger, and all in all, I’m pretty consistently rewarded for anger.
Often, not much else is going on when I start checking blogs. I’m bored. I work long hours at a job that is only sometimes rewarding, and when I’m done I still don’t have anything interesting to do. Wow, does that ever make me annoyed, and right at the time when I start checking blogs.
And once a controversy gets started as a result of annoying comments, which doesn’t always happen but does sometimes, something does seem to be happening. Writing can be lonely and isolating. All these words potentially addressed to a void. But in controversy, people are responding. Their emotions are engaged. I’ve said something and they’ve reacted. Their responses may make me annoyed, but at least I know that something I’ve said has caused a real reaction in a real person, even if I’ve never met that person. It’s very exciting to me, by the way, to have caused a reaction in a person, especially one I’ve never met. Who is that person, I ask myself.
All that said, I disagree with Stan when he calls the phenomenon “elective annoyance.” I look forward to discussing this with him over our blogs and proving to him that I am correct and he is mistaken. It can be very helpful to prove that others are mistaken when I believe they are, and it’s especially helpful when they acknowledge it, which admittedly they don’t often do. Sometimes the inward conviction that I have proved myself correct has to be enough. What proving that I am correct allows me to feel is that I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I do feel like I know what I’m talking about and it’s great to confirm that, with myself and others. Other times I feel confused and uncertain and vulnerable, and those moments can be turned around by proving that I know what I”m talking about.
I disagree with Stan because I never find that I choose my annoyance. In fact I am almost always annoyed before I have chosen to be annoyed. I read something and I’m annoyed and that’s that. Admittedly, I can choose not to respond with hostility in a comment box, and maybe that’s what Stan means by “elective.” But annoyance often comes on me with very little individual volition. So I’m going to call this problem Selective Annoyance, because as much as some of us might want to, it’s literally impossible to be annoyed at everything that’s annoying. Besides, the term “Selective” is better than “Elective” because it leads to a much cooler acronym. What’s better on the Internet, by the way, than a hostile exchange about terminology?
But what I’ve just said isn’t always true. Maybe Stan does have a bit of a point. Sometimes when I’m annoyed already I go to particular blogs that I know I will find annoying, because when I’m annoyed the feeling of being annoyed is very powerful and I want to experience it. So I go to a blog expecting to be annoyed and I am. What’s amazing though, when I do this, is how often I get even more annoyed than I was prepared to be. So if Stan does have a bit of a point, he hasn’t pushed this point far enough. I look forward to elaborating for him the points that he has neglected and proving to him that he has not thought deeply enough about this issue.
Perhaps most of all, I’m quite convinced that the things and people I’m most angry about are things and people to which I’m not really able to respond. The Internet isn’t simply personally alienating, it’s caught up and extends the structures of the capitalist alienation of labor. There are people at my job that I can’t be angry at openly, or at least too openly, because they have the power to fire me. I’ve sent angry e-mails to George Bush but all I get are polite form letter responses. We all know that George Bush neither saw my letter or responded to it. Like that guy cares what I have to say. There are people in the world suffering much more deeply than I am and I feel frustrated about that, but sometimes it seems that on a given day, or many given days, there’s not much I can do about it. And sometimes I don’t care about anybody else’s suffering, I only care about myself, and that makes me feel guilty and then frustrated and annoyed. So sometimes it helps me siphon off my frustration to know it’s possible to call somebody an asshole in a blog comment box or say a point that person has made is stupid and that person will hear me. Unfortunately for me maybe, I don’t really think that other poets I know caused the war in Iraq, even when they work for universities, so I’m often still aware that I’m not attacking the right person. But the continued annoyance from that leads to further opportunities for leaving annoying blog comments on people’s annoying blogs with all their annoying comments.
All in all then, it’s a good thing that I’m able to resist my own worst Internet tendencies. If you have bad Internet tendencies too, you’ll know what I mean. Maybe, working together, in exploring the causes of SAID we can learn to mitigate its effects.