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.


tmorange said...

"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."

this is an important observation, mark. just what poets need: more alienation.

i think when all is said and done we will look back and find blogs far more destructive than we imagined.

Anonymous said...

I am more optimistic about blogs than tmorange—perhaps because I have no blog of my own, and therefore have never been on the receiving end of a symptomatic SAID sufferer's missive. (On reflection I do recall that I have received such by e-mail.) I fear, however, that your observation that "it’s easier to say something annoying to someone when you don’t have to look that person in the eye" has proved all too true. This is sad, for it leads to the conclusion that so many of the pleasant statements we receive are pleasant only because eyes met. And of course this sad fact is linked to another sad fact you presented us with—that we cannot speak freely up the chain of command. As a middling link in such a chain myself, I know the tension you refer to. I suspect you have much more to tell your readers about power and its complex reverberations, Mark, as you early showed a gift for orchestrating highly stylized representations of it (most of them in two dimensions). By observing you in such performances, and sometimes participating with you in them, I found later that I had gained admittance to an intellectual realm that was quantitative but also qualitative, verbal but also numerical, and spatial but also abstract. Since then I have shunned mental habitation in realms that are any one of these to the exclusion of the others, and can no longer imagine life in any of these crowded ghettos. And though your own mental habitations are ostensibly verbal, I (having read Walking Dreams) see that the border guards still don't deter you.

Anonymous said...

I hear that academics are now required to prove that they've been passive aggressive if not opently hostile in blog comment boxes, in order to be considered for promotion. Ezzat true? "It's not the Veracity it's the Velocity." (TM) --Blood And

Anonymous said...

Rather than leaving a lot of big angry comments in big angry comment boxes everywhere, I took a big angry dump on my blog. I am sure my post reflects all of the psychological symptoms of SAID that you've listed.

I look forward to your "selective" vs. "elective" debate with Stan Apps. I have electively chosen to become selectively annoyed about this debate before it even takes place, and I am already mentally preparing my annoyed, even angry and openly hostile, comments. I will even save up all my anger at other things far beyond my control and wait until a day when I really really tired and really really annoyed to read the posts about being electively or selectively annoyed.

And your observations about the dynamics of men commenting on women 's blogs are right on target. This needs to be explored in more depth, i.e., the dynamics of women leaving comments on men's blogs vs. men leaving comments on women's blogs, women leaving comments on other women's blogs, anonymous commenters, "blog rage," etc.

But there is good news! I am absolutely certain there must be giant pharmaceutical company who is in the test phases of evaluating a new and revolutionary psychopharmaceutical solution for poet bloggers who suffer from SAID, which is entirely curable and controllable with this new and revolutionary solution.

Hey! This just popped up in my gmail sidebar:

100mg x 10 pills US $ 69.95, poets buy now


In all seriousness, great post, Mark.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

There's a lot of blog conversations that are annoying that would probably be good conversations to have at a bar over a few pints. Because I don't like somewhere where I can have conversations with poets over a few pints on a regular basis, I often post tentative ideas to my blog. I think other people do that as well.

The problem is that tentative ideas are unfinished and sometimes stupid, although not always. On a blog, where everything is written down and there's a record, I think people feel compelled to respond to such ideas in a more directly aggressive (or I guess we could call it rigorous, if we were feeling generous) way. But really, some ideas are better discussed in person. Except that we're all on blogs because we can't discuss things in person.

In Washington, DC, I had numerous satisfying conversations with friends that began with stupid or at least badly thought out ideas like this.

A: I was thinking about x, y, z yesterday, and I think that avant-garde poetry needs do x, y, z.

B. That's absurd!

And so on. One of the great things about a conversation, or even a heated in-person debate, is that there is no record of the words that people say--which is actually better for some kinds of conversations, I think, and for the development of certain kinds of thoughts. I certainly find it less annoying, at least.

Nick Piombino said...

I am greatly enjoying your comments here, and the general discussion, but I frequently have a quite different experience in social situations - especially at poetry events-no doubt partly a result of my personal limitations- than what you describe. I find that those who hold forth with ease can sometimes easily, and it seems unwittingly, cut off or, without necessarily meaning to, sideline some of the comments or would be comments of others. While blogs put you "on the record" at the same time they obviously allow for a much more detailed and open discussion; not to speak of being so much more wide ranging in time and space! I went through decades of New York biases in the poetry community and welcomed with great relief the geographic and social span of blogs. Also, I've been rereading McLuhan, and it is possible that a lot of the feelings and distortions you describe that this relatively new medium provokes are likely inevitable side effects that might very well fade over time as it loses its novelty and becomes ordinary. I've been blogging and commenting regularly for years, and I haven't yet sensed the potential for destructiveness to poetry that Tom O envisions. On the contrary, it reminds me of the rock and roll world of the 50's, when local groups could make-and widely distribute and popularize- their music unhampered by corporate strictures and controls. Still, there is no question that blogs are- and will inevitably remain- byob- and dyob!

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

Just to remind everybody again, my post was only about the dark side of blogging, which I think I know a fair amount about. There are lots of things I like about it as well, but that's for another time. Maybe.

Also, I think the phrase "many women are angry" would have been better expressed as "women feel angry too."

Tom, your comment made me think that I almost need another whole blog post on the destructive and constructive nature of technologies developed in the 20th century and just after. Right now, I'm thinking the worst are: nuclear bombs, missiles, tanks, and machine guns. Cars are looking worse and worse as time goes on. Film, TV, computers and the Internet are complexly ambiguous for me. Like a lot about them, don't like a lot. Not sure how they would stack up against each other. Also, I know there are problems with this, but I tend to be pro-refrigerator. Not sure when that was invented though. I'm aware that "refrigerators changed the meaning of eating" and I think there are some potential problems there.

Panonymous, yeah, it's certainly true that face to face conversations don't mean that we like each other any better, just that we feel freer to say so when not looking at each other. And I think what Nick points out is that face to face conversation has its own set of power imbalances: who gets to talk, who feels comfortable talking, and so on.

TM, I think that proving one's ability to be passive aggressive is an essential part of the functioning of people on any job. I'm not sure whether academics have more ability for it than anyone else. Maybe.

Lorraine, I think your comments are very important here. Blog "conversation" always seems more written in stone than actual conversation, when in fact it's just as casual. The fact that you can respond to it over time, which as Nick points out is a good thing, is maybe balanced out by the fact that it doesn't disappear as easily as real conversation.

July 9, 2008 2:55 PM

Johannes said...

Now I understand why your comments are always so level.


mark wallace said...

I've been on this highwire with no net for a long time, Johannes, and my ankles really hurt. My only hope is that while I'm no better than anyone else, I may sometimes be a bit like them.

sandrasimonds said...

Maybe being annoyed by what you don't like to hear is a good thing? On a personal note, sometimes I find myself annoyed because I see that thing in myself that I don't want to admit. It's really hard to admit that too!

What I don't like about the comments on blogs is how overwhelmingly sexist they are. I just find that I am excluded from the conversation before I can have a conversation.

But I don't find that to be the case on your blog, so thanks, Mark!

mark wallace said...

You're absolutely right that being annoyed by what you don't like to hear can be a good thing, Sandra, at least sometimes. But of course when one is annoyed, hearing that point might be very annoying.

In this post, I was blogging about the dark side of Internet emotions. I suppose I could blog about the learning potential of them. With any luck that wouldn't just be boring boring boring. Actually there was a really good essay about it that I read several months back--was it by csperez, or somebody else? Anybody know? The essay was really very good.

sandrasimonds said...

Okay, I will read that essay.

Oh, I also think that some of the poetry bloggers take themselves WAY too seriously.