The OF Blog: The new tribalism and you

Monday, June 22, 2009

The new tribalism and you

A couple of weeks ago, I commented about a review on Strange Horizons that seemed to have kicked some sort of a hornet's nest, based on the responses that followed. Almost a week ago, I blogged (in a rather weak post, I'll admit) about those who do stir up the hornet's nest. And last night, I posted about a sense of disconnect that I was feeling, which generated quite a few responses (nearly 50 at this point) and a few posts elsewhere. What I found interesting were the connections (Jonathan McCalmont also noted this in his first response to my post from last night) between the three.

Blogging for me is like masturbating in a fish bowl world - everyone is going to witness every single stroke and to praise/condemn you for how you are jerking off. But that's only part of the picture. What I find intriguing is this sense of "tribalism" that's become part of one small branch of a larger blogosphere. Take for instance the reaction by SQT, both in the comments section and over at her blog. Or rather, consider the reactions of those who follow her blog and who, for the most part, have nothing invested in the discussion at my blog outside of how it affects SQT.

I never named names in my post last night. I felt like it would be counterproductive and would detract from the main thrust of my own post, which was more a venting vehicle about my own frustrations about how I'm failing to live up to my own ideals. The quotes around "selling out" are meant to be ironic, in the sense that this term is so devoid of a singular definition as to be practically worthless. But yet they sparked something.

I read through the 30+ comments to date over at her blog. It's rather interesting to read the value judgments on myself and a couple of others who commented in my post. In many ways, the outrage that a few expressed is akin to that which appeared in that Strange Horizons review that I linked to above. There is something personal in the responses, as if a clan member had been attacked and that their honor had to be defended. McCalmont made an astute observation there, one that I find myself thinking upon now.

I like social groups, but at the same time I distrust them. There is always that vague threat of a mob mentality developing, of people investing so much of their own selves into what an outsider might consider to be a picayune matter. Yet despite the ultimate insignificance of the matter (for example, this blog might on a busy day get a shade over 1000 page views. The average porn site will see millions, if not tens of millions, of page views over the same time span), some find themselves defending vigorously some sort of "chosen champion."

Let someone attack or even just merely question a particular point of view supported by a self-selecting group. Might as well be seeing the internet version of a cockfight after it's all been said and done. And is that attacking (or in their minds, "defending") group necessarily in the "right?"

I could care less if the readers of this blog (which technically is a group blog, even if my co-editors have mostly abandoned it over the past few years) support my stance or rip into me for whatever reason. I value honest comments about things that I slack off on doing more than I do most praise. Groupthink, or the "new tribalism" as I prefer to call it, rarely advances discourse much. Then again, neither does Quixotic tilting against windmills, which is a topic that will have to await another time and perhaps place. I'm off to read and perhaps exercise for a bit - that does me much more good than fretting over what so-and-so might be thinking or not thinking about me. Not bad advice, that.


Seems that this post was taken a bit personally by some. Normally, I'd just let this blow over, shrug, and move on, but I think I'll address a few things being discussed in other quarters for clarification's sake (and not to start a third post on a subject that originally was centered around myself and not others), as the interpretations of what I have written recently have been...umm...interesting, to say the least.

The title "When do you ever stop whoring yourself out?" was meant to apply to myself as much as to anyone else. Posting just to post is really bad for me in the long-run, so I devoted quite a bit of that blog entry to mocking my own self there, while addressing a few other points.

I didn't really want to address this directly, since it wasn't the central part of that original article, but the reason I said "This isn't about 1 or 2 or even a handful of blogs, but more about some that are in my blogroll, others that are not. " was because it was a feeling after glancing through several dozen blogs, some in my blogroll, others that were in the blogrolls of the ones I was reading at the time this past weekend. In other words, it was an aggregate, not an individual blog or two being singled out (for the record, the comments in this post and I think elsewhere that presume it was directed at Pat's blog are wrong for the same reason that SQT thought I was singling her out - I wasn't thinking of particular blogs but instead of a general impression).

So when people asked if I were talking about them, the answer had to be "of course not," because I wasn't thinking about their blogs. Sad to say, but I rarely read half of the blogs in my blogroll more than once a week or so at the moment. I was blogging about an impression, how the reflection on that impression made my own faults as a blogger stand out to me, and then I thought I'd move on. Guess I should have known better (see the fishbowl masturbation comment above).

In this article as it originally stood (this update being the only edit to the content, as the original post is preserved in its entirety), I referenced one blog and the reaction there to my original post. I used the blogger's screen name by name, noted the perceived behavior. It wasn't done to "attack" this person (who I barely know) or to seek publicity (I get enough of that, to be honest). It was an immediate example of something that I had contemplated first when reading the responses to a few things this year alone: Racefail '09, Amazonfail, and (to a lesser extent) the reaction to Martin Lewis's recent review at Strange Horizons. If I had a do-over, those would have been cited as well as examples of what I perceive to be "internet tribalism."

As you can see from the response to that link at the beginning of this update, this caused a bit of a mini-tempest. Yes, I blog to have conversations. I like discussing a few things that aren't treacly sweet. I like disagreements and debates. But I'm not in the habit of engaging in ad hominems here (or most anywhere at most any time). That's why I'm writing this apologia, to address those people who don't know me (know of me, perhaps, but certainly not an acquaintance of mine) but who seem to have fallen into acting out what I described in my original post above.

As I said there and I'll reiterate here: I don't want defenders. Honest critics are fine, however. All I would suggest (and not even ask) is that these posts be read from a more "distant" point of view. I'm not interested in "controversy" for controversy's sake. I could care less about cheap traffic spikes, since it is as large and as worthless as a squirrel's shit in the middle of a forest. What I'm interested in is how these reactions have shaped up. Some have taken my words too seriously. Why they have is between them and their own selves. Some have made reflective essays of their own that hopefully will be of value to them (and which hopefully won't lead to misunderstandings and accusations). But of course, the best response to all that has to be the Hook Giveaway. Levity is so underrated in these matters.


SQT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cindy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan M said...

As thoughtful as ever Larry.

To a certain extent, the tribalism comes down to simple online cliques. The people at SQT's blog 'know' her but don't know me and might not systematically follow you and so obviously she's right and I'm a jerk :-)

Though it should be pointed out that it was SQT and not me who raised the ethics of her blog. If she didn't want them discussed she could have clicked on by. I wasn't even aware of her blog before she appeared in the comments.

I agree that I am a jerk on this issue. I've long since been incredibly vocal on the issue of the ethics of blogging and reviewing and I suspect I always will.

However, my aim has never been to force other people to obey my moral standards. I fully accept that they're highly idiosyncratic. Not only did I struggle with the morality of receiving review copies, I still have a problem requesting review copies for Fruitless Recursion. So much so that I actually buy a chunk of the books that the site reviews.

I don't and have never expected people to share my ethical standards on this question. However, what I do think is important is that people realise that there ARE moral considerations to accepting review copies, pumping out press releases and doing give-aways.

If people think about the ethics of these practices and continue with them then I'm happy because I think the real problem here is not give-away themselves but moral and editorial complacency. As long as people think about the ethics of what their doing and whether or not they can give honestly negative reviews to books they receive for free then I'll be a happy camper :-)

Mark said...

Part of me wants to say: "It's the internet; what do people expect?" Flame wars, Godwin's Law, it's all part of what the internet is, surely? As long as people have computer screens acting as an etiquette block, I can't see it ever changing.

Having said that you seem to negotiate these waters better than many others.

As a related tangent - I know of one or two major authors who've been driven offline due to the nature of internet "debate" - they grow tired of it all. We're losing out there. It's certainly tough for authors to have a work that takes a year or so of their life and emotions talked about in such casual terms.

Joe said...

Oh, but Jonathan, you are a jerk. Just ask them. :)

This isn't directed at SQT but rather at the bunches of "I hope you're not talking about me" comments that were cropping up.

Holy shit is there some arrogance going on there, assuming that because you (generically) do giveaways that Larry was talking about you. Assuming that Larry reads you on a regular basis because you show up on his blogroll. Larry does occasionally call out specific blogs here, but didn't in this case.

So, I wonder - is it arrogance or insecurity?

Is Larry touching a nerve with some bloggers?

If he's not - why the hell do you care? Who is Larry to get your knickers in a bunch to the point you have to defend what you do to him (or elsewhere)?

Shoot, I like Larry (for having not met him) and what he does here, but who is Larry to get under my skin about how I choose to blog in my free time about something nobody is paying me for?

So maybe there is a nerve being struck - and if there is - does that raise questions as to how I feel about my blog?

I suspect that if Larry did rant specifically about my blog I'd look at a laundry list of his comments about me and either care or not depending on how much what he says resonates with what is currently bothering me about what i do.

So - and damn this is getting long - when something Larry says bothers you - why?

Who's Larry?

Anonymous said...

Much though I appreciate your blog in general, I do think that on occasions you do over-read things.

In this case, I don't think the response on SQT's blog has anything to do with 'groupthink' or 'new tribalism' or anything like that - indeed, I think it's rather patronising to suggest that it is. "Oh, multiple people are disagreeing with me, they must be doing it to agree with each other" - sometimes multiple people do just have the same reaction, independently of one another.

In this case, Jonathan was unjustifiably offensive to the woman, by any metric of tact and etiquette, defaming her character and motivations (and by implication her honour and trustworthiness). [I'm not trying to be condemnatory here - we all say things that go too far in internet discussion, or at least I certainly do, and I don't imagine there was any malicious intent in what he said]

It is to be expected that she would take some umbrage, and likewise to be expected that her friends would take some umbrage. If he came up and said that to my friend in front of me in RL, I too would have been umbragated. Indeed, we shouldn't be surprised if people who aren't her friends express their distaste as well. If I watch somebody being rude in public, I may not say anything to their face (as I'm a coward, and interfering rarely helps), but I might say something to my own friends behind his back. The only difference is that on the internet 'behind someone's back' and 'to their face' cannot be rigourously segregated.

This doesn't require 'groupthink' or 'new tribalism' to explain - just the well-worn principle that if you are rude to people, their friends, and often bystanders, are likely to express disapproval. It's how society enforces norms of politeness.

Anonymous said...

In a way, there is always something personal in an ethical opinion (such as disapproval directed toward rudeness) - an attack on ethics, and particularly an attack on social norms, is an attack on the way we live our lives, and hence an attack on all of us. We defend politeness with a personal vigour because if the norm of politeness degenerates we all suffer. We may be on the surface standing up for a person, but much of the motivation comes from the fact that we are standing up for ourselves, pre-emptively.

That, and humans are empathic and sympathic creatures. We are able to exist socially to some degree because our instincts lead us to develop the same emotions as others, particular when the other person is well known to us. If our friends are hurt, we feel pain. This isn't 'groupthink', it's an inescapable part of humanity - and an admirable one.


That said, there are sometimes tribal responses to attacks. I don't think those are unjustified either. A person is not only an individual; they are also a symbol. Certain people come to symbolise sets of values, and attacks on those people can easily come be considered attacks on sets of values - which is to say attacks on sets of people. Needless to say, individuals who see themselves as being in those sets of people feel the attack personally.

As an example, some people became upset with me recently for my anger toward Harrison for his comments on Tolkien. Why did I care what he said about Tolkien? Well, because he wasn't talking about Tolkien, he was talking about me. When he disparages Tolkien for being a nerd, he disparages everyone else he considers a nerd, which no doubt includes me (albeit in a latent manner, as I doubt he's encountered me). He obviously doesn't intend it, but he's essentially using "he's like Vacuous Wastrel" as an insult, which is insulting to me personally as well as to the people he's talking about. And as he seems to have no moral or literary high ground to make those insults from, I'm naturally annoyed by them.

This process doesn't have to involve any sort of tribalism or groupthink, because an attack on a group is usually an attack on characteristics of that group. You don't have to in any way shape your identity around that group to be able to recognise that your own characteristics, and hence you yourself, are being attacked.

So, if you attack a person for their characteristics, and people leap to his defence, it needn't be because of any tribalistic solidarity with the man under attack: it can simply be that they know full well that they share those characteristics, and that they would have been in the firing line themselves if they had been the one visible over the parapet. They're defending themselves vicariously - or pre-emptively.

Anonymous said...

Joe Sherry: and who are THEY to YOU, to make you get so worked up? What nerve have they struck?

I imagine many of those people do indeed have doubts, and were seeking to justify them. What's wrong with that? I think it's healthy to have doubts, and when you hear them voiced by others it's a good opportunity to address them for yourself.

But also, to the question "who is Larry?" there is a very simple answer: Larry is a human. Larry is part of our society. Larry is an acquaintance. We are humans, and social creatures. We seek social harmony. We care about what other people think about us. Contrary to what many citizens of the internet appear to think, caring about the opinions of others is not in itself a bad thing. It is, perhaps, a bad thing when it leads you to inappropriate actions; it is, perhaps, a bad thing if the care becomes a pain too great, to the point of being debilitating. But caring is not by itself a bad thing.

And if the response to this care is to spend five or ten minutes writing a brief few paragraphs of self-justification to try to get people to understand your position... this doesn't seem to me to be an inappropriate concern for the opinions of others.

Not caring about what Larry thinks is a form of narcissism: not because Larry is anybody special, but because we are not anybody special either.

[Apologies for using the blog writer's first name so much - not being a blog person myself, it still seems rather impolite]

[[[*DAMN IT!!!!* This is a short answer! SHORT! QUICK! SUMMARISED! GODS, I hate blogs. I can't ****ing SNEEZE without exceeding the character thresholds. HOW DO YOU PEOPLE COPE? I can only assume there's some sort of training you all had as babies - if you talked for more than thirty seconds your parents whacked you with a great big stick. Presumably it's the same training politicians have to learn to speak in soundbites. I hate speaking in soundbites. I'm too bad at it.]]]

[OK, calming down now; apologies]



Many, many, many apologies. Don't worry, i think I'll be giving up this blog-commenting thing before too long...

Liviu said...

In honor of Larry's post I did a pseudo-giveaway, namely an announcement of a free pdf magazine with an option to buy a print copy

Now it is bilingual (about 65% French and 35% English) and has lots of poetry and art so maybe not the usual sff offering, but...

The title of the original controversial post was misguided since "whores" make money, sff bloggers do not; wanna make money blogging, do politics, cats or tech.

Regarding ethics - the best thing any reviewer should do is provide tons of one click links - excerpts, author site, amazon or the like to see more opinions; this way anyone can go and check the reviewer claims, compare against others claims if he/she so wishes, make his or her own mind
Competition (with rules so no dictator emerges) is the key as in everything

The whole point of the Internet is linking and it amazes me that people are still wedded to the print review model and do not offer links.

Regarding tribalism and all, I think that politeness is essential - and ultimately that SH review and others fail there badly being rude - sure it's your prerogative to be rude, but do not be amazed that people will call you on the mat and insult you back and then the argument degenerates, each side looks for weak points, it gets personal and ultimately very few people want to put up with that s..t for long in something done for pleasure.

In the past the cathedra guys (eg newspaper reviewers) could get away with being rude because people could not answer back, but now it ain't working any more so feel free to be rude but do not expect politeness in return.

Jonathan M said...

VW -- 'Honour'? do you want to call me out for insulting a lady? ;-)

I'm sorry is SQT was offended but she was the one who introduced her specific blog into a general ethical discussion (I suspect because she was looking for Larry to offer her absolution... ditto all the other 'I hope you're not talking about me' people).

Neth said...

In honor of all this discussion, I think that everyone who has commented in this discussion needs to go to Jeff VanderMeer's blog and enter his latest contest/giveaway. Consider it a penance.

Aidan Moher said...

It's too bad this whole discussion devolved into shit-flinging about giveaways (which was hardly the point of Larry's original post), whereas the motivations behind blogs and bloggers could have been so much more interesting.

Seriously, I made an off comment asking Larry if A Dribble of Ink was one of the blogs he was referring to, but in fact his reply didn't matter either way. If I felt that Larry's comments encompassed my blog (regardless of whether he thought so), that's enough to warrant a step back and some contemplation about what I want as a blogger.

And, hell, we all know that the original comment about giveaways was just a (deserved) jab at Pat, anyway.

Cindy said...

My first comment didn't read well. As I said but then deleted, I think there was a point and it's a shame to see so many people jumping around making it bigger then the initial point. Then again, I take a lot of stuff with a grain of salt that's said online.

As for reviewing, I've done my fair share of "negative" reviews and got some pretty nasty comments about why didn't I comment about how much I love the book.

But back to the original post, I think the terms were strong but there was a very good point and many people jumped the gun and thought whoring for giveaways meant having 1 or 2 occasionally.

Terry Weyna said...

Personally, I think we should all just stone Jonathan. He's the one who got everyone all stirred up, right?

Jonathan, having met you in person, I'm amazed at how such a mild-mannered, sweet person can cause such a ruckus. Please don't ever stop.

Jonathan M said...

I know... I know... I'm just terrible at being online. The Greater Internet Fuckwad theory could have been conceived with me in mind.

Thanks Terry :-)

Don't you owe me a review by the way?

Terry Weyna said...

Oh, lordie, you really *are* a PITA. Yes, I owe you a review. And I *will* get to it. Soon.

Martin said...

Seems that this post was taken a bit personally by some.

It is funny that the response to a suggestion of tribalism is, er, more tribalism.

Larry Nolen said...

I'll respond to the comments later, but yes, Martin, that post/response did prove my point, unintentional as it might have been.

Larry Nolen said...


The problem that I see with your responses here is that you center them around an argument that I wasn't making. I wasn't devoting this entry to one person/group, but rather I used one specific case (in the edit, I noted others that would have fit if I hadn't chosen to use the most immediate example) to highlight an universal (or rather, larger) characteristic that I had been reflecting upon for a few weeks now. The only thing "patronizing" about the line of thought is that I purposely made it rather distant in scope, as I have little stomach for personality conflicts.


I think there's a Carly Simon song that covers what you're saying. It's "You're So Vain," with the damning closer of "you think this song is about you."

The ironic thing about all this is that I'm so out-of-the-loop in certain regards (I rarely use Facebook, don't Twitter, and don't have the desire to participate in sustained social networking online) that some think I enjoy personal conflict. If anything, I tend to barely give two shits either way about most people online (while remaining civil), so reading that I like to provoke people rather than occasionally provoking discussion is an interesting thing to me. Not that it's a pleasant thing, mind you, but strange.


Amusing post, albeit one that I'll have to check out, just to see how poor my French really is :P


In a day or two, I hope to have the time to comment on your fine post. As for the "target," as I said in the edit, it wasn't Pat or anyone specifically in mind, but rather it was just a general impression after I had browsed through something like 30-40 blogs Saturday night.


Thanks for looking at the post as it was and not for what it could be bent to become. I do make strong statements on occasion, but it's almost never with malice in mind, so this entire bit is kinda strange to me. Of course, what could and perhaps should have been said is that perhaps I could have worded things more clearly the first (or second) time, but that's just me, right? :P


I'm always up for a good stoning ;)

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