don’t blame the intertubes

Clive Hamilton generated a lot of discussion in Crikey with an interesting piece arguing that the vicious culture of the blogosphere hindered any genuinely democratic debate. My response runs below.

Last week, Clive Hamilton denounced “an ugly culture of dogmatic and belligerent interventions [that] now dominates social and political debate on the Internet”.

Anyone who’s spent time exploring the wilder realms of Blogostan knows the culture of which he speaks. The Pure Poison crew monitors the more egregious proponents of “You suck!”-blogging in Australia, but the genus seems best habituated to the American environment.

Many of the biggest political blogs in the US rests upon the personality of an individual demagogue, which is then embraced and amplified by an army of acolytes, along the lines of the old poem:

Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so, ad infinitum.

The dawn of the Internet in the mid-nineties saw a flurry of web utopianism, in which publications like Wired promised we’d soon be governing ourselves from a virtual public square in which we’d parade like digital Athenians, while the stockmarket made us all effortlessly rich. It’s that which seems to be Clive’s target — but his response equally rests on a very Wired kind of technological determinism, and so merely inverts the picture.

The obvious response involves pointing to the sheer expanse of the Internet, which is now sufficiently large that you can find almost anything you want. Yes, many blog debates turn nasty, but for every Little Green Footballs, there’s a Larvatus Prodeo, on which scores of people debate with remarkably civility. Why, even the most erudite arguments of the academia are increasingly taking place online, as traditional academic publishing gives way to more and more online refereed journals.

The Internet, in other words, is as malleable as other technologies, and holding it to account for Andrew Bolt amounts to blaming electricity for the electric chair.

Clive identifies the culture of online anonymity as a major culprit poisoning the democratic potential of the online environment. There’s probably something in that, but many of the nastiest hatebloggers post openly under their own names. In fact, most of the time when blog debates get vicious, they do so along pretty predictable real world fault lines.

“Is there really any doubt that women writing on the Web are subject to more abuse than men,” asked Salon‘s Joan Walsh a few years ago, “simply because they’re women?”

Female bloggers get hated on more than men, gays suffer more than straights and so depressingly on, with, of course, Indigenous Australians even more underrepresented online than elsewhere. In other words, most of the problems with Internet culture reflect deeper social issues — and that’s where we need to look to understand why the net hasn’t fulfilled its astonishing potential.

The growth of the Internet coincided with a massive expansion of the white-collar workforce. More and more of us work behind desks rather than with our hands; office jobs have lost the status they once had and become instead increasingly routinised. The old media proprietors consciously designed their products around the rhythms of the working day. The broadsheet implied a reasonably leisurely middle-class breakfast, with the news spread out over the table; the tabloid was constructed so you could read on the bus on the way to the factory. The more successful online formats recognise that most of use the Internet at work, and we generally do so when we’re bored. It’s not a coincidence that Crikey turns up in the middle of the day, when you’re ready for a break from whatever you’re supposed to be doing.

As Clive Hamilton himself has documented, the tremendous social transformation over the last decades involves more than a shift from dull blue-collar jobs to dull white-collar ones. In 2000, Robert Putnam famously described how Americans were increasingly “bowling alone”, alienated from political parties and trade unions, adrift from club membership and sporting teams in a society comprised of an aggregation of lonely individuals. The statistics are the same in Australia, with fewer and fewer people belonging to political parties, trade unions or churches. In 1975, the Liberal Party boasted 130,000 members; by 1990, it was only 69,000. Union membership has declined from 49% in 1982 to 23% in 2002.

If we’re not involved in any collective projects in the real world, it’s not so surprising that participatory democracy doesn’t necessarily flourish online. The social connectivity of Facebook or Twitter can’t compensate for a general social atomisation. The Internet offers a truly magical potential, but if you’re bored and frustrated and surreptitiously surfing rather than working, you’re not exactly well situated to exploit it. Yes, we could be downloading the complete works of Shakespeare. But most of the time, we’re looking for diversion rather than edification, and so we prefer LOLcats to Lear.

The Internet reflects, in other words, the way we live now. Yes, it has problems. But the solution doesn’t lie with more censorship. It lies with changing the real world.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. This is a really interesting topic. There are two things I have noticed. Many people with university educations do not want any emotion at all in their debates. A lack of passion or just nice clean logic?
    The other point is, the big fights pull a crowd. Did you ever see Ron Silliman and The Poetry Foundation duke it out? It’s kind of a measure of your ideas and your writing skill, in a way.

  2. Oh I thought of another one, Jeff. Barbara Jane Reyes versus the boys from Harriet. That one could well have changed the course of contemporary poetry since it was about the idea of ‘greatness’. Catapulted Barbara Jane’s career and changed Harriet from a bastion of unreadable conservatism into a vital force again.

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