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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Ratmailing versus blogging

Everything I ever say about blogging, the internet, emails, email chatrooms, etc., has to be prefaced by the caveat that I’m a ludicrously late comer to all this stuff, and what do I really know? But one thing I do know is that I prefer being a blogger to being an emailer in an email chatroom.

The thing I hate about “chat” rooms is how you seem to get these constant eruptions of abuse. It’s like being a rat in one of those horrible experiments which prove that rats can’t live like that. Every so often fights break out and with every fight that’s fought more fur falls out, more immune system damage is suffered, more rats abandon procreation as a life goal, and each rat is one fight nearer to just laying down and dying of a broken heart at the sheer horribleness of it all.

Blogging often gets frisky, especially in the comments sections (which seem to me to be a lot like the nicest of the chatrooms) but basically, I’m convinced, blogging is not like that. Have a read of this piece by James Lileks, for instance, saying kind and shrewd things about the late Paul Wellstone, and about those who now miss him most keenly. Lileks is here opposing a characteristic email ratroom sentiment – which he encountered in various blogs but which is not the dominant attitude in the blogs I’ve been reading. This rat-mail says that Wellstone was a Stalinist monster, and just because the bastard is dead that doesn’t mean we should for one second stop speaking ill of him. Good riddance and let’s all stamp on his grave. Says Lileks:

… I read stuff here and there that took glee in Wellstone’s death. Some folk seemed to think that a refusal to bury the hatchet and mutter the funeral liturgy was a Brave Stance, that the times cried out for a Truth Teller who branded Wellstone as the treasonous hell-bound scoundrel he really was. But there’s nothing brave about that. There’s no consequence aside from a few angry emails, scowls in the comments section, removal from a few visitors’ bookmark lists. None of these people, if they had the opportunity, would say it to the face of anyone who had a loved one die in the plane crash. Hey, our prayers are with you, but I still think the man should writhe for eternity under Satan’s hoof. Sorry, but someone has to say it. They’d hold their tongue – either their own sense of decency would win the moment, or shame and cowardice would close their throat.

And a lot more to that civilised effect.

Here, I believe, we clearly see the superiority of the blogs over the email-chatterers. Blogs really and truly are an outreach exercise.

Ratmail chat is not outreach. It’s the converted idiotically trying to convert only each other, and regularly erupting in rage at their inevitable failure, rage for which they suffer no punishment because ratmailers know who’s reading this. We are. Us. Only us rats. It’s a tiny list of, er, enthusiasts, and that’s it.

If a rat gets idiotically angry – “Which part of fuck off didn’t you get?” – “Please engage brain before exercising mouth” – “You are simply mad, and I have no interest in arguing with mad people”, blah blah blah, argue argue argue, for several more paragraphs and several more equally demented emails – no third parties, no casual onlookers, no representatives of the civilised world, pass by and mark the rat down as not good conversational company. Well (this is my internet inexperience showing through) maybe some do, and maybe the King Rats keep better control of things than the King Rats I observe do. But this is still, I find, the dominant tone. And even when ratmailers are not actually fighting, there is the relentless suggestion, in email after email, of short tempers are being ostentatiously kept just this side of breaking point, and that a ratfight could break out at any moment.

I hate it. I absolutely hate it.

Blogs, as I say, are different. It’s the difference between a big public notice board in a crowded hall, and a dimly lit cave. When Samizdata got into its stride, people complained on the Libertarian Alliance Forum (which is where I acquired most of my anti-ratmail prejudices, see this) there were complaints about how talent was haemorrhaging away to the blogs, as it definitely was. But then, guess what, one of the bigger LA-F talents (someone called Tim Starr), who had himself complained on the LA-F about the “silly fad” of blogging, himself got an offer to be a blogger, and accepted. He took a new and personal look at the costs and the benefits of blogging versus ratmailing and chose to turn away from the dark side, into the light. (See, e.g., this recent contribution by Tim to the ongoing music of freedom discussion.)

I don’t know why blogging is so much nicer, or even, to be perfectly frank, if it is, always. But assuming it is, I think it’s because when you blog, you never know who might be reading. Reading a blog means typing in one line of code, or better yet, just clicking your mouse button, one little time. Even a techknownothing like me can manage that. No registration, no warnings about how you have to refrain from being a rat, and no worries about what the other rats might do with your email address once you give it to them. You can just start reading. And because of links, bloggers perform not only to their one little writer/readership of hard-core true-believers and obsessive anti-true-believers, but to the whole blog-readership out there, at least potentially. If we put on a civilised and friendly show, that whole readership will just keep growing and growing and we’ll all do better.

In those rat-mail caves, everything that gets snarled is strictly between you and the other rats. But when you write for a blog, you really can imagine Paul Wellstone’s family and friends maybe getting to hear what you said about the guy, and what’s more, if what you said was kind, and if it drew a big fat civilised line between disagreement and malevolent glee, then you never know, they might even read your actual piece of writing, on your actual blog. You never know.

Seriously. I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to suggest that Mrs Wellstone might, any day, week or month now, have a read of what Lileks said about her late husband, and send him a nice little email saying thanks for your kind words, they helped.

In a ratmail cave, you know there’s never going to be any connection of that kind.

EMBARRASSING UPDATE: Just had this email from fom John Swartz

Mr. Micklethwait,
>I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure Mrs. Wellstone was on that
>plane too. I heard a discussion on the radio here referring to the
>semi-tradition of appointing the widow to the post which has
>happened at least a few times but is a non starter in this case.

Thank you John. As Marine Colonel Jack Nicholson says to Navy Lawyer Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, after enquiring after Tom Cruise’s Dad’s health and being told he died (and I’m only guess remembering this): “Ain’t I the fuckin’ arsehole?” Says the Cruise character, very handsomely: “Not at all sir.” I beg the same forgiveness, and hope for similar forbearance from all concerned. There was no excuse for my error. I needed only to read the Lileks piece more carefully.

Luckily, my general point stands, even if that particular imagined illustration of it collapses in ruins. For wife read someone else close, but still alive.

3 comments to Ratmailing versus blogging

  • Lou Gots

    You are quite right about the distinction between the blog/comment medium and chats. The temporal distance entailed by the former provides a milieu of thoughtfulness and courtesy that resembles nothing so much as the posting of theses an church doors, ala Martin Luther.

  • I see a difference between chat rooms, e-mail discussion lists, message boards, and blogs. I think it has to do with how easy it is to use the thing, and that reflects the mentality.

    However, I believe if you haven’t read a blog you hate, you haven’t read many blogs.

    Certainly there are rat-blogs out there. PLENTY of them. So many I hear of a new one every week.

    But I guess it just depends on if you agree with it, or disagree with it. Maybe the hateful rat-blog I can’t stand would be the comraderie-laden paradise you love.
    It’s all about perspective.