Friday, April 21, 2006

Blog Pathologies

Daniel Henninger deplores the blogs, the rudeness of their denizens and the quality of the conversations in cyberspace:

Kevin Ray Underwood, the repressed Oklahoma cannibal, kept an Internet "blog" of his compulsions for years before kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old neighbor last week. On his blog, Kevin wrote a lot about Kevin: "The reason for my lackluster social life is a severe case of social anxiety and depression. I'm on medication now, which helps a lot. Well, in ways."

I don't think the blogosphere is breeding cannibals. But it looks to me as if the world of blogs may be filling up with people who for the previous 200 millennia of human existence kept their weird thoughts more or less to themselves. Now, they don't have to. They've got the Web. Now they can share.

Technorati, a site that keeps numbers on the blogosphere, reports that as of this month the number of Web logs the site tracks is 35.3 million, and doubling every six months. Technorati claims each day brings 75,000 new blogs. We know something's happening here but I'm not sure we know what it is.

Typically, a blogger creates a Web site and then, in the pale glow of a PC screen, types onto a keyboard what's on his or her mind. A blog nearly always invites readers to share their "comments," which they do, and which the blogger posts seriatim. People in my business tend to think blogging is mostly about politics on sites such as Wonkette, the Huffington Post or the Daily Kos. There are highly intellectual blogs, such as the Becker-Posner Blog, run by Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker and federal judge Richard Posner. Their April 16 post is titled "Tax Complexity and the Cost of Compliance," with comments.

But in a "Blogs Trend Survey" released last September, America Online reported that only 8% blog to "expose political information." Instead, 50% of bloggers consider what they are doing to be therapy. Some might argue that using the Internet to self-medicate includes many nominally political blogs, but more on that shortly.

Henninger is saying something much stronger, in a polite and measured tone, of course. He's saying that we are nuts.

Who am I to argue against such a calm and polite comment? I'm just a snake goddess and by any standard of psychological assessments that certainly makes me a nutcase. But I don't do cannibalism. I only eat human beings of the wingnut type and they don't count as divines.

Neither am I especially fond of swearwords. That's the thing Henninger really dislikes about the blogs: all that swearing and profanity, and the craziness that underlies it:

Then there's politics. On the Huffington Post yesterday, there were more than 600 "comments" on Karl Rove and the White House staff shake-up. "Demoted my --- the snake is still in the grass." "He should be demoted to Leavenworth." "Rove is Bush's Brain, and without him, our Decider-in-Chief wouldn't know how to wipe his own ----."

From a primary post on the same subject on the Daily Kos, widely regarded as one of the most influential blogging sites in Democratic politics now: "I don't give a ----. Karl Rove belongs in shackles." "A group of village whores have taken a day off to do laundry."

Intense language like this used to be confined to construction sites and corner bars. Now it is normal discourse on Web sites, the most popular forums for political discussion. Much of this is new. Politics is a social endeavor. The Web is nothing if not "social." But the blogosphere is also the product not of people meeting, but venting alone at a keyboard with all the uninhibited, bat-out-of-hell hyperbole of thinking, suggestion and expression that this new technology seems to release.

At the risk of enabling, does the Internet mean that all the rest of us are being made unwitting participants in the personal and political life of, um, crazy people? As populist psychiatry, maybe this is a good thing; the Web allows large numbers of people to contribute to others' therapy. It takes a village.

"Bat-out-of-hell", such as in moonbats, the name the conservatives have given to liberals and progressives? Examples all picked from lefty blogs? With a beginning tie-in to cannibalism? All this wrapped up in psychobabble about mental illness? I smell a heinous and cunning plot here. Mr. Henninger doesn't like the fact that liberal blogs are gaining in readership and in influence, and he tries to label them as aberrations, as places where the truly whackos gather to exchange the most recent variants in swearwords. Why would he want to do such a thing? Hmmm.

Note the general trickery in Mr. Henninger's wingnut tool kit: He doesn't tell us what percentage of comments on the blogs are rude and what percentage is not. He doesn't tell us how many bloggers use profanities all the time and how many don't. He starts his whole discussion with an extreme reference, one so extreme that it should make your wingnut radar scream.

We never learn what kind of language the wingnut blogs and their commenters use. We don't even learn the fact that most wingnut blogs don't allow comments at all, perhaps because they fear what might come out of the keyboards of their supporters. I have always found this very weird, given the old conservative argument against political correctness and restrictions on the freedom of speech. But conservatives don't want to turn the stones in their backyards over, because then Mr. Henninger would click his tongue at them. Well, no, he wouldn't. But I would.

We also don't learn about the language of Rush Limbaugh, the hate shows on radio or the compassionate and kind pen of Ann Coulter. Only lefty bloggers are nuts. The writers of the right are just being funny.

And we learn nothing about why there are people who use profanities on the net. True, some are disturbed individuals, perhaps those who chat on But many are just completely frustrated by having no political representation, by having their votes not count at all and by having to read writers like Mr. Henninger label them total nutters.