The sorts of conversations that have been possible on this blog, and on the other places I’ve stumbled across since starting this site, have been more important to me than I can easily express. Online interactions can be difficult to navigate – misinterpretations are easier, conflicts can escalate more quickly, discussions can spiral in more negative directions, than similar face-to-face interactions. I’ve been active in online discussions of various sorts since back in bulletin board days, and so I have a fair sense of what can go wrong.
When I realised people were actually reading this blog, that conversations would be possible about my work here and at other sites, I wanted to see whether it were possible to incubate different sorts of interactions than I had had in the past – interactions where contention and debate could take place without the sometimes ugly spirals that can characterise online discussions. And I also wanted to escape some of the constraints of face-to-face discussions, to feel free to extend myself intellectually in ways that often aren’t possible in traditional institutional settings, to make an advantage out of some of the depersonalising elements of online discussion, in order to have conversations that can explore ideas in a way that separates those ideas more from the person who puts them forward, than is generally possible in face-to-face interaction. None of this is some sort of ideal of communication – I don’t think communication “ought” to be so abstracted from the personal – but it was the specific form of communication I was seeking out here, as a form of interaction less available – for me – in face-to-face settings.
I’ve discussed in earlier posts the reasons that, initially, I posted pseudonymously here and why, even when I decided to “out” my identity, I still didn’t use my first name, even though it was easy at that point for anyone to look it up: previous experience in online discussions had shown very clearly how quickly things could go in very ugly gendered directions – I wanted at least the buffer provided by gender not being immediately evident to drive-by visitors to the blog. To the extent this is ever possible, I hoped people might deal with my ideas, and not with “me”, unless we were having a discussion where something about my personal background was relevant. Again, I’m not stating an ideal here – not suggesting that this is what discussions “ought” to be, or that it’s inherently better to differentiate ideas from their bearers, or anything like that. I’m just describing what I see as a very personal motive for seeking out a very specific kind of interaction that is difficult to find elsewhere, where for a period I can worry much less about gendered interpersonal dynamics than I often can in everyday life.
Gender issues aside, I also made a decision, which perhaps I follow through on better at some points than others, to try not to take offence at the things people say or the way positions are articulated – to try to find the best point I can see, in whatever position I’m addressing, and respond to that. This doesn’t prevent miscommunication. Sometimes the best point I can see, still isn’t what the other person meant – sometimes other people are offended by what I intend to be a positive restatement of what I take them to be saying – things still go wrong. Generally, though, on balance, and with most people who have landed here, I hope I’ve been largely successful at communicating that I’m interested in taking other people seriously, in de-escalating and redirecting conversations that seem in danger of getting a bit heated, in having largely productive discussions, where it becomes possible – for me at least – to learn something from them. It’s what I’m looking for from blogging, and largely it’s what I’ve managed to find here.
Sometimes it fails spectacularly. One recent interaction – I won’t link to it, but have screenshotted it, blanking out the other person’s photo and identifying details. I stumbled across a blog referring to an event in which I participated recently. The post plugged the event, and then quoted some text from my blog, made fun of the complexity of my writing, and then asked a question about what I was trying to say. Part of what I mean, when I talk about trying to respond to the best point I can find in something, is that in general I seriously don’t take criticisms personally, even when they are voiced disrespectfully – and, if I’m going to respond, I address my comments to the substantive points raised, and generally aim for discussion, rather than for self-defence. So I responded; and the reply then consisted of this blogger’s description of the kind of sex he fantasised having with me (if folks care about this sort of thing in deciding whether to click through, it’s not a subtle comment).
My main reaction to this is a feeling of tired familiarity at how often exactly this sort of thing used to happen when I posted in discussions where my gender was more evident than it is here. There are some other complicating factors, which I won’t go into here, which make this incident less removed from my real world life than I would like. I don’t know what sort of discussion I’m looking to open, by posting about this… Incidents like this are depressing, in what they show about the ready-to-handness of this kind of behaviour. But I think what is striking me about this incident, is the way it reinforces something I’ve been feeling about publishing (as, of course, we all need to do) in settings other than the blog. Although this guy quoted some material from the blog, he knows my name – and therefore gender – from the conference program, where, along with all the other presenters, I spelled the name out in full. Every time I have provided details for a conference program or other material I knew would end up online, I’ve felt very conflicted over doing this, because it means that my full name now circulates, immediately gendering my work – taking away the possibility of the less pronouncedly gendered interactions that I’ve been able to cultivate online. I think I’ve been telling myself, as I hand over what should be this least personal of personal details, that I am being ridiculous – that I’m experiencing something as a loss, when nothing is really taken away. I think this incident stands out for me as an indication that I wasn’t entirely wrong – that something has been lost, and that a further level of anonymity – at least to casual readers – has been taken away.
The thing is, the way I’ve carved out a space here is, I know, a very apolitical response to a political problem – I’ve opened a level of freedom for myself by creating a small space of personal ambiguity, which has meant that it’s generally only the folks who stick around, who have some curiosity and interest in what I’m writing, who know much about me personally. This strategy doesn’t hit at the fundamentally political issue of how knowledge of the personal is wielded. So there’s a sense in which this sort of temporary shelter I’ve erected here has perhaps never been appropriate. But it has been more important to me than I can adequately explain to be able, for a time, in one part of my life, not to need to worry about such things…
We’ll see if I keep this post up :-) I’m not sure yet whether I’ll think better of it and take it down…