At the start of this Terry Eagleton article on anonymity from which I previously quoted he asserts that “All literary works are anonymous, but some are more anonymous than others.” I don’t want to discuss the nature of authorship (because I’ll be out of my depth in seconds) but this anonymity can be, in a way, a bigger problem online than in the real world. Someone writing online can certainly attempt to provide plenty of context to inform a reader — links to their personal website or further articles for example — and more is only a Google away. But this context is rarely explored by most readers and, the crucial difference between online and off-, the reader can, in turn, instantly respond in public: post a comment at the end of the writer’s piece, create their own weblog post, etc.
This anonymity of the author, the lack of context, coupled with the hair-trigger responses of aggrieved readers brings to mind this post of Russell Davies’, in which he exhibits his laptop painted with blackboard paint to create a quick to-do list, and the annoyed reactions to it in his comments, in the comments of Boing Boing’s readers and here, for example.
After so many years online I shouldn’t be surprised when everyone with an opinion emerges to explain it unasked to everyone else, but I was taken aback by the hostility of many people. When I read Russell’s post I saw it in the context of knowing Russell (not well enough for my liking, but a little). While many of us come up with crazy ideas and laugh about them in the pub they’re usually forgotten the next day. Russell seems to go the extra step and give his ideas a go, ending up with Interesting, Dawdlr, Muxtape to tape, School Orchestra 2.0 among others.
So for me the blackboard laptop was just another fun idea — it might be fantastic, it might be stupid, but either way it makes you stop and go “Huh?” If nothing else it makes you decide whether it’s good or bad, and if it’s bad is there a better solution, and why has no one done something like it before.
But for anyone seeing it without this context it was simply an anonymous piece of writing. It was simply, to paraphrase one Boing Boing commenter, something expensive ruined in an ironic way. Many readers assumed it was a considered suggestion for something other people should start doing; a “How To” for the best possible method of creating a laptop-based to-do list, with all eventualities considered. In that context it fails. Yes, it will invalidate your Apple warranty (duh), you’ll get chalk on your bag or sleeve, dust might get inside. But, I assume, this wasn’t the context in which it was written. It was just one in a long string of “let’s just try it” ideas.
In a similar vein I recently had a rude comment on a post of mine about Twitter, suggesting my concerns over offending rejected Twitter friends were “ridiculous” and that I should “live a ‘real’ life”. In one respect of course the commenter is correct — in the context of the real world these concerns are ridiculous. People are dying and I’m worried about offending someone!
Of course, we all worry about things that don’t matter on the global scale all the time, it’s just that in writing about them in public it could seem as if I’m trying to give them a greater importance. But for me writing on my site isn’t much different from chatting to friends, and in that context — and in the context of myself and my friends who spend time thinking about how social interactions online can and should work — offending Twitter friends isn’t a ridiculous matter to ponder.
Comments like this sometimes make me wish I only existed in a closed part of the internet in which I was only writing for friends, family and other interested parties, rather than in the scary wilds of the open internet when anyone can stumble across my words and read them anonymously, knowing nothing about me, or what I do, or how seriously I take the issue, leading to them bashing out their un-needed opinion. Or, in Russell’s case, add their un-needed opinion to the dozens of other identical opinions going before them.
Unfortunately, keeping oneself to a closed social online group doesn’t make these difficulties disappear, as I know from a past experience when I was part of the problem.
A few years ago on a closed email list I became gradually irritated with someone, a friend-of-a-friend, who punctuated every other sentence with a winking smiley. I eventually snapped (maybe I was having a bad day) and suggested that this made it seem like he was always joking and didn’t mean anything he said, so maybe he should stop. He was offended and upset by this, and people who knew him in the real world, people for whom his emails were less anonymous, said the smileys made perfect sense if one knew him. This time I was the reader taking something out of its context, ignoring who the person really was. Some time later, when I had the pleasure of working with the guy, I discovered everyone had been right and the smileys did make sense, they were a great online representation of his real-life manner, and I regretted I’d ever said anything even more.
Sadly, none of this is going to stop people descending on Boing Boing posts or Slashdot threads or the weblogs of individuals spouting off their opinions on something whose wider context they’re unaware of. In their defence, it’s often difficult or impossible to comprehend the context of something online, even if one wants to. But what such people should learn is that in such a situation it’s often better to simply keep one’s opinion to oneself