The internet is rife with people who call themselves writers. Many of them have confused the ability to click “Publish” with the ability to craft a sentence. So when I come across someone who actually seems to have an ear for language — instead of just an eye for topics that are likely to generate page views — I pay attention.
Judith Warner has been one of the bright stars in the polluted blogosphere. Her blog, Domestic Disturbances, didn’t initially appeal to me: I thought it was all about motherhood and midlife crises. But then I skimmed a few paragraphs and wanted more. Warner knows how to concoct that remarkable blend of funny and smart that’s instantly addictive and incredibly satisfying. And her deft turns of phrase are never just for show; like poets, she knows that sometimes the best way to express something is to approach it from an unexpected angle. On the path she paves with her glittering vocabulary, delight and insight walk hand in hand.
Here’s one of my favorite Warner pieces: We Are the Dog. But if you read that and love it, don’t go looking for more: it’s all over now. Warner published her final Domestic Disturbances post last month. I was so saddened by the announcement, and then so impressed by yet another great piece of writing, I initially overlooked the tragedy hidden in her farewell. The really heartbreaking news is that the internet — specifically, the cacophony of id-driven blurting we call "community" and "interactivity" and "comments" — made Judith Warner second-guess her mighty pen. Here’s the pertinent bit:
The back-and-forth of our conversations changed me. I have learned to be more aware of the effect of what I say….
I am more cautious now, both in print and in real life. It is a strange thing, after long having been a bit too emotionally loud … to now find myself the kind of person whose hand other people grab, panicked, in mid-conversation, as they gasp apologies for their own effusions of opinion or effervescence.
“Not at all,” I have to say.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to have become more aware of other people and more tuned into how they feel. After all, when you write, alone and in silence, you are addressing real people, and you ignore their feelings and sensibilities at your own risk.
It’s true that this kind of awareness is not necessarily a bad thing on a human level. We could all stand to be more considerate and compassionate, especially online. But I think it’s a very bad thing for a writer to become so aware of her readers. Caution thwarts creativity and blocks inspiration. And Warner’s own message on this issue is a little mixed; earlier in the post, she seems to long for the good old (comment-free) days:
… it’s probably no accident that the greatest sense of community I’ve had in recent years has come from sitting alone, staring at a piece of paper (I write by hand) and shutting out the world.
I think that’s the only time a writer can truly hear her own voice. She should still hear echoes of other voices, of course, and I think that’s the sense of community Warner refers to: the community of knowledge and experience and just being a person who’s alive in the world. But online, that larger context shrinks and contorts. Some commenters haven’t even read the thing they’re commenting on and probably never will. That’s not really a community; it’s more like a mob.
I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the rabble, so I’m not really criticizing Warner for feeling cautious. I too have found myself unable to take action without considering (and usually fearing and eventually obsessing over) the possible reaction. When I first started writing for AfterEllen.com, it wasn’t possible to comment on the site. There were forums, and I got plenty of e-mail (most of it wonderful). But there was no opportunity for readers to fire off unedited gut reactions, or use an article as a soapbox, or otherwise spray impulsive, irrelevant, destructive digital graffiti on my wall of carefully tended words. When they started doing that, even just occasionally, it started to seem like all my late-night searches for the perfect phrase just weren’t worth it. A single spewing of vitriol could eat at me for days.
The decline of that so-called community was one (just one, and not even the biggest one) of the reasons I decided to leave AfterEllen, and it’s the thing that really makes me miss the old internet. I remember the heady days of Yahoo groups and message boards like Drop the Chalupa. That internet fostered a true sense of community. Remember moderators? Remember when people got banned for starting flame wars? Remember the feeling that you had found your own kind? Those days are mostly gone, just like that weekly dose of Judith Warner’s opinionated, "emotionally loud" charm and wisdom.
I probably sound bitter and butthurt, not to mention old. And obviously it wasn’t all bad: I truly cherished the readers who lingered over every word (and there were so very many words), and I formed some lasting friendships. As Judith Warner puts it, "the moments of real connection have been many, and powerful, and they will stay with me." I’ll always be grateful for those moments.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Judith Warner and I — and plenty of others who have braved the web waters, only to find ourselves not waving but drowning — are now cautious and hesitant, not sure whether or when to write again. I think that’s tragic. I hope someday the real writers and real readers of the web will unite — especially the women, who are perhaps more likely to take thoughtless comments seriously. The next time the crowd gets unruly, let’s crank up the volume of our own voices until we drown them out.