muffled

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.

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18 Responses to “muffled”

  1. Molly says:

    You know, I always enjoyed your posts more than I loved the actual shows you wrote about. And maybe I was late to the party, but I always thought you had a nice following — but that’s not what you were going for, apparently.

    I, too, am in a profession that allows comments on my writing. Only, instead of it being my personal thoughts and opinions, it’s news. So that helps buffer how personally I take the negative comments, but it has made me paranoid about getting everything right. I know, I know – that’s what journalists are supposed to do anyway. But commenters pick up on any sloppiness I may dish out there and, in an awkward and painful way, it has made me a better writer.

    Again, I understand that our situations are different. I do hope you aren’t too cautious about writing again, because there are some of us out here with brains who appreciate writers like yourself.

  2. Mary says:

    Hey Scribey -

    I’m left profoundly conflicted by this issue. Although one thing is completely clear to me: a loss (or muffling)of voices like yours and Judith Warner’s for whatever reason pains me on both an intellectual and personal level.

    Thank you so much for linking Gary Kamiya’s Salon article – it laid out very well the practical and theoretical concerns.

    Thinking about Nietzsche in this regard was especially useful to me, but then I usually find Nietzsche useful. I know, I know, it’s a personal problem. (-;

    In the end, it’s clear that writers’ vulnerabilities will not be the primary concern of readers’ response, if writers’ sensitivies figure at all. However, as rules of discourse change, filters will also adapt. What is also clear is some writers will not adapt, and that is deeply unfortunate. It seems to me this is the vital questions: will we lose more than we gain in the revolution in reader response and discourse?

    But to even pose that question is to weigh your voice – that which is unique, irreplaceable, and unable to be aggregated – against society’s broad interest in open discourse, and that I will not do. Of course, there is something of a fait accompli about the whole thing, so I’m left where I started: feeling conflicted, and feeling a deep sympathy for you, as well as a sense of loss.

  3. Jen says:

    I hear you on what you are saying.
    I am by no means a writer, the only blog I have is my livejournal account, but I had to create a new one as I added so many strangers to my friends list, I ended up not writing in it at all.
    I resorted to 5 friends and know only 2 are reading and yet still sometimes I am hesitant.

    Mainly, I just want to tell you I am very sorry to hear that this is part of the reason why you have left afterellen.com and why Judith Warner has stopped blogging/writing. Indeed tragic.

    I am only a late regular follower of afterellen.com and my main reason for reading the website is not cause of having all info on queer women in one place, but because all the writers bring their unique personality to the articles, which I absolutely love and appreciate.
    In many cases I agree totally with the viewpoint of the writers and appreciate little hints of sarcasms and other personal infusions.

    I usually only roughly scroll through the comments and the reason for this being that I get very upset if there is someone whining about something tiny compared to the effort it takes to research the article, cut and paste photographs in it and like you said finding the perfect sentence.

    But after reading your article, maybe in the future I will give into my initial reaction of wanting to comment back, though I might have to take a few breaths not to be rude.

    Anyways, I hope both you and Judith continue to write for your own sakes first, but also because there are enough people out there who do appreciate you.

    Regards,
    Jen

  4. I am not that good at writing eloquent long comments in english, but I just want to say that it breaks my heart to see people give up on things just because there are people in the world who simply don’t care enough about others to look around and take care of what they say/write. I always loved your pieces and I’m glad that Dara Nai linked this post on her twitter.

    I don’t know what much else to say. It literally breaks my heart. At the risk of sounding like a ten year old: why do people have to be so mean?

  5. LS says:

    Hey:

    Just wanted to say that I’m sorry you had to go through that. I very rarely comment on anything on AfterEllen, mostly because I’ve always been overly cautious and concerned about the effects of what I say.
    However, I’ve been reading it since I was maybe 13 (I’m 22) and always deeply enjoyed all your stuff, from L Word recaps to random-ass blog posts. You’re a very good writer with a great voice and a lot of insight, and I regret that idiots who don’t think about what they’re saying made you doubt that and ate away at you and whatnot. Perhaps I should comment more, in general, on stuff I enjoy, to counterbalance the effects of the aforementioned idiots, but what’s done is done in your case, and I also totally respect your decision to leave for whatever other reasons you wanted to do so.

    Anyway, I’ll be eagerly watching this space to see what you’ve got to say, if you’ve got it left in ya.

  6. Just Cory says:

    Hey there,

    I’ll keep it short and sweet. I thought you were absolutely brilliant on afterellen.com and I follow you on Twitter. Yours is a gift that I wish I possessed, but since you’ve got it, I hope you continue to use it despite the adversity you face. It would be a shame to deprive folks of your wonderful wit!

  7. Julia Watson says:

    Boo. And may I add to that, an “aww, maaan.” I have been a longtime lurker on your blogs and I’ve gotta say, you were pretty much the best thing AE had going for it in the pop culture geek department, Scribey. I really hope you keep writing here, if not elsewhere. The interwebs will be a shabbier place indeed without the shiny fun of you.

  8. E says:

    I totally agree there are too many trolls on AE. I prefer auto straddle now because there seems to be a community of respect over there and people post positive comments. Hopefully that won’t change.

    Your articles kept me coming back to AE and I wish you the best of luck! I hope the new internet becomes more like the old internet and you find your place. I will be following you. :)

  9. maxime says:

    I wouldn’t call myself a writer and even though English is not my native language I regularly write articles – and often bemoan the lack of comments. I get away with a lot though, as my – predominantly – political articles fill a gap for many and readers are often more shocked at the events I write about than going nitpicking at missing colons ;)

    And yet, it upsets me every time when all people comment on is a tiny mistake in detail after having spend hours on research. Not comparable to many comments on AE, but enough to get a hint of how you must be feeling.

    Please continue writing here and if you want to reach a broader audience there’s always twitter and I know of at least two sites who’d love to publish the occasional post by such a terrific writer.

    One last thing – it’s been a long time I’ve read so many well crafted, thoughtful comments on an article. you’re onto something there!

  10. Sarah Warn says:

    Thanks for writing this, Scribe – you’ve put into words exactly what I’ve been struggling with for the last few years, but haven’t been able to articulate.

    I miss the old internet, too.

    I burned out on writing online a year ago, for the same reason you and Judith did – the increasing tendency of 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.”

    Don’t get me wrong – I think readers should be able to comment on what they read. But the implicit contract between writer and reader – that the writer will be thoughtful about what they write, and the reader will be thoughtful about their comment – seems to have been broken. Now you’re most likely to spend 6 hours carefully constructing an article/post, only to have half the comments on it be rude or irrelevant. And the “constructive” part of “constructive criticism” has mostly been lost.

    Over time, this just wore me down, and it was one of the reasons I left AfterEllen.com. (Not that this problem is particular to AfterEllen.com, and I also appreciate and cherish many of the readers and experiences I had running the site.)

    But I’m cautious and hesitant to write anything now – a writer who can’t find the energy to write because I’ve become too aware of the readers.

    I’m not the brilliant wordsmith you are – my writing style has always been more plain and direct, while your’s is almost a work of art – but I still have things I’d like to write about. I just can’t find the energy anymore, at least not very often. I hope that changes someday.

    And I hope you write more someday, too! The world is a better (and far more entertaining) place with you writing in it.

  11. Laila Steele says:

    I’m not sure what I’m going to say here, but I feel I have to say something. Your articles on AfterEllen were the ones I went searching for – and I still go back and read them. Your writing skill and sense of humour, among many other things, often made my day just that much easier to bear.

    I’m sorry that you left, and I’m sorry this has happened to you – and to Sarah for that matter. I live in South Africa and I’m on AfterEllen every day and the writers on the site almost feel like friends because, whether you (we) like it or not, connections are made with these words we share.

    I wish you well in your future endeavours, and I hope to run across you again one day. Thank you for being so selfless and gifted.

    Laila

  12. Tiffany says:

    scribegrrrl-
    I will keep this short because I’m definitely not a writer. I miss you on afterellen.com. Once you left, I realized that you were the reason that I visited many times a day over the years. There were many days when I felt that you were in my head and I miss that. It’s definitely not the same without you.

    I wish you much success. Thanks for this blog so I can at least check in on you from time to time.

  13. Hannah says:

    I have stopped visiting forums or reading comments on news stories and blog posts 98% of the time. Even when the majority of people are being polite, there are always a couple that begin such mean-spirited dialogue. It drives me crazy and puts me in a bad mood. And I’m just a reader. I can’t imagine what it is like for someone who put time, energy, and talent into writing articles of any kind. It makes me sad how many level-headed voices we are losing, including yours. Although, I know your voice hasn’t been “lost”; you’re just using it in more civilized venues. I just wish there was a way for folks like you to be heard by more people without being degraded.

  14. I found you on afterellen.com and added your blog to my reader because I really enjoy your writing. I don’t comment many places and didn’t much read the comments on afterellen, so I miss out on the some of the vitrol. But on the few places I do see discussions, I have noticed an uptick in that sort of thing- more so than in the last 20 years or so I’ve been on the internet, and much of it directed at women writers. I know at least one other blogging community being rocked by it now, so I suspect it some sort of zeitgeist. I hope it passes, or there’s some way to counter it, because there are voices I really enjoying hearing – yours is one.

  15. tracidress says:

    How nice it is to read everyone’s lovely and respectful comments. I find your style thoughtful and fun and have, like many others, been admiring your writing from afar. I pray that you and others continue to find a space for your voice. Hang in there, missy and know that there is a whole group of us, silently – appreciatively, holding you up.

  16. jennifer from pittsburgh says:

    I miss the old days too, when I was a member of the Star Trek Women’s Terrorist Task Force (this was pre 9/11, or we would’ve been on some FBI watch list), before the cabal of moderators couldn’t contain the flame war that broke out (over whether or not Courtney Love was a good mother…no, really) and splintered the group. I joined one of the splinters and remain there today. But and still, the old group was so boisterous with their arguments over The X-Files or BtVS. I never experienced anything like it, the dissecting of every tiny nuance of a show.
    We don’t do that anymore, not with Lost and not with Fringe, two shows that seemingly lend themselves to such efforts, but no one is inclined to bring out the scalpel.
    My problem with internet writing/blogging, that sort of thing, has become content. Even, even especially, on my own blog, the content to me is lacking, as if I’m never getting to any sort of point, let alone a truth. I just feel lost, like I’m in a room full of threads that I’m supposed to weave a tapestry from. There might be a cat there too.
    OH! This comment on a movie review I read last week sums it up nicely: You’ve confused typing with content. Clearly I’m less plagued by the reader voice in my head than my own voice demanding that I offer something that isn’t utter crap. I don’t care what the reader thinks and I can tell you exactly why: I have no respect for anyone who likes me :D
    I love your blog, Scribe!

  17. Beatrice says:

    I’m another one who never watched the L Word (beyond the first episode) but faithfully read your recaps, as well as your other posts. You have a great voice and I hope you will continue to use it. I appreciate your frustration, but it saddens me to think that we’ll lose smart commentary to stupid commenters.

  18. scribegrrrl says:

    Thanks for all the kind words, everybody. And no, I won’t be silenced forever — guess that’s why I created this safe space.

    I meant it when I said that the comments were only one factor in my departure from AfterEllen; there were other, bigger reasons. I mostly wrote this post because I wanted to mourn the old internet, ’cause it was so much more fun. And because I was sad to see Judith Warner’s column go away.

    Anyway. Enough of all this, but thank you again for the support (and such well-written, thoughtful support, at that!).

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