by Frank Schnittger
Sat Apr 4th, 2009 at 08:47:32 AM EST
Colman wrote a front page story recently in which he lamented the development of too cosy a consensus on ET and the lack of robust challenge and debate. I opined that:
When mutual respect and trust breaks down people retreat into their bunkers and do their own thing. There have been too many personalised exchanges for people to feel safe about adopting unpopular positions or making arguments which could be misconstrued. .
To which afew replied:
If you think mutual respect and trust have broken down, Frank, why are you here? (No, that is not to be read as hostile. It's a serious question).
and Migeru responded:
Doing his own thing from the bunker, like everyone else? (not snark, but a serious answer)
and Melo suggested that
because trust is a renewable resource?
I avoided engaging the question because I wanted to think it over, but did allow that if Poemless wanted
...a Faustian bargain?
that this might be it: In other words, if you want the benefits of engaging with a pile of other people on a relatively open platform you don't necessarily get to write or enforce the rules and people will express views and make decisions you don't always agree with.
Every now and then the ET community get caught up in a bout of introspection - usually in the wake of some flame war or other. This is emphatically not an attempt to reprise same. At the same time I find myself coming here less and less often, and wanted to reflect on why this might be.
But before I get into the bones of that, I want to make a few points clear: Firstly, I am full of admiration for what Jerome and his team of front pagers have achieved: a vibrant, lively, and usually convivial place where a lot of information and ideas are shared and debated. From my own experience of voluntary work in other spheres I would say that it is often the hardest thing to do. Not only are you not paid for your efforts, but you are sometimes subjected to an even more rigorous scrutiny than you would be if you were in a paid job! At least if you are being paid, you know who you are answerable to. So often, in voluntary work, you seem to be answerable to everybody, and most severely to those who probably wouldn't touch such voluntary work with a barge pole in the first place...
So if I have ever disagreed with a particular comment by a front pager, it is not that I don't support the need for a moderation process, don't appreciate the efforts they have put in, or indeed the large degree of success they have achieved. It is simply that I believe that a very few disputes could have been handled more skilfully, and that we could all save ourselves a lot of heart ache by reflecting on how things were handled and perhaps doing things slightly differently the next time around. Nearly always these "mistakes" as I would see them, involve allowing an intellectual disagreement, however fierce, to become confused with a personalised derogatory comment of some kind, an ascription of dubious motive, or an allegation of bad faith.
We've all done it from time to time. No one can claim to be 'holier than thou' on this one. Sometimes its just ennui, tiredness, laziness, or an ill-chosen attempt at sarcasm or humour. Often the offence isn't even intended, if perhaps an unconscious expression of antagonism at some level. Sometimes, not only was no offence intended, their wasn't even an underlying antagonism. It was simply a misunderstanding which can so easily develop and grow in the the imperfect world of keyboard communications.
But where real and serious differences of intellectual, political or moral views exist, the rules of engagement have to be clearly expressed and consistently applied if things are not to be in danger of getting out of hand. So my answer to Colman's plea for more Devils advocates on ET is that people have to feel confident that they won't be abused or ambushed in some way if they take an unpopular position or argue a perhaps not very well thought through line.
Since I have come here I have seen a number of instances where people adopted positions at variance with the views of key frontpagers, perhaps didn't defend that position very skilfully, but nevertheless felt extremely hurt by the severe debunking they received. And what has surprised me is that their harshest critics were often not ordinary members, but members of the frontpage team.
Which brings me to what I feel might be a role conflict between a frontpager as a leader of intellectual thought on the blog, and a frontpager as moderator and resolver of conflicts and smoother over of hurt feelings which can also be a vital role in the popularisation of a website.
An intellectual leader is primarily concerned with the rigour of views and their expression, by the quality of evidence adduced, and the ideological context in which the narrative takes place. People who aren't necessarily very good at that can feel very intimidated when the heavyweights appear to line up against them.
A moderator, on the other hand, once he/she becomes aware that someone may be feeling hurt in a particular situation, is far less concerned with continuing or winning the argument, and far more concerned with protecting the perhaps more vulnerable member from digging an even bigger hole for themselves, or being even more exposed to harsher criticism. It is a different orientation and skill set.
Which brings me to why I think I am getting less and less enthused by the ET project. It is not the quality of some of the diaries or the robustness (or lack of) of the debate, but a sense that ET is never going to achieve its potential as perhaps the leading European Community blog so long as we don't get a lot better at dealing with flame wars and managing the hurt arising.
What frustrates me personally is not that no one seems to recognise my genius - I am fully aware that I am much more of a populariser than an originator of ideas - but that ET seems destined to be a case of a few illuminati preaching to the converted - which can be a good way of very good originators of ideas lending support and critical guidance to each other - but which is never going to appeal to a very much wider audience.
And what attracted me to ET when I first came across it, was that it seemed to represent a concept which could become very big indeed: A place where a much wider range of people, of varying views and intellectual abilities, could get together to discuss both the serious economic, political, and environmental issues, and the relatively trivial personal, hobbyist and cultural which you get in the Open Threads, Photography, Travel, Train and more personal blogs.
But in more recent times, I have despaired of that ever happening. I have withdrawn from the ET future project, and sworn never to get involved trying to resolve a flame war again. And when I write now, it is usually for a different or more general audience.
But that is not to say that I think ET isn't still a very good place to be, that I sometimes enjoy being here, and that I am full of admiration for many who write and devote so much of their free time trying to make this a better place for others.
And so in answer to Afew's question: Why am I here? The answer is that whilst I am here a lot less, I still admire and enjoy the place. It just doesn't happen to be the place I would like it to be - which is a much more widely read and blogged place - and I have lost some faith and confidence in our shared determination to make it so.
And that too is OK. There is a great and growing role for more intellectually rigorous specialised websites. Places where you won't read about rugby or some such trivial pursuit, but where you go to on occasion to catch up on the latest in economic analysis or debate. It isn't for me to define what ET is or where it should go. At one point I thought we had a shared vision and the problem was more a case of putting in place a structure that could make it happen.
Now I think our visions of what we want to do are just a bit too different, and so I am spending more time on-line elsewhere. For me the Faustian compromise is not that ET isn't perfect - ET does what it does probably better than any other site in the same intellectual space. It is simply that I feel myself drawn to other things. I hope that answers your question, Afew, but what I want to stress is that whatever the rare disagreements I have had with others on this blog, I am full of admiration for what you have achieved and wish you all the best for the future.