Friday, April 17, 2015
No Country for Old Men: Blogging After a Decade
On this tenth anniversary of Prawfsblawg, I'd also like to think and talk a little about how blogging has changed in that period, at least from the perspective on one blogger. My answer is " it has changed for the worse," but I admit up front that much of this has to do with my own experience, and the simple fact of doing it for ten years.
My assumption when I started here at Prawsfblawg was that I would have a potpourri of subjects. Certainly I would talk about legal questions, especially those within my field of scholarly study. Certainly there would be a good deal of discussion of current events, generally legally oriented events, and the posts would sometimes be on the politics or substance of the issue itself and sometimes would be confined to legal analysis. And, as I noted last week, I assumed that there would be a good deal of discussion about the life of the law professor. I thought--and I think I wasn't alone in this--that I would also write about pop culture. I love music and am a more-than-occasional TV addict (House at the time, Archer now, and always the band Porcupine Tree and its leader Steven Wilson); I figured there would be fun opportunities to talk about and recommend various movies, TV shows, and bands that I loved. That was one of the main motivating factors for me in deciding to join the blog. Finally, I figured there would be opportunities to promote things I was working on and/or to share works in progress as they developed.
A lot of that didn't happen for long. (Not the self-promotion: that always happens. Did I mention that Administrative Professionals Day is coming up, especially if you're looking for a nice gift?) Pop culture was the first to go. Back when I blogged a lot it was squeezed out by other subjects; it also turned out I was less motivated to write this stuff than I thought, and to some degree worried about having too many voices or not being "serious" enough. I was often too deliberate to blog about current events: the pace of the blogosphere is such (or at least feels that way) that if you don't jump on the topic right away or spend too much time trying to come up with a definitive post, you end up feeling as if it's already a cold topic. Similarly with writing about scholarship, especially about new draft of published articles by others, which I also anticipated doing a lot. I've never been entirely comfortable just saying "read this"; I prefer to add description and especially analysis and some judgments about the piece and won't do that until I've read most or all of it. So I was always falling behind on that front as well. I envy the aggregators, who have locked in a position in the blogosphere that enables them to do useful things (especially Larry Solum's blog) without generally requiring a deep reading. With politics, I got the sense that over time those who were most likely to blog about this subject consistently were either sufficiently motivated by partisanship or ideology to want to keep doing it, or had some pet issue or hobbyhorse that they would gladly ride into the sunset, no matter how often they had ridden it in the past. I answer to neither description, and again there was the problem of blogging substantively about the issue quickly rather than dawdling.
Writing about law school itself, and the life of the law professor, has proved especially and increasingly difficult in the past few years. I certainly wrote many posts on law school issues at the height of the economic collapse, including the law school crisis, around 2010 to 2013, give or take (and note that I got to the party late, although not incredibly late). I'm glad I did, on the whole. Certainly law professors are obliged to stay current on these issues and take responsibility for them. That is true even when the online conversation is less than ideal.
That said, it was a very "hot" topic, and one with a large number of deeply committed, often angry commenters and writers of their own blogs. Dealing with that, and especially administering comments so they weren't overwhelmed by nastiness, or letting the conversation go on without you even if commenters were insulting you--or others on the comment thread--takes some fortitude and energy, and I did not and do not have enough of either quality. The discussion was full of people eager to tear strips of one another, folks who strongly believed that if you're not with them you're against them and are ready to fight over the least departure from their position, people who repeated themselves ad nauseam, and windy predictors of imminent disaster who, like the leaders of apocalyptic cults, were constantly (and silently) revising upwards their predictions. Dealing with these challenges is a moving target: talk about law schools without talking about what and how they teach and one person calls you names; talk about teaching and another calls you names for not focusing on the jobs; focus on the jobs and someone else accuses you of deliberately covering up talk of scholarship and its problems.
I still read a lot of blogs and blog posts on these issues, including some whose writing I find vicious or overdone or self-parodic. Some of them have gotten much weaker in content, and I can usually limit myself to the headlines while avoiding one more sarcastic personal attack on this or that person. But both a sense of academic duty, and respect for those who keep studying and writing about these issues--including some I generally disagree with or find obnoxious--have committed me to continuing to do so. But I don't have to write about it myself if I don't want too, and generally it's not worth it.
Then there is the question of anonymous commenters, especially on this topic. My position used to be fully supportive of anonymous commentary, with the caveat that the less identifiable a person is, for instance because he or she doesn't use a clear and consistent pseudonym, the more one can and should discount what that person is saying. I was not inclined to get rid of comments altogether and questioned the decision of some blogs to do so, when the exchange of commentary and views is so much a part of the blogosphere. Now I am much more comfortable closing off posts to commenters--there are plenty of other places they can talk, and those people who get strangely outraged by being excluded or think they have some kind of right to comment on someone else's blog are not worth talking to anyway. If the post in the least touches on law schools, I am almost certain to do so. Beyond this, moreover, the level of nastiness among anonymous commenters is today very, very high. Not only anonymous commenters, of course--some people come pretty close to this level despite using their own names--but especially them, and it is more irksome coming from them.
The usual justification offered by these individuals is that they blog anonymously to avoid any job consequences. I think this is one part true and three parts bullshit. I respect the general concern that an employer might punish an employee who writes innocuously on some subject, and the desire to comment despite that--hence the anonymity. But the possibility of avoiding this problem by commenting anonymously is not the same thing at all as the question of how one writes as an anonymous commenter. Plenty of anonymous commenters are either total jerks--hostile, combative, vicious, personal, sometimes much worse--in real life or feel some motivation or latitude to be jerks online. (Really, though, there is no such thing as an online jerk. If you're a jerk online and part-time, you're a jerk, period.) It's one thing to sympathize with someone who says that if not allowed to comment anonymously, he or she will be subject to arbitrary dismissal by an employer even if the comment is innocuous, or civil, or tough and brusque but fair. Obviously, however, the understandable "employment concerns" justification doesn't apply to those people who think anonymity gives them the freedom to behave like assholes, because they're angry or just because they can. Some of them say things that no sensible professional (and they often claim they are professionals) would say under his or her own name out of concern for besmirching his or her professional reputation. If they did write in this manner under their own name, the firing would be for very good cause. They overheat or ruin perfectly reasonable conversations and hurt the whole online discussion.
I am willing to learn even from them, and it's certainly true that an unnecessarily hostile and personal comment may nevertheless offer a valid criticism; it should not be disregarded just because the writer is unpleasant. I've tried to take some of those criticisms on board and I still at least peruse some blogs by anonymous writers (though not many, and the quality of their work and certainly their level of basic decency is often very low.) But I am more than happy to block a comment, ban an asshole commenter from the site altogether and permanently, without multiple warnings and despite their arguments that they didn't say anything too terrible, and so on. I have come closer to Dan's aggressive position, although I still think it was too aggressive and that he often erred by pursuing fights with these individuals or threatening them before finally blocking them. Their rationalizations for being anonymous and uncivil are generally weak, self-serving, and dishonest. The truth is that they act like assholes because they like it. I am more than happy to let them have no part in the conversation at my blog and to monitor the comments for such people, kill their comments, and kick them off. I'm not inclined to reveal their identities, and I definitely am not fond of the idea of threatening to reveal them without following through. But I don't think they have any right to anonymity or to any time or space on my blog, and frankly I think that in a few cases the legal profession would be better served if their identities were revealed. I certainly have no interest in playing to this particular gallery, flattering them, or basking in their praise; would that this were so for some other writers.
Their rise had some good effects for legal blogs, I think. Again, some of their criticisms were apt; some (but far from all) of the work they did on the law school crisis was good and revealed new issues and arguments; and they encouraged others to acknowledge and think or write about these issues. They were sensitive to blog posts that went too far in being self-serving or lacking a sense of self-awareness about the "First World problems" aspects of blogging about one's life as a law professor, and although they have always gone overboard on this front, I cannot say all the chilling that has taken place around this subject is a bad thing. But the overall effect has been a swift coarsening of discourse and rising of temperatures in the legal blogosphere. This too is one reason I blog less.
Another factor is the rise of alternative media. Many of the things I enjoy writing about--especially pop culture, but also current events and politics and even legal issues--I can do at Facebook for a large but more selective audience. That takes some of the winds out of my sales as far as blogging is concerned. I despise Twitter. Any medium that limits posts to 140 characters, that features endless arguments based more on invective and gotchas than on reason, that plays to the writers's own supporters and their collective priors and prejudices, and that in many cases mistakes tweeting for engaging in political action is not something I'm interested in. But it has certainly given the blogosphere a run for its money and many law profs have taken advantage of it. Still, the existence of Facebook, at least, gives me an imperfect alternative to blogging and all the tsuris that it involves. And more generally, the whole environment of online discussion and "journalism" has gone downhill, in my opinion. I will not bother enumerating the usual complaints. But I find I am happier and wiser, and often have smarter answers to current public policy or political questions, if I read Marcus Aurelius or Herbert Wechsler or Noel Annan than if I read the latest clickbait or political junk from Gawker, TPM, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Raw Story, etc.
Finally, there is the simple, happy fact of having done this for a decade and having grown older. Unless you have more energy than I do, or are a hobby-horse rider on some issue, blogging is a young person's sport. Two kids, and five operations in the past eight years with three more likely in the next couple of years, have slowed me down some. Service obligations go up the longer one is at the university, and in my case some local political and university commitments have also taken up more of my time. Although I like writing about law and about life as a law professor, my slight growth in seniority, if it is not generally apparent to me, makes me more hesitant to write some things, at least if I am going to criticize particular junior scholars for, e.g., making overinflated novelty claims in article abstracts. Mid-career life as a law teacher has its interesting elements and some of them are worth writing about--for example, the degree to which teaching and dealing with students, always an important and enjoyable part of the job, becomes more important, involving, and moving over time. But on the whole I have written many posts about many aspects of law prof life and I don't want to repeat myself endlessly (a little is fine!) about these subjects. Journalists find some typical breaking news stories exciting the first few times they do them but eventually wear down on general-assignment daily stuff that they've done a hundred times before; the thrill is gone. One can feel that way about blogging too. I admire those whose energy and commitment has stayed high for a long time, but I'm not one of them.
All this has left me somewhat dispirited about blogging, especially given my dissatisfaction with online discussions, "news" sites, and so on altogether. No doubt some of these concerns and other factors, such as poor health, are personal to me alone and have nothing to do with broader trends or predictions. Others are more widespread, however, and so may suggest forthcoming changes, or an absolute decline, in legal blogging as a whole. I'll come back to that issue in two weeks. In the meantime, it would not do to offer up such a gloomy post without saying how much I have enjoyed being here for the past ten years, how much I have learned from others (including anonymous commenters!), the pleasure I've occasionally gotten for writing something that people found useful or interesting, and all the other benefits of being at Prawfs.
UPDATE: A correspondent, who had some kind words for this post, points out to me the irony of calling the post "No Country for Old Men" when women face many of these issues in spades. For what it's worth, I did have some concerns about this when I fixed on this title, although I decided that the title was a good one and I didn't want to change someone else's writing. The correspondent is right, though, of course, both that women who blog, including law professors, regularly have disproportionate additional claims on their time (in my case that is supplied by the medical issues; without them I surely would have been willing and able to blog more in recent years), and that many (not all, in fairness, but still far too many) of those anonymous commenters who have a self-indulgent habit of nastiness are more than happy to express that nastiness in highly gendered terms. One more reason to doubt that "I worry about employment consequences" is a full justification for anonymous commentary, or at least for its content; and one more reason that one should have no compunctions about scrubbing one's own space of objectionable comment.
I should also add something that I meant to put in the post: I don't comment anonymously and, as I've written here before, I think that on sites or discussions having anything to do with one's academic profession, law professors--tenured or otherwise--should not blog or comment anonymously. I suppose every rule has exceptions, but I would treat this as a strong presumptive rule. Given that we are paid to write and speak on legal issues, and that as academics we have some more general responsibility or interest in writing about academic matters more generally, I think we should do so under our own names, period, if what we are writing about has anything to do with academic matters. Anonymous commentary by academics on academic issues, to me, seems inconsistent with academic duty or accountability. Of course, one may choose not to blog or comment at all if one worries about the consequences of doing so under one's own name.
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