February 14, 2009

Unsolicited Advice for Maintaining the Appearance of Ethics Online

Please note that this post is intended as a poke in the eye. Many of my posts are. As a blogger, a writer of any kind, it is not my job to make you comfortable. It is my job to shake you up, to unsettle you, to make you question yourself and the world, and to remind you what the damned point was in the first place.

I will also note that when I interact with you online, I do have more than your words to go on. I can see to whom you're speaking. I can see who responds and how you, in turn, respond to them. I can see who your friends are. I can see the consistency of your words over time. Sometimes, I even get to see how you behave in real life. In short, I can see your broader behavior.

On to ethics. The following three recommended behaviors are not rules. They are simply things I note when I'm forming an opinion of someone's online ethics.

Own Your Context
There are no vacuums online. Everything you're doing happens in some context, perhaps more so when you belong to a blogging community. When you post something related to what is going on around you but don't acknowledge doing so--when in fact, you use language meant to apply to all--it's very easy for me to think you're doing something underhanded. It's easy for me to see you as trying to pretend you're above the fray while simultaneously wallowing in it. When you do it repeatedly (context), it gets all that much easier.

And it isn't just me seeing the coy relatedness. You can, of course, argue that you're not trying to do that at all, but...well, that's another discussion.

So how do you talk about these things in context? As I see it, you have three options:
  • State simply who you're talking about. "Yes, this is about him, although I think we can all take a lesson."
  • Point to the context by way of disclaimer. "I've been meaning to write about this. The timing is unfortunate, but this really is meant generally."
  • Wait for a different context.
And the immediate context for this discussion:
Let me know if I missed anything. There's less immediate context, too, but I think most of that is linked to further down.

One note, the last time Janet went context-free offering unsolicited advice to Greg, I responded in kind. It was fun, as a challenge, and I think I did it well. I'm tired of argument by elision, though, which is why this is here and in the form it is.

Own Your Bias
If The Daily Show has taught us nothing else, hopefully it has taught us that being professionally unbiased is nothing like the same thing as not having biases or even being able to successfully counteract those biases. We all have history online, friendly and unfriendly, with those around us. When you don't acknowledge that history, it makes it very easy for me to think you'd prefer that people not know about it. It makes it easy to believe that those biases are more important to your making the argument than the subject of the argument itself.

Again, you can always attempt to defend yourself....

And again, my advice for dealing with this is the same as the first two points under owning your context. Put your biases out there for people to look at and make up their own minds about. Talk about how you see them relating to your topic--or not.

I tend to think my biases in this situation are fairly well known, but I might be wrong, so here goes.
  • I like Isis. I read her blog regularly and have every intention of getting together with her for a drink when one of us finally makes it to the other's city. You're never going to hear about it, though. I also think her tendency to write passionately sometimes illuminates and sometimes obscures her message.
  • I like Samia's blog, though I'm always envious when she's just done something fun with her hair color (damned job). I have no idea whether we'd get on in person, but I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to find out at ScienceOnline.
  • I enjoyed meeting Zuska once I got over being shy and think her blog is a public service. We've certainly argued before, but I think it's always been about interpretation rather than anything fundamental. I was tickled and a bit awed to get a Facebook friend request from her.
  • I've never gotten into an argument with PalMD (nonoverlapping spheres), so there's nothing to balance the fangirl squee in that case. I'm going to stop talking before I look any sillier.
  • I think everyone knows that Greg and I are friends and co-conspirators, so I'm not sure what else to say about that. I like his wife and his daughter and his best friend and his sister, none of whom take prisoners. I've edited his work. See also what I said about Isis and writing passionately. The difference with Greg is that I'm much less diplomatic when I tell him he's not helping, but I do it mostly behind the scenes.
  • I always take a deep breath before getting into it with Janet. She's one of the few people with whom I've argued and never later found common cause. She's also the person who amused me by snubbing me at ScienceOnline (which I found out later was visible from across the room). It's pretty safe to say we're not fond of each other.
Does my dislike of Janet color what I have to say here? Judge for yourself. I'll add that the reasons I don't like Janet are mainly twofold. I think that for an ethicist, she asks too many questions in such a way that the answers she wants are implied. I also think she doesn't take responsibility for her own opinions. In other words, I think she tries to argue from an authority I'm not willing to grant her.

Own Your Evidence
Linking is not just an inherent good. It's also a way of tying yourself to your argument such that you are forced to examine it one more time. Beyond that, it allows your readers to decide whether you know what you're talking about. If you add quotes, it forces your readers to make those decisions. When you don't provide links and quotes, it makes it very easy for me to think you are misinterpreting the evidence willfully. It's very easy to think you haven't bothered to look at it, having already made up your mind what it says.

As always, the best way to defend yourself from these impressions is to do both in the first place. That allows people to decide whether this:

Your conveying that your audience ought to invest the time and effort to work out the most sympathetic possible interpretation of your words, but that you should not have to invest much time and effort in actually choosing those words to make your intended point clearly. If you dismiss your audience's claim to be hurt or offended by your words, you seem either to be claiming privileged access to that audience's hearts and minds, or to be saying that their hurt and offense doesn't really count.

matches this:

My comments about the Isis character (and the High School Girl bit) were probably over the top, for which I apologize, but clearly they were also not well stated and/or not well understood (and thus reacted to in a way that is probably over the top, but understandable) I'll just go ahead and take responsibility for the not well stated part.

They can decide whether this:

You might think those who took offense at what you said are just wrong to do so - because a good guy like yourself doesn't go around saying offensive things!

accurately describes this:

I do not expect Isis to NOT take offense at my comments. They were offered as critique and not everybody likes to hear critique.

They can decide whether this:

Indeed, in the unlikely event that we achieved perfect transmission and perfect reception in our attempts to communicate, we might still disagree about many of the things about which we were communicating.

is required as a response to this:

They were part of a larger critique that I've made pretty clear, and that some people seem to be getting and agreeing with, some getting and not agreeing with, and some not getting and not agreeing with. That is how things go on the internet.

Or this:

Communication is hard, but this is reason enough to share the labor involved. Intention and effect come apart even when we try our hardest to communicate clearly, but our attempts can become more successful if we pay attention to our past failures and treat as credible the reactions of the people with whom we were trying to communicate in our attempts.

as a response to this:

This is very good for me. Every time we go around like this (this is what, the third or fourth time over the last year and a half?) about how to be a good feminist or anti-racist, or about pseudonymity/anonymity, with part of the conversation coming from Teh Angreee (TM), I get more accustom to it. It makes it a little easier to see where people are coming from without the personal reaction.

In short, linking and quoting allow everyone to make up their own minds in full knowledge of the circumstances.

So that's it for the advice from me. I don't even really have anything to say in closing except: I hope you have fun putting together your carnival, Danielle. I'm looking forward to it.

Update: This post is not complete without this one.

48 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with all of your statements, but this is very well argued and documented. PhD students in History will, in a century from now, be writing their PhD theses on this post. Every decade or so it will be re-interpreted. Careers will be made and broken.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Janet is a fucking philosopher. Philosophers use the particular as a vehicle for the general. It's what they do.

As far as Greg, we go through this same cycle all the time. Greg says something that comes across as totally fucking stupid, and sometimes offensive. People say, "Hey, Greg! What's your fucking problem?" Greg complains that he's just being misunderstood and that he can't possibly have meant what people thought he meant, because he's an ally.

Personally, if it were me, and a number of different people with whom I consider myself allied were consistently misunderstanding me, I would give some thought to my mode and manner of communication.

I get that Greg likes to be what he perceives as snarky and witty and clever. Well, those are difficult things to do well. There is an old saw that says, "What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting a different result."

Stephanie Zvan said...

In addition to being a philosopher, Janet is also a blogger. Why should she be exempt from the responsibilities and scrutiny she wants to set up for others?

And would you, or anyone else, kindly link to the bit where Greg is complaining? The part where he expected any other result?

Comrade PhysioProf said...

You got me! I have assumed--without direct evidence--that Greg wants people to glean what he perceives as the intent of what he writes. It is possible that he is pleased with the cycle of "misunderstanding" I described.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I'll admit, CPP, he's probably not trying all that hard to get you to understand him.

An Owl said...

As a regular reader of Laden's blog, I have to say he is one of the most engaging writers I've seen. He is often a little obscure or indirect, but I am not really interested in writing done at a sixth grade level.

I have now read the focal piece of this discussion and I believe she's got it half wrong. Writers write, readers read. It takes two to tango.

JLK said...

I've tried to stay out of all this shit, but I can still completely appreciate your rules and your descriptions of what's been going on, Stephanie. Very well-written.

That said, I don't read Greg Laden because I've never found any of his comments on anyone else's blog interesting enough to warrant my checking him out. I also don't read Janet, because she seems like a mostly stand-alone blogger until people annoy her.

I love Isis and Zuska and you. The first I heard of Samia was when this shit went down, and quite frankly, I don't like her at ALL after journeying over to her blog. So because I wasn't involved with all of the bloggers in this clusterfuck, I just kept my trap shut.

I'm not really one for arguing in blogs unless there's a POINT to it. Arlenna, Ambivalent Academic and I have had a substantial argument, but it didn't include anything other than intellectual disagreement and discussion, however passionate it may have been. There is a blogger out there who has pissed me off beyond belief, but I'm just keeping it to myself and debating taking them off my blogroll. I didn't start blogging to fight with people. If someone misunderstands me, I'll clarify. I always assume that something is going to be lost between my keyboard and someone else's computer screen.

I think if everyone could keep that in mind, the blogosphere would be a much happier, more peaceful place in which to waste my time. :)

Tony Jeremiah said...

When you post something related to what is going on around you but don't acknowledge doing so--when in fact, you use language meant to apply to all--it's very easy for me to think you're doing something underhanded.

Relational aggression

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hey, JLK. Small world--I was just commenting at your blog. Starting to catch up, finally.

Greg and Samia certainly aren't for everyone (maybe all owls?), but who is? We're all acquired tastes. I'm sure I'd have much higher readership otherwise.

And between someone else's keyboard and my screen, as well.

Tony, thanks? I'm trying really hard not to fit myself into any of those roles now.

Anonymous said...

JLK: I also use people's inane comments on miscellaneous random blog posts to estimate the quality of their home blog. This is very efficient.

You should read Janet's blog, it is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I must be missing the difference - in the context of your recommended behaviours - between Janet's post, that you choose to take issue with and Greg's 'thinly veiled metaphor' which you do not.

Jacques said...

Obviously the thinly veiled metaphor is an ironic farce, yes?

Joan LaPlace said...

One knows what one likes and likes what one knows. Or shall we say who one likes or not???

Stephanie Zvan said...

Anonymous (not the one being annoying at JLK), the differences, such as they are, consist of the categories under which Greg's post is filed and the fact that Greg has been linking to all this on an ongoing basis. See also my next statement on irony.

Jacques, there is definitely some irony in this whole situation. I can't speak for anyone else, but the ironies I'm responsible for are intentional and part of the point.

Joan, one does, of course. The question is how often and on what subjects one wants to let that matter.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'll admit, CPP, he's probably not trying all that hard to get you to understand him.

My understanding of him doesn't mean jack diddly fucking shit. The relevant question is whether he gives a flying fuck about the fact that a number of people whose concerns he considers himself to be allied to are consistently doing what he perceives to be "misunderstanding" him.

The bottom line is that Greg's a relatively shitty writer, and this is why his attempts at sophisticated rhetorical devices are almost always TOTAL FAIL, thus leading to many people having no fucking clue what he's talking about.

When the subject of his writing is the latest dumbfuck Youtube video he has Googled up from who the fuck knows where, then it doesn't matter that no one has any fucking clue what he's talking about. When the subject of his writing is an issue of great personal and moral salience to many people, it matters a great deal.

The reason his series of posts on the Minnesota Senate election recount was so good was because he wrote within his limitations, and just analyzed and reported the shit straight the fuck up.

There is a "pianoman" who sings and plays at a local watering hole near me every Friday night. The dude is fucking awesome when he sings the basic old standards and simple rock and roll, and people stuff his tip jar with tens and twenties. Once in a while he decides to sing some fancy-ass operatic shit, and it's fucking horrible: his voice just can't handle it and everyone immediately rushes outside to smoke or into the bathroom to take a fucking piss. Fortunately, the dude's responsive enough to his surroundings to realize what's going on and keep that shit to a minimum.

Stephanie Zvan said...

CPP, you do keep trying to sell that narrative. Let's try this. You go tell Samia that it's her responsibility to communicate better because some people don't understand what she says. Let me know how that goes.

l.w. said...

It is a good thing that we have no censorship from a small number of people. Laden writes very well, is very clear and convincing. I think many people like his writing a lot. It is unfortunate for this fellow that he is unable to enjoy it. While all the opinions are more or less valid for some, such as Comrade's, are just mot as valid.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I don't claim that it is Greg's "responsibility" to communicate better. It is of course up to him to choose to continue to be "misunderstood". We are all certainly free, however, to editorialize on the communications of others, and to analyze the effects that they have.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Stephanie, her argument makes sense. We see conflict between Samia and Isis but where are the accusations from CP about Samia's inadequate writing? There seems to be an exclusive group that is made up of Isis, Physioprof, Janet, others. This group feels justified for some reason to simply dislike Laden and when they snipe at him, and can point to each other's opinoins as evidence of correctness for their argument. This is sometimes called mob behavior.

Call me anonymous three (or two). I so dislike blogger.

Anonymous said...

I don't claim that it is Greg's "responsibility" to communicate better. It is of course up to him to choose to continue to be "misunderstood". We are all certainly free, however, to editorialize on the communications of others, and to analyze the effects that they have.

Comrade: Have you even read the post you are commenting on? You have a very bad reading comprehension problem, I think.

Elena Ruggerio said...

Comrade PysioProf. your writing is held together by the constant use of profanity, to the point of absurdity. Isis' writing is propped up by this character who is a shoe-obsessed anti-feminist ditz, dressed as a goddess who speaks in the third person. On a good day the two of you are clowns. No, clowns are sometimes funny. This says nothing about what you say, just about how you choose to go about saying it. Sadly, the "what" is utterly lost in the conveyance. I think that your critique of another person's writing is a proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Except in this case the kettle is an exceptionally good writer and the pot is not in the same league.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Enough with the digs at people's writing! Or at least have the grace to look at my blogroll before indulging yourself.

CPP, when the same people understand him and the same people don't, and both groups have a fair amount of minority representation, it might be time to look past the idea that "the" problem is Greg's writing. And if you did not intend this sentence:

The relevant question is whether he gives a flying fuck about the fact that a number of people whose concerns he considers himself to be allied to are consistently doing what he perceives to be "misunderstanding" him.

to be stamped with a massive SHOULD (i.e., responsibility), you might want to look to your own clarity.

Becca said...

I must be dumb. Even though I've been following the developments from the beginning, I missed the "thinly veiled reference" of that last post from Greg. Despite your comment. Perhaps I need a sixth grade reading level.
Or perhaps I've inadvertently supported CPP's point. Darn, I hate it when that happens.

an aside to CPP- Oh, come now. It's not like Greggie is the only deranged nonsensical incomprehensible whackaloon around here!

There, now that I've gotten that out of the way, I don't have to feel so dirty.

Stephanie- I am amused by your take on Janet. I never took her to be very impartial, or presenting herself as such. If I thought she was going for that, she might come off as.... less than sincere. And that's from someone who likes much of what she has to say.

Eva said...

I read Janet's post and did recognize that there seemed to be something that triggered it, but I didn't know what it was. And didn't care either, to be honest. I couldn't be bothered to read the whole thread of affairs you posted here, but I do appreciate that it is somewhere to be found, because the feeling of being out of the loop is probably worse than being out of the loop itself.

This *is* probably very much coloured by who gets along with who, that's true. But even so, as someone who gets along very well with Janet I do agree with you that her post could have done with an acknowledgment to what set it off. I left a comment there as well with some more chatter in it about online discourse in general, of which I'll copy/paste the last paragraph below for double enjoyment! =P

Sigh. So, I have to give a talk in a couple of weeks about why blogging isn't catching on among scientists, and this is just one of these things. The whole tiny little village atmosphere of "they said this, and he said that, and she did this". It's mentally exhausting and time consuming and I wish it wasn't that way, but at the same time I know it's unavoidable. Throw a huge group of people together and you'll get all the things that come with human interaction - even if it's from behind a computer screen.

"the Dude" said...

snog: snarky blog

(may wonders never cease)

Liz b said...

Greg = teh rad!!!!!

Janet = ten bad.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, I'm fairly sure I know what Greg meant, but...Greg, want to clarify? (Okay, I'm cheating and sending him an email too, since he said he'd be staying out of this.)

Hey, Eva! Thanks for stopping by the blog. I just wish the occasion had been happier. I appreciate that sigh more than you can know.

Dude, snog means something totally different. Much more fun.

Liz, as much as I like Greg, I think you failed the irony test.

Greg Laden said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gregladen said...

Stephanie, please delete the previous comment because I want to rewrite it.

gregladen said...

Thank you very much. I'm going to bed now (essentially, first time in two days) ... back at you tomorrow.

I will say, Stephanie, that this is quite an amazing post you've written. Truly, an internet ethnographers wet dream as implied by the first commenter.

gregladen said...

I am being asked to look at and respond to Becca's comment. As Stephanie has noted, I am mostly staying out of this discussion.

Regarding the Wii post, I can't really address what Becca is asking here because I'm not absolutely sure what is meant in her question. Becca, have you not found or not read the "veiled metaphor" post or did you read it but feel you missed the point?

Here's a few guidelines to get a reader through some of the metaphors.

1) PZ and Chuck Norris are watching: It is easy to think you've got something so right that everyone else will agree with you when they see it. But you usually don't, and yes, they are observing. 

2) Teamwork references are not metaphors: Teamwork and loyalty are good.

3) To the maker of the rules go the spoils. Which sucks. Question authority or attempted authority. I've often felt that when I see someone coming at me with rules and descriptions of how things are
supposed to be, those rules and descriptions are at least in part self serving no matter how 'fair' or well thought out they may sound.

The above are run of the mill social interaction/human behavior lessons.

4) I think the coolest metaphor from Mario Kart Wii is the bumping. You may have to actually go play the game in duo with another human being to really appreciate this. Two people are each steering a virtual race car down a road, and they are pretty close to each other. One drifts into the other by accident, then steers away. But these Karts tend to oscillate back and forth, so that kart ends up bumping into the neighbor two, three, or four times in a row simply because it got close.


The thing is, that on screen, you will see Mario in one kart and Donkey Kong in the other kart waving their fists at each other, clearly intentionally steering into each other, an generally trying to drive each other off the road. But really, all the human drivers of the virtual race cars were doing was driving down the street and got a little close.

The person who sees the screen and interprets this as a certain sequence of events will likely get it wrong. They get it wrong because they don't know what they are seeing, or how to interpret it, because of a bias built into the system, but they don't even know about the bias.


I do have to say that I am a little disappointed with the assertion that most of the effort in making a communication happen is in the hands of the producer of the communication. I am very much in agreement with Janet about the importance of thinking about the audience when one writes. However, once the writer has written, the range of things that can happen is much less in the writer's control than one might imply from Janet's missive.

What is missing in the argument are the myriad characteristics of the reader or the context of the reading, such as ignorance, predisposition, willful misinterpretation, cultural or linguistic differences between writer and reader, contexts shifting with alternate viewpoints, time, space, and the common phenomenon of the reader being a third party sent to a piece of text with an idea of what it means handed off to them first ("here, my friend, go read this Bible passage and learn how you have just sinned...").

One has to consider, and is often free to ask about, the reason someone is writing something. The guidelines laid out by Janet seem to partly obviate the need to ask the reader a similar question or to wonder about or to recognize ambiguity or limitations in oneself, skipping right to judgment. Indeed, Janet, Isis and Physiprof, all of whom make valuable contributions to the discussion in so many important areas, and who are very different from each other in their on-line style, seem to have this one characteristic in common: They like to make or convey judgment as a central theme in the conversations they maintain. Janet's post is a friend of the court brief justifying this. Stephanie (in the OP) seems to be questioning the validity brief. I have not really questioned it; I simply reject it as inadequate and ill motivated. It is rule making (see thinly veiled metaphor) couched in an argument about communication that ignores a lot of what is known (see thinly veiled metaphor) about how people actually communicate. Again, as advice for writers it may be good, it is not a basis for valid judgment a priori or, as it is being used here, post hoc.

Becca, if you want, please feel free to expand/clarify on your
question.

Anonymous said...

Individuals making rules for discourse seems unavoidable. Janet is making rules. Stephanie is making rules in the OP. Your comment above, Greg, is making rules. "There are no rules" is a rule.

How about actually communicating, instead of quibbling over who is doing it your way? A conversation doesn't need a winner.

But I guess that's just another rule.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Bless you, Anonymous #whatever-you-are. You win the internet.

gregladen said...

Rule 1: There are no rules.

Rule 2: See rule one.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Any discussion should continue here.

Samia said...

Jeez. I feel like shit after reading these comments.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I am sorry about that, Samia.

Barn Owl said...

From the unsolicited advice post:

I don't know what's in your heart. I don't know what's in your mind. I don't have direct access to either of those (because I'm a distinct person from you)

My first response is "Well, DUH"; we aren't toddlers, and should be beyond the sort of magical thinking that allows one to believe in one's omniscience.

So why, then, are apparent claims or assumptions of omniscience and mind-reading ("Blogger A believes that ....", "Commenter B has no experience with ...", "Dissenting Voice C can't possibly understand this ..." "Concern Troll D is an uneducated moron", etc.) so common in teh blogospherz?

If you (in the generic sense) don't know what's in my heart or in my mind (and you don't), stop pretending that you do.

Anonymous said...

I read Greg's blog from time to time and find it a bit obscure. I read Isis's post where she felt insulted with only vague interest -(at least the picture of being an annoying girl at high school was one I could understand) and found Janet's blog on the topic of communication somewhat interesting. What has evolved in other spheres since just seems very self obsessed. On an evolutionary scale, it counts in my book as unicellular organism stuff. I'd like to move on.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Barn Owl, do you know, that particular viewpoint never even occurred to me? Thanks.

Anonymous, you have my permission.

Anonymous said...

LOL Stephanie! Thanks for the permission.

PZ said...

PZ and Chuck Norris are watching: It is easy to think you've got something so right that everyone else will agree with you when they see it. But you usually don't, and yes, they are observing.

You have just associated me with a notorious moron on the internet! I am offended!

Besides, I'm not watching, anyway.

Stephanie Zvan said...

But, PZ, if you're not watching, how did you...ooh, you're good.

Greg said...

PZ, it's not me, it's Nintendo.

Becca said...

Last anonymous- I am very offended by your comment! The nerve of liking this whole brew-ha-ha to unicellular organism stuff. I'll have you know unicellular organisms were around before you were ever complaining on teh internet, and in fact the vast majority of the history of life on earth is the history of unicellular organisms. They are fascinating and diverse critters, and they probably have more biochemical genetic diversity in a handful of sand than you will ever perform in your life! So there!
Neener neener, haha!
/absurd microbiologist gut-reflex defensive posturing

Isis the Scientist said...

Vivir con mierda, es como vivir la mediadora.

gregladen said...

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a microbe.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Isis, it can certainly feel as though I'm pulling some of that down, even from people I respect and admire, but all in all, I think the task is that important.