Fora and Fauna
This past December I participated in a total of four forums (latinate plural: fora). Not exactly against my better judgment, but also not eagerly. I’m not speaking here of the manufacturer-sponsored help forums or usergroup spaces devoted to various hardware and software products (Apple, FileMaker Pro), nor the members-only forums of professional organizations (the National Writers Union, the American Society of Journalists & Authors), to a number of which I belong and sometimes contribute. I’m referring to the basic message board-style social space for commentary, serving a virtual community sharing only a single interest — in my case, photography, broadly defined.
I’ve browsed such forums — to use the more common English plural — ever since I first went online. I’ve occasionally stepped in for a quick clarification or correction when some aspect of my own work became the subject. But the last time I’d actually gotten involved with one was a History of Photography Group listserv with which I engaged for roughly a year, from mid-1999 to May 2000. This was, mind you, a moderated forum populated by professionals in the fields of photo history and photo education; I had to submit my resumé for approval before receiving my password.
That forum’s cluster of participants, somewhere around 500 as I recall, included, among other types, several cliques who used the situation to carry on appalling flame wars with each other, plus one belligerent loony who misremembered things I’d said at public lectures or written and published, then put quote marks around his bollixed idiosyncratic versions, transmitted them as mine to the members, and devoted lengthy rants to them. (He did this to others too, an equal-opportunity bully.) The same loose cannon felt free to excerpt comments from the forum, with attribution, and circulate the edited results outside the forum with his commentary thereon appended, a definite breach of ‘netiquette. The lesson I learned from that: Forums inevitably descend to the level of the lowest common denominator of their participants.
When I finally signed myself out of that rubber Ramada, my calculations showed that I’d contributed about 25,000 words of commentary to various threads. That’s somewhere between 10-20 essays’ worth of prose. As I wrote in my letter of farewell, “In my opinion, that’s a waste of my efforts. This list isn’t worth it; it’s a playground for neurotics with time on their hands.” Moreover, membership in the list resulted in something like 50 emails a day in my inbox — few of them substantive — that required at least the time to skim and dump them. The lesson I learned from that: Forums can suck up energies more fruitfully expended elsewhere, easily turning into rabbit holes down which you disappear.
Down the Rabbit Hole (Again)
I’ve no idea what became of that listserv; I never logged in again, and I don’t find it online presently under that name.* Once bitten, twice shy; so, as I said earlier, I simply observed online forums from then on, which experience did not entice me into actually joining any of them. Late this fall, more than a decade later, I got persuaded to take part in no less than four — two of them because they promised extended, substantive discussion of the text of my November 2011 London lecture, “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism,” the other two out of collegial courtesy. Three of these were small-group situations, fewer than a dozen voices in each; the fourth was massive, more than 3000 registered members. I considered participation in them a sort of holiday-season fling. (No need to identify them; I don’t want to rain on the parades of those who’ve moderated and/or posted there, some percentage of them professionals in one or another area of the field of photography.)
However, I do want to note that, a decade-plus later, the lessons of 1999-2000 got confirmed: (a) forums inevitably descend to the level of the lowest common denominator of their participants, and (b) forums can suck up energies more fruitfully expended elsewhere, easily turning into rabbit holes down which you disappear. I got out of these fairly quickly; three of them restricted themselves to a concurrent 2-week schedule, and I stayed in the fourth for only five days. Yet in those three weeks I posted roughly 10,000 words of response to the comments of others, half a dozen blog posts’ worth of writing. Bits and pieces of it I will find ways to repurpose, as in this post and its follow-up. The rest of what I contributed perhaps proved useful for the other participants in those forums, but didn’t do much for me except exercise the writing muscles, which get a dependable daily workout regardless of circumstances.
Everything in Moderation
My main disappointment with the process (also true in my earlier forum experience) was that I didn’t learn anything from those with whom I exchanged comments in those spaces. To be sure, this time around I got “feedback” of sorts on my talk, but nothing I’d consider trenchant, provocative, or to the point, no one carrying any of the ideas forward or challenging them in a substantive, knowledgeable way. In the two forums on other subjects, what I read I’d qualify mostly as airy blather of the variety that (at best) tired faculty members and their grad students exchange over beer and wings at the pub on a late Friday afternoon — vague generalization that was definitely not ready for prime time and that, fortunately for those who dutifully cranked it out, would remain off the record.
I consider moderated forums off the record in any case, in the sense that only registered members have access to their content; even as a participant I wouldn’t feel entitled to quote therefrom with attribution to the participant quoted without written permission. And, without trivializing these recent exchanges, I should point out that I don’t lack opportunities for off-the-record dialogue with my peers and colleagues. I maintain a substantial private correspondence with an assortment of my cohorts, I travel widely to conferences and festivals and other events, I attend such events here in the NY area, and I’m in regular contact with people in the field in situations where we share our thoughts among ourselves. I can certainly see the value of such forums for more isolated or reclusive professionals, but as a genre of collegial interchange contexts they don’t fill any void in my life.
The other lesson — that forums inevitably descend to the level of the lowest common denominator of their participants — got reinforced in various ways. Though all of these forums were moderated, nominally, the problem with them, as with most forums, is that not much actual “moderation” really goes on. What one forum’s participant described to me as that moderator’s skill at “throwing spaghetti on the wall” to see what sticks doesn’t qualify as moderation, whether of a forum or a panel discussion. At least not in my book. This sets the bar for continuity, relevance of content, and other quality-control issues extremely low to start with.
Furthermore, notwithstanding the fact that one had to ask someone’s permission to participate, applicants for admission to any of these four forums did not get reviewed in any way, so far as I could tell — neither for basic literacy nor for professional qualifications. Few nowadays want to risk appearing “exclusive” or “elitist” or “undemocratic.” Everyone’s for “inclusivity.” Since there’s no actual evaluation of prospective participants, each of these forums got the inevitable person — or two, or three, or more — several notches below the rest in familiarity with common reference points and maturity (and, not infrequently, literacy and reading comprehension). Lacking any compensating modesty, these members in good standing basically stopped the show in each forum by posting something excruciatingly naïve, profoundly dumb, syntactically garbled, or some combination thereof. By tacit agreement, then, those individuals got to hijack the discussions, with no one — including the moderators — having the courage to intervene.
[* Note: Stephen Perloff, editor of The Photo Review and The Photograph Collector (and author of some Guest Posts here) informs me that the PhotoHistory listserv to which I refer above still exists — email@example.com — and "has been unflamed for years." Caveat emptor.]