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Forumization and Its Malcontent (1)

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.

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.

Movie poster, "Roman Holiday," 1953.

Movie poster, "Roman Holiday," 1953.

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)

A. D. Coleman, Hotshoe lecture poster 2011

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

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at the Roman Forum in William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday."

Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at the Roman Forum in William Wyler's 1953 film "Roman Holiday."

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 Forum in Rome, as imagined in an artist's rendering.

The Forum in Rome, as imagined in an artist's rendering.

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.

(To be continued.)

[* 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 — photohistory@yahoogroups.com — and "has been unflamed for years." Caveat emptor.]

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10 comments to Forumization and Its Malcontent (1)

  • Bruno Chalifour

    The solitude engendered by the confrontation with our keyboards and monitors, added to the distances made obvious between participants on a global scale have created fora ;o) ! [As in "foraging for some sense of humanity through virtual communication" I guess].
    With each forum comes two questions:
    - public or private?
    [public being more democratic, open, sharing, …but also PC (like in your own vocabulary, AD, this is not a positive connotation in mine), and subject to a lowering common denominator. More meant for “éducation populaire” than enlightening revelations and sustained theses.
    - moderated or not.
    Not moderated ends up almost like a public forum where some strong and sometimes obnoxious if not controlling voices take over. “Il est pas frais mon poisson??!!” (“Astérix”). As you point out it rapidly becomes a waste of time for most members who see their email boxes being filled with other people’s not very well thought-off garbage.
    Moderated–”Aye, there’s the rub” (as my neighbor Bill used to lament). By whom? With what competences, preferences/biases? With what frequency? It is a full-time ethical job; much the same as the one of a good editor. Who wants to volunteer? What’s the job description exactly? For what reward?
    Conclusion: rather than howl with the wolf… which I have just indulged in,
    -what about proposing a constructive dialogue on moderation?
    -what about proposing a different form of a forum for photo critics and historians where every new participation should be a presentation / paper on a topic relevant to the group followed by Q & A. In other word why not a dialogue based on content, specific content, where most would learn and the presentation would be rewarded by feed-back.
    At the end of each year, participations could be easily compiled as a pdf document distributed to members.
    It would probably have to be a peer group. Could be sponsored and nurtured by such organizations as SPE, or CAA, or Cybercafé, or…

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Bruno. At the end of this series — four posts total over the next two weeks — I’ll sketch what I see as a workable structure for a forum from which something substantial and durable might emerge.

  • Not surprisingly, Allan. News of this post has made it back to at least one of the forums referred to here. And I look forward to your continued thoughts.

    I responded there because there is a little bit of wagon circling and last minute zingers in response to this piece. I think your points are well written – no surprise – but paraphrasing my response over there, my first thought – based on this half a column – is that to expect a forum to be anything other than hodge podge is to be disappointed. That is why most people in such a forum only look at/open a very small percent of the forum on any visit. Because we have to wade through so much non-essential matter there needs to be an intellectual governor that keeps the rabbit hole at bay.

    There are frivolous pissing matches in any group but what I like about such hubs is there is the harnessing of a lot of information, enough that it is worth it to sift a little. The quality of writing not being trenchant or to the level of professional writing is no surprise really. Most writing there is jotted down with one hand on the door and off to work we go. The business of writing thoughtfully isn’t practiced very often but to bemoan the lack of intellectual depth in a photo forum is akin to criticizing mall shoppers for having imperfect pitch.

    I love quality writing but a forum is not where I go to find it. I visit a large group to ask the question that plagues me at the moment… best resource for matte board….or quality galleries in Vancouver?…or who out there is working with photograms and ferrets? Etc.

    there is a wisdom in the masses separate and apart from the wisdom of age and experience and thoughtful practice. And as far any of us being powerless to moderate… Like you most of us have better things to do. So, my two cents on the initially somewhat high expectation for the discourse in such a collection of disparately qualified individuals. Peace and best of luck (and work) in the new year.

    • As I indicate in this first piece, and reconfirm in the next one, I didn’t just wander in to these fora off the street, bringing with me unrealistic expectations re quality and content. I entered by direct invitation of their sponsors and/or moderators, with the promise, explicit and/or implicit, that it would be worth my while to participate and that my interaction would be welcomed by the other participants. In two of them, my “Dinosaur Bones” position paper was the specific subject under discussion; presumably it would serve those readers to have a chance to discuss that talk with its author. One of those two situations was the thread that got jacked in the forum to which you refer. A link to my text had been posted there by a photographer and writer for whom I have great respect, and it seemed only courteous of me to make myself available to him and other colleagues at that level. Clearly, according to you, I misjudged the situation, should have known better, and should have turned down the invitation, professional courtesy be damned.

  • Additionally, I would love to be an outsider lurking on a forum reserved only for those specializing in photo criticism. Bruno’s idea has merit. Every contribution being a reasoned and polished take on the medium. That would be very interesting. I will be trying to make my bones with a piece on the New Photography show at MOMA. I have been spoiling to write that one since seeing the show last month… I need a little spare time unfortunately. Alas…

  • Gordon Stettinius

    No. I didn’t suggest that you should have turned down an invitation from a photographer whom you respect. Absolutely not. Wether you accept that or not is your business. Though invitations can be turned down on occasion for legitimate reasons – quality of discourse seeming to me to be legitimate enough for a polite regret. And I am not particularly holier – or savvier – than thou. And I agree with the notion that the discussion of the “Dinosaur Bones” should have been more beneficial to a larger group. Especially given the presence of the author. That was disappointing to me. My only point was that it wasn’t a surprise. No other layered suggestion was intended. Professional courtesy is to be commended.

    • Just to clarify: I was invited into that forum not by the photographer who posted the link, but by the forum moderator. I should add that neither the photographer who posted the link nor the forum moderator said a word as the thread subsequently got jacked and I got flamed.

  • Donna-Lee Phillips

    AD –

    You have described most of the online discussions or fora. There are a lot of people with too much time on their hands, too little of any substance to say/write, and egos which seem to need feeding off the stuff that they usually haven’t read, seen, or understood. The level of literacy, to say nothing of actual intelligence, is appalling. Unfortunately, at least for someone like me who cannot get out much of anywhere, being sucked down the rabbit hole is a hazard. In online groups not calling themselves fora/forums, some of the participants, show up for the sole purpose of tooting their little horns or polishing their ignorant rants. When I find myself responding, I try to stop and think about what else I could be doing with that time, preferably before I waste it. When I come across a troll in a thread by a friend or a site which is genuinely about something I want to know, I just block them. They have no idea I can no longer read their dribble, and I am spared having my buttons pushed.

    In any case, you have done a fine dissection of this form of “The Energy Sucking Rabbit Hole”. Why these things inevitably sink to the lowest common denominator is perhaps because anyone who has something to say and is qualified to say it gives up and goes away. Some courageous FB friends do “86″ an offender, others just cease the discussion and the chaff finds another group to disrupt.

  • Brian Miller

    Mr. Coleman, I do understand your essay about Internet forums. Since I have been on forums since they were known as “bulletin boards” and USENET, I am surprised that you find arguing with lunatics in an asylum to be a waste of time.

    It’s supposed to be entertainment.

    I have been reading your essay, “Dinosaur Bones: the End of Photo Criticism,” and to me it is evident that you, a creator of “ratiocinative prose,” did not read much of the forum before entering it. That’s just basic research. As the Aesop’s fable suggests, look into the well before leaping into it. Yes, you need to peer through the windows of the asylum before reserving a room. It’s not the abyss, and the abyss has better things to do than post on the Internet.

    • I did in fact browse that forum before adding any comments. And yes, I found most of it dumb and dumber. But I also looked over the thread that had developed around my “Dinosaur Bones” essay, and the responses thereto, though not trenchant or thought-provoking, seemed to come consistently from people communicating seriously with each other about it. They had some questions about the piece I thought it appropriate to answer. Which is what led me to take part, eternal optimist that I am.

      My naïveté, to which I do confess, lay in my failure to realize that no insulation protected this thread from the surrounding junk and to anticipate a seepage that I now see as likely if not inevitable. I won’t make that mistake again.

      It has had some entertainment value, which I hope comes through in my posts.

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