Farewell to All That
When she posted her befuddling queries — culminating in “Do you think it’s possible that there are uninformed opinions out there that may shed light on an image in a way that an informed opinion cannot?” — Natalie Arriola, the participant who commandeered the forum thread devoted to the text of my November lecture “Dinosaur Bones: The End (and Ends) of Photo Criticism” and castigated me as “an aging elitist,” was utilizing a tactic commonly known as “threadjacking,” defined thus by the Urban Dictionary:
Taking over a thread on a message board by taking a part of the original posted topic, twisting it around and “hijacking” the thread itself. What happens is that the original content contained in the post becomes moot and whatever the “Thread Jacker” has manipulated the content to be becomes the new content, thereby “hijacking” the original intent of the post. People now respond to the “thread jacker’s” input and that becomes the focus of the thread.
At which juncture, having banged my head repeatedly against the proverbial brick wall, seeing the futility of contributing further to this now hopelessly tangled thread, and with no one coming to my rescue or that of the thread, I decided to bow out with a short adieu to the forum, surrendering the field to this doughty pirate. “So I bid farewell and take my condescending aging elitist self down the line. As we old codgers say, it’s been virtual,” I wrote in signing off. (It felt so good when I stopped.)
My threadjacker had the last word, natch, in a subsequent comment there, offered to another of the forum’s 3000-plus members who lingered in the thread after my departure in order to encourage her to continue her postings (go ask): “I’m afraid I’m not interested in making this my singular battle. My only intent was to join the discussion. I was urged by another member here to stop replying to Coleman because he’s not worth it and I think this person is right. I also don’t think I coped out [sic]. I just don’t so desperately have to believe that I am right about everything as Coleman clearly does.”
Amazing. She wasn’t somehow maneuvered or pressured reluctantly into “replying to Coleman”; she initiated this exchange with me, interrupted a cordial and collegial (if largely insubstantial) exchange among a number of more informed parties, jacked the thread, issued a string of the most bizarre pronouncements, adamantly maintained insupportable claims, sidestepped every polite invitation to provide evidence validating her extremist positions, flamed me — and neither the moderator (who’d urged me to participate in the first place) nor any of the forum participants took her to task for any of that, or took her aside to correct her behavior, or responded at any length to even her most indefensible assertions. That’s the truly amazing part.
In any case, having gone down to the forumization to get my fair share of abuse, I ended my connection to this madcap crew. No good deed shall go unpunished. Apparently they were as happy to see me go as I was to leave. “There is a God…..,” another participant added to this thread in celebration when I announced my departure. And another, responding to a question about whether I’d really left, opined, “He’s letting all the lip bruises on his butt cheeks heal.” (And they find my “online manner abrasive.” My bad, apparently.)
Meanwhile, the last emailed forum comments I received before signing out revealed that they’re now scratching their heads trying to figure out why, in this online forum and others nominally devoted to photography, there’s “a marked lack of input from critics, curators from major institutions, high profile international photographers, people who study whole genres of photography and the top end collectors, gallery owners, auction houses and many of the dealers.” Golly gosharoo, I have absolutely no idea; they surely do know how to roll out the welcome wagon, and what movers and shakers in photography wouldn’t flock to hang with this delightful gaggle?
Thus I had my two postulates in re online forums reconfirmed: (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. To which I’ll add, based on their own lament (c) forums rarely attract and even more rarely hold the involvement of influential figures in the field, who generally have more important things to do. Hence one of my New Year’s resolutions: If and when asked to participate in online forums, just say no.
Thoughts of “An Aging Elitist”
It wasn’t an outcome I anticipated or hoped for, or intentionally provoked. But these encounters with the culture of a sampling of online photography forums provided abundant examples substantiating many of the observations I made in “Dinosaur Bones” concerning the characteristics and content of online discourse about photography. You can read this series of posts as an extended sidebar on or addendum to that lecture.
Here you have the ground-level mentality of a significant sector of the Web 2.0 cohort, in a nutshell. The people who used to read me in the Village Voice, the New York Times, the New York Observer could — and I’m sure often did — disagree with my ideas, sometimes vehemently, even if they mostly didn’t have the stones to come forward and make their own positions public. But I can’t imagine any of them — whether in a letter to the editor, in a column of their own in some periodical, or at a public debate — asking what makes the opinion of a person who’s knowledgeable about a given subject more valid than that of someone who doesn’t know shit from Shinola about it. Nor can I imagine them, or any of my editors, legitimating someone who’d established no credentials or credibility to diss me and dismiss me in the context of a dialogue among (mostly) professionals in the field. Yet the other participants in the forum I’m describing found that perfectly acceptable; some even applauded it.
Writing to a readership that endorses such a posture is vastly different from writing to thoughtful, intelligent readers who maintain a judicious skepticism about my commentary until and unless I prove to them that I do know what I’m talking about, and that my opinions and arguments do make sense. I’m not sure I know how to address such a readership; furthermore, I’m not sure I care to learn, or even to try.
My Secret Forum Formula
Let me be clear about this: I don’t think vapidity, blather, sloppy thinking, semi-literacy, bad manners, or political in-fighting necessarily infect any and every forum conducted on the internet. There may well be other forums out there without any of those problems. I can certainly envision such a forum, which I believe would have to abide by some strict guidelines:
• Prospective participants would get invited to join by the moderator, selected for their professional pertinence to the forum topics, their articulacy (as manifested in previous publications), and their willingness to engage actively in such a collegial context. No “Y’all come,” no bullshit egalitarianism masquerading as “inclusivity.”
• The number of participants chosen would be restricted to something manageable — 15 for starters, certainly no more than 50.
• The question of whether or not the eventual results would get published or remain private — and, if published, what editorial privileges the participants would have — would get decided in advance by the group.
• The moderator would define the main topic and the sub-topics (accepting input from the chosen participants), converting those agreed upon into forum threads. No “throwing spaghetti against the wall” to see what sticks, as one participant in the above-described forum praisefully said of its moderator.
• The forum would in fact be threaded and indexed, to enable easy location of its content. (The forum discussed above lacked clear threading and indexing, this apparently inherent in the structure of its host space.)
• Participants would be kept strictly on-topic by the moderator, who would decide if some sidebar merited the opening of an additional thread.
• While participants would be encouraged to speak forthrightly, rudeness by any toward any other member would get dealt with ruthlessly by the moderator. (Hint to moderators: While such a forum is not a formal organization, familiarity with Robert’s Rules of Order will help you steer the ship.)
Now that’s a structure that might tempt me to break my New Year’s resolution — I don’t do fora! —and participate in, or even moderate, an online forum. Otherwise, I’m outta there.
Postscript: This forum’s moderator (he’s actually little more than a glorified usher, taking your ticket, showing you to your seat, and cautioning you not to spill your soft drink on the floor) subsequently emailed me an apology, and the text of his reproof to the forum list, which read, in full:
“I’ve been on holiday this week, so not moderating as closely as I would usually be able to. But it’s crucial that the [forum] always remain respectful and thoughtful for it to remain valuable to our membership. Those who aren’t interested in towing [sic] that line can contribute to other . . . groups with a looser code of community conduct. Please, let’s each of [sic] work together to be one of the premier places . . . to ask and answer questions about photography.”
In short, no penalties for threadjacking or flaming would get imposed. Quelle surprise.