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Forumization and Its Malcontent (4)

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

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.

brick wallAt 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.”

"A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum," movie poster, 1966

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”

Shinola  shoe polish canIt 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.

Village Voice logoWriting 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.

Robert's Rules of Order official website logo

Robert's Rules of Order official website logo

• 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.

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12 comments to Forumization and Its Malcontent (4)

  • Bruno Chalifour


    This is much ado about not much. In other words no point keeping on flogging a dead horse.

    Such an assertion as: “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?” clearly points to one direction: criticism and the evaluation of art is generally not taken very seriously along with such moronic because empty and bottomless phrases as “it is all in the beholder’s eye.”

    Serious activities medicine, dentistry, brain surgery, taxes, sports, law, require specialists. They are taken seriously, the beholder does not compete, and the protagonists are financially rewarded according to their elite (the result of years of studies and then practice) status. In case you would not agree with this, which I doubt, look at our social/financial reward to acknowledge where we stand in the scale our society/culture has defined for itself. At this hourly rate, anything will do and everybody is a critic (as well as an artist by the way as there is also extraordinarily cheap art, and some self-proclaimed artists (I know a few) are even cheaper than the cheapest of critics).

    The egg or the hen? Without sophisticated, trained, intelligent and educated critics, we get what I have labeled crap-art!

    [A great society gets the art it deserves they say… on some smart and appreciated as such TV channel. Well, look at us in our Princely, Koonsian age! Value your elite critic and your culture will be rewarded. They will make you a better audience and maybe engender a generation of better artists. The chicken or the egg?]

    • This is in fact the final installment of this saga. I’ve taken it this far because I think the quality of discourse in subject-specific forums — and, for our purposes, photo-specific forums — merits scrutiny. Such online spaces, which had no real equivalent in the pre-web era, will in many cases serve as the first experience people will have of a dialogue about photography. So there’s a sociology of knowledge manifest there in microcosm, as well as a transmitted and reinforced set of behavior patterns.

      The ideas and attitudes about the medium that dominate such spaces, the information (and dis- and misinformation) they promulgate, and the accepted rules of conduct governing participation therein, will likely have had more of a shaping effect on any student walking into my classroom or surfing to my blog today than the writings of Sontag or Barthes or Derrida (or myself). So it behooves us to pay attention to this proto-Wiki phenomenon.

  • Walter Dufresne

    Let me plant my tongue in my cheek and point out the hopeless, contemptible elitism of Ms. Arriola’s question. If she wasn’t so, so, so *human*-centric, she wouldn’t ignore our fellow primates and their potential contributions. Surely a billion monkeys typing for a billion years will create a deathless text or two.

  • Lili Corbus

    How dreadful for you!

    If you ever start an elitist forum for civilized old geezers that respects knowledge, expertise, and experience (with any rude behavior resulting in virtual execution), count me in, please.


    • Because I went into this with forewarning, and low expectations, I came out of it just amused, and bemused, by the speed at which the thread devolved.

      I undertook it as a sociological experiment. What the results tell us about the attitudes and behaviors that teachers of photography might expect from incoming students, and writers on photography might expect from the current generation of readers, merits consideration.

  • I recall discussing with fellow teachers years ago the question- ” What would be the first image you would show a student that was new to the medium and explain that this is a “good” photograph. Which image would you chose and why? The web allows access to some wonderful work but that is far out numbered by the mediocre available. Such is the case with intelligent, thoughtful and experienced critique. You have always fought the good fight with respect Allan – cudos to you always.

  • Martin Magid

    I don’t know what forum you were referring to on your “Forumization” series, but I’m glad I wasn’t there. It reminded me so much of what is going on in so many cultural, social and political aspects of our country: The know-nothings, exemplified by the Tea Party folks, are attempting to capture every aspect of life, shouting and shutting off all dissent, or, in your case, informed opinion on photography. I can’t blame you for getting frustrated by the lack of support from the moderator, but I wish you had stayed. Strength is needed to fight them.

    The charge of “old elitist” must sting, but as told my daughter-in-law who said some equipment in her business was “old,” at 78 I reminded her “What’s wrong with old?!” You got where you are as a critic by racking up the years gaining wisdom and learning to recognize truth from flash.

    Keep up the fight, and your wisdom will be recognized more widely, perhaps passing into those who think they know something, but will know more after encounters with such as you.

    Martin Magid

    • The specifics of this forum don’t really matter, in my opinion, one reason I’ve refrained from identifying it. From my observations, all general-admission forums degenerate similarly. As the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us, you can’t reverse entropy, the tendency of things to revert to chaos — except in localized situations, for limited periods of time.

  • David Freund

    Hi, Allan,

    Read your Jan. 12 “Forumization” reflections with bemused commiseration — over the years, have many times experienced variations on such proud fanfares for the common man, and like you have similarly been frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement, much less acceptance, of my (certainly) clear and reasoned response!

    One problem in such encounters is the need for evident criteria — no one has a problem with an elite horse, brain surgeon or tennis player — a 120 mph serve is more difficult to create and easier to evaluate than an opinion. In the eye of an unpracticed beholder it is harder to see that all opinions are emphatically not equal. Although each may suffice for the one expressing it, he or she may not notice that the ball just went by. Another issue is power relationship — not all teachers are clear and/or kind, and classroom resentment, smoldering over years, appreciates a retaliatory opportunity. Lurking behind these is a tendency to undervalue the virtue of patience to follow argument.

    I’m sure you recall (I can’t) a yesterday poet with a regular NPR segment who feared that we might be living in the time of the greatest poet of the English language, but that no one would know it. Speaking of poets, apropos, you might enjoy William Matthew’s poem in memory of W. H. Auden: I love the last line, “… and the sure hand is cruel”.

    One thing I have always appreciated about your positions is your careful and persuasive attention to supporting them. Btw, I had an experience similar to yours at an SPE meeting, and a year later received a generous hallway apology (acknowledgement?) — what I appreciated was that she had been pondering my response for longer than I recalled the incident. Sometimes it works out.

    Dave Freund

    • I’m not inclined to play amateur psychoanalyst, but I do understand your comment about the lingering effects of authoritarianism, especially on the young. The victim of such domineering often confuses authoritarian with authoritative thereafter, as someone else wrote to me recently, with the result that a belated rebellion spills over into a quite different situation.

      Your anecdote about your own experience with one such attacker heartens me as evidence that sometimes such a person learns from the experience, and grows from it. Yet I can’t help noticing that he or she apparently attacked you publicly and later apologized privately. I’ve had such experiences myself, and to my way of thinking that displays a lesson only half-learned.

  • Colleen Thornton

    In the recent past, public debate/discussion required accountability on a personal basis. (Can’t forget William F. Buckley getting his comeuppance on live TV face-to-face with the black man who was arrested for just walking on the street in Beverly Hills!).

    The internet has dropped a cloak of invisibility on the whole endeavor of intellectual discourse, allowing the “users” to engage in childish and often abusive communications without restriction or direct consequence. Thinking, studying and writing is hard work. Social networking is not. Diverting what was once substantive communication into various reductive online media elevates unbridled emotionalism into a new form of populist pseudo-communication; a lame pretense of intellectualism detached from accountability, civility or forensic validity.

    Now, just because you say it, it gets to be true….at least for the brief moment while the “user” savors the rush of self-expression. Kind of like eating a jelly doughnut. Indeed, Allan, serious adults (of any age) have better things to do. But one point I’d like to make is that an uninformed viewer is capable of responding to an image with useful and moving insights…but that is as much (if not more) the result of the ARTIST’S work; his or her energy, ideas, and craft reaching out to the viewer and inciting a visceral, intended and even predictable, response.

    • I’ve never denied that an uninformed viewer might have appreciation of and insight into a photograph, or any other work of art. But that wasn’t the question posed, which asked, more precisely, “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?”

      As I replied, anything’s possible. But I can’t think of an instance in which an “uninformed opinion . . . shed light on an image in a way that an informed opinion [could not].” Since the questioner steadfastly refused to supply a single example, and rejected my offer of help in putting her hypothesis to the test, this remains in the realm of conjecture.

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