When I first came to this coast from the east I landed in Berkeley, a wide-eyed hippie kid. In the 1980s I transitioned through the Oakland artist scene along the estuary corridor before I ended up on the shores of Alameda in 1991, married with children. Back then, letters to the editor in Alameda papers regularly lamented things like our being represented by Barbara Lee because she was an acolyte of avowed anti-militarist Ron Dellums, and Alameda after all was a good Navy town. Those letters never stated skin color being part of the objection, but I never doubted it. Suffice it to say I felt like the “other” in a town where my politics were well to the left of the average citizen.
In 1991 I didn’t know many folks in town, nor the political landscape, and I had never been part of a community of adults doing things like raising families and paying mortgages. I waded into public debate with abandon. If there was some racist old fart writing to the paper I was going to rip him a new one, consequences be damned. I felt an outsider anyway, so what was to loose, insinuating myself into an old boy network where I would never really be accepted? Who needed that?! Instead I became somewhat infamous. Over the years it’s not been uncommon for people to respond on hearing my name with, “Oh, you’re that guy.”, the look on their faces ranging from bemused to startled.
Fast-forward to 2009. The issues of today seem more pressing, and the stakes higher. Despite the economic decline of print media, the debates on various issues rage on in letters and editorials, but we have added the blogosphere to the mix.
When I first stumbled on the fledgling Blogging Bayport, hosted by Lauren Do, I knew that wading into blogging could easily spell my doom, if I were not prudent, which often I am not. I had spent years bringing my voice in print venues from an angry radical to a more conciliatory tone, without forsaking the iconoclast of course. I went from being a wild man to being relatively civilized. Having participated in the process of public meetings, having children in public schools, sports and other activities, I had also begun to meet people and build relationships in the flesh. There was more to this community than an old boy network, which didn’t seem so impenetrable after all.
Initially a community of bloggers can be deceptively intimate which could allow one to believe that the only people reading comments are also responding. In the early going at Blogging Bayport this was probably close to the fact. Since then, an invisible metamorphosis has occurred and the vast majority of silent readers at Blogging Bayport, the “lurkers”, have surely turned those who comment into a near fringe minority. The comments made by some of us can genuinely be on the fringe, and those which are protected by anonymity are often more so.
Speaking anonymously, people may feel free to speak candidly and make constructive comments, or offer valuable information, which they might otherwise feel constrained from doing. The whistle blower is an example, which illustrates the value of people being able to speak more freely under protection of anonymity. The other end of the spectrum is what bloggers refer to as the “troll”. A troll’s main objective may be to dredge up controversy or provoke people with extreme statements, taunts or attacks, often for their own amusement as much as to advance any meaningful point of view. If one gets off on being a prankster, trolling can become a real bad habit. Latent exhibitionism and all manner of aberrant tendencies can run amok.
Hyperbolic exchanges among the self-identified and anonymous alike push the envelope when it comes to civil discourse, particularly on the Internet. Deliberate provocations, frequently by trolls, can cause even the most well intended commenter to be blind sided, and seduced into crossing lines they had never intended. This makes for tough reading for the conflict averse among us who may be driven away, though most of them come and go without us ever knowing.
Blogging can be a bit like wading into a vast soup of the collective consciousness, some Jungian alternate reality. We aren’t exactly certain how it reflects the “real world” community at large. Like the mind itself, the expanse of this community is potentially unlimited, but despite this vastness or because of it, a blog can take the small town effect and condense it to the size of a locker room. Even the smash mouth antics of a locker room are face to face, nose to nose, but the anonymity of the Internet encourages people to do what they generally won’t do in other public realms. When was the last time you went to a City Council or school board meeting and somebody rose with a burke like disguise and voice distortion to anonymously slander or threaten? Occasionally, in full view, individuals do make strong public displays. But if we are shocked we can admire their guts in being accountable for their actions and facing those they accuse.
Almost twenty years after showing up in Alameda I’m no longer a wide-eyed hippie kid, just a cynical old hippie guy. I’m happier on days I abandon the keyboard and jump on my bike, but the issues that confront this town, the country and the world are so compelling, it’s hard to pull away and ignore them. Blogs are an efficient means to have exchanges but I miss the days sitting in Café Med on Telegraph Avenue debating with strangers. In a world of real people with faces and names we can bond even in disagreement, but despite any constructive exchanges we may have here in cyber space, without knowing who we are addressing, there are real limitations put on the bonds of a virtual community. To help counter this disaffection, one habit I have adopted is to seek out other bloggers through the blog host or on my own and try to meet with them over coffee. When the blogging habit gets out of hand there’s nothing like face time for keepin’ it real.
Mark Irons has ten months remaining on the Historic Advisory Board and prefers verbal sparring over coffee.