Blogging Communities as Panopticons

In his preface to A Better Pencil, Dennis Baron asserts that computers and other emerging digital technologies “radically [reshape] how and what we say” (xiii) and create various discourse communities that operate according to their own sets of rules, either written/explicitly stated or not. In Baron’s estimation, these discourse communities function like an online version of Foucault’s panopticon: “As discourse communities form themselves in cyberspace, we see a clear, self-regulating pressure to establish standards for virtual writing and to police and correct those who violate emerging norms” (xiii).

Image(Photo courtesy of Aleph Journal, http://bit.ly/1cSYq74)

Although Baron focuses mainly on how such online discourse communities self-regulate acceptable language usage and general etiquette, I would like to apply his argument to how those communities also self-regulate the types of opinions that its members are allowed (or encouraged) to express.

In the chapter titled “Everyone’s an Author,” Baron seems to separate the kind of communities that blogs create from those on Facebook. For Baron, bloggers and their readers “constitute a community, even if they have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are reading a particular blog” (178), whereas Facebook depends on a system of communities-as-illusions, whereby users “accumulate collections of ‘friends’…without necessarily increasing the number of people they can count as actual friends” (179). What I would like to add here, though, is that the “pages” feature on Facebook functions in much the same way as do stand-alone blogs like WordPress, Blogger, or LiveJournal.  For instance, there are a multitude of fan pages on Facebook that are essentially a modified form of a blog: users can “like” or “subscribe” to such fan pages, follow the various updates and discussion topics, and thus become a part of that community of readers and writers.

With this similarity between Facebook pages and blogs established, I’d like to use an example from personal experience to illustrate how online communities self-regulate users’ opinions. I belong to several Pokemon-centered pages (ring the nerd alert) and a few weeks ago, a page called “pokelectronics” posted an informal poll about shiny Pokemon (regular Pokemon aside from their different color schemes and obscenely low encounter ratio) to see what fans’ favorites were.Image(Shiny Victreebel – the “regular” one has a red rim rather than a blue one; screenshot courtesy of deviantart, http://bit.ly/O1UDyW)

Even though I managed to capture the above-pictured Pokemon out of sheer luck, I still responded to the post saying that I thought shiny Pokemon were not worth the effort. Immediately upon posting my comment, I received almost twenty different direct responses attacking me. The most memorable was posted by a young male user, stating that, “That’s what people say who don’t have a shiny Pokemon,” which many of the other users “liked” to express their agreement. Since that incident, I haven’t posted on that page again for fear of another online witch hunt that favors the “hardcore gamers” over the semi-casual enthusiasts like myself.

But such vitriolic responses aren’t unique to Facebook. I remember experiencing similar moments during LiveJournal’s heyday when I used to post on a community dedicated to the reality show America’s Next Top Model, and I assume that the vapid subject matter naturally invited such catty responses.

Baron states that “the antitechnology side” faults computers because they “disrupt local communities and degrade the quality of modern life by isolating individuals from one another and tying them to machines instead” (178). Yet, the self-regulatory impulses of online communities as I’ve highlighted above generate a similar disruption and manage to isolate, nay ostracize, “individuals from one another” as well. To be a member of such an online discourse community is not simply to adhere to their rules about grammar and etiquette (for instance, many Poke-fan pages prohibit any heated discussions called “gen[eration] wars”) but also to submit to consensus, with which John Trimbur—a firm believer in the power of dissensus—would not agree (and nor do I). It would seem, then, that to be a true and good member of an online discourse community is often to be a victim of a cattle-call disease, unless you can develop both an acceptable writing style and a thick skin.

7 thoughts on “Blogging Communities as Panopticons”

  1. I could not help but be reminded upon reading your post of the term in ethics of “social sanctioning.” Social sanctioning is what it sounds like: public regulation of one’s actions and practices. All communities have such sanctioning. All communities create social punishments for those who step out of line ethically (murderers, those who spout racist ideology, etc). Your example of the Pokemon community fit so well in your illustration of this sanctioning, and I agree with your sentiment that perhaps online communities not only have the potential to do more social sanctioning (policing, especially in adding vitriolic responses), but they have the potential to do this much faster than earlier forms of publication allowed for.

    I think you also illustrated a problem that I’ve thought about after reading this book which is: How worthwhile is the openness or availability of online writing/publishing if people are going to be so much more openly nasty in their comments (especially under the guise of anonymity or false personas)? What kind of community is this? To me, it almost seems like this kind of community is less open to creativity or dissonance and more quick to silence the outliers (as your Panoptican represents).

  2. Chris, I think this is a brilliant thing to bring up, especially as a potential counter to Baron’s rhetoric of “democratized” text. (Also, I’m not sure that he would have published his own book by the time Facebook started creating fan pages, so your move of equating them to online communities is a really useful advancement in my opinion.)

    Another place that this kind of regulatory behavior, originally meant to maintain a level of intelligibility but which transformed into a way of regulating opinion as well, is at work is in systems where the community can vote on best and worst comments. Reddit, for instance, relies on this system of “upvotes” and “downvotes” so much so that the “Reddit hive mind” is now an open joke.

  3. Callie,

    I LOVE how you’ve extended my comment to Reddit – I’ve never used that site before, but I’ve heard about its system of “voting” before and it sounds really curious. It almost reminds me of how it perpetuates the illusion of popularity similar to Tumblr.

  4. Chris,

    I think that you bring up an important point of discussion here, and I agree with Katie that social sanctioning is pervasive on the internet. One actor, Orlando Jones, from the show Sleepy Hollow frequently interacts with fans on his own tumblr and twitter, and he posted a guide sheet on buzzfeed about internet etiquette – “How Not to Be a Dick on the Internet” http://www.buzzfeed.com/orlandojones/how-to-not-be-dick-on-the-internet-icl1.

    I think though that it would be nearly impossible for the internet to silence anyone or stifle creativity generally speaking. By this, I mean that within any individual online community there will absolutely be a prevailing consensus that will be difficult to break. Yet, there is always another, alternative website or set of blogs, group of twitter users and so on that will have a different view. I feel like we’re still in a growing pains stage when it comes to the web and online discourse. We have a lot of freedom online, especially in terms of anonymity, and it is certainly easier to attack someone’s opinions online rather than in person.

    At the same time though, I think about a story I saw recently (on tumblr) about artist Marina Abramovic’s 1974 performance art “Rhythm 0.” She placed 72 objects (of various purposes) on a table and told her audience they could use them however they wished and that she would not move for 6 hours. After the piece, she said that while some audience members were at first courteous, when people realized she would not react, they began stripping her, poking her with thorns, and pointing a gun at her http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Abramovi%C4%87

    I think that the internet allows that type of behavior to manifest more easily, but that it is not a behavior unique to online interactions. I can’t argue this with any concrete evidence besides my own observations, but I have found youtube comments to be less deplorable over the years, reflecting changing political opinions or ideas around identity and difference. But what I like about the internet, even when there is a clear problem in a community, is that it is often exposed. The power structures, to me, are more visible online than off.

    (I’m interested to talk more about this – but this comment has already gotten a bit long…)

  5. As a devoted redditor myself, I agree with Callie about the systems at work on reddit. However, the self-regulation extends beyond the arbitrary clicking of an up or down arrow. If you stick around long enough, whether through active participation or “lurking,” you’ll start to notice certain phrases or stories that crop up over and over again. Even though I spend a decent (read: unjustifiable) portion of my leisure internet time on reddit, I still don’t fully understand their meaning or relevance.

    They strike me as inside jokes that I am not quite allowed to be involved in, despite my status as an active redditor. I assume this is partially the point of the jokes and phrases- weeding out people who might not belong or have roots as deep as others.

  6. Chris and Caitlin,

    I really like the two lines of thought you’ve developed on internet communities and self-regulation. On the one hand, the internet has become a place for people with common interests or identities– in particular, those that are somehow marginalized or outside of the mainstream– to find each other and establish a sense of community. This is, I think, an incredibly powerful and often even a positive affordance of the web. People are finding forums to for self-expression of a kind that is censored or suppressed in other contexts.

    And yet that expression of difference seems, somewhat paradoxically, to hinge on finding others who are the same, others who can provide a sense of validation and assurance that we’re not alone in our interests/identity/whatever. I suspect that it’s that internal conflict of these niche communities, between needing to represent difference and sameness simultaneously, that makes their social dynamics so complex.

    Best,
    Kiley

  7. An interesting discussion! Thanks for getting it started, Chris. I’d just add that I think part of the problem has to do with how we tend to imagine community, whether online or off, as a kind of close system that promotes a hive-mind more than dissensus. There was a time when it seemed like the internet might promote a more urban view of community—the web as a kind of city square or coffeehouse—but we seem to have quickly retreated, yet once again, to our little villages.

    Joe

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