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).
(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.(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.