Friday, October 17, 2008

Nastiness in the Blogosphere

I've been a bit appalled by the level of nastiness I see on GLBT message boards and blogs and I wondered if it was getting worse (due, perhaps, to the election year) and what other factors might be responsible. I contacted some prominent as well as lesser-known bloggers and well-known gay people (Wayne Besen, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Musto etc.) from all sides of the political spectrum for their responses and have written an article which I call "Nastiness on the Blogosphere." I think it contains some interesting opinions on the subject. [This was originally intended for the New York Blade, but since they've gone from weekly publication to bi-weekly they don't have as much room for general think pieces as opposed to hard news.]

On the gay web site queerty, a heated debate is going on as to whether a certain gay periodical has improved since the new editor has taken over, and if said editor is gay, straight or bisexual -- and if it matters. A diversity of opinions are expressed, so diverse in fact, that it’s as if the people posting are not only not part of any community, but are actually from separate planets. The comments become increasingly personal. One poster who is an actor is told that he’s too ugly and untalented to get a job. Another person, quivering with self-hate, leaves a message that reads "I’m not bisexual but I wish I were and I’d kick the asses of all the faggots who say it has to be one way or the other." The majority of posts, at least on this particular thread, are jarringly nasty.

What’s going on here? Is the level of viciousness on LGBT blogs and message boards increasing, and if so, why is it happening? There could be several factors to blame for all the in-fighting: 1.) different factions of the LGBT movement who have been lumped together for political reasons but who may not really relate to one another; 2.) Out and Proud gays versus in-the-closet gays who use the anonymity of the Internet to put in their two cents but who look at gay life very differently from out-of-the-closet gays; 3.) young gays versus older gays; 4.) Other, less obvious factors. The question was put to several bloggers.

Andrew Belonsky of Queerty says " I think it's primarily political differences - on queerty, at least. I don't think that blogs have made gays any nastier, no. There's always been infighting in every social community, so why should we be any different? That said, however, many commentators can get particularly cruel and ugly, which really isn't the most constructive activity unless you actually have a point."

Andrew Sullivan sees it a bit differently: "I'm afraid it has always been true that gays have viciously attacked other gays online." he says. "It gets personal very quickly. Some of it is classic minority group self-loathing; part of it is just classic gay bitchiness; part genuine outrage, especially at pretty useless gay political groups; and partly it's a function of very familiar patterns of varying outness. We really do need to get better at being calmer."

Andres Duque, who has a Gay Latino blog entitled Blabbeando [] says "Some bloggers engage in over the top demagoguery, sensationalistic arguments and shock tactics to engage their readership -- and increase traffic -- and some responses might react to that. Personally I prefer to stake a view without slandering or insulting others and try to be respectful of others who may disagree with my views and perhaps this is why I rarely get a negative or nasty comment on my blog. It might not be as titillating to some, but not sure that I want to attract readers who run on the latest scandal."

Aureliano DeSoto, Post-Doctoral Fellow in LGBT studies at Carleton College in Minnesota [], says "LGBT folks as well as everyone else, have very little sense of etiquette or really know, for that matter, how to articulate critical commentary in ways that are not ad hominem and personal. This might just be a general function of the coarsening of our larger public culture."

"From a socio-cultural perspective," DeSoto adds, "lesbians and gay men have engaged in sometimes quite vociferous debate over what, how, why, and who constitutes gayness, really from the Mattachine Society of the 1950s onward, when the question was whether gay people constituted a separate category of experience or were just sexually different ...The movement of these questions onto the Internet is just a continuation of conversations that used to mostly happen in community papers, newsletters, flyers, wheat-pasted manifestos, and at the bar.

"And I would say, for what it's worth, that LGBT people are avatars of Internet culture, so perhaps there is some greater meaning to whatever perceived increase of hostility and aggression [there is] on gay blogs. Generational differences and dimensions of outness do seem to be more prominent in online media, especially the latter, since for many the Internet is an anonymous space, and that has empowered ... closeted men who have no public expression of gay identity but an investment, sometimes quite conservative, in these questions -- not to mention their participation in sexual online cultures such as Manhunt or Craig's List."

"I think the Internet has always been a place where cowards become bold and attack anonymously," says activist and Truth Wins Out President Wayne Besen []. "What has changed, of late, however, are the issues - two in particular. The first is the presidential elections. There are many spiritually and emotionally empty people who live vicariously through candidates and wrap their identities around these leaders. They become larger than life - almost like Gods. So, if you criticize the candidate, these individuals take it as a personal sleight and react insanely over the Internet. I saw a glimpse of this when I criticized Obama over using "ex-gay" gospel singer Donnie McClurkin. The level of irrational Internet comments and e-mail was mind blowing. People really need to get lives - or at least get a grip."

"The second issue was the debate over including trans people in ENDA," says Besen. "From the standpoint of trans people - and many of their supporters - this was not just policy, but an existential question. If abandoned by the GLB community, they would have been left to fend for themselves. So, it was quite understandable that it got ugly, raw and personal. Were the trans people about to get shafted supposed to smile and take it? Sometimes it is important to throw down and duke it out. Much of this occurred on the Internet and it wasn't pretty - but, in the end, the fight may have been pretty important."

Some bloggers have had kinder, gentler experiences. Says Michael Musto, "I recently started a blog, "La Daily Musto," on and the tone of the comments is generally upbeat. There’s some bitchiness, but generally in a good-humored way. So not all gay blogs elicit pure hate from their readers -- except whenever I mention Clay Aiken. But if there IS a rise in blog comment bitchiness, I’d say all of those factors [you mentioned] are involved. The anonymity gives people who generally can’t express themselves a chance to vent and to go overboard because they don’t have to suffer any consequences for it. And the different LGBT subgroups often resent each other (the "straight acting" ones often hate the out, femmy ones, and so on), and drag out their darkest biases which they probably would not trot out in public."

"This is a political year with much at stake," says Wayne Besen, "so there is a natural tendency for such attacks to multiply. Politics is about power and with this comes a brutal struggle, and this accounts for much of the nastiness online.

"I wouldn't get alarmed, as things ought to calm down in 2009."


Anonymous said...

My biggest disappointment since joining the world of gay activist blogging has been learning that the people who've motivated me into blogging are as incorrigible as the people they blog about.

For example, how we can combat the smears and defamatory comments people say about gays only to have someone, an ally supposedly, say it when they don't like having their integrity called into question? Worse still, that by doing so, they undermine their own work?

That I don't get.

Bill Samuels said...

I suppose that outspoken people can sometimes go a little too far and become a little too insensitive in how they put things or deal with other people. Some bloggers/posters get annoyed with opinions they think are uneducated or stupid, and with a kind of "I don't suffer fools gladly" attitude go on the attack instead of simply expaining in a nice way what's wrong with the other person's position. I suppose most of us have been guilty of that at one time or the other. Dealing with homophobia and intolerance has perhaps made some of us edgy and easily irritated by differing opinions that we feel strongly opposed to. I've cdertainly blasted a few people and groups in my day. I try to be kind, of course, but sometimes you get so exasperated ....

Anyway, thanks for your comment and keep up the good work with your blog! Bill