In a recent post at the Blinded Trials sub-blog Over There, Tod Kelly offers his thoughts about what he calls “online people.”

Online People are men and women (but mostly men) who spend a significant amount of their work and personal time interacting with others online. As in the real world, some get along with people they disagree with better than others, but regardless, those disagreements greatly shape their online persona. Which is to say that while most people in the real world define and group themselves by what they are, Online People generally define and group themselves by what they are not. To take myself as an example: In the real world I am a father, a husband, a brother, a person lucky enough to be surrounded by scores of amazing friends, a Portlander, a writer and risk manger, etc. As an Online Person, however, I am someone who is not a movement conservative, not an ideologue, not a knee-jerk hack baiting for clicks, not a SJW, etc.

There are some apparent inconsistencies in his overall post. But it’s always easy to disagree and to find inconsistencies in what someone else has written. If it weren’t, all graduate history programs would evaporate immediately. And Tod is not trying to assert an a priori TRUTH about how the world must always and forever work. He states upfront that “Online People…are a figment of my imagination based on my own personal anecdotal experience.”

The best approach, I think, is to take his post as a hypothesis and to examine the ways and situations in which his hypothesis works and doesn’t work, and then to offer some thoughts on whether what the hypothesis describes is a good or bad thing.

His hypothesis does not describe a peculiarly “online” phenomenon. I find it hard to look at any political movement, large or small, in American history whose membership did not somehow define themselves by what they are not. Sometimes the negative self-definition was subtle and co-mingled with much positive self-identification. See 1890s Populism. Sometimes the negative outpaced the positive. See the Popular Front of the 1930s. Sometimes it wasn’t so much a question of identity, but of policy, and being opposed to a policy as a policy can actually mean being for a different policy. See Abolitionism.

Still, I take Tod not to say that the internet causes negative self-definition. Instead, I take him to be saying one or both of two things. First, the internet and online communities are somehow more conducive to negative self-definition. Second, whether or not the internet is inherently more conducive to this way of self-identifying, online communities as a fact tend to self-identify negatively more than in-person communities.

If I read his hypothesis correctly, I think it’s at least even money that he’s right. If he is right, I think I have one way of demonstrating how and why it is correct. I offer a hypothesis of my own. I refer you to a distinction between what I call the “hot seat” and the “cheap seat.”

In the blogosphere, the “hot seat” is the position occupied by the author of a post or an article or a column. The “cheap seat” is occupied by the commenter, who usually enjoys pseudonymity and always enjoys the luxury of not having just created something that is now subject to critical examination.

I’ve found that writing posts–being in the hot seat–makes me feel vulnerable. I put an argument out there and it’s subject to review and comment. Even a friendly comment and one that agrees with me can feel like a disagreement, and a comment that disagrees with even just a portion of what I write can feel like an attack, no matter how well-reasoned or how politely put it is. I know better, but it still feels that way. While there are exceptions–e.g., if it’s about something I don’t feel strongly about–my inclination is to defend whatever point I was making as if I were defending myself.

In the cheap seat, however, I as a commenter often feel free to single out a portion of what someone else says in their post and critique or praise it. Well, it’s almost always a critique and not praise. Or if neither praise or critique, it’s a tangent. And tangents are usually hard to read as anything other than a critique or disagreement. I’m saying “critique” and not “criticism.” All criticisms are critiques, but not all critiques are criticism. Sometimes a critique is a qualification, or another way of agreeing, or an elaboration, or a suggestion.

There are variations on that theme. Sometimes people gang up on a commenter and that commenter is now in the hot seat. Sometimes a blog author will make a “comment rescue” that doesn’t rescue a comment so much as it uses the author’s bully pulpit to criticize what the commenter said. Sometimes, to quote Gandalf, we just have to ‘fess up that there’s such a thing as malice and revenge.

I’m suggesting that this on some level might be others’ experience, too. Perhaps not everyone’s experience, but most people’s. Perhaps not fully consciously, but at some, maybe visceral, level.

This hot seat and cheap seat distinction isn’t all there is. It doesn’t explain how and why some commenters tend to, for lack of a better word, “ally” with other commenters or continually criticize certain others not only for what they say but for how critcizer feels personally about the other. Both things I have been guilty of, by the way.

But if this distinction doesn’t explain everything, it might explain something. A blog moderately to heavily trafficked with comments–even ones like Over There, with its very liberal guest posting policy–evinces in any given thread this distinction between the person who has put themselves out there and the people who choose to comment. I think this is somehow related to the perception–and perhaps the reality–of “Online People” who define themselves by what they are not.

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3 Responses to The hot seat and the cheap seat: reflections on “online people”

  1. RTod says:

    Good post!

    And though I think you did get most of what I was trying to say correctly, I think there is one dynamic I would state more forcefully that is not necessarily explained by your theory: That on-line writers themselves primarily stand against things rather than for them. As I noted in my post, I am hard pressed to think of a conservative site where the writers discuss conservatism at all; they mostly write there so they can talk about how against liberalism they are. (And the reverse is true of leftist sites, I believe.)

    Which is not to say that people aren’t against things in real life, as they clearly are. It’s just that in real life, I almost never see anyone devoting their free leisure time to a club or activity that is against someone else. They join knitting clubs to knit, not to bash people who crochet; they gather in sports bars to root for the home team playing in the playoffs, not to jeer another team everyone hates; they go door-to-door handing out flyers supporting a local school board candidate they are excited bout, not to bitch about a candidate they find annoying; etc.

    There are very few online examples of people behaving this way that I can think of. There are *some* — Tom Van Dyke’s new(wish) site is a great example of politics site that is first and foremost *for* something rather than against it — but for the most part, people who show up to make content for people to comment on do so to be against someone else.

    • trumwill says:

      I think you’re more right about online than offline. Hopefully I will find the time to put together a Grand Post I’ve been considering on the increase of Oppositional Politics.

    • You’re right that I did miss that part (and thanks for reading the post, by the way).

      But having missed it, I’m not sure that’s as much of a thing as you suggest. I’m not sure that it isn’t, either. In fact, what you say rings true in my experience, but I’m not sure of a reliable way to test it.

      But to the extent it is a thing, I’m not sure that it’s wholly a bad thing. (You didn’t say it was wholly a bad thing, but you seem to suggest it’s on balance bad.)

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