Monday, March 16, 2009

Mirror, Mirror On The Net ...

Yesterday's New York Times carried what journalists call a "thumb sucker" on foreign reporting. To those unfamiliar with the genre, that is a piece of navel gazing cut loose from any hard news peg. Call it a floating reflection on whatever the writer thinks of merit. See, These Days, No Reporting Behind a Nation's Back," New York Times, March 15, 2009).

The piece is about how the Internet has changed foreign reporting. Gone are the days when a reporter would file a piece, wait weeks for it to appear in print in his host country, and then move on to another topic. The Internet makes each story instantaneously accessible everywhere. This has changed reporting, perhaps for the worse.

One paragraph struck me to the core. It was about how the Internet can dumb down reporting and writing. Why? The Internet is a mirror: it is hard, sometimes, to avoid your own reflection.

"[I]n this new world it is easy to become addicted to the debate one stirs. The 'most e-mailed' lists, the blogs, the online comments -- these can tempt one to write what draws the most praise or at least the most noise." It can also become a source of great distraction, yielding a hermetically sealed world of fragmented images.

I have been writing opinion pieces for the past eight and one-half years. I write a weekly column for the Connecticut Law Tribune. Since early 2005, I've been on and off the blawgosphere. One rule I've learned the hard way is to avoid entangling debates with other bloggers.

When I first started writing columns for a legal newspaper, the reaction was immediate and powerful. There were nasty letters to the editor; members of the paper's advisory board resigned in protest; and, the state's judiciary cancelled subscriptions to the paper in the state's law libraries. I took a perverse sort of pleasure in all this. But when I read the comments people wrote, I was invariably hurt, angered or mystified. I'd find myself writing responses to them. And in so doing, I'd lose my focus; my voice became a mere bark. I resolved early on not to read letters and comments. My simple rule is to thank people for reading and move on.

It is a rule I did not follow as a blogger, and it led me to leave the blawgosphere for a spell. I developed a fascination with the number of folks who read my page, and I started to wonder whether I could increase readership. I noticed that some pages linked to scores of other pages and engaged in something like a running debate with each person writing comments. I tossed a few bombs into the ether, provoking debates about topics in response to what I read elsewhere. The result was mere tedium for me, and I suspect, my readers. Indeed, one churlish cur took the time to figure out I Google my name regularly; he reported this as if it were a revelation.

People write for all sorts of reason. Some want to be popular. Others write with the hope of changing the opinion of others. I write because I enjoy expression and find the discipline bracing: If I focus on something for a spell, I find the object no longer enslaves. Once placed in perspective I am freed from thralldom and remain master of my own small realm.

From time to time, I am accused of being a bad sport on the Internet. I don't link to others enough. I don't respond to comments. I am not a good citizen. Guilty as charged, I say. I don't play well with others. I know that, and now, thanks to the Times, I know the fault is not entirely a shortcoming peculiar to me.