Toxic conversations

Steve Wheeler, who maintains a very busy and highly regarded blog on elearning, has written a useful post this weekend on the evolution of his motivation for blogging.

He began his blog as a way to organise his own thoughts, and to keep track of his ideas. He learned that by storing and reflecting on his ideas online, he was able to organise them and link to other thoughts more effectively than if he’d been using a paper diary. “In essence,” he writes. “blogging crystallised my thinking, and extended the scope of my knowledge.”

The second thing he discovered about writing online rather than in either a formal publication or a paper diary is that your thoughts are immediately out there for other people to read and engage with. The pace of formal publication is glacial compared to blogging and a private diary is, well, private. So from the moment you start writing in public on your own blog rather than a site owned by someone else, and you make it possible for people to comment on your posts, then you open yourself up to what Steve Wheeler calls a conversation around your ideas.

I was thinking about all this as I was reading Helen Razer’s furious post on quitting blogging for precisely the same reason. Helen Razer is a well-known writer-in-public, who doesn’t exactly hold back herself, as the link below shows. This week in an op-ed piece she weighed into a situation that’s preoccupying Australia, about the nature of the attacks on probably-departing right-wing Australian MP Sophie Mirabella. On her blog, she explains what happened next:

Man, I got bollocked. Even more than usual. When former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser singled my article out for derision and several of my colleagues posted this information on social media with no little amusement, I just thought WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL. This writing gig is crap. … I have written capably to a large audience for some time for next-to-nothing. I made a contribution that was not without merit. And one to which you are no longer entitled. Because you give me shit and pay me shit.

All I am really saying is that conditions for the professional writer have become untenable. And I quit because the money is terrible and the snark is worse.

I don’t think this is a uniquely Australian problem.  Excellent US tech writer Audrey Watters (who has disabled comments on her blog for similar reasons) would certainly say that women who write in public, in particular, attract personal attacks that go well beyond engaging with ideas, right up to the level of death threats.

It’s something we all need to take seriously, especially when encouraging new writers to try something. When the online public conversation is a toxic swamp, is it still worth making a contribution? Why?

Speaking of new writers in public seeking to make a difference to their own lives, here is my friend, fellow gardener and colleague Chris who has just moved from being a very successful academic writer into blogging about his personal search for simplicity. I love this: it’s not all trolls and snark out there.