This morning I am going to be taking a little detour from my usual subject matter, that being Lost Brook Tract and the Adirondack wilderness. This detour was prompted by the reaction to last week’s Dispatch about trailblazing.
The comments on that Dispatch included a couple of entries that a good friend of the Almanack described to me in a private email as “vitriolic.” A number of other regular Dispatch readers also weighed in with concerns about the comments and their author.
My own reaction to the comments was considerably more muted. Seeing as they were flip attacks typical of the blogosphere, offered by someone who clearly has not read many – if any – of my fifteen posted Dispatches, and given that there was no idea or proposal worth responding to (in contrast to some critical comments on my second Dispatch that actually led me to write an entire column), I felt no need to respond to them. So I didn’t.
Yet something was bothering me.
In one respect I was surprised that it took so many months for someone to flame me with an incendiary comment. After all, flaming and provoking and blathering constitute the lingua franca of the blogosphere. I’m not shy in my opinions; I had been ready for worse. Many other contributors do get much worse, whereas I have been humbled by the gratifying response to my posts.
But in another respect my critic’s comments aggravated a nagging philosophical injury, an injury that has been sitting in my gut for years now, deepening and purpling and increasing its troubling ache. As the days passed I felt more and more urged to write, to mount a defense.
So here I am. But it is not a defense of my writing that has finally compelled me to craft this Dispatch. No, dear readers: I write to defend not myself but rather the publication for which I write: the Adirondack Almanack. Not that it needs defending… it doesn’t… but give me your forbearance.
Let me begin with a few disclosures. I loathe the blogosphere. I utterly detest Facebook and Twitter and all of it. I don’t blame the technologies, which are remarkable, by the way. Trust me when I tell you that the innards of Facebook may be the most incredibly elegant and sophisticated software ever written. But I do think that social media and blogging technology are enablers – that they are ever more effectively greasing the ramps that are leading us into decline, into a downward slide towards a vacuous, empty shell where journalism, art and culture used to be.
Blogs and social media pages are great, indiscriminate equalizers and promoters. Suddenly we all have something to say. Suddenly, with little or no thought, little or no research or study, and with the comfort of anonymity, we are all critics. We are all celebrities too – and paparazzi simultaneously – breathless to post our glamor shots and our pithy remarks on our walls, as though all fandom waits at our feet, equally breathless. The entire phenomenon is one massive, gaudy, bright, self-gratifying fantasy, practically unhinged from reality at a time in our history when I think we need reality more than ever.
Lest those of you with particularly quick, twittery trigger fingers now dismiss me as an aging curmudgeon who “just doesn’t get it,” a Luddite who is stuck in the 1970’s, I will happily disabuse you of your notions. I am in fact an expert in all this stuff, a thirty year veteran of the computer world who did pioneering work in some of the same technological approaches that enable social media. I’m fluent and my beef is a well-informed one whether you agree with it or not.
I have little patience for emperors without clothes. Does this modern milieu with everyone on-line, lobbing opinions and self-promotions back and forth like blunt objects, not reek of narcissism and shallowness?
Of course it does.
So it is with blogs and comment sections. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise kept it up as long as they could but the endless stream of ignorant, nasty, agenda-driven commentary, often unrelated to the matter at hand altogether, finally drove them to disable comments on all but their editorials… and there the trolls still scuttle around, repeating themselves ad nauseum (note the nuanced, topical commentary on this recent Earth Day editorial).
Behind all of this is a ruthless simplicity, a cold, hard fact: not all opinions are equal. Informed opinions, those that are thought-out, considered and educated, are worth more than the kind of rapid-fire, punky pronouncements that so often pass for opinions in the blogosphere. That’s the truth. Just because the platform that one has for speaking in the modern world is beyond the imagination of orators of the past doesn’t mean that what one has to say from that platform is worth a damn.
And so I despair… as a writer, as a storyteller, but most of all as a citizen, I despair. I may not be a Luddite but I have been around for a while, time enough to measure the coarsening of our culture, the growing meanness of it. We men and women of older generations are not fools about this. We see what we see. When you can shout and spew with impunity you don’t have to care.
And yet, to paraphrase John Bunyan, in these thoughts myself despairing, along comes the Adirondack Almanack to offer a counter-argument and a repudiation of my single-minded negativity.
When I first told one of my good friends (a young, hip friend to boot, the kind who knows Wilco started in alternative country-western, that sort of thing) I was writing a weekly column for a journal, she asked which one. When I told her it was the Adirondack Almanack, an on-line journal, she said “Oh you mean a blog,” this delivered with a knowing smirk, as she is well aware of my opinions and found it entertaining, if not damning, that I was now part of that world. I protested, but she would not have any of it. “You post on it? People can comment? It’s a blog.”
Ah, but it isn’t.
I suppose you can call the Adirondack Almanack a blog if you want. Indeed, it uses a blogging technology platform (the just-replaced platform was called blogger.com and the new one, WordPress, calls itself a “blog tool”). You can call a lawn tractor a car too, if you like.
Technology aside, the Almanack is exactly what it says on its front page: a news journal. It has a credentialed, invested editor, qualified contributors, a variety of news and features and a regular delivery schedule. All of this resides in the cloud. Despite my general condemnations of the blogosphere, the Almanack excels. It is an exemplar of the remarkable potential of all this communication technology, of this new, unlimited world of information, of this unprecedented environment for the exchange of ideas, peer to peer. Who could argue that the Almanack is not a vast improvement over the paper variety of journal?
In the end, the value of the Adirondack Almanack is what human expression has always been about, from time immemorial: it is about the nature of the people who make it. It is just that now the net is cast wider. The Almanack is, after all, an Adirondack community. This brave new world of connectedness means that all of us: those who contribute, those who edit – and, yes, those who comment – are responsible for its well-being.
The stakes are high. The trends toward coarseness and shallowness, the equalizing and cheapening of ideas and discourse, these things are not fictions. They are a tide. But it more personal here: the information and ideas we share and discuss in the Adirondack Almanack are crucial to the future of the park and the people who live here. We all love this place; our work here is important.
I read all of the postings and all of the comments on the Adirondack Almanack. My own view is that the vast majority of comments are thoughtful, or are at the very least meant as an honest contribution. In this level of quality we do indeed swim against the tide. May it remain that way.
I end, therefore, with a plea: this freedom of communication, this easy power to have a voice means not that less responsibility is called for, but that more responsibility is called for. If we are to speak to others from our electronic platforms let us be worthy of that simple, noble undertaking. Let us consider our words; let us speak with integrity. Let us together keep the Adirondack Almanack as the best kind of example of both the present and future of human discourse.
Photo Caption: Gutenberg and his press, the beginning of it all