Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches:
Blogging, Comments and The Almanack

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 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

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

10 Responses

  1. Harvey44 says:

    Certainly publishing is easier than ever before. Every tool provides some leverage over doing things “by hand.” But tools can be used for construction or destruction. Thanks for writing this. I’m in the middle of a similar piece and may just link to this instead.

  2. Tim says:

    You walk a fine line! You extol the virtues of private wilderness (I took you to task for that on your 1st piece). You make trails where there are none. You write about your personal experiences but don’t call it a blog. BUT, I wouldn’t miss a chapter. You write beautifully and skillfully. That fine line is what makes your Dispatches so engaging. And, if some readers think the reaction to the trailblazing was vitriolic, they should read the reactions to proposals to mark the unmarked high peaks trails on the ADK High Peaks Forum! BTW, I read the Almanack every day! It’s the best source of news in the Adirondacks.

  3. John B. says:

    Keep Writing- whatever it is called, it is fine reading.
    Thanks for doing so!

  4. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    Dear Tim:

    I remember you, of course. I refer to you in this dispatch, as I’m sure you noticed. You should therefore know that I welcome you taking me to task as you see fit. That is the best of what this environment can be. I take your input and criticism seriously. You caused me to write an entire dispatch last time, right?

    This time I’ll only make a couple of comments.

    I mean to extol the virtues of wilderness, period. The question of private versus public is all but irrelevant to me, which is why I’m not posting the land per my third dispatch.

    As to trails, I either have a trail (and I will only have one on the entire 40 acres, plus a short one to the privy) or I and my visitors traipse through the woods, disturbing habitat. A well-designed trial is much better. It would take an experienced woodsperson to follow this trail; it is as modest as I could make it and still accomplish the goal. I have as much interest in “taming” this wilderness – as one commenter said – as I have in volunteering myself to the black flies in June.

    Finally, I write. I don’t care whether anyone calls it blogging or not. That’s a judgment of the Adirondack Almanack, not me, as I discussed. With that said, if you look for my other blogs, or comments on other blogs, etc., you will find nothing.

    Thanks Tim, for challenging me. Let the dialogue continue.


  5. Paul says:

    The difference between this type of “journalism” and the real thing is that here I doubt that you have a team that goes out and checks every thing that you wrote before it gets printed. You basically do the best you can with what you have. Many articles here are also just opinion pieces. They are mixed with the news in a way that is different than with a traditional “paper”.

    As for the “trails” comments they were ridiculous. Anyone who knows anything about the subject knows that it is far more environmentally friendly to have a well designed trail rather than just bashing your way all over the back-country. Unless the point was that all public and private land in the park should be made off limits to humans, and I did not get that from the comments.

  6. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    Thanks Paul, and right on both counts. I think the Almanack does very well with what it has.

  7. Paul says:

    There is a good deal of writing here dedicated to the preservation of public lands and the benefits derived from that. There is less on the preservation of private lands and the benefits from that. Some, but less than the former, which I think is what the audience here is more attuned to. These articles you write are kind of where the two intersect, quite literally. And being someone who also owns a similar sized parcel of land that is (almost) surrounded by Forest Preserve land I find your perspective very interesting. Hopefully based on this article people will think a little before they comment. But this format is ideal for knee jerk reactions. Sometimes they are entertaining and informative and sometimes they are kooky. I am sure I am at times guilty of the latter.

  8. Wally Elton Wally says:

    Keep writing the facts, the well-crafted ideas, the informed opinions. There are people who read them (and may or may not agree with you) while ignoring the drivel. Your final pleas is hopeless, though, because so many of those who should heed it do not care.

  9. Bob Meyer says:

    Pete, re: all of the above. You are on the mark 100%.
    Thanks and keep up you excellent writing (whatever it may be called.

    The Adirondack Almanack IS different from the herd as well as the best source of information on the Park.

  10. “When you can shout and spew with impunity you don’t have to care.” This is the heart of the problem. With anonymity (or made up, internet fantasy identities) there is no accountability. Those with something worth saying will be willing to put their name on it. Keep swimming against the tide.