Kathy Sierra, O’Reilly’s Code of Conduct and the Political Blogosphere

14 Apr ’07

This issue captured the attention of the political blogosphere recently, and even just a quick read there reveals that the quality of the discussion in that ‘sphere was profoundly better than the discussion in the geek-‘sphere. The geek-‘sphere’s commentary was pretty much what you’d expect from a bunch of mostly guys – dollars to donuts, mostly white – who grew up mostly privileged getting mostly what they wanted, saying mostly what they wanted and being mostly the centre of attention. Basically, middle to upper-middle class white alpha males. I wasn’t surprised by the shallowness or the one-sidedness (O’Reilly vs. well, everyone) of that ‘discussion’ – I’d seen it before, in law school, when confronted there by the spectacle of a different (though, inevitably, not) group of middle to upper-middle class white alpha males being forced to think about the idea that with power comes responsibility, and not liking it one bit. You would have thought they’d have arrived comfortable with the idea, at least through the cultural learnings of Peter Parker, but no. Perhaps now, through the cultural learnings of Don Imus. (To be fair, we are finally starting to see some new blood – young, irreverant and increasingly relevant blood – in the geek-‘sphere, but it’s a glacially slow process).

So I mostly unplugged from it, and paid more attention to the poli-‘sphere. Things are different in the poli-‘sphere. First, there are more women. Lots more women. Smart women. Very, very smart women.

Second, folks in the polisphere routinely call bull**** on the A-listers. Pretty much nobody really cares what the A-listers think, or at least don’t wait for A-listers to speak before they decide which opinions it would be popular to have, which is more the style of the geek-‘sphere. (Best part of this, incidentally, is that you’re spared the spectacle of the A-listers and near A-listers denying that there’s an A-list. Ugh.)

Third, it’s rowdy there – folks generally check their weapons at the door, but there’s a bar fight almost every minute of every hour of every day. Poliblogging is a bloodsport, and folks let it all hang out. Geekbloggers, for all the talk about openness and democratization, are generally business people who care very much about the impact of what they say on their businesses and their brands. And so a lot is said that is, well, simply insincere, or possibly worse, milquetoast uncontroversial. Put another way, sending a geekblogger into the poli-‘sphere would be a little like pushing J. Alfred Prufrock into The Grindhouse. This is often Not A Good Thing, but it often is A Very Good Thing. For one thing, the visceral and urgent nature of it pretty much always ensures that people Take It Seriously. And that pretty much always ensures that if you can’t support your arguments, they are taken out to the desert, tied to the ground and covered with honey next to an anthill. And that seems to be a pretty powerful incentive to think before you speak, and to make it matter when you do. This is something, incidentally, that I didn’t really appreciate when I tuned out of the poli-‘sphere over two years ago, a topic I wrote about a bit more back in December. The tone can be shrill, but it’s often (far from always, but often) because what’s being said matters. It’s often (almost always, but not quite) hard to find that meaning in much of what is written in the geek-‘sphere. (On the other hand, that is something I still can’t say about Network TV, which I tuned out of at about the same time. In a nutshell, Lou Dobbs is still an idiot and Larry King should have retired in 1924.)

Fourth, folks in the poli-sphere are pretty well-versed in the vocabulary of speech issues, living as they do in what’s effectively a crucible for the new dynamics of media. The poli-‘sphere is where the New Rules are being forged – this is the speech, after all, that most matters. At times there is, it seems to me, almost a rowdy elation in the poli-‘sphere that this is where it is happening. And so the rules – or whether there even are rules – is something that matters a lot too, and people pay attention to that, and think a lot about the basic principles – whether of law or morality, or of anything else, that apply. And my impression so far is that when it comes to handling these kinds of discussions, this is a pretty adept bunch of folks.

So, finally, three posts are good leads into the Kathy Sierra discussion in the poli-‘sphere. One is by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, aka “Kos” (who gets between 16 and 25 million pageviews a month, for the uninitiated). Another is from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, an avid critic of Kos’s on this issue, who posts a boatload of links (my favourite: the link to “Bitch, PhD” – brilliant and the best banner ever) to other discussions in that ‘sphere on the issue. And third is Michelle Malkin’s challenge to the geek-‘sphere (“A message to the techblogging elite”) on this issue (3.4 to 4 million pageviews a month), which (hilariously, mysteriously, and sadly) was ignored by, as far as I can tell, everyone in the geek-‘sphere, except Loren Feldman (who, if you haven’t already noticed, is the one of the only people in the geek-‘sphere who says pretty much whatever he wants to, and should get a prize for it, and is coming to mesh). Perhaps techbloggers just missed it, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it was noted and quietly tucked back in the drawer, and the alpha-geekbloggers it was aimed at are still hiding under the bed, waiting for Malkin to go away, and praying that they won’t have to engage with her in public.

Last point. Unless I completely missed my aim in this post, it ought to be obvious that I’ve been mightily unimpressed with the geek-‘sphere lately. Call it a growing feeling that it’s largely irrelevant. I’m not saying that I think that the existence of the ‘sphere itself doesn’t matter – it’s obviously a profoundly important development – a sea-change – in media. That’s at the heart of why I’m involved in mesh. I just think that most of the discussions on the tech side of it are trivial. And, not really true conversations, but mostly efforts by folks to brand themselves as experts, for their own purposes. PR, really. And I’m getting tired of reading through my tech feeds and feeling like I just ate a boatload of empty calories. Back in December I said I’d be reading and writing less about Web 2.0, and I have. Now, more so, and with feeling.

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