This is a difficult post to write. It’s difficult because I’ve avoided writing it for far too long. It’s difficult because it forces me to face some things that I’ve tried to pretend weren’t happening. And it’s difficult because it undermines my faith in humanity and forces me to give up some of the illusions that I’ve desperately operated under for several years now.
About one year, one month and two weeks ago, the World Trade Center in New York was destroyed. All around the world, people looked on with horror at what was occurring. And before all the recriminations started, before the rhetoric became overwhelming, before the civil liberties were eroding, and before dissent became unpatriotic, there was this bizarre moment of pause, of stunned silence. And in that moment, there was a remarkable unity of feeling and purpose around the world. It was only when we all opened our mouths again that everything went to hell.
It was in this moment of shock that webloggers first started broadcasting their tiny, newly-vulnerable voices into blogspace. Some talked of their experiences of being in New York or of the feeling of vulnerability that all Americans suddenly felt – a vulnerability they’d never felt before. Some responded with exclamations of disbelief or anguish. But I think a large number couldn’t say anything at all – how could one say anything valuable in these moments.
Most of the people I know in the UK who ran weblogs didn’t know what to say or do. There was nothing that could be expressed that would be useful – nothing that could be done but sympathise from a distance. Many of us felt utterly powerless and yet desperate to do something. We came up with a project at the time that I think did some good. But then it’s really impossible to tell.
In most of this stuff, most of us tried to be impartial, non-confrontational and politically of a space that wouldn’t offend people who had just lost friends and family. That was the most important thing in the immediate aftermath – the orphaned, the widowed, the bereaved. As it should have been. Not political point-scoring or the use of those deaths as justification for military action. No flag-waving or advocating of interest groups that needed a say.
It would be months later before I would become aware of the phenomenon of the warblogger – months where information had filtered out gradually, where stances had calcified and battle-lines were beginning to be drawn. I started to notice politically radical statements appearing with semi-regularity on some people’s sites – and entirely new sites appearing out of nowhere advocating extreme universalising positions of every kind – evil muslims, the hypocrisy of Europe, the righteous thunder of America…
To my shame, only once did I make any kind of stand. I sent an e-mail to Stephen Den Beste about (what I considered to be) his overblown anti-European rhetoric – and he responded. I got a fair amount of short-term fallout in the form of highly unpleasant e-mails and comments posted on people’s sites. And I think at the time I decided that several things should stop me continuing with any kind of debate on these issues in public. Some of these I think are still valid, some of which I now think I could characterise as cowardice or laziness, nothing more…
The fact is I believed warblogging in its most hawkish, blood-hungry mode to be the short-lived rantings of extremists – and not representative of American online communities or weblogging communities in general. And because of this, I’ve got on with talking about the things that I personally find manageable or stimulating, and have kept far away from discussion of wars in Iraq, or bombings in Afghanistan, or racist violence in Europe and America, or the way all these events have been cynically used for party political ends, or the way in which state-sanctioned warfare is being transformed into a continuous enterprise just as civil liberties in all areas are being slowly limited. I haven’t said a word about the level of irony I felt when it became clear that Hollywood’s grasp on file-sharing technology meant more to most people than the fact that people were being held illegally across the world.
I’ve kept my mouth shut through all of this stuff. And I’ll probably continue to keep it shut, to be honest. But I needed an outburst today because of the stuff that I’ve been forced to come into contact with recently – the verbal attacks against Anil Dash for example – appal me beyond measure. I feel actual physical sickness at sites declaring whole religions to be at fault for the actions of tiny groups of often pooly-educated poor extremists. And this is the tiniest tip of the ice-berg.
I don’t know how to say it in any other way except to say that as an episode in web history, I personally believe that Warblogging has been shameful, horrific and a stain on us all. The escalation of warblogs is a disaster for development of personal publishing, and a crippling blow to the individual integrity and worth of weblogs and weblogging. This whole media – a media which was supposed to be about freedom of expression, allowing everyone to have a voice and a space to talk openly and honestly – has turned increasingly into the worst kind of soapbox punditry, witch-hunting and as a platform for violent warmongers and nationalists. And I’m afraid I feel partly responsible…