Borrowing stories

Our new, shifting post-Ghomeshi internet and how personal blogs can help us communicate during the worst and most necessary debates.

The internet may have felt particularly full of garbage this past week, but I have been extra appreciative of personal bloggers, and how their stories have helped us communicate during the worst and most necessary debates.

The Ghomeshi sexual violence scandal began to break a week and a half ago, and immediately made social media a particularly fraught place to run into your friends. Whether the topic was guilt without prosecution, the complicity of the CBC, the role of gender or the responsibility of the accusers, big solid lines were drawn, emotional sides were taken, people… surprised (and dismayed) each other.

It has been a fascinating read, watching how the focus and vocabulary of the conversation has changed by the day. I have been super charged to see how personal blogs have fundamentally affected the conversation.

You wrote the script out

The story initiated and then advanced in segments — you can read a recap here or here or a dozen other places — as the media navigated very treacherous early territory. While Ghomeshi slandered his accusers and launched an exorbitant lawsuit, media outlets were extremely careful to itemize events and attach “alleged” to nearly every word written. The nature of innocence-until-proven-guilty in a scenario where guilt may never be proven means that free comment is particularly vulnerable to defamation claims. Such claims are extra expensive when celebrity is involved.

That’s all fair, but it doesn’t help the rest of us. So much of this discussion is not about guilt, innocence, or how Ghomeshi himself got away with it. The scandal has brought up awful, sickening questions about abuse in general, how it affects the victims, and how our communities react to it, especially when positions of power are involved. The debates have had many, many sides.

  • How does a predator manage to go unchecked for so many years?
  • What makes some so quick to discount survivor stories, in the absence of physical proof?
  • What does it mean if a victim doesn’t report?
  • How do the abused end up blaming themselves, and not their abusers?
  • What past abusive events have we glossed over or not taken seriously, in our own lives or those around us?
  • Were our initial reactions valid, or informed heavily by gender bias and misplaced trust in celebrity?
  • What do we do now?

These are questions that the newspapers can’t answer with a scandal play-by-play, but they can begin to be answered by individuals — maybe never as a whole, but in small pieces that hopefully form a bigger picture made of (often brave, chilling, insightful) personal stories and reactions.

All my life is right before you

Often, those stories are told in the scope of a blog with minimal niche readership or personal traffic. It might be an expression of outrage, a personal abuse story, or a reflection on one’s own reactions. It might even be a story about Ghomeshi himself. The writer may not have expected to make a statement or a difference for anyone but themselves, but some posts hit the nail more precisely than others, and become quick, accessible shorthand for a certain viewpoint or experience. This is where the vocabulary of sharing comes into play.

The conversation on Facebook and Twitter has been painful, sometimes inspiring, often demoralizing. These are hard things to discuss with our communities, because the issues are super volatile, people are quick to judge and feel judged, and discussion brings the danger of making private experiences public.

‘Cause you have seen some unbelievable things

This is where I have been heartened to see blogs act as conversation segments for circulation and reuse. As more blog content reacting to the scandal emerged day by day, people shared blog post links in the comments on articles, feeds, or threads. In the midst of a media event that was adamantly all about the facts, some of those personal or opinion posts were viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

I can’t count how many times I saw links shared in a thread of Ghomeshi-related comments, during painful, sometimes hugely emotional debate, prefaced by “This says things so much better than I could.”

The links became shorthand for longer discussion, where space constraints or personal privacy prevented a lengthy reply. As the top posts emerged, they crystallized certain arguments and kept them from being muddied by unfocused repetition. They acted as proxy stories, shielding commenters from having to outline their own awful, private stories of abuse. They functioned as a spacer to bring breathing room between the people disagreeing and the explosive topic they were disagreeing on. They provided guidelines on how to speak to each other, and outlines for further discussion.

Even some CBC staffers, who couldn’t give specifics when the first news broke, expressed themselves by posting a careful link to the xojane article with a cautious I’ll just leave this here.

It was not a great article and it didn’t even scratch the surface of what would follow, but it was the best thing they had in their hands at the time, the only safe vocabulary available. Sharing a link in a charged situation like that, even publicly, can allow the (legally-important) distance of suggesting that an idea be considered, without having to outline or assert that idea ourselves.

So I want to thank all the personal bloggers who shared their experiences and their opinions this week, and let us use their words as our own. You might not know what a difference you made.

And the rest of the commenting world — if you need some shorthand to help you express yourself, here are some posts that might help you say any of the following:

Header image by B Furnari used under Creative Commons:

Right here, #WPRightNow blog post about the #WPRightNow tag, which can be applied to posts so that readers can filter for immediate updates to current events.

Traditional news outlets are crucial for getting the basic facts right. Your Twitter and Facebook feeds provide quick, unfiltered updates about events as they unfold.  What we often yearn for, though, is a personal angle: someone on the ground, or deeply involved with the story, to walk us through their own take on a complex event. When we learn why it matters to them, we begin to understand why we, too, should care.

Happy to see this—I think the current-ness of current events is a really important vertical to apply where we can to our reading communities. It adds personal depth to our understanding of what’s going on during important events, and it helps inform our own reading of traditional news. In fact, it can offer quick access to the right sources for traditional media. It’s a concept that largely originated with the spread of self-defined Twitter hashtags, has been applied a little more problematically to search engine rankings, and the more we can make it work on various platforms, the better. I’m interested to see if this initiative will work, or if the result will be overtagging of non-relevant content.

Lists of ladies

The Museum of New Art blitzes their Facebook page with female features that feel incomplete and temporary

The Museum of New Art in Detroit has a Facebook page that I enjoy following because they have a real commitment to content, focusing often on one artist at a time and posting images, bios, and links to further work. When these posts show up in my feed, it’s a refreshing, beautiful, educational break from the various levels of mundane in the stream.

So I was excited when they started posting a series of women artists (it’s a very male-heavy page), even though they attached the caveat:

Next, by request, a series of Women Artists (I’m going to post these all at once, so sorry I don’t have time for biographies)

As they rolled by, I saw so many unknown names! So many interesting faces!

But it started to feel overwhelming and underwhelming all at once. Perhaps, since it was by request, this excellent gesture was created too quickly to fill a gap that had been pointed out.

There were too many to take in at once, unless you refreshed all night or returned to the page to view en masse. The lack of biographical information or even links to a source of work left me a bit sour, like the profiles would be here and gone without any context. And the fact that most of them were photos OF the artists, without reference to their work, meant I had no idea what some of them did. And then there was the odd inclusion of movie stars like Marion Cotillard and Marilyn Monroe, photographed by men.

Anyway, I hate to nitpick about content presentation when I’m grateful the content is being presented at all, but there was no way to keep up with all these disappearing women.

I’m not posting this to needle the Museum of New Art’s social media team. I get it, we all lack in resources. I just think there’s an important takeaway that we should always be reminding ourself: as social media content producers, it’s so important to think about the timing, medium, place, and context of anything you produce. We’re not just content farms, pumping out indexable pages or shareable posts. I appreciate that the gesture of lady representation was made at all, but it’s a good reminder that if the goal is to present a special feature on an underserved topic, then it makes absolute sense to create a real experience with some depth so you can serve it a little better.