I've been writing about digital communities for a generation, ever since they were first spawned in San Francisco and New York and online etiquette has always challenged and fascinated me. Social media like Facebook have taken the digital community to a completely new and different level, challenging people like me – and you – to construct new kinds of boundaries and a new kind of etiquette.
I have never permitted comments on my blog because it is not a community, it is a monologue, a living memoir of my life, no different for me than a book, and not something I do communally. I write what I wish about what I wish and people are free to follow it or not. I want people to share in my thoughts and photographs and I love hearing their thoughts and stories in return.
I have never accepted the notion that it is healthy for me to pay for people to come and be hostile or disturbing. And I wanted the blog and the farm to be different from the raucous and hostile world beyond. Since the blog has grown rapidly almost from its inception I believe that was a good choice, With social media, that construct has changed once more. I do permit comments on my Facebook page and once or twice a day I try and read as many of them as I can. This has been challenging for me, both rewarding and disturbing. Facebook is a powerful tool to expand my readership and promote my books and other work, and it has greatly extended the reach and power of my blog and work. It has raised a lot of new questions about boundaries also.
So I am developing my own notion of manners and etiquette. I have come to see the blog as my house online, my digital home, and the people who come to my home my guests, asked to follow the general etiquette of guests – to be civil, open, friendly and interested.
If I see anything approaching obsessive argument or hostility and anger, I simply delete or ban the comment and its creator. I just have no time for that in my life, even though mindless and reflexive hostility seems to be increasingly steadily in the outside media and world. A number of people think nothing of being viscerally hostile or rude, commenting on things that have nothing to do with my work or the topics on my blog. This has been very healthy for me, as angry comments have forced me to confront the anger inside of me, and so much of it is gone. My life is not an argument to be reviewed by strangers on my own digital space, my Internet home. Comments must be productive, of use to other people.
I do not encourage or participate in the hysteria machine that marks so many communications in America – the idea that we use the digital community to spread the many warnings and alarms that pass for communications in some minds. I can take care of myself, I am not going on Facebook to be told that caring for animals humanely is important or that I should be careful not to injure myself taking wallpaper off of a wall. You are responsible for you, I am responsible for me.
I very much welcome disagreement and challenge, as long as it is expressed in a civil way. Many people point out that they don't always agree with me, as if this is something I need or expect. I don't. I'm not running for governor or mayor. Disagreement is very healthy, necessary in fact, presented in a thoughtful and reasoned way. Civil disagreement is becoming so rare in America that people are forgetting how important it is.
So the rules of my home are really simple and free. Everyone is welcome here, whether they agree with me or not. No one is welcome here who uses anger or cruelty or righteous judgement to attack me or anyone else. I don't expect people who come into my home to be hostile or insensitive with me, nor do I accept it online. The fact that I open a part of my life up is not an invitation to be rude or nasty. I also want people to feel safe here. When I asked the people reading my blog if they wished me to open it up to comments, more than 95 per cent said no, they are sick of the hostility and tension in the open spaces of the Internet. Sad, but revealing.
These rules are working, I think. I love doing the blog, and it is growing rapidly. I am part of a genuine community that supports me and my work, and that also hopefully draws support from me, my work and the comments and generous spirit of the many good people who post messages here. The new digital community demands a new kind of etiquette and I am proud of the fact we are putting that together here.
I want this to be a creative place, a safe place, a place of encouragement and shared experience. Sadly, the Internet seems to breed hostility and disconnection. It is just so easy to be a lughead when you are hiding behind an e-mail address.
This ease seems to breed a lot of stupidity and hostility. Happily, that is not all it can spawn. So we all have to figure out this new kind of community, it is always evolving. In this space we are making a real community, a productive and meaning – and hopefully safe – space.