Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Illiterate Blogosphere

Say what you want about the "open forum" of the blogosphere. Every now and then we have to confront an episode in which the absence of both editorial control and an agreement to adhere to social norms can turn the best of intentions into an orgy that runs the gamut from silly to reprehensible behavior. I suppose this is the sort of episode that reveals who we really are, however painful it may be to bow to that inevitable.

The specific episode I have in mind began last night at 8:45 PM (probably EDT), when The Huffington Post posted a link to a New York Times story for which they supplied their own headline:

Two Months After Vow To Reign In NSA, Dem Concessions On Wiretapping Expected

A bit less than an hour after this post appeared (9:39 PM), reader DarrowFan felt a need to point out that this headline had been incorrectly worded. The resulting comment was polite, socially proper, and even understanding:

Hey Huffington Post Editors: It's "REIN" in and not "reiGn" in. To "reign" is what kings and queens do. When you "rein in somebody" (with no G in the spelling), you're doing the same thing you do to horses: You "rein" them in, and that's what you meant to say here. "...rein in NSA..." You should really fix this headline! (I understand how it happened though because years ago when I was a magazine editor, an issue almost went out the door with this same error! Happily, somebody caught it. So, no criticism from me, believe me! Just think you need to change it.)

(My own reaction was that the headline was some sort of Freudian slip, but that is just the way my mind works. Personally, I was glad to see someone with a background in magazine editing take the helm on this.) Unfortunately, this effort to make a positive contribution seems to have touched off a whole host of sore nerves, reminding me of Herb Gardner's simile in A Thousand Clowns, likening telling a bad joke to raping someone's pet turtle. Within a dozen minutes (9:51 PM), mike53 had his flame-thrower locked, loaded, and firing:

Enough with the grammar lessons. Adults get the context even though the words may not be correct. Go be "superior" elsewhere.

DarrowFan tried gamely to hold his position and argue that proper use of language was not a matter of flaunting superiority. However, hugs4u jumped into the pool with the next attack at 10:15 PM:

Who gives a shit on proper english, when the house and senate are screwing people, proper english is the least of the worries.

Then, at 12:43 PM today, freespeach delivered the coup de grace in a manner that well suited the author's handle:

ATFU Darrowfan. You are clearly trying to distract from the point of this thread with your red herring spelling rant. GFY

The Democrats are whores who do not deserve our votes. Vote Green, vote any third party in your district.

Is this the sort of thing that the Web 2.0 evangelists have in mind when they wax so eloquently about the "wisdom of crowds?" DarrowFan was actually following a time-honored tradition, which goes back at least to the days of Robert Musil at the beginning of the twentieth century. Musil was a fixture of the Viennese cafe society of that time. It was said that he spent most of the day at his favorite table with a pile of the day's newspapers, marking off every spelling, syntactic, and semantic error he could find. It would be nice to believe that his assiduous attention to what we say and how we say it could have averted the colossal mess of the First World War, but that would be fantasizing to a point of absurdity. Nevertheless, I firmly agree with DarrowFan that reckless indifference to our use of language is a symptom of sloppy thinking (if not the absence of thought altogether). Were Musil to attempt his task today, given the sharp reduction in newspapers, it would probably consume less of his time; but, if he were apply the same approach to what he heard on television and radio (not to mention what he could read in the blogosphere), he probably would not be able to finish one day's work before the next day had begun!

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