The blawgosphere lives. Which also means it evolves, and it’s evolving right before our eyes. What started as a discussion has evolved, little by little, into a form of ordered chaos, and is now changing again into more limited and less interesting conversation. It’s a shame, and it’s a necessity.
Above the Law posted a major change to its comment policy.
As the Above the Law community continues to grow, more people are posting absurd, inane, and arguably offensive comments. And more people are complaining about those comments — in the comments, as well by email and other means.
There isn’t a great deal of overlap between readers of Simple Justice and Above the Law. For those unfamiliar, ATL deals largely with issues that interest younger associates at Biglaw, focusing on layoffs and bonuses, with a side order of infantile sexual issues amongst young lawyers. It’s devolved since David Lat handed over the reins to Elie Mystal, whereas it once looked closely at the sex lives of hottie judges, it now discusses the dating problems of associates with acne.
Despite, or because of, this focus, ATL has a huge audience, dwarfing blawgs like Simple Justice. One might suspect that these “best and brightest” of the Slackoisie would offer some thoughtful comments, challenging each other to show who was the bestest and brightest. Nope. Instead, their comments prove that even the former editor of law review is blithering idiot. The comments section was a wasteland of childish stupidity, with the first half dozen usually relegated to the commenter who desperately hoped to be “first” to the latter commenters randomly inserting the meaningless language for which one would smack their fifth grader. It was not merely worthless, but truly embarrassing.
At the same time, Lawprof Jack Balkan had enough of the vitriol in comments at Balkanization, and decided that the new default status would be to close comments altogether.
[T]he comments sections are populated by regular trolls and many threads have turned into little more than name-calling. There is very rarely any serious analysis; mostly there is point scoring and vitriol. Many regular readers have written to say that they find the comments section a distraction and think the blog would be far better without it.
Dan Solove at Co-Op notes the decline in worthiness of comments, but that the “comment culture” of various blawgs differ so greatly. His blawg, which is far more academic in tone and content, has yet to see its commentary devolve to the point of being problematic, while Orin Kerr at Volokh and Walter Olson at Secular Right have had very different experiences. I’ve thrashed about to find a way to encourage discussion while discouraging problems. I’ve been largely unsuccessful, in that no one thinks they are a problem and many demand their right to post whatever they want.
Here, the trend has taken another curious shift in the past few weeks. This time, the evolution has been closer to revolution, as it has happened with such ferocious speed that it was impossible to miss. Despite more than 8000 comments at Simple Justice since its inception, there has been a sudden falling off of discussion by many of the “regulars” on the internal comment section here. It seems that the community that developed has moved from Simple Justice, and blawgs in general, to a new home: Twitter.
It’s not that the subjects aren’t being discussed, but that they are being discussed elsewhere. This presents a problem for blawgs, as the discussion on twitter about subjects on blawgs means that many are left out, the discussion isn’t memorialized along with the post and the depth of discussion is necessarily shallow, given the limitations twitter imposes on anything resembling actual thought. If all of your ideas can be stated in 140 characters or less, you are either the most succinct writer in the world or your thoughts aren’t very profound.
The reason for this shift is clear: community. My primary community, the criminal defense lawyers in the practical blawgosphere, spends a lot more time on twitter these days. Some can be found there every evening, twitting away. I tend to jump in and out in short bursts, then move to another activity that involves flesh and blood people, but that’s my choice. Others find the virtual community more comforting, more addictive.
Unlike the comment section on blawgs, twitter is self-moderating. If someone’s twits either lack interest or annoy, you simply unfollow and, poof, they disappear from your screen. To the extent my efforts to clamp down on comments stifled people who had things that needed saying, twitter provides a place where no one can stop them. Now every person has their very own soap box, and they can twit to their heart’s content.
Of course, as the lifecycle of twitter is far more accelerated than anywhere else online, there have been mass deletions of spammers from time to time, who comprise many of the “followers” of lawyers in the hopes that you’ll follow them in return as a matter of etiquette. Just yesterday, twenty of my “followers” suddenly disappeared, all of them spammers. The twittersphere is rife with abusive potential, flagrant marketing, self-promotion and lies. But no one can make you follow anyone you don’t want to, and most of the more aggressive marketers look far more painfully desperate than they realize, giving rise to some humor and little persuasion.
This plus for twitter, though, is a minus for the blawgosphere. It reduces the value of blawgs by siphoning off the valuable discussion and leaving either a void or a palette to be painted by the nuttier folks who file in and out. There are still plenty of nuts around to comment, even if the more thoughtful people have gone elsewhere for their discussions. Statistics here show that readership remains high, and increasing, while discussion wanes.
Ironically, other blawgers who have been less successful in gaining readership have had far greater success gaining exposure on twitter. Twitting requires little thought and a happy face for someone to succeed in becoming popular. Twit regularly and be supportive of other twits and people will follow. It’s the perfect laboratory for observing the mechanics of positive human interaction, despite it being a substantive wasteland. But community doesn’t require substance, just pleasant co-existence.
I don’t know what this means for the blawgosphere, where the discussion was a large part of the fun. I don’t find the twittersphere anywhere near as fulfilling as others do, and have no plans to spend my evenings twitting from now on. Perhaps this is a leading indicator of the death of the blawgosphere, even as those marketing to lawyers who are terminally behind the curve that they need to start a blawg to market themselves to death. If you have to “sell” people on using new technology, it’s probably neither new nor cool anymore, and the cook kids have moved on to something else.
Be thankful that the readers/commenters at Above the Law haven’t brought their idiocy to twitter yet. Check out the comments to the change notification post to get a sense of just how awful they are and how little they contribute. And these children are paid $160,000 base salary? Would they follow each other on twitter to see who wrote “first” or “asslobster” (one of the favorite expressions, apparently, amongst the Slackoisie)? I can’t imagine that anyone would tolerate this nonsense, but then I’m not a card-carrying member of the Slackoisie.
As I write for the sake of writing, I may well be the last person standing in the practical blawgosphere when all the cool kids have long since moved on. But like the others who have suffered the evolution of blawg comments, I am sorry to see the discussion either devolve or flow elsewhere. It’s part of the benefit and enjoyment of blawging. But the good people will go where the community exists, and if it ceases to be here, then there’s little that can be done about.
As twitter (at least for the moment) continues its spectacular growth, it drains the blawgosphere of life. Whether this means the blawgosphere is nearing the end of its lifecycle, I don’t know. But it is most assuredly evolving.