Rude language and the heat death of venting steam

No, this isn’t about Jenica Rogers and the American Chemical Society (the topic of the second essay in the December 2012 Cites & Insights, although it’s really too fresh for C&I–but it follows so neatly from the first essay in that forthcoming-in-November issue).

Or maybe it is, in a way. A big chunk of that whole brouhaha came about because the PR person at ACS felt it appropriate to attempt to derail the discussion of ACS pricing by pointing out that Jenica Rogers had used strong informal language…on a casual network where she believed she was talking to friends and acquaintances. She was venting steam.

And I’ve just been called out on one social network for using rude language on a casual network where I believed I was talking to friends and acquaintances (and, by the way, deliberately “spoke” to the subnetwork rather than the whole network): where I could vent some steam. (That steam-venting has also been linked to from the comments of the project I was venting about, but that’s appropriate, and the person making the link didn’t explicitly call me out.)

There’s a huge difference, of course. Jenica Rogers, a talented university library director who should have even more influence than she does, was frustrated about a truly ridiculous situation with a vendor. She had every reason in the world to indulge in a couple of strong words. I, on the other hand, am a semi-retired library person (not a librarian) who was frustrated about something that’s probably my own damn fault–my inability to gain any kind of institutional or other support for what I regard as valuable work–and coupled that with a quick reading of a very strongly-worded essay that did achieve institutional support, and vented steam rudely. My bad.

No more comparisons with Jenica Rogers. They’re not fair to her.

Let’s look a little at what happened here.

Somebody linked to Beyond Literacy, “Exploring a Post-Literate Future.” Which appears to be sponsored by ACRL and the Ontario Library Association….the kind of institutional sponsors I’d love to have.

I went to take a look. And immediately encountered what I regarded as (and still regard as) intemperate, absolutist declarations that struck me as absurd. E.g.–quoting exactly as the leadoff goes:

Reading and writing are doomed.

Literacy as we know it is over.

Welcome to the post-literate future.

Although the next paragraph does mention “thought experiment,” the writer certainly doesn’t write as though it’s something to think about. The third non-BigBrotherish paragraph (sorry, but that’s how those boldface centered sentences look to me):

Writing about the end of literacy is certainly ironic and probably slightly foolish. However, literacy is doomed and this is the best way available to chart its decline and replacement.

Not “literacy might be doomed.” Not “print literacy may be joined by other forms of literacy.” (That happened long ago: If you’re planning to build a skyscraper or dance a ballet, I guarantee that text literacy isn’t the only literacy you need.) That last sentence is pretty damn absolute.

After reading–OK, skimming–the page, I reacted. OK, I overreacted. I blew off a little steam to my friends in the Library Society of the World on FriendFeed. (The same group Jenica Rogers blew off steam to, not at all coincidentally.) I called the project a euphemistic term for BS.

LSW’s an interesting group. It’s open (more than 800 members at this writing), although I’d say only about 50-75 people comment with any frequency. It’s on Friendfeed, which is somewhat of an orphan social network, but one that handles conversations beautifully–better than any other network I’ve tried–and one whose semi-orphan status may be an advantage: The conversations I care about aren’t lost in a flood of other conversations, and there’s relatively little spam and trolling.

Relatively little.

The folks at LSW–most of them actual librarians, but a few hangers-on like me–are entirely willing to point out that one of us is being stupid or rude or missing the point, or simply to disagree. A moderately lively discussion on this particular topic began.

I think it’s fair to say that one or two people sort of agreed with me; more disagreed, with varying amounts of dissension and humor. One of the participants in the project also commented, politely and at some length. (If the original text had had the nuance and air of examining possibilities that Farah Chung’s comment showed, I would certainly never have made my rude comment in the first place.)

And then a troll arrived, a troll who I’m absolutely certain has no connection to the Beyond Literacy thought experiment.

By this time, I’d recognized several things:

  • The Beyond Literacy project is one I probably wouldn’t comment on or participate in seriously, just as I never participated seriously in Lankes’ “Library as conversation” project. It just doesn’t float my boat, although the idea of using nothing but text to explore the apparently desirable and inevitable death of text is at least amusing.
  • I was responding as much to my failure as an entrepreneur–my failure to gain institutional backing for my projects–as I was to this project. Although I still find the tone of the first chapter so offputting that I can’t get past it.
  • With the arrival of the troll, the Friendfeed thread was an obstacle to possible useful discussion of the Beyond Literacy project.
  • Tempting as it was to edit my original comment to remove the rudeness (you can do that in Friendfeed), it would be wrong.

So I wrote an appropriate comment, created a new thread for other people to discuss Beyond Literacy (of course, they can also do so at the site itself–easier now that the project’s gone back to WP commenting), pointed to the new thread from the old one, and turned off commenting. I did not edit the original post, even though it may cause me some harm. I don’t plan to.

Now, today, I’m informed by Twitter that someone called me out for the rude comment, linking to the Friendfeed post. Pointedly, since the first part of the tweet is saying that this person will be commenting on Beyond Literacy. There’s simply no reason for the second half of the tweet other than to scold me for being rude.

In case it isn’t clear: I apologize for being rude. I don’t apologize for finding the wording of the project overview far too absolutist to make for a good thought experiment or discussion. When I’m told “This is the inevitable future. Discuss” and I find the stated future neither inevitable nor desirable, I’m not inclined to think further about it. I guess different people have different approaches to engendering thought and discussion–and since the person making the absolute statements is a library school professor who got cosponsorship from two library societies, he’s probably right and I’m probably wrong. So it goes.

If I was posting again, I’d probably say “I find this bemusing and way too absolute, and I’m surprised it’s cosponsored by ACRL and OLA.” Same message, less rude.

Oh: Farah Chung also pointed to the Friendfeed thread while repeating her comments (in that thread) within the project itself. That linkage was totally appropriate; she didn’t explicitly criticize me; all good.

What do I learn from this? That you’re never really only* among friends any more? I should probably have learned that years ago. But hey, I’m old, and sometimes I’m slow. I’m also, I suppose, a little stupid: I haven’t made any of my social network spaces wholly private, and I use my real name, the same real name, on all social networks. So I should expect the consequences.

Will I say something heated and stupid in the future? Probably. Will I remember that there’s really nowhere to vent steam any more? Probably not.

Will I be commenting further on Beyond Literacy? Probably not; it’s just not my thing. Doesn’t mean it might not be yours. I duplicated the link in this paragraph in case it is.

Update: I could not resist the urge to edit the Introduction to Beyond Literacy to make it nonconfrontational–to see what that would do to my feelings about it. Consider it an editorial experiment. Here’s the result.

*Update 2: I added “only” to the phrase “never really among friends,” since it’s still true that I feel that I’m mostly among friends and friendly acquaintances on LSW/Friendfeed. That was at the suggestion of another LSW person, Joe Kraus; thanks for the suggestion!

2 Responses to “Rude language and the heat death of venting steam”

  1. Farah Chung says:

    I have submitted the following comment on the beyondliteracy page that encompasses my response. I do not mean to embroil you in further dialogue nor do you need to post this comment on your blog. I was not sure how else to contact you, so I have chosen to comment here as I think you shall see this. I just wanted to let you know that I have posted the content below (well.. I suppose my comment will show up on the beyondliteracy page when my comment is approved). Thank you.

    Mr. Walt Crawford has posted a thoughtful blog (, created a FriendFeed for discussion anew (, and linked to our project, which is a fine gesture. Thank you for the nice words too.

    I am only posting links to Mr. Walt Crawford’s blog and additional FriendFeed so that others know his additional responses.

    I know that you do not feel that this thought experiment is for you, Mr. Crawford and that is perfectly understandable. I — again, I am only speaking for myself — appreciate your feedback.
    I look forward to different (and differing) opinions regarding the ideas expressed by this project because I know that I learn a lot whenever I am challenged and must revise what I think I know, my basic thought patterns, and the judgments I feel comfortable making. I can only grow and learn from others’ knowledge and perspectives, so thank you for communicating with me, however brief.

    If you wish to in the future, I would like to make it clear that you are welcome to converse, contribute, react and respond to our project here, on FriendFeed, or on Twitter. Feel free to comment on any of the other pages and chapters, if the mood to peruse any of the additional text (how limiting, alas!) should strike your fancy. It is meant to be composed in such a fashion that allows non-linear reading, if you see any particular topics that interest you.

  2. waltcrawford says:

    I’m not sure why this comment was trapped as spam, but it should not have been–and there were few enough spamments yesterday that I was able to spot it and retrieve it. Sorry for the delay; Spam Karma gets rid of 40-100 spamments on a typical day, so I’m unwilling to turn it off.