Community, Controversy, Conflict

My husband and some colleagues of ours have a graphic narrative blog, and recently he remarked to me that unlike my blog, theirs gets almost no comments (and mine is nothing, of course, compared to some romance blogs). Comics people, he said, didn’t seem to have a culture of commenting on each other’s stuff, while romance people seemed to have a sense of “community,” commenting on each other’s blogs, carrying on linked conversations between blogs and on Twitter.

I’m not sure whether this difference is real, because I don’t read a lot of comics blogs. And it’s easy to leap to some stereotypical assumptions of why it might be true, if it is: “comics people” are guys, “romance people” are women (though in fact one of my husband’s fellow-bloggers is female). Comics people are lonely, socially inept geeks, romance people are lonely cat-owners . . . no, the logic is breaking down already. Maybe people who’ve been around one or both of these communities longer than I have can comment.

This conversation got me thinking about the most recent Romancelandia kerfuffle. If you’re a “romance person,” you already know about this, if you’re not, you can rubber-neck here (but be warned, the thread is a good example of the weirder/nastier side of the internet). I don’t wish to stir the dead embers of the kerfuffle or to comment on the substance (on that, I basically agree with VacuousMinx). But I’m interested in the rhetoric of community in Sarah Wendell’s post and some of the responses and in the questions it raises about just what kind of community “we” are.

To be clear, I’m interested in Wendell’s post as a piece of writing. And I’m referring to her as “Wendell” because that’s how I’d refer to any author whose work I was discussing. I am not commenting on her as a person or her motivations in writing it, which I do not assume I can know from reading it. In my limited experience of Sarah the person (full disclosure here), she struck me as sincere and straightforward, but at the moment I’m just interested in the imagery of the piece and what it tells us about how “romance people” think about Romancelandia.

Wendell’s post is illustrated with a picture of a front porch featuring a couple of rocking chairs, just the sort of place you could relax with a good book or sip iced tea and talk about romance novels with a friend. In the post, Wendell explains that her involvement in Simple Progress grew out of breakfast meetings with a neighbor. She asks why other bloggers who drew attention to her involvement in the company didn’t ask her about it first, adding that one of them “is my neighbor, too. She has been invited into my home and met my family. She could have rung my doorbell.” In the following paragraph, Wendell comments that “the online community is a pretty close and intermixed neighborhood.”

“Neighbor,” then, is used both fairly literally (someone who lives nearby) and figuratively (Romancelandia is an online neighborhood) in the post. Like Wendell’s post, many of the comments focus on personal relationships and feelings. There are people who defend Wendell because they like and trust her–whether they’ve met her in person or know her through her blog and Twitter. There are commenters who feel somewhat betrayed by the discovery that Wendell has a business relationship with some authors, because they thought of her as a friend with whom they were chatting about books, not a professional. There are other people who replace the friend/neighbor imagery and its focus on personal relationships with a discussion of conflict of interest and a focus on structural/business relationships.

And a number of people comment on the “blurring” of roles: some blogs have grown so big and well know that they may strike their readers as professional sites rather than amateur readers’ sites; some bloggers give presentations at conferences and write or edit books; some bloggers are published or aspiring authors; bloggers who review accept advertising or free ARCs/copies of books from publishers and readers. Who, as the lawyer asked Jesus, is my neighbor? Or if you don’t care for a Biblical allusion, there’s Sesame Street’s Ernie’s “Who are the people in your neighborhood?”

In some ways, “neighborhood” is a good image for Romancelandia, but I don’t see it in quite the way Wendell’s front-porch picture suggests. Neighbors have something in common, and the parable of the good Samaritan suggests they may have some responsibilities to each other, but they aren’t necessarily friends. Thinking of them that way means we can be taken by surprise when they imagine our relationship in other ways: bloggers who think of themselves as amateurs (including in the root sense of lovers of the genre) are non-plussed when readers or the FTC expect “professionalism” or “disclosure” from them; readers forget that authors are on Twitter partly to market their books, and are annoyed by a spurt of promo for a new release. There’s also a tendency (which Jane from Dear Author alluded to in the comments on Wendell’s post) to assume that any visible relationship in Romancelandia is a friendship, so that a reviewer who interacts with an author on Twitter must be biased because they are “friends.”

Despite the occasional noisy party, I like living in a diverse neighborhood, and the same goes for Romancelandia. The conversations about books and the genre there are enriched by having readers, authors, editors and scholars all participating. Since I don’t have many people in “real life” to talk to about romance fiction (or a real front porch), I value the chance to pull up a virtual rocker and engage in blog and Twitter conversations. But we’re not a homogenous mass, so it’s probably wise for all of us to be transparent about our various roles and relationships, just as my neighbors have learned to go around warning people that they’re going to have a party and promising to take it inside at a reasonable hour. It just might prevent people from calling the cops and starting a kerfuffle. Or not, because every neighborhood has its troublemakers.

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7 Responses to Community, Controversy, Conflict

  1. Jessica says:

    I have noticed the commenting thing as well. Lit blogs get almost no comments, and often comments are turned off. Yet, as you mention, commenting is very common in romance. I think community is an important part of that, as you say. But this means that disagreements are more public, and therefore more likely to blow out of control.

    I wonder, is there a tension between Wendell’s rhetorical use of the concept of “friendship” to deflect criticism onto those who asked questions about her public persona, and Litte’s assertion that residing in Romanceland doesn’t make everyone “friends”?

  2. lazaraspaste says:

    I’m not really surprised by the kerfuffle. I have no feelings and/or opinions about it whatsoever. However, I will say that I think that the expectation of community or neighborliness or friendship or whatever and the seeming violation of that expectation through something that may be a conflict of interest (which I think people are using wrong but whatever) or professional distance can create a lot of anxiety because it SEEMS like people are closer than they actually are. This is certainly the case in most neighborhoods and communities. It often feels like it gets divided into factions, in groups and out groups. Even if this not actually true, it can seem this way and when people don’t disclose their relationships, which may or may not even exist and may or may not be a conflict of interest, it can seem as if something sordid is occuring behind closed doors.

    I know for myself that I get suddenly paranoid that I’m being blackballed or shut out or given the cut direct by people I only know online. But this is foolishness. The paranoia is not a result of this actually being the case but the feeling or the sense that somewhere, some people are having a friendship without me. I blame junior high school for this feeling in the first place. It just sort of follows you around infecting other communities and neighborhoods you belong to. But I agree. There should be a disclosure. But also, sometimes there shouldn’t be because it isn’t actually anyone else’s business. I guess the question everyone was kerfuffling about was, how big of a party does it have to be in order that I should go around and aler the neighbors?

  3. Janet W says:

    Janet W: Jessica said, “I wonder, is there a tension between Wendell’s rhetorical use of the concept of “friendship” to deflect criticism onto those who asked questions about her public persona, and Litte’s assertion that residing in Romanceland doesn’t make everyone “friends””

    I’m more comfortable with the notion that residing in Romanceland makes us neighbours but not necessarily friends. In my mind, friends and fangrrrldom can mesh in an uncomfortable way — I’m sure everyone has their own stories of when that has happened. Where I live, the houses are extremely close together so being a good neighbour can take many different forms. One thing that good neighbours probably shouldn’t do, though, is “assume”. Here’s my story. My dd’s crew team, two years ago, celebrated after a huge regatta triumph, at our house, outside, in and out of the hot tub, with loud music and happy girls making a lot of noise. I “assumed” that because it was a holiday weekend Sunday and that the neighbours most likely to complain had held similar parties in the past (their son crewed too), that all would be well. Well, no, the cops came and said there had been noise complaints. At 10:30pm!

    This year we crossed our fingers her team would be celebrating again — and they were — but we were pro-active. We Disclosed our Plans, in Advance, to all our neighbours. We even invited them to stop by for a beer. It’s not that the year before, in my opinion, we had done anything actionable or wrong, but we hadn’t been very smart. We failed to consider how it might look, how others might feel, what folks might say and do. There was a party this year and there wasn’t a single complaint. I learned a valuable lesson and it has made me reconsider the meaning of neighbourhood. Friendship is great — but it’s not necessary, it’s more of a bonus. Getting along amicably though is a good thing — and it’s easily achieved, once you step back from (as my husband and I did) our position of 1. we did nothing wrong 2. why didn’t they just call us instead of calling the police. I too thought Sunita had it right with her disclose, disclose, disclose advice.

  4. VacuousMinx says:

    Great post, Liz, and much food for thought. I think your distinction between friends and neighbors is a really useful one, and JanetW’s example shows the distinction. The intimacy of friendship and the intimacy of neighborhoods are so very different, but they are both important types of intimacy.

    I think that there *is* a tension, as Jessica suggested, between Sarah and Jane’s uses of *friend.” There is no way that everyone I’m following on Twitter is my friend (even though I drastically limit the list of people I follow). But we develop the type of intimate shorthand of speech that neighbors do, as do members of sports teams, flatmates, and residents of a college dorm.

    I also think that Lazaraspaste makes an excellent point about in- and out-groups. It’s impossible to be human and *not* occasionally wonder if we’re not part of the in-group, even if, in our more distanced moments, we don’t care that much if we’re part of it. And I also agree that not every relationship should be disclosed (privacy is also an important right). That’s why I limited myself to financial connections.

    Romancelandia is an imagined community of people who share one salient, strongly-held identity as romance readers. Many of us don’t have face-to-face relationships where we can discuss romance, and certainly not at the level of intensity and sophistication we get online. But it’s such a partial identity, and it’s hard to remember that when we’re feeling bonded over a very good or very bad reading experience.

  5. Merrian says:

    This post and comments are really interesting because I have just read a review of a book which posits that the internet is forcing us into a false congruency of presenting a singular personality/identity. Pariser suggests “that a lot of what we do online is performative, and that human identity is adaptable, plastic. Our personalities are not consistent; our behaviour changes according to context. He points out, “one of the most important uses of privacy is to manage and maintain the separations and distinctions between our separate selves.” The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser pub Penguin | $32.95 aus (he’s a guy who helped build MoveOn.org)

    I read the post and thread in the light of this and agree with the posters and commenters above, not all our friends are neighbours nor neighbours friends. We do not share everything with everyone equally. In this case, the internet puts us all in the same space so we have our boundaries muddled.

    I think Janet W’s story above is a great example of ‘disclose, disclose, disclose’ as a useful mantra in these cases because it isn’t about us. It is about how we are perceived in this performative space.

    I have also been thinking about how romance readers are leaders in ebook uptake and think it is because we are already online and talking to each other, not because we hate the covers of the novels. This also for me illustrates that fact that we are a community created out of what we say to each other and that influencing and being influenced by the community is a sort of operational norm; we expect it to happen. I wonder if this means that we are sensitive to the uses of influence and so this kerfuffle isn’t just about who is in or out, or conflicts of interest but acknowledging that ‘influence’ is a commodity in romancelandia.

  6. lizmc2 says:

    Thanks for a great discussion; it’s good to hear from those who are much longer-term Romancelandia residents than I am.

    I think the cynical way to look at the friends/not friends tension is that people claim these roles in order to justify whatever they want to do. But I’m more inclined to see this tension as an inevitable part of the blurring, shifting, whatever you want to call it on the internet, which is after all stil a pretty new “place” to interact with others. My relationships with fellow Romanceland denizens (including all of you) mean a lot to me, but they aren’t exactly friendships. Maybe we need new terminology.

    Merrian, that book sounds really interesting. I wonder if questions of privacy and separation of roles become especially salient in an online community where we touch on some pretty intimate areas of life. My reading experience is influenced by my personal experience, and when you’re talking about love, relationships, and sexuality in your reading it can be hard sometimes to keep your private self out of the discussion or to decide how much I is TM. Strangers and friends are both people we confess to, and the stranger-friends of the internet can feel very safe to talk to. Until they are not.

    • Merrian says:

      I agree Liz. I was thinking that the way and what I comment on on the series of blogs I follow is very revealing of the essential ‘me’ even if I am not setting out to be confessional – so does this mean you know more about me than my cousins do? I was lunching with one of my cousin’s and actually had the thought that there is so much that we don’t know about each other.

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