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Blogged Out?

Veteran bloggers fatigued by trolls, small bankrolls.

Bryan Zandberg 14 Mar

Bryan Zandberg is an assistant editor at The Tyee.

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Good: 'Usurped by morons'

Antonia Zerbisias is negotiating her return. Raymi the minx (NSFW) is at the top of her diarist's game. Matthew Good finds endless fodder in the Bush administation.

Between these laurel-sporting Canuck weblog superstars and the rest of the world, it's clear the blogosphere is alive and well.

As of today, there are 71.1 million blogs out there, and there'll be 175,000 more by tomorrow. The dumpy-sounding term was being declared word of the year back in 2004 already. Safe to say then that most of us have made the commonplace connection between blogs and the globe's much-fetishized massive social experiment.

But some people are starting to notice just how noisy and mean-spirited a place the blogosphere can be. And it's not just techno-luddites who are coming up with the sharpest criticisms of Web 2.0. Far from it, in fact.

In recent months, some of the fittest Internet citizens -- in that traffic-driving and Darwinian sense of the word -- have been quietly adjusting the way they self-publish to the masses. And though it seems counterintuitive to curb the users of a user-generated explosion, The Tyee dug up a smattering of veterans, at home and abroad, who have surprising things to say about surviving an increasingly vulgar game.

'You live off that'

Michele Catalano lives in Long Island, New York, and her life, along with her award-winning pop culture blog, A Small Victory, was transformed by the events of 9-11. Almost overnight, her posts and her politics took a hard turn to the right as Catalano struggled with feelings of rage over the loss of people she knew who had died in the attacks.

In no time, tens of thousands of people from around the world were routinely checking in to read what she says became "a first-hand account of what was going on from New York."

While her increasingly pro-war views cost her some readers, who in fact turned on her, they also earned her loads more. The conversations, she says, were intoxicating. And although a complex tragedy lurked behind it all, her online life became more dominant than her offline one as she found herself posting and responding 10 hours a day.

"It was a great thing to be a part of. There was a very big community feel to it at that point."

Slowly, however, her political rants started softening, to the point where one day she openly regretted that she'd ever voted for Bush. Like a digital Dixie Chick, Catalano suddenly had a new backlash of angry and anonymous people to deal with, this time from the right. And when they got past their sense of betrayal, the knives came out.

"The trolls, the constant attacks: in the beginning, you live off that. It's almost fun. But after awhile it turns something that was fun into something tedious."

For her disaffected readers, of course, the bloodsport was great: "They're watching a wrestling match and you've got to entertain them."

"If you don't answer them, they take that as a victory for them."

Israel, again

Antonia Zerbisias has exactly 10 minutes for me because I've been mistakenly calling her work all day and she's at home. But 10 minutes with this straight-shooting Toronto Star columnist read like a mini-tutorial on how a first generation of bloggers now cope with the slings and arrows of Web 2.0.

Lesson one: she's not the one who pulled the plug on her blog for the Star, which ground to a mysterious halt last Christmas. No, she's simply "on hiatus" -- although she took a 10-week leave of absence because of family issues.

It's the new administrative arrangement that is to blame.

"The current management doesn't see the economic value in it," she explains, noting the paper's bigwigs want to focus on the printed newspaper over the electronic one -- a bizarro business strategy given Zerbisias is read by practically everyone who cares to stay informed about media issues in Canada. So, among other things, she's keeping herself to a print column these days.

"It's been awkward," she says. "It's kind of ludicrous that the media columnist for the biggest newspaper in Canada -- in 2007 -- doesn't have a significant online presence."

Lesson two: Zerbisias has suffered bouts of blogger fatigue. Not because posting multiple times a day is gruelling, but because many of the denizens of the digital universe can be, well, a big pain in the ass sometimes. Especially in the comment threads.

"A lot of things got hijacked," she says of her now-defunct blog. "It seemed like 10 comments in, we always ended up on Israel. It was ridiculous."

Refusing to pull punches, Zerbisias was met with a torrent of ruthless abuse from determined attackers, the kind of stuff that went far beyond anything she'd experienced in her career as a print journalist.

"I felt like I was being targeted by certain people who just live, you know, to come and troll on certain pet peeves and certain pet topics."

Like many, Zerbisias couldn't refrain from replying to the crudest and most ignorant commenters. She spent hours answering all her hate mail, where she put clever ploys into action to try and irritate her attackers (like telling them the Star was paying her a nickel per response, which was of course a lie).

"I would just mock them, you know, 'Thank-you very much for your trenchant comments.... You know, whatever.'"

Premature elucidation

Like Michele Catalano, Matthew Good has killed his blog a time or two out of frustration.

An early pioneer of politically charged commentary, a decade of online experiences have cooled Good's jets somewhat. In an interview from a studio in Vancouver's Gastown district -- where he's recording his latest album -- Good admits he's become far less altruistic about why he posts.

"I used to think I could start conversations," he says on the subject of engaging politically minded young readers. "Now, I do it for my own sake."

"People tend to take advantage of the fact that you spend your time doing this everyday, you know what I mean?"

Talking in to Good in the flesh unearths at least one explanation for the change: his formidable command of history and politics. And the blogosphere, he says, isn't exactly a salon for well-informed ideas.

"It's very difficult to get into conversations with people on a level on a blog, because you always have to go back to the building blocks of the argument."

Not only that, but in today's infotainment culture, Good's convinced more people care about the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby than the genesis of sectarian violence in Iraq.

So why blog at all? His rationale is surprisingly pragmatic.

"It's just a place to kind of jot down stuff so I remember it. It's like my version of, except with commentary. That's how I justify it to myself now."

"There's a kind of defeatist tone to that, and I'll be perfectly honest about that."

Really techno-realist

Periodic disappearing acts aside, how does one deal with the troublemakers? Because if Web 2.0 has one cardinal commandment, it's the idea that censoring anyone, even giant pains in the ass, is a sin. It all hinges on interactivity.

But some have terribly few qualms about telling certain citizen journalists to put a sock in it.

Says Zerbisias about her next foray into blogging: "I'm not going to let comments go on like [I did in the past]. They will be closed after a day, at most. They won't be going on for 200 comments."

Blocking anonymous posters is technologically pretty tough, but Zerbisias has decided on a simpler way to establish order.

"I'm just going to be much more ruthless about deleting comments," she says.

Good, recalling several late-night phone conversations he's had with Zerbisias on this exact topic, has arrived at a similar conclusion. While he loves nothing more than to stimulate reasonable debate, these exchanges are the exception, not the rule.

And while previously it was next to impossible to block troublemakers, with the content management tools of new blog-publishing software "you have vast, vast control," he says, feigning a diabolical laugh, then adopting a more thoughtful expression.

"As someone who is kind of a proponent of free speech and of people being able to express their opinions, it's kind of a bizarre juxtaposition."

"On the one side you don't ever want to have to exercise that power," he explains, adding in the next breath, "We find ourselves having to."

"People in that environment will come along and they'll look to start shit just for the sake of doing it. I think it's the biggest, most unfortunate part of the web," says Good, whose leftist views have drawn hordes of obstreperous right-wingers. "It's like anything else: usurped by morons."

'More room for me'

Even if the morons truly did rule the blogosphere, Lauren White probably wouldn't care. The Torontonian who goes by "raymi the minx" is North America's current diarist sensation, and her blog has lead to book deals, awards and cult-like fame.

So she's not into talking blogger burnout, minus two observations. One, that "everything on the Internet is a black hole," and two, that "every hobby online eventually becomes a major addiction."

Other than those admissions, no sign of letting up here. (Although maybe this is a function of youth: a recent Pew/Internet and American Life survey put more than half (54 per cent) of American bloggers as being under the age of 30.)

Here's what she had to say in an e-mail exchange: "to other people it is a grind cos they have jobs, me, this is my job, creating making stuff, taking the piss, all of it, i love it. sorry everyone else who gives up and quits, more room for me!"

Why the drive? Raymi, like many bloggers, is quite taken with the idea of a giant personal archive.

"i'd like to think i'm establishing something with all this work i put into my blog, laying the foundation, i dunno, something like it, something so i won't have to always explain myself to people who do not blog or read them."

Harder the fall

Back in NYC, Catalano, now a 44-year mother and divorcee, has sealed off A Small Victory, along with a piece of her political past.

"For my mental health I really needed to stop writing about that kind of stuff," she says, "The bigger the audience you have, the harder it is to keep going after awhile."

"People only have so many good rants in them," says Victoria-based blogger Sean Holman of the Public Eye Online, a reporter who prefers the sustainability of reportage over opinion, and who stays out of the comment threads.

Like Raymi, one of the reasons Catalano got into blogging in the first place was to further her writing career. But those plans were shelved when she became "sucked into the politics thing" after 9-11.

"I think that really closed the door for me because I went into a totally different direction."

With Faster Than The World, a return to her pop-culture-writing roots, Catalano has joined forces with a collective of other bloggers to lighten the load and yet still post regular material. Matthew Good recently did the same thing.

And, Catalano, like Good, busies herself with other things now.

"I hardly read blogs anymore," she says, "and I don't spend nearly as much time on the computer as I used to."

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