The following was received as a comment and, as the author expresses an interest in seeing a broader discussion by the SO community, we’ve decided to repost it as a full story.
Hello, Trevor & Aaron, administrators of Symbolic Order
I visit your site on the recommendation of one of my postgraduate students, who is currently working on her MA dissertation. This piece of work takes as its subject the treatment of politics (in the English language, only) on independent Internet fora. She monitors a total of approximately two-dozen sites closely, yours being one of them, and a very great many others less closely. As you note elsewhere, while there are many sites extant, very few are of durable quality. You might feel justly proud that Symbolic Order manages well a difficult job, and one that few others pull off. It may also encourage you to know that your work is appreciated and forms part of the basis for what will, in time, be a published academic study (though I note, with a degree of sympathy, your scepticism regarding the quality of some university discourse!)
Anyhow, on to the point of this mail.
My student contacted me this morning to inform me that, and I quote, ìall hell had broken looseî and to advise me that I should visit SO as soon as possible lest the phenomenon which had so startled her disappear. I followed her exhortations accordingly and have to say, for my part, found what I discovered to be extremely interesting. I advised Sally to write to you but she felt unable to do so, given her desire to remain objective in her orientation to the sites she monitors. I advised her that participant observation was a valid form of analysis, but it was not one with which she felt comfortable here. She was not averse, however, to my suggestion that I should enter the debate that currently enlivens your site.
Before offering my perspective, I should first acknowledge that, being British and not having any intimate knowledge of the US beyond its exported culture, some of my analysis might be off target or lack nuance. The rumblings do seem to have a peculiarly American flavour! I hope you will bear with me if I misread some of the subtleties. I should also state that, as a cultural scientist with a long background in sociology, I inhabit a particular discursive framework and that this will inevitably prejudice my observations. Once again, I can only hope enough of interest remains to make this intervention worthwhile or, failing that, not altogether without value.
A couple of my impressions, then:
What had been an eminently stable virtual-community has suddenly been thrown into a state of considerable confusion through the interruption of a new and discordant voice. It would be folly to attempt to impute motives to Kid Woof Woof with any degree of certainty. But this much seems clear: he revels in an iconoclastic persona and is dismissive of attempts to ëunderstandí him; he enjoys unsettling people and can be crude in his methodologies; his arguments are not entirely without basis, though they are sorely reductive; he holds his beliefs with a degree of conviction that borders, perhaps, on the paranoid. Notice, incidentally, that I assume Kid Woof Woof to be male. I think we are safe in that assumption.
Reading through his posts and the responses they elicited, I was reminded of nothing so much as the character of Inspector Goole from JB Priestleyís An Inspector Calls. Here we have a suddenly emergent stranger who arrives unheralded and begins to demand, on what authority it is not altogether clear, questions of the cast assembled. Now, as with Goole, whatever we think of the impertinence of some of those questions, we must accept that the answers they throw up are, at times, revealing.
Priestley is at pains in his play to lay bare quite how fragile are our routines, practices and, indeed, habitual defences, when assaulted by the unexpected. In this design, I have long taught that Priestley is the precursor to that first rate Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, whose best known works, with which you may well be familiar, make an identical point. If nothing else, then, it seems that Kid Woof Woof, knowingly or not, precipitated a form of social crisis or catastrophe, as a consequence of which much that might not otherwise have happened, did happen. It is the Chinese, I believe, who speak positively of living in ìinteresting timesî!
I was particularly struck by the tendency of your community of commentators to rather over-react to his jibes and taunts. It is certainly to your own credit that you remained largely aloof from reciprocal histrionics, but other contributors posted intemperate replies which, once sufficiently calm, they had the good sense to ameliorate or partially retract. Given that one of the consistent themes of SO is reasonable and reasoned debate, we cannot afford to overlook lightly this Achilles Heel, that even the most level-headed amongst us demonstrate: when prodded and poked, we all too easily lose our cool! This surely is an impediment to the vision of a more decent and rational society that SO envisages and might form a fertile topic for future discussion.
I was also struck by the alacrity with which you allowed Kid Woof Woofís actions to curtail the essential ëlivenessí of Symbolic Order. This had been one of its unique strengths and had featured heavily, and to good advantage, in Sallyís research ñ you were one of only 7 sites that allowed this level of spontaneous interaction. Yet the Kid Woof Woof phenomenon was able, quite precipitously, to inhibit this feature. Visiting the site today, it seemed to me that, while some of his postings were abrasive, none were offensive or disturbing. Possibly there were others that you have since removed and I am not in receipt of the full picture. However, for better or worse, I think it is interesting to consider the relative ease with which the ëOutsiderí was able to perturb the smooth working of an established community. This, again, might be an interesting topic for discussion, as it would seem to have genuine repercussions for any future model of a sensible, embracing yet robust Natural Society. The French anthropologist-cum-sociologist, Rene Girard, now resident in the US, has written to fascinating effect on the role and scope of the Scapegoat.
I will finish here, though there is more I might have said. I hope these notes might be of some interest to you and your other contributors. I do not mean to seem to criticise; quite the contrary, you all deserve congratulation for engaging in sophisticated debate on some of the twenty first centuryís most absorbing and contentious topics. I merely hope to help engender further debate.
Let me sign off by saying that, for someone living and working in the United Kingdom, home of Oxford and Cambridge, let alone Warwick University, it is sad but true that all but one of the 26 sites which my student monitors are located in North America and that the remaining one is to be found not in Europe but in South East Asia! Letís hope for better days!
Best wishes for your continuing venture.
University of Warwick