Musings on the "Profession" That Is Academic Labor in the United States Today: The View from La Farine LXXX: January 22, 2014
Evening Must-Read: Heroes of NoahSmithian Weblogging: Barry Ritholtz

Another Example of Our Old Media Professionals Not Understanding the World?

Still thinking about the absolutely remarkable four-day-apart columns a week or so ago by Emma G Keller in the Guardian and her spouse Bill Keller in The New York Times. Linda Holmes has, I think, the best take on what went on:

Linda Holmes: A Few Lessons About Twitter, Cancer And Publishing:

while the personal angles on this story--why would two married people in the same week devote entire columns to debating the same cancer patient's chronicle of her disease?--are the most compelling and important, there is a publishing and media story here, which is that Bill Keller's column, in particular, reflects a misunderstanding of what Twitter is.

Keller's writing about Adams is full of little code words that downplay the significance of her writing, her readers, and her community, undoubtedly unconsciously.

She has "blogged and tweeted," rather than "she has written." Her audience is "rapt," rather than appreciative or respectful. Her criticisms of elements of the breast-cancer lobby are "potshots."

She is not an advocate for Sloan-Kettering, where she's being treated, but a "proselytizer." She "insists she is not dying," a construct that implies she is dying, and he knows it, but she won't admit it. She is "bedridden," rather than hospitalized. She doesn't type but "pecks." She is living "onstage." The expert he consulted has "perused" Adams' blog, a wiggly term that could mean "read for a while," but given the bad information that made it into the piece, might also mean "skim with skepticism."

This continues in the statement Keller gave to [New York Times ombudsman Margaret] Sullivan. He says he's received negative responses on Twitter, which "encourages reflexes rather than reflection." Those who come to the Times and comment are "thoughtful and valuable," because newspaper comment sections provide so much "space for nuance." (On behalf of everyone who reads newspaper comment sections, and in the language of my people, let me just say: OMG LOL!!!!!!!!!!) He makes it pretty clear that in his mind, he's been criticized by people who either didn't understand his point or didn't care to "reflect."

You can certainly interpret his piece as the reflections of a man uncomfortable with Adams' way of having cancer. Or you can interpret it as the reflections of a man uncomfortable with her way of talking about having cancer. But you can also see in it the deep skepticism so many people with long histories in traditional publishing have about social media, in part because they want to comment on it from outside, not inside. (Keller has a Twitter account but doesn't use it much; it dates to 2009 but contains only 325 tweets.)

Keller repeatedly implies that Lisa Bonchek Adams has brought upon herself any scrutiny he wants to bring to bear on how she's chosen to manage having cancer. Because she tweets about it, he concludes, she's made it a topic for everyone else to write op-eds about.

But that's a flawed analysis. That assumes that the only potential reason not to write an op-ed about whether someone else is having cancer correctly is privacy. In fact, the reason not to write an op-ed about whether someone else is having cancer correctly might be something else entirely: a recognition of the limited value of your own opinion about someone else's medical treatment when you aren't privy to the details, or a decision to exercise restraint, or an understanding of how personal two interlocking decisions might be--the decision to write about cancer, and the decision to read about it.

The relaxed nature of social media doesn't change the fact that if you are asking for comment on someone else's writing, "perusal" might not be adequate or fair, and pervasive claims that she applies a "combat metaphor" to cancer should, just as if you were talking about a person doing traditional writing, be accompanied by some examples of her actually applying one.

I wonder sometimes whether the self-disclosure and informality of Twitter leads journalists to conclude they have different obligations to those who write on Twitter than to those who write elsewhere, because once you step outside of traditional publishing, you're in a sort of free-for-all where whatever anybody says is your own fault, because you opened your mouth. Thus, Keller devotes an entire column to a Twitter account he doesn't seem to have spent all that much time with (or if he did, he doesn't seem to have drawn reliable detail from), when I suspect there's almost no chance he would have written an entire column about a book he hadn't read carefully.