The language of commenting
Recently, over on Kurungabaa, there has been an ongoing discussion about surf media – both print and online – and the ways that it is changing in terms of how it is used. It centres on Nick Carroll’s argument that a new crop of surf writers are making claims and reporting in ways that are badly researched and unnecessarily critical. Without entering into that particular debate (I feel far from qualified to do so), I would like to take Carroll’s point a bit further to point out that some of the outcomes for these particular ways of writing are destructive not only for surf journalism, but for the ways we think and talk about surfing more generally*.
The online surfing world of advertisement-free blogs is extensive and varied in its width, breadth and depth. To over-simplify this complex realm, it encompasses a spectrum from small, personalised sites that are far from aspiring to make any contribution to surf journalism (kind of like this one), to well-read, ‘alternative surf media’ sites (like PostSurf was) which are trying to discuss and critique the surfing industry in a widely available, cheap-to-produce way, and which are the sites Nick Carroll is discussing. These sites have been able to use enabled comments sections to engage the public in conversations and discussions, which further illustrate their point. In my opinion, comments sections are often more interesting than the original post in the ideas they reveal and the ways they develop.
However, on several of these ‘alternative media’ sites (including PostSurf and Nugable), the writing styles of ESPECIALLY the comments sections have revealed, perpetuated and encouraged the already rampant sexism, homophobia and racism present in surfing, providing new space through which these kinds of ignorance can find validation. In other words, they replicate the kinds of lineups I usually shun. And it terrifies me. Claiming ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’, these men of the surf blogs often have few or no editorial constraints**. My beef with these spaces though is that they are often also written and (un)moderated in offensive, self-congratulatory writing styles, ideas and practices. In these realms, he who is most offensively witty wins. (Gender specific accusations here? In this case, yep, you bet!)
Stamping their own brand of validity and authority over and across what surfing is and can mean, these repulsive characters crash their way through what could be otherwise interesting discussions. Instead, these brash folk prefer to use the spaces to air the kinds of comments and language that I am quite certain they would not usually utter in their non-virtual lives. These men have mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, whom I like to presume they love and care for***.
Their usual defence for their behaviour, language and existence runs somewhat tiresomely like this,
“It’s funny! Some people get offended, but so what! They shouldn’t be so sensitive and PC. And anyway, if you don’t like it, don’t read it!”
So, generally, I don’t read their words. But sometimes, I do. And what I find is that it’s not funny and that it is offensive. Sometimes these people enter and participate in spaces that I am already a part of or a contributor to, so asking me to not read their words, on websites I write for, is unfair and unreasonable. And sometimes I come across them for other reasons. As I explore the online world of surfing and surfing culture – in all its diverse beauty and ugliness – I sometimes look at these sites. The bottom line remains that these are public spaces, available to public eyes, produced and operated by individuals and collectives who are attached to what that site both says and represents. I will admit that I am interested to see the first time that someone is asked to take legal responsibility for what they say and allow on their blogs and websites.
Over on Kurungabaa, there is ongoing ridicule and critique against the ‘Comments Policy’, which (with the support of the rest of the crew there) Clif Evers spent a fair amount of time compiling in order to set explicit boundaries on what is deemed acceptable and otherwise on that site from both contributors and from commenters. This was in response to an attempted requesiton of the comments sections there by a particular crew of trolls who have populated and derailed the reasonable functioning of a couple of other sites and spaces – essentially chasing new participants on those sites away. Their arguments of ‘don’t read it if you don’t like it’ were answered with a choice by Kurungabaa to not read them, and so they have been consistently moderated. Similarly, I would not hesitate to moderate a comment that was offensive, defamatory or unsavoury here on this site.
As a contributor to and editor of the Kurungabaa journal and blog, I was stoked. In my understandings, Kurungabaa is not so concerned with image and feel (as levied by one recent accusation), as much as it is with surfing within a deliberate realm of experience, ethics and diversity. Yes, I’m sure there is a place for un-moderated commenting on blogs but I’m so pleased to see that Kurungabaa is not one of them. It’s a shame if individuals think it's ok that different people get hurt or offended by marginalising repartee – like a kind of conversational collateral damage - but since the bulk of the offense does not seem to be suffered by those who inflict or enjoy this language, it is easy for them to dismiss it.
In the places I choose to participate in and associate with - both on and offline - sexist, racist, homophobic and other such language is unacceptable. It marginalises a whole spectrum of people who surf, and who are otherwise offended and marginalised in many surf media already. As it is, I am endlessly thankful and proud to be associated with a publication (in its various forms) and editorial collective that actually says and does something about this in tangible and real ways.
There is, of course, no shortage of sites like this in the world of surf blogs (there is a list of them to your right). However, these sites tend to exist beyond the world of pro-surfing and the industry that surrounds it. They certainly delve and dabble into various and alternative manifestations of this industry, but their focus is often on the experience of going surfing and catching waves, and on the art, music, film, relationships and other elements of life and family that infiltrate, link and define the ways that surfing weaves through our lives. These blogs have endless possibilities and potential, because their raison d’être is not bound to particular personalities or competitions. I love this. These blogs provide spaces where non-competitive, non professional, non-high performance, non-shortboarding ways of surfing are made visible and real. Women, non-English speakers, kooks and those whose surfing is negotiated through the realities of earning a living are all present and accounted for, revealing the ways that surfing is more than one thing, more than one way of thinking.
And there I am right back to my usual barrow of diversity and visibility, and so the circle closes.
I suppose in the end my main point is that yes, there should be space for those who want to talk about the usual things in the usual ways, but NOT wherever and whenever they please. The online surfing world is not their own personal domain of words, false names and anonymity, and it is far from virtual. It is real; produced, written by and representative of real people with identities, feelings and lives. It is easy to think around this when you are sitting at home in front of a screen, writing back to faceless names you disagree with, but words and language have power and weight, and this needs to be at all times considered. And, sometimes, moderated
*I would like to acknowledge that it may seem odd that I have chosen to post this opinion piece here, as opposed to over on Kurungabaa, and I admit that it is a kind of weird choice. But I suppose that I still feel safer discussing this here, in my own small space, away from the few voices who like to define ‘lively debate’ in terms that differ from my own. There are commenters who say they adhere to the policy “out of respect” (look through here for an example) but I am still unsure what that “respect” encompasses or represents, nor if my opinions are included within it. These ideas have been swirling, congealing and percolating in my head, frustrating and bugging me for a couple of years now and I’m while still trying to figure them out more clearly, the discussion sparked by Nick Carroll’s article provoked a couple of comments that pushed me to try to compose something.
** Unless you are, like Lewis Samuels, looking to profit from the very industry you ridicule and deplore, which I am not judging by the way. Life is complex and contradictory and surfing has a delightful tradition of this practice, beginning with Dora.
***I've seen these guys get their backs up the second anyone EVER brings THEIR wives into the discussion. I have seen them pointlessly sexualise, lampoon, bully and destroy numerous people on trivial, hurtful, defamatory bases (including teenagers), but the few times anyone has ever turned the game back on their own real families the rules of this little game change immediately. Their completely understandable reactions to attacks on the people they love, creates the kinds of boundaries which they should stick within at all times.