Friday, March 13, 2009

The Ethics and the Practicalities of Blogging in the wake of the Raphael Golb affair

The fall-out from the Arrest of Raphael Golb is still making the news and it is being covered well by Jim Davila on Paleojudaica and Jim West, both of whom comment on Norman Golb's remarkable defence in Ha'aretz:
“Raphael, my son, is very devoted to my research. He realized years ago that there was an effort to close the door on my opinions. And so he started debating bloggers who were against me, using aliases. That’s the custom these days with blogs, as I understand it,” Norman Golb said.
Since I am not an expert on the scrolls, I generally avoid blogging on the topic, but the fall-out from this affair now touches on the ethics and practicalities of blogging and blog-commenting. (For full and detailed coverage, see Bob Cargill's constantly updated Who is Charles Gadda? web page).

When academics unfamiliar with the blogosphere comment on this world, they often -- unsurprisingly -- have a skewed picture. As Jim West and Jim Davila comment, Golb's view quoted above is seriously mistaken. There is no such accepted convention about the use of aliases and anyone who uses them in the way allegedly adopted by Raphael Golb is engaging in unacademic, uncivil and completely unacceptable behaviour. For those of us familiar with academic blogging, this goes without saying, but for others it may be less clear, and it is therefore worth underlining.

There is a practical problem here with the issue of blog-commenting, not least because Raphael Golb is alleged to have used multiple aliases in commenting on blogs, including my own (under the names Charles Gadda, Suzanne Shapiro and on one occasion as Anonymous, concerning the disgraceful slur on Schiffman, which I deleted). I have had commenting available on this blog almost from the beginning and on the whole the benefits outweigh the problems. Nevertheless, recent events highlight the problems quite starkly. I insist on people adding their names in comments, but what this affair shows is just how easy it is to adopt an alias and post something. In the light of this, it is easy to see why some do not allow comments and why others moderate them very heavily. I am certainly going to be much more careful in future.

The story continues in today's Chronicle of Higher Education, only available, unfortunately, to subscribers and subscribing institutions. The whole article is the best piece yet on the debacle, clear, detailed and well-narrated, and it appears now that Norman Golb admits that his son is indeed Charles Gadda (and so by implication these other aliases too):
Norman Golb told The Chronicle that he was "aghast and horrified at these charges. My son's only interest has been to follow my work, and—since he is a blogger and I am not a blogger—to engage in debate with other bloggers." The elder Mr. Golb added, "He used a pseudonym because that's what he preferred to do."

When a Chronicle reporter asked if that pseudonym was Charles Gadda, the older Mr. Golb replied, "Yeah, that's right."
The sad thing about the case is that engaging in debate is just what did not happen. Essentially, the multiple aliases were used to promote and not to debate. And it is difficult to engage in proper debate with a series of apparently different identities that all emanate from the one person.

The Chronicle article goes on to talk briefly about how scholars should be involved on the web. "Mr. Schiffman believes that descending into the fray on Web forums is a fool's errand," the article says, but Jodi Magness was also interviewed:
"We have a responsibility to disseminate our information to the wider public," she said. "The fact of the matter is that many people now get their information from the Internet, so we do have a responsibility to make what we find out known."

But while the Web allows scholars to engage the public directly, Ms. Magness said it is "not a suitable venue for the dissemination of unvetted scholarly interpretations."
I strongly agree with what Jodi says about our responsibility to disseminate our scholarship, and I agree too, in the spirit of the second quotation here, that we need to keep thinking about how best we do this. Where the blogs are concerned, the very informality and immediacy of the medium provide the opportunity to try out fresh ideas or to engage creatively with published material. Those of us actively involved in the blog world need to make sure that the abuse of the medium is not allowed to provide a reason for avoiding intelligent use of the medium.

A coda. The article has a further remarkable quotation from Norman Golb to the following effect:
At the same time, the elder Mr. Golb said he thinks "there should be tighter rules in general for bloggers so that everyone would have to have his own identification—bona fide identification."
This reminds me of Tony Blair's response to the "Cash for Coronets" scandal in the dying days of his premiership, with the suggestion that new rules were required to help the parties to avoid corruption. Legislating the bloggers is not only an absurd idea from a logistical point of view, it is also entirely the wrong reaction to the abuse of the bloggers' and blog-commenters' relative freedom. We don't need new rules. We need ethical behaviour.


Bob MacDonald said...

I liked NT Wrong's issue of hobby-horse. (Though I have no particular warmth for NT Wrong.) But it is very difficult to see when you are riding your own hobby-horse. Perhaps that is the self-legislation required. When you find yourself perseverating - repeating your position ad nauseam - then it is time to 'repent' at least in the French sense. (I excuse those who have certain forms of brain damage since I have two children who have some great difficulty in this area. Such repetitiveness is a test for those of us who think we are of sound mind.)

By the way - I have no aliases - though I do have multiple blogs.

Robert R. Cargill said...

i'd like to suggest a new term for 'the use of anonymous sock puppets and/or aliases to create the illusion of broad support in order to promote and defend a particular viewpoint.'

the word: golbing.

it works because 'golb' is also 'blog' backwards.

it could be used as one would use any other verb. for instance, 'i blogged a new item today, and totally got golbed in the comments.'


Mark Goodacre said...

Bob and Bob: Many thanks. Bob C.: that's remarkable! Golbing -- yes!

Joe Weaks said...

My blog was golbed by the junior Raphael Golb under one of the presumed aliases over a year ago. The position it put me in was very uncomfortable. It seemed to me at the time a pseudo-anonymous highly charged comment to a post. My dilemma was what to do with it. I left it up, responded briefly (mistake!) and then deleted the worse response he made, and then felt guilty after he accused me of censorship, a post which I left in the comments. The whole ordeal had no perfect way to handle it. said...

"I insist on people adding their names in comments, but what this affair shows is just how easy it is to adopt an alias and post something."

O.K. when you know the name of the "real" offending blogger. But what happens when you don't know? Or even better, what happens when someone else doesn't know?