A Longitudinal study of self-presentation on the interwebs

Listen, whippersnappers. I was online back when one searched with Archie instead of Google. I remember when a text-based menu system called gopher was hailed as a startling breakthrough, which it was, since at the time they hadn’t invented the worldwide web yet.

Sadly, I never had a gopher. I did have an early webpage, however. It launched no later than March 1995, to judge by mentions of it that I find in old emails. I wrote it myself. All of it. That is, I wrote not only the words but the html. In those days the internet was very do-it-yourself. Because the site was hosted by Columbia, where I was in grad school, the URL was http://www.columbia.edu/~wcc6. It was a fairly nerdy thing; I don’t remember that any of my fellow grad students in English and American literature had one.

The earliest record that I have of what it looked like is dated 1999, four years after its birth, when I downloaded a copy before Columbia shut it down (I was, finally, graduating). By then it was looking a bit plain, compared to other websites on the internet, and I had begun to get emails from strangers asking why I didn’t update it more often. It was a point of pride with me, however, that a reader who browsed my website in Lynx, which only downloaded text, wouldn’t miss much. (Lynx was handy for bandwidth-poor people like me who connected via dial-up modem.) In other words, my public online self in 1999 probably wasn’t markedly different from my public online self in 1995. Here it is:

Caleb Crain's website 1999

That was my dog. Yes, there were poems. No, I will not be re-posting the poems today. This isn’t quite what the website looked like, of course, because in those days the font of a website was chosen by its reader not its writer. My webpage would have appeared to you in whatever font you had told your browser you preferred.

After Columbia kicked me out of the nest, I vanished from the internet until March 2003, when I learned that as a Harvard alum, I qualified for a free blog, courtesy of the Berkman Center (now known as the Berkman Klein Center). The idea seemed to be that blogs were going to bring the Habermasian public sphere to the internet, and a nonprofit could reputably be in the business of inducing them to proliferate. The software platform was something called Manila. There were colors! There were templates! My URL was http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/calebcrain/, which gave a number of people the wrong idea that I was a law professor. Here’s a screenshot from December 2003, preserved thanks to the Wayback Machine.

Steamboats are ruining everything, December 2003

My blog wasn’t named “Steamboats Are Ruining Everything” at first. That title was in place at least by October 2004, however, and in April 2006, I hooked it up to the URL https://steamthing.com, a portmanteau of the first and last syllables.

As you can see below, I switched to a red palette by April 2006, I think because I read somewhere that although people are soothed by tones of blue and green, they are more likely to find a brash color like red memorable. (Even back then we on the internet were trying to manipulate you.) Note the long, name-droppy blogroll in the right-hand column. Before Facebook (born February 2004) and Twitter (born March 2006), such links were how one found cool things to read on the internet (things you didn’t know you wanted to read, as opposed to things you knew you wanted to read, which you could search for).

Steamboats are ruining everything, April 2006

The snapshot above is saved on my hard drive because I was then about to move to a blogging platform called Type Pad, and fearful of disaster, I made one of my rare backups. My probably erroneous memory is that Type Pad had struck some kind of deal with the Berkman Center to take bloggers off their hands; at that point no one any longer thought bloggers needed foundations or anyone else to encourage them.

In this era, on many blogs, one found at the end of a post little pellets of html frass, which offered to automate a connection, should the reader be generous enough to want to make one, to sites such as Reddit, Stumble Upon, and dozens of others. Let us clutter your website, these services proposed, and in exchange we will send you “traffic.” I briefly experimented and found that I hated the clutter, as well as the sense of having compromised myself, and thenceforward abstained. (I never tried ads or a tip jar.)

The Type Pad platform allowed for something called banners at the top of the page. Armed with a scanner, an old book of engravings of steamboat disasters, and a copy of Photoshop that I had purloined from Lingua Franca back in 2000, here’s what I came up with:

Steamboats are ruining everything, July 2009

As you can see, by July 2009 I had backed off from all red. That color was now reserved for unclicked links. I developed a whole psychology of link colors, to mess with readers. Unclicked links were red, as if they were forbidden and butch, in order to dare you to approach. When you hovered your mouse over the link, however, it subsided to pink—friendly and nonthreatening and maybe even a wee bit submissive. If you fell for this, you would find, upon returning to the page, that the link had turned orange, as if you had created some kind of hazard. More manipulation on my part. I have kept these psychoerotic link colors to the present day. My background color in 2009 was a sort of sepia because the overall idea being conveyed was that I was a 19th-century guy; cf. the long list of 19th-century archival resources in the right-hand sidebar and the general look of intense textiness.

Here’s a slight improvement of the banner, captured in April 2010.

Steamboats are ruining everything, April 2010

After a while, the pseudo-Victorian look began to seem a little somber to me. To lighten it up, I had the idea of making the title appear as if it were being uttered by one of the drowning steamboat passengers. As preserved by Archive.is, here’s a screenshot of February 2013:

Steamboats are ruining everything, February 2013

In some ways I think this was the most echt Steamboats look, though I now regret having allowed the intrusion of a whole box of Twitter in the right-hand sidebar—a false compromise with a power that was then beginning to exterminate blogs right and left. Note that my lists of friends and 19th-century sources had by now been demoted. They were still on the page, but you had to scroll fairly far down to see them.

By 2013, I wasn’t really a 19th-century guy any more, except at heart, and my first novel was scheduled to come out in August. I needed a whole new look, fresh and modern. Type Pad, meanwhile, had become a little creaky in the joints, so I made a ridiculously kludgy switch to Word Press. I looked around and discovered that nobody but me still had a blogroll (and that most of my friends had shuttered their blogs), so the blogroll and the list of 19th-century resources were moved to subsidiary pages. The focus, I decided, would be on a single, readably narrow column of text, with recessive decoration on one side and a few unobtrusive utilities on the other. The advice about keeping the column of text narrow came from a website written by Kibo, ages ago. (Oh, you don’t know who Kibo is? How recently did you say you were born?) The idea of reducing distractions on the page to a minimum came from Mandy Brown’s blog, A Working Library. Here’s the end result of this redesign, as it appeared in August 2013, on the eve of the publication of Necessary Errors:

Steamboats are ruining everything, August 2013

Elegant, no? Alas, it was hacked, in 2016, by people who seemed to be interested in porn and Indonesian song lyrics. While rebuilding and “hardening” the site, I took the opportunity to make it “responsive,” which is the word for a site that changes shape depending on whether you’re looking at it on a desktop computer or a mobile phone. (If you’re reading this on a laptop, you can see how this site now “responds” if you drag the lower righthand corner of your web browser to the left, to make it smaller; sometimes I do this myself just for the pleasure of watching the sidebars pop away into the ether, one by one.) I think the overall site lost a bit of its panache in the process, but utility is all and I like that the page is still relatively simple.

Steamboats are ruining everything, July 2017

I seem to have left out of this post a history of comments, and also an explanation of why blogging is dead, but maybe those go without saying.

I review a book without meaning to

I'm tempted to do something I don't usually do: write critically of a book that I have no intention of finishing. The book in question bothered me. I've been tussling with my botheration, trying to figure out what exactly I disliked, and I wonder if it will clarify my objections if I try to put them into words. Since it doesn't seem quite fair to the book to judge it without finishing it, I'm not going to name it or its author. This disguise is not meant to be impenetrable. Please understand the anonymity as a polite veil, not at all hard for an internet user of average resourcefulness to tear away.

As a reviewer, I'm sent a fair number of books by publishers, and I don't remember whether I happen to have requested this one, though I suspect I didn't. It arrived while I was suffering from a mild fever, a condition that's relevant because I won't be able to get to the bottom of my final dislike of the book unless I start with its initial appeal, which was considerable. I was feeling muzzy, bored, and a little vulnerable. My attention had been tenderized by a sick-day's indulgence in Twitter. The book in question is a novel, written in the first person. In the first few pages, in simple and declarative sentences, modestly spiced with British slang, the heroine-narrator lets herself be seduced into a risky sexual encounter. She enjoys herself intensely—the experience seems to fracture an idea of herself that she has—but she doesn't seem to have done this kind of thing before, and it isn't at all clear that she's going to be all right.

I kept reading, conscious that the plain grammar (subject-verb-object) and the explicit sex suited the debilitated state of my mind. The sentences practically read themselves. Sometimes, as a writer, one is aware that one also has the specious motive of doing something so as to be able to write about it later, and my conscious rationalization for continuing the novel included the somewhat recursive notion that if I did continue to read, I might be able to mine the experience for an essay about the kind of book that appealed to people who were spending too much time on Twitter and whose brains were befogged by toxins, viral or otherwise—about the limitations that the novel as a genre might have to accept in order to seize and hold attention in the current environment.

Less consciously, I had perhaps identified with the heroine, as someone who, like myself in an earlier era of my life, was putting herself in danger through a sexual responsiveness that she didn't understand.

My resistance to the text first became conscious to me in questions of style. Though technically written in the past tense, the short, plain sentences and their narrow time-focus gave the impression of a story unrolling in the present tense only. The heroine never thought about her past, though visits with a grandmother and with parents suggested that she did have one. She never reflected on how she had come to have the career that she did, or what had drawn her to her best friend, let alone on how she had become so cut off from her inner life that she could only return to it through episodes of violent, near-anonymous sex. This limitation in the telling of the story seemed one, however, with the urgency of the story's appeal. The narrator was Everywoman; the reader was not put at a distance by any details of her past or by any elements of her personality that the reader might not happen to share. On the contrary, the reader was constantly being invited to join in a fantasy: What if I were to have an irresponsible fling? What if I were to antagonize my friends? What if I were to mess up my safe but boring job? There was no awareness of anything in the heroine's life or mind that might hold her back. She was completely free. Or, to look at another way, her vanity and neediness were uncompromised by any consideration of other people as beings just as real as she was. The book began to remind me of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City, which I read twenty years ago when I was under the impression that I ought to keep up with best-sellers; the transgression began to seem monotonous in a similar way.

Because of the narrow focus—limited to the narrative's present, and to the perceptions of a narrator not motivated to understand anyone around her—a number of scenes had the flat feeling-tone of a certain kind of comedy routine, which depends for its success on the audience's collusion in a sadistic ridicule or dismissal of embarrassing feelings. Some of these scenes "worked" as jokes, but on second thought, seemed unlikely to be able to "work" in the real world. In one such scene, the heroine half-jestingly hits some children that she has been asked to take care of, and the children respond by precociously and coldly turning against her and voicing their hatred of her. I found myself thinking, well, in fact it is kind of awful of the heroine to have hit the children, but I doubt that real children would be able to find on such short notice sufficient insight and sufficient confidence to punish a faulty caregiver. In another scene, the heroine undresses while drunk for a man who is disgusted by her drunkenness, and I found myself thinking that if this character was charming enough to hold my interest as a reader, she probably wouldn't be the sort who, even drunk, would so badly misjudge the responsiveness of a potential suitor. In real life, she would have noticed his recoil, even through the haze of alcohol, before going quite so far.

I stopped reading when I found myself resorting to diagnosis of the characters. The heroine becomes obsessed with the man she has the sexual encounter with, despite his commandeering, abusive manner, or maybe because of it. He is portrayed as someone at ease with himself—at ease with his sadism and manipulation. Oh, I thought, a sociopath, charming and dangerous. And the heroine's focus on connection with him as the only source of meaning in her life: Oh, I thought, she's a borderline personality, who disintegrates unless she maintains contact yet needs the drama of always falling out of contact. It occurred to me that in real life the story of these two people would be so exhausting to hear about that it would be hard to stay focused, while listening, on how sad it was. In real life, it would end badly, unless disrupted by care and insight. It would probably end badly even if it were disrupted by care and insight. One way for it to end would be by his killing her. I thought of a book with a similar setup (whose plot and ending I will implicitly be giving away, in order to make my analogy, so look away if you need to), Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, though Spark's heroine understands herself in a way that this novel's heroine does not seem to. Though I admire Spark and would be happy to re-read her Girls of Slender Means or Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I didn't enjoy The Driver's Seat and have no intention of ever re-reading it. Once I made the comparison, I couldn't bear to keep reading the novel at hand—the thought of having to sit through the tedium of a borderline's relationship with a sociopath, only to be punished for my patience with an unhappy ending, was too much.

Does he kill her? I flipped to the end. (Spoiler ahead, obviously; if you think you might track down this book and read it despite me, stop reading now.) It turns out that the author—in a reversal of expectations that to my eye again functions better as a joke than as a plausible rendering of human experience—gives her heroine the opportunity and the strength of purpose to kill her beloved torturer. I don't think this is really a happier ending than it would be if he killed her; it certainly wasn't an ending that I wanted to spend any amount of time or effort reaching, once I knew it. What keeps Spark's Driver's Seat interesting (though it remains unpleasant) is that the borderline personality in that novel fails to find the sociopath she's looking for and has to make do with another personality type altogether, by blackmailing him. There's no such complexity of motive and outcome in the new novel. I don't think the unexpected reversal would have any chance of convincing a reader if it weren't for the stylistic constraints on its telling, which make it harder to see how unlikely it is—if it weren't for the impairments that also function as appetite stimulants.

Admittedly, I broke the rules of the reader-writer contract. It's possible that if I read every word of the novel in sequence, I would find the reversal of roles at the end psychologically plausible. I doubt it, though. I suspect that if such "funny," impoverished consciousness—the final triumph of "showing" over "telling," in the specious language of writing instruction—is the only way to hold attention in a splintered world, the novel is in trouble. If the novel must always be recapturing the reader's attention, by prurient means, the novel is in the plight of a needy borderline, doomed to tedious pursuit of the cruel, elusive reader, who alternates between taking his pleasure from the book and dropping it for more compelling pleasures elsewhere. My own reading pattern here—beginning to read almost in scorn for the book, finding itches scratched by it almost despite myself, ultimately dismissing and abandoning the book—is weirdly complicit. I've even kept my encounter with the book, like the heroine's with her sociopath lover, anonymous, as if my meeting with this book were somehow disreputable for both of us. I must have fallen more under its spell than I realized. For the sake of disenchantment, then, maybe I should reveal the name of the book after all: True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. It comes out next week in paperback from Faber & Faber.

Silence and Song

Childhood, an early short film by Terence Davies, tells the story of Robert Tucker in two phases: as a boy growing up in an unhappy family in Liverpool and as a young man who has just barely survived it. The best thing in the movie is a long scene on a bus. It begins as a flashback. Robert Tucker, as a young man, has just visited a doctor who has prescribed him medication for depression and has asked whether he’s developed any interest in girls yet. He hasn’t. He walks to a bus stop, where a couple of young women titter at his doleful looks, and before the bus comes, there is a flashback: Robert, as a boy, is boarding a double-decker bus with his mother.

“Can we sit inside?” the boy asks. This tells us something about the boy; he’s the sort who thinks it’s more of a treat to sit inside a double-decker than on top. The boy’s mother is played by a woman with attractive features but hollow eyes. The two sit down, he in a window seat, she in an aisle seat beside him so that she is closer to the camera, and the bus pulls away. They don’t say anything further; they don’t look at each other. She stares at the middle distance. He watches the streets of Liverpool pass by. The camera stays on them. Rows of workers’ housing roll past; a corner is turned; more rows of similar housing roll past. The camera still does not move. It begins to occur to the viewer that this is not a scene that sets up another scene, despite its apparent lack of event. After a long while, the mother quietly cries. The boy does not try to comfort her; the viewer senses that an “interaction” of any kind would be false. Mere presence is as much as the mother and the boy are able to give each other.

There are a number of parallels between Childhood and Davies’s later, full-length film The Long Day Closes. Both seem to be autobiographical. Both portray a boy who says “thank you” to school authorities when they whip him across the palm, who is awkward in the school swimming pool, who is set upon by bullies, and who will, we understand, grow up to be gay. Even the layout of the family home in both movies is the same. But The Long Day Closes is a warmer film—a film so full of love, in fact, that it’s almost painful to watch—and there are important differences. It’s in color, for one thing, and it has a sense of humor, for another, complete with Dickensian minor characters such as a plethoric, henpecked husband who does flawless impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. In the later movie, the parallel to the Childhood bus scene takes place at home. The hero, a young boy named Bud, is sitting beside his mother. Their faces are lit by a fire, not visible. She sings a song while looking into it. As with many of the songs in the movie, the gender of its persona conflicts with that of the singer, and so the mother explains, when she finishes, that it was her father’s song—he used to sing it to her when she was a girl. She begins to cry as she explains this, and the boy, though he seems to be listening intently, continues to stare straight ahead into the fire, almost as if he doesn’t notice her grief. There is no need for him to notice it, we sense; he is at one with her; he feels her sorrow as if it were his own, because the song and her touch have communicated it to him, and have also communicated the strength and the beauty that he will need in order to bear it. In Childhood nothing was in the place of song. Literally nothing: it was through silence and the absence of touch that Robert’s mother communicated to him.

Silence and song are not so different. The matter of both is time; neither is intelligible unless you can hear rhythm. In watching Childhood the viewer has the sense that what was communicated was so sad, so heartbreaking that it could do violence to Robert. It hurt him as a boy, and it might kill him as a young adult, in the form of a depression he can’t understand. What’s shared is just as sad in The Long Day Closes. Perhaps it’s even sadder. The trouble in Childhood, after all, seems to be that love is sometimes met by cruelty, and the trouble in The Long Day Closes is that those we love, and who love us, will in time die. But Bud is able to bear the greater grief in The Long Day Closes because his mother’s sorrow comes to him as part of the company she offers. It is a further sweetness. And so Bud does not grow up to be a fragile or a brittle man. He grows up to be the maker of the film The Long Day Closes, whose presence is so palpable in the film that he should perhaps be thought of as a character in it.

Almost every detail in the movie reminds the viewer that he is watching a movie not life. The rain—and there is a lot of rain—is always movie rain. When at Christmastime the camera pans slowly away from a family tableau into the darkness down the street, the darkness is streaked with not real snow but movie snow, meteoric and fanciful. When Bud daydreams in class of a ship in a storm, and we see the ship, it is patently a model ship, photographed in close-up. None of this artifice lessens the movie. It is a kind of understatement. It is part of the director’s way of speaking: It was like this, but of course all I can show you is a movie.

He communicates to us not with spectacle, that is, but the way his mother communicated to him, through silence and song. The silence has become famous. There is a long scene in The Long Day Closes when the camera rests on a carpet while sunlight shifts there. When I first saw the movie, in 1993, this scene frightened me. I remember worrying whether the friends beside me would grow impatient. They had brought me to the movie, but I was falling in love with it, and the scene made me worry that I would need to protect the movie from them. It made me feel how attached I was to it. It made me realize that I didn’t mind sitting with it for a long time while nothing appeared to happen. The scene is a little like staring out the bus window while your mother is crying beside you and you are trying to allow her her privacy. And it is a little like noticing how beautiful even the most trivial and casual thing is, once love has attached you to the world it is a part of. To some it will seem like poverty, and to others, like enormous wealth.

Sun shifting on a carpet: light moving on a screen. When the camera at last rises from the carpet, it goes to Bud, kneeling in the sill of a window so that he can stare through it, the lace curtain draped over him like some kind of ritual vestment. It is largely by looking through windows that Bud turns life into a movie that he is watching. Sometimes the window is open and the sun is shining, as when he watches a shirtless bricklayer, who winks and embarrasses him. (In Childhood and its two sequels, Robert’s sexuality was sometimes a heavy-handed matter, and its punishments were sometimes melodramatic. In The Long Day Closes, in contrast, the workman’s wink is the only direct acknowledgment.) Sometimes rain is streaming down the window’s glass, softening the light, rendering it more complex, as if the glass had come alive. Rain also destroys, however. In geology class, Bud learns about erosion, and from David Lean’s Miss Havisham, whose words come to Bud after a friend betrays him by going to the movies with another boy, he learns that decay is the fate of those who can’t find love. In the very first scene of the movie, for that matter, we see under rain the ruins of the world we are about to enter. It existed in time only, not in eternity. It existed in silence and in song. Bud’s mother sang about the loss of her father to him, but Bud will have no children to whom he can sing the loss of his mother and the world he shared with her. Instead there is just a movie, radiating outward like the flashlight that Bud shines into the sky one night, after being told in school that such a light will go on forever, and which Bud turns, finally, into the lens of the camera, canceling it.

How Is the Internet Changing Literary Style?

[On 10 June 2008, the journal n+1 sponsored a debate under the title “The Internet: We All Live There Now,” at the Kitchen. The panelists were Mark Greif, Moe Tkacik, Ben Kunkel, and me; Keith Gessen was the moderator. Here’s a transcript of my talk.]

Good evening. In my talk tonight, I would like to raise the question, How is the internet changing literary style? The question has at least two aspects. First, Which traits of style change when writing goes online? Second, What are the forces that cause these changes to come about? There is a third aspect, a moral one, which I will try to defer answering until the end of my talk but which shadows the first two, namely, Are these changes an improvement?

There are so many different styles of writing online that my description can’t help but be impressionistic and subjective. Precisely because of that abundance and variety, however, there may be no other way to proceed, so, with your indulgence, here goes.

There is relatively little fiction and poetry online, by which I mean, fiction and poetry that is native to that environment, written with the intention of being read there. This is puzzling. Whatever the sickliness of poetry as a genre, fiction is one of the most robust and profitable forms of printed literature. An inkling of an answer occurred to me not long ago while I was reading the opening pages of Philip Larkin’s novel Jill. In the book’s first scene, Larkin describes an awkward boy taking the train to college for the first time. The boy’s mother has packed him sandwiches, but he’s embarrassed to eat before strangers, so he secretly crams one down his throat in the train restroom and flushes the rest down the toilet, only to discover, when he returns to his seat, that his fellow passengers have all taken out their lunches.

The précis I’ve just given compresses the action of several pages into several sentences, and thereby makes the prose sound more eventful than it is. What struck me when I read it was how wonderfully calm it is. It makes no effort to seize the reader’s attention. It assumes, rather, that the reader has taken the risk of extending his attention unsolicited, almost as a gift, which the novelist will do his best to repay by the quiet and steady work of elaborating a world and the way that one character sees it.

The internet is inhospitable to that kind of quietness. If your browser were to happen on such a page, your eyes would likely go blank with impatience. Who is this guy? Why aren’t there any links? And, more damningly, Is anyone else reading this? A text on the internet rarely takes for granted your decision to read it or to continue reading it. There is often, instead, a jazzy, hectoring tone. At home my boyfriend and I use a certain physical gesture as shorthand to describe it. To make it, extend your index fingers and your thumbs so that your hands resemble toy pistols. Then waggle them before you, like a dude in a cheesy Western, while you wink, dip your knees, and lopsidedly drawl, “Heyyy.” The internet is always saying, “Heyyy.” It is always welcoming you to the party; it is always patting you on the back to congratulate you for showing up. It says, You know me, in a collusive tone of voice, and Wanna hear something funny? and Didja see who else is here? This tone is not absent from print; in fact, no page of New York magazine is without it. Certain decorative effects in language may be compatible with it, but it seems to be toxic to imagination.

What styles do thrive on the internet? I’ve kept a blog for several years, and although its readership is tiny, I of course notice when the hits rise and fall. I seem to get more readers when I post frequently, when I write about people or topics in the headlines, when I have been drawn into a conflict, and when I write something that speaks to a self-image that a group of people share. Over the years I’ve gradually revealed more personal details; I still reveal very little, comparatively, but enough to entitle me to say that I feel a tug there, too. Perhaps the tugs that I feel are a better data source, come to think of it, than my blog’s underemployed hit counter. If I were to interpret those tugs, I would say that writing on the internet tends to be more popular when it satisfies the reader’s wish to be connected—the wish not to miss out. The writer, too, may have such a wish. I admit that I love it when another blog links to mine; there is great consolation in the feeling of having a posse. And of course many readers online are also writers there. Perhaps these feelings of “groupiness” explain a few more traits of internet style. There is a greater tolerance online for sloppy and inexact writing—not merely for typos but for a generalized kludginess of thought, especially the errors that the usage stickler H. W. Fowler named “haziness,” “swapping horses,” and “unequal yokefellows,” which may all be loosely described as changing your mind about the grammatical structure of a sentence halfway through writing it—and such tolerance is to be expected if people are reading primarily for the sake of a feeling of belonging. One also finds more flattery and more insults online, another hint that online readers are more interested in affiliation and in the feelings associated with including and excluding other people.

This willingness in readers to overlook form raises a question as to whether online writing entertains, in the traditional sense of the word. I am not sure that it does. Reading online does not seem to me to be a pleasure in itself but a response to irritation. That is, it is not like eating an ice cream cone; it is like scratching an itch. I am only reporting on my own feelings here, of course, but while I am doing so, let me report a further kink in them. Between us, my boyfriend and I subscribe to more than a dozen magazines, and if I pick one up, I know instantly that I am goofing off. Online reading, however, fails to set off my leisure detection system. Part of the failure may be perceptual—online reading takes place while I’m sitting in front of my laptop, immobilized, as I am when working. But I think, too, that online writing may, even in its supposedly silly moments, be covertly work-like: there is a fair amount of tedium in its unedited prose. Many of the jokes and references are only comprehensible to regular visitors. No one, my hit counter tells me, reads blogs on the weekend. And reading online prose is not refreshing. An action movie leaves the viewer juiced; a novel may leave the reader wistful. But reading blogs, in my experience, leaves me more addled and nervous than when I began. This work-like character makes the internet particularly corrosive , by the way, to the productivity of those who work at home, such as writers. Through web browsing, the freelancer communes with the procrastinating office drone—at his peril, because the freelancer receives no weekly paycheck.

By this point, you will have gathered from my references to feelings and to social context that the definition of literary style that I’m working with is broad. I suppose I define it as the way a writer expresses himself in words, and I would defend the breadth of my definition by arguing that whenever a writer expresses himself he also chooses how he will present himself—even if he chooses to keep his personal self out of view, insofar as that is possible. A writer is someone who has turned his self-presentation in language into an art or a profession, just as an actor has his self-presentation in person. Feelings and social context—or rather, linguistic effects that suggest feelings and social context—may be as crucial to a writer as metaphor and diction.

In defining style this way, I am borrowing from the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It was Goffman’s insight that in their structure, many daily encounters are a milder version of the one that we are acting out here tonight. There are usually two teams—tonight, for instance, it’s the panelists up here vs. the audience out there. Each team performs for the other. Each side tries to define the situation that they find themselves in, to their advantage by conveying an impression. Up here, we’re trying to seem thoughtful but not too pompous; out there, you’re trying to seem interested but not naïve. You may also, by the way, be performing for one another, as may we. Our tools up here include our words, our facial expressions, and our clothes, and every sign we give, or inadvertently give off, has, according to Goffman, “a promissory character.” In other words, while we speak, you’re going to be trying to decide whether we live up to the promise our words and manner imply. If we’re unlucky or unskillful, you may decide we’re pretending to be something we’re not. Thankfully, we’re not always onstage, laboring under the stress of maintaining what Goffman calls our “front.” Last night, some of my fellow panelists and I met for a private dinner, to strategize in a place where you wouldn’t be able to hear us. At that dinner, I could have safely listed all the many books about the internet I haven’t read; alerted to my deficiencies, my comrades would then know to steer questions about them away from me tonight, without any need for me to give a signal and without you in the audience being any the wiser. Goffman calls such spaces “back regions,” or, more colloquially, “backstage areas.”

Recourse to a backstage area is only one of a number of techniques by means of which performers may make the task of self-presentation more manageable. Another is “audience segregation.” Audience segregation is why professors say they won’t go on Facebook: they work hard to project a sage and stolid persona to their students, and the effort would be undermined if their students were to see them zombie-biting the assistant dean. Another is what Goffman calls “mystification,” which is in essence a limitation on contact. The professor is too busy to talk to you; come to his office hours if you must. Still another is “dramaturgical circumspection,” which involves managing the kind of audience you have and how much they know. If the professor plans to crib all his lectures next semester from M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp, perhaps he’ll choose to leave that book off the syllabus, and suggest to better-read students that the class will be too easy for them. Finally, performers are protected from a public loss of face by the audience’s tact, that is, by the audience’s willingness to overlook lapses in order to avoid a scene. This may be another reason professor don’t join Facebook: They know their students let their guard down there, and for the students’ sake they’d rather not see it.

All of these techniques are rendered more difficult, if not impossible, by the Internet, as the example of Facebook suggests. Some professors, after all, do join. It’s impossible to keep the members of the right-wing discussion group Free Republic dot-com from reading the posts at My Barack Obama dot-com, and vice versa. The internet’s killer app, as the onetime internet mogul Michael Wolff once said, is eavesdropping. It’s impossible to screen one’s audience, and almost impossible to release information about oneself selectively. Mystification, too, is often punctured online; it’s difficult to prevent people from expecting a prompt reply to an email. As for tact, it isn’t rarer on the internet, but in real life, tact is efficacious largely because audience members police one another to see that it’s maintained. Hecklers are hissed down. Thanks to anonymity, the odds of being punished for failing to use tact online are low to nonexistent, and so whenever an opportunity for discrediting a performer arises, someone will come along cheap enough to take it. Just the other day, for example, I posted on my blog a recipe for rice and beans that I cooked when I was in graduate school, as part of an inter-blog conversation about such recipes, only to have “ddd@eee.net” declare, “Sorry, but this recipe doesn’t even meet the basic requirements of a grad school recipe.”

Against a more scurrilous attack, my friend Scott McLemee once invoked Goffman to describe his blog Quick Study as his “backstage area.” Scott asserted that in such a setting it was tactless to be so harsh. I agree that such harshness was and is tactless, but I disagree with Scott about his application of Goffman. I think that in fact there are no backstage areas online. On the internet, everything is a front, yet the stress and strain of maintaining a constant and universal front is so great that many performers on the internet make a show of abandoning the standards conventionally associated with a front. On the internet, the audience is with you too often, and sees you from too many angles, for you to pull any wool over their eyes, so the safest way to present yourself is by underselling. No intimacy comes with this deshabille, however. The environment remains dangerous. One skips through no-man’s-land in one’s pyjamas, as it were. If we live on the internet, as Keith suggested by the title he chose for tonight’s event, then we keep ourselves as slovenly there as if we were backstage, yet feel as isolated and as trapped within our shells as if we were in front of the footlights.

Here, I think, we reach the question of whether these changes in style constitute an improvement. In purely formal terms, I think they don’t. Writing is not refined by a conscious or half-conscious effort to look sloppy. The moral aspect is more complicated. Goffman writes that when a performer is publicly discredited, “the members of the audience may discover a fundamental democracy that is usually well hidden.” That sounds like a boon, but it may be worth keeping in mind that the most powerful CEOs and politicians in America not only do not blog, they do not even use email. There is accordingly a limit to the internet’s revolutionary potential. Also, it is possible we might come to regret that the front of an institution like the New York Times has been riddled by the internet’s fire. According to Goffman, a team of performers maintains boundaries between itself and its audience so that its members may have the flexibility to share information among themselves without giving it away to the audience. A paranoid or a utopian may believe the New York Times doesn’t need to keep secrets from its readers, but most people think it’s possible to report responsibly using anonymous sources, and as Goffman tried to demonstrate, every public presentation of self requires a touch of razzle-dazzle to succeed. Even the Gray Lady may occasionally need a spot of rouge.

To speak still more abstractly: I’m not sure I believe in leveling for its own sake, and I don’t want to live in a society where I may not shut the door. “Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people,” Theodor Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia.

For only as long as they abstain from importuning one another with giving and taking, discussion and implementation, control and function, is there space enough between them for the delicate connecting filigrees of external forms in which alone the internal can crystallize.

It may be that communication is compromised when interactions are completely public, that grabbing attention often substitutes for deserving it, and that solitude is more refreshing than a company in which trust and tenderness are habitually threatened. As the etiquette books explain, an informal style signals warmth to friends and family, but it’s rude to use it with strangers.