Friday, June 23, 2006

Responsible Blogging

Let's talk about public forums on the Internet.

I'm a staunch believer in freedom of speech, and the information superhighway is quickly becoming the preferred way to communicate. Unlike telephones, the exchange can be permanent, and unlike newspapers or books, it allows for instantaneous self-expression, followed by instantaneous reaction and response.

Never before in the history of the world have people been able to express themselves so easily and quickly.

Perhaps too quickly.

An unforeseen phenomenon sprung shortly after the first chat rooms and message boards appeared. A specific type of person who used the Internet not as an open means of intelligent discourse, but to call people names, cause trouble, and refuse to listen to reason or apologize for their behavior.

We call these people trolls.

Trolls enjoy causing trouble. They like the attention they receive from being insulting, demeaning, and provocative. The name troll comes from the fishing lexicon--to troll means to cast out your lure and wait to see what bites.

Unlike real life, where calling someone a nasty name, or pointing a finger and shouting untrue accusations might get you into big trouble (and perhaps even force you to defend your words) the Internet is the perfect venue for cowards such as trolls.

In short, there is no accountability. A troll can make wild claims, attack people and organizations, and do it from the safety of their own home, never having to personally confront the people they condemn, or take responsibility for the harm they've caused.

Let's use a hypothetical example. Let's say someone used a blog to level some serious accusations against, oh, let's call it a group of writers. In this person's perception, this writing group has done something really bad, something really unforgivable, such as nominate writers for some awards.

Wait, that's not really unforgivable, is it? Well, what if we make all the nominees... MEN.

I know, I know---what a despicable assortment of scoundrels this writing group must be. But try to bear with me for a moment.

At first glance, you might look at this nomination list and think, "Well, this writing group must be excluding women."

While this conclusion might not be particularly well thought out, it is a legitimate perception.

Now, if you're a staunch support of women's rights (as we all should be), you'll be angry that no women are represented on this ballot. So angry, in fact, that you decide to use the Internet to vent your anger.

So you do what any smart person would do. You go to the organization's web site, looking for information about how this could have happened. You contact the co-presidents and board members, demanding an explanation. You speak to the judges to seek the reasons why there are no women on...

Oh, wait. I take that back. What you do is write a blog entry calling the organization bigots, sexist, and stupid, without any hard facts to back up this belief.

But we can chalk that up to passion, right? After all, sexism exists in the world, and it is an important issue, and if it has teeth and eats sheep it has to be a wolf, right?

But what if the organization comes forward, and politely points out that they are not, indeed, a wolf? They are a teddy bear. And they didn't kill your sheep. They're actually very sensitive to the needs your wooly friends. And they have proof, facts, and evidence to back this up.

That's when you be a woman and admit to your mistake, right?

Or do you cling to your original, erroneous perception, show no remorse for the people you've insulted and the harm you've caused, and continue to stick to your prejudices?

What would you do?

The funny thing is, the Internet is partially responsible for this situation. If I were to pick a random person, say, bestselling author David Morrell, and call him a bigot to his face, chances are he'd get mighty angry and demand to know why I said such a thing. I might have to use things like facts and logic to back up my rudeness. I might even have to defend my position and my original argument.

But not on the Internet. Because on the Internet, any coward can say whatever they want to say, without accountability. They can hurl insults without having to look into the face of the person, or people, they are insulting.

When these people can't even respond or defend themselves, such as judges who have signed non-disclosure agreements, it must feel particularly self-righteous and liberating, because you don't have to face them, and you don't even have to read their objections.

That's how you know the true troll from people who have simply made honest mistakes. The trolls never admit they are wrong.

I wonder how libel laws apply to blogs? I wonder if an organization can prove damages if some motormouth makes untrue accusations? I wonder if big writing organizations with big coffers ever hire big lawyers?

Hypothetically, of course.

On a completely unrelated topic, I've heard there have been some accusations against (coincidentally enough) a writing organization called ITW. Co-President Gayle Lynds has issued a statement, which I'm happy to repeat here:

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My name is Gayle Lynds, and I'm co-founder and co-president of ITW, with David Morrell. I've been following with interest the queries that have arisen about the nominees for the first ITW Thriller awards. As an individual --- not representing ITW, its board, or its officers --- perhaps I can shed some light on the subject.

I was as surprised as anyone by the results of the ITW Thriller nominations. But then, ITW deliberately built a firewall around the award judges, so none of us knew the outcome in advance. At the same time, no panel of judges knew the results of any other panel's deliberations.

Let me tell you a little about the firewall: Any author or person speaking on behalf of an author who tried to influence any of ITW's judges would have had that author's books disqualified for two years. This was so that the judges could work in private and in secret. All board members as well as the chair of the Awards Committee --- James Rollins --- were ineligible to be considered for the awards. Again, this was to protect the judges and to avoid any accusations of favoritism toward ITW's leaders. This information is available in ITW's bylaws at http://www.thrillerwriters.org/bylaws.html.

In short, ITW's board worked very hard to make certain the awards were as fair and as impartial as possible, and so did the judges, as you will see.

Since this was ITW's first year, the judges faced the monumental task of creating systems that would be the foundation for all future awards. Because of the boxes of books that arrived on their doorsteps to be read, several had to delay their own deadlines and make sacrifices within their families in order to fulfill their very serious responsibility to judge well. This sort of selflessness is to be lauded.

I personally am proud of every book and film script that was nominated. All are excellent works from the thriller field.

Now about the accusations I've read recently about sexism in the awards....

If you go to http://www.thrillerwriters.org/awardslist.html you'll see a list of all submitted books. Only 29% were written by women. For the Thriller Best Novel, only 17%.

At the bottom of http://www.thrillerwriters.org/awards.html, you'll see a note to authors: "If your book is not on the list, please contact your publisher to remind them to submit your book as quickly as possible."

So what happened?

The chair and judging panels showed their concern that they be able to consider every thriller published in 2005 in several ways. The chair and several chief judges contacted all publishers --- both publicists and editors in each house --- to alert them that ITW was in the process of judging its first awards and to ask them to submit all thrillers.

I stress that not just one person was contacted in each house, but several, to ensure that the house understood that ITW really wanted each and every book in all of the subcategories of thrillers, from adventure to medical, romantic to espionage, legal to historical, and every other permutation. No one should be left out of the race.

Still, books were not always submitted. The judges worked closely with the chair, alerting him when they saw new books coming out. At the same time, he was on the watch, too. He went back time and again to publishers.

When it became apparent that few novels by female authors were being submitted, he redoubled his efforts, often contacting a house four times on behalf of novels that were clearly thrillers written by women.

At the same time notices were sent to ITW members reminding them to check the website to make certain their 2005 novels had been submitted.

In the end, the responsibility for having books submitted rests on the shoulders of the publishers. That's their job. At the same time, authors had the option of submitting copies of their books themselves.

As an author (not as a woman who has spent her life battling sexism), I could complain that no women were nominated. At the same time, I could also complain that no people of color were. I'm not sure whether any Muslims or religions other than Christian or Jewish were nominated, but I think they weren't either. There also might be a preponderance of nominees from one section of the United States, which could be taken as a prejudice favoring that area.

As long as awards are given in whatever field, there are always going to be those who say, "I wish it were otherwise. And because it isn't, it's prejudice."

The only time there's really an institutional problem, at least in my mind, is when there is a history of one group of people being disenfranchised.

Since this is ITW's first year, the organization can have no track record of institutional prejudice. ITW has worked diligently to avoid prejudice. The judges by their actions have indicated they have also been diligent in trying to create a level playing field.

My hat is off to ITW's judges, who worked very hard and read many fine books. All are excellent authors in their own rights, too. They did a sincere and worthy job, and they deserve not only our respect but our appreciation.

By the way, the awards chair for next year is a woman. She is not a person of color. Her religious background is unknown to me. I'm not even certain where she lives. She is a fine author and a wonderful human. Her name will be announced at ThrillerFest.

Anyone who would like to attend ThrillerFest --- it's going to be a blast --- should visit www.thrillerfest.com. You can learn there at the Awards Banquet who the winners for the Thrillers are. ThrillerFest begins next week. As I said, all of the nominees are excellent. I congratulate them on creating superb works.

Gayle Lynds
www.GayleLynds.com