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The Commenter: A Lament

By Michael Connor

This post was composed in one hour in front of an online audience for the Rhizome Internet Telethon 2014.

Tom Moody, Double Buckyball (detail of work in process), 2004, mixed media, approx. 60 x 40 inches.

Nearly a year ago, and not long after I started working at Rhizome, I published a post called "Breaking the Ice," inviting the community to leave their thoughts about our curatorial and editorial direction. It took a while to get started, but eventually some of the Rhizome old timers latched on and got the ball rolling. As my introduction to the Rhizome community in my new role, it painted quite a picture. Heated opinions were debated, n00bs were put in their place, and frustrations were vented. Despite a sometimes negative tone, I was excited by the energy that people brought to it. And the fact that, y’know, people were commenting on Rhizome.org, a non-profit website that serves as an important cultural archive, rather than on a for-profit site that will sell your data to the highest bidder.

Zachary Kaplan often makes fun of me for being a fan of internet comments. He's our Community Manager, people. When he was on his honeymoon, he wrote a nice comment on a Brendan Byrne piece, and he described this as a "gift to me." This is a longstanding and firmly entrenched debate in our community, at this point, and one which is divided along generational lines: participate avidly in highly commercialized, highly populated social media, or confine oneself to the less populous sidelines of open comment forums and listserves. 

My affinities here are probably clear, but I think there are arguments in favor of social media participation. What Zach understands is that while Rhizome's communities are real, while the discussions rage as fiercely as they did in 2008 or 1998, they generally don't happen on our site, on our infrastructure, but in the world of social media and, yes, in real life. I really appreciate how avidly Zach follows and participates in these conversations, even though they don't end up as a part of our institutional archives. He sees his job as Community Manager to require that he go to where our community is.

The other interesting argument for social media participation comes is articulated by people like Jesse Darling. A while ago on Facebook, she shared a screenshot from her text in the forthcoming edited collection You Are Here: Art After the Internet, edited by Omar Kholeif; in it, I think I remember that she made the argument that being a social media user was a way of identifying with the affectively laboring masses. She uses the phrase #usermilitia, I like that idea of being in solidarity, because there is something elitist about the social media refusenik postion.  Brian Droitcour has made a similar argument around his use of Yelp and other lowly forums for serious critical art writing.

So, I get it. But, I still feel a twinge of regret over the decline of commenting culture on good ol' Rhizome.org. And this is, in part, why I'm so excited about the next segment of the telethon, following my live composition of this article, in which Tom Moody will read his Rhizome comments aloud. Tom is our most avid commenter. His comments are often acerbic, he's hurt all of our feelings at one time or another, and he's been described as a troll. Still, I'm always impressed with his reasoning. The writing is clear, and he has a strong critical framework--which I respect, even if I disagree with it.

So I want to end this post by saying, Tom, thank you for the hours of labor that you've devoted to writing on Rhizome. I love that you do it as a commenter, and I will (for that reason) probably never commission you to write an article. But you're here now, so we can just continue this discussion face to face.

This post was made possible by the support of Mark Matienzo.

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Rob Myers 1 year, 8 months agoReply

"I still feel a twinge of regret over the decline of commenting culture on good ol' Rhizome.org"


Yes it's a mystery how that happened.


Zachary Kaplan 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Hi Rob, I'm writing this comment as part of Rhizome's telethon, nearly hour 22. (I'm logged in as Zach, but this is Michael Connor. Zach only comments on social media.)

I guess your comment refers to the demise of Rhizome Raw. I do want to point out that the decision to wind down the listserve happened long before any current staff joined the organization; we have actually talked about whether to bring it back. But, given that there are other great listserves in the world now, I'm curious whether you think there is actually a need for Rhizome to restart its listserve. (Or am I misinterpreting your comment?)

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

This is why every time I consider donating/subscribing to rhizome, my money goes somewhere else. There is very little to no community on rhizome. Geographically, I can't just "drop by," so besides looking on the front page and archives, there's really nothing else I can do. Little or no discussion, being one of the newbies that was put in her place (not funny, btw) - why should I give $?

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

I do get the lists. I'm way behind on reading, partly because I can lose track of time so easily while reading and watching and following links. I find much of this fascinating.

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Rhizome becomes only a springboard; somewhere to check if I feel like it, and quickly move on if there's nothing to capture me up front. If I do comment or forum post, will anyone hear and respond? It's all an archive.

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Where, Michael and Zach, do you want us to go? I'm serious. Put a stickey on the forum and give some direction. Netbehaviour? Wryting-L? Cybermind? I found these on my own; the latter two are more writing than art, but that's ok.

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Finally, I have no idea who the current superstars are; I happened to glob onto Mr. Sondheim at Futherfield. I look for him first now. Who was/is important in the past through the present into the future? Who should I look at first, and/or where? That's what I need, and also a place to discuss what I've found.

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Rhizome was the first net art place I found almost 2 decades ago. I come back occasionally, and have a soft spot for it, but it hasn't fulfilled it's promise for me, and a good community, accepting all and giving direction along with discussion, is/was a part of that. Unfortunately now I think that may never happen.

Theresa Ramseyer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Sorry for the typos.

Michael Szpakowski 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Absolutely. I *loved* Rhizome. It meant a huge amount to me & I owe it a lot. I gave every year until recently, more than I could afford ( and I maintained a fond hope that things might change long after there was any sensible reason for doing so. I don't give now because, brutally, what's in it for me? From a genuinely pretty horizontal community (um–rhizome???) with tremendous discussions and collaborations it's been transformed into yet another top down affair which seems to launch the odd writing/curating career but in which I now feel I have no personal stake whatsoever. What a shame.

Michael Connor 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Hi Theresa, I think Netbehaviour probably is the best listserve option for you, good that you're already on that. I love that you're on dialup.

Michael, much respect to the original crew. I don't think we can ever quite bring back the late-90s model you fell in love with. :/ It's always useful to be reminded of the founding ideals.

And hey, no worries about the donation! But, y'know, I rly couldve seen u in

Tom Moody 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Michael composed this post "live" on streaming video and put it up minutes before I came on to read comments aloud (into the same camera), so I didn't see what he wrote until a couple of hours later (when I got home). Thanks for the kind words about my unkind words, and for having me on as guest telethon presenter.
I missed out on that "Breaking the Ice" thread but do somewhat miss the days when "people … comment[ed] on Rhizome.org, a non-profit website that serves as an important cultural archive, rather than on a for-profit site that will sell your data to the highest bidder."
Being a Facebook refusenik isn't shunning all social media, but unfortunately Facebook is where the net art community chose to go after Rhizome, and I'm well out of these Zuckerberg-monitored discussions. (I get it second hand through emails and screenshots.)
The idea that Facebook refusenik-ism is an elitist removal from the affectively laboring masses (good phrase) is as disturbing to me as saying you have to be on Facebook, otherwise employers and law enforcement will think there is something wrong with you. It's just another form of peer pressure, that benefits someone else's bottom line who could give a damn about net art doctrine.
I'm happy to see that Nicholas O'Brien, Geert Lovink and a few others finally said "yuck I'm out of here" to the Facebook Academy. No one really knows where to go next, but I'll continue to say that Rhizome is a good forum. Even if it's just me talking back to Michael Connor.

TWIN HEAD 1 year, 8 months agoReply

I think plenty of people have gone to tumblr, and there have been plenty of good discussions there. I also don't feel like nostalgia for old internet forms is productive in anyway. We have seen really important discussions happen on Facebook and be shared more widely too so it's not like discussions on Facebook are totally closed off (e.g. Nina Powers, Lauren Berlant, Sara Ahmed and others talking about that identity politics articles).

Tom Moody 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Since Rob Myers didn't actually state a complaint let's not read his mind and invent problems. His posting of the dead horse and Easter Island statues might refer to the moribund ideas of certain "web 1.0" artists who once haunted Rhizome's comments or the current horrorshow of having intellectual discussions on Facebook. In fact, I'm sure that's he meant.

Tom Moody 1 year, 8 months agoReply

^In fact, I'm sure that's what he meant.

Michael Connor 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Good point.

Pall Thayer 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Rhizome has long held on to this belief that the discussion gravitated away due to the emergence of social sites but that's not right. I remember when I first discovered Rhizome. It was very liberating to discover that there were people all over the world involved in the same sort of practice that I was discovering… and they were sharing ideas, comments, work. It was great. Posts and works would get pulled from the list and published on the front page. There was an encouraging dynamic to it. Then something happened. Rhizome stopped publishing things from the list and was more or less just pulling stuff from other websites and posting that to their front page. They called it "re-blogging". That was what killed Rhizome. They stopped paying attention to their community and therefore the community stopped being a community.

Tom Moody 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Rhizome's reblogging of content from the wider internet, beginning around 2005 or so, using a diverse pool of interested (but unpaid) "site editors," was a smart move. It elevated Rhizome from the cloistered email era into a larger WWW conversation. Then it stopped, sometime around 2007, possibly because the site editor concept wasn't sustainable, or was just too unruly. That's about the same time the gallery art world collectively joined Facebook. The new media community also drifted over there and that's where the conversation's been ever since (and to a lesser extent twitter and tumblr).
If, as Michael Connor suggests, Zachary Kaplan is zealously following and participating in conversations elsewhere, why not enlarge that role and have a mechanism in place to feed those discussions back into Rhizome? A kind of human-edited "track back" function. Take "Facebook content" and reclaim it for a non-profit commons (within the bounds of copyright law, if that's even possible).
It's good to have a diffuse (truly rhizomatic) conversation going on but there's also value to having a "central clearing house" for ideas of common interest. Not a top down affair but a place for weighing and comparison of the relative value of work. As long as commenters are welcomed and responded to, careers don't get launched unless they deserve to.

Tom Moody 1 year, 8 months agoReply

Some technical issues need to be solved as well, such as the lag time that occurs between when a comment is made and when notice of it shows up on the front page.