October 19, 2017

Ground Rules: Blogroll Psychology 101

referee.jpgGround Rules are a series of posts reflecting on what I’ve learned in some of my controversies and conflicts with other bloggers.

Who’s on your blogroll? Your RSS reader?

What are you saying by including or excluding them?

Somewhere in my future volume called “Blog Psychology: The Behavior of Bloggers Explained” I will have a chapter on blogrolls. Maybe I’ll even do that long lost doctoral thesis on “Blogrolls Explained: The Significance of Inclusion and Exclusion on Christian Blogrolls.”

Let me make clear at the outset that I put myself forward as an example of such behavior. I have included and excluded a number of people from my blogroll, and it will be on that basis that I’ll make any observations on what someone is thinking.

For starters, what is a blogroll anyway? Typically, it’s a list of internet sites- often blogs, but not restricted to blogs by any means- that the blogger wants to endorse or identify with in some way.

Of course, there may be other reasons for inclusion on a blogroll. A site may be interesting for informational purposes or simply be an “essential’ site the blogger visits frequently.

When it comes to blogs themselves, inclusion usually means…

-This is my friend and/or supporter.
-I’m endorsing this blog as similar to my own. You can trust it.
-This blog has beneficial spiritual content.

So when a blog disappears from a blogroll, something has normally prompted that removal.

Psychologically, blogrolls represent the “team sport” mentality that prevails in the blogosphere. We “build and draft” teams members like we are building a fantasy league. The people who endorse our views in our comments and link our posts at their blogs are rewarded with inclusion on our blogroll.

RSS readers, mostly unseen, but sometimes posted on sidebars, are another way of accumulating useful blogs. RSS readers run on a similar, yet slightly different, psychology since they don’t generally imply approval. Of course most of us monitor sites we like, but many of us also monitor blogs that we disagree with, and from that monitoring often shape our own posts in disapproval or reaction. In many ways, this may be one of the unhealthiest of blogging habits, as it selects from the entire blogosphere those sites we tend to disagree with the most, and serves up to us (and/or our readers) a regular round of posts that we disagree with. It contributes “conservations” and “blogwars” that exaggerate the differences that exist in the Christian blogosphere.

For example, many of my own “blogfights” involve people with whom I agree on almost everything in matters of faith and practice. Our areas of disagreement often involve questions of style, tone, vocabulary and “association.” Some of these differences- like “limited atonement”- are over subpoints of subpoints in Christian theology. Many of the errors I, and others, make in these blog squabbles exaggerate matters that, in the real world, are practically invisible.

The entire blogosphere has this characteristic. I have been in ministry for more than 30 years. In the 20 years I’ve been a pastor and campus minister, I’ve never talked to my congregation, students or co-workers about Karl Barth’s views of inspiration or made an endorsement of the emerging church. Virtually no one that I’ve worked with the past 20 years has any idea that I have any opinion more controversial than rejecting the pre-trib rapture.

Yet on the blogosphere I’ve had significant negative press for not accepting someone’s version of limited atonement and for being a “Barthian liberal”(!!) on scripture. Just this morning, I sent a fellow staff member the New Hampshire Confession of Faith in answer to his question about what I believed on a certain issue.

On the blogosphere, the fact that I affirm the New Hampshire Confession gets me no love , as those who monitor me as an “emerging heretic” only want to know about what they see as my dangerous departures from orthodoxy. (Ironically, one of my most frequent and flamboyant critics turns out to be an advocate of the amill eschatology I’ve held- under the radar of the dispensationalists that surround me- since college days. We should be friends.)

For example, in a recent discussion of my aversion to the word “inerrant” (a word that clearly means “always literal” to many who reject amill eschatology), a commenter called me a liar for implying that I had never had a controversy over my beliefs about scripture. But the fact is that the words I do use about the Bible in my ministry are MORE than adequate to convey my affirmation of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. In nine churches and three schools, I’ve never had a moment of controversy over scripture. If anything, The closest I’ve ever come: my New Covenant views of interpreting the Old Testament.

I have been guilty of the same kind of amplification of issues where I differ with other bloggers. I have an RSS category where I monitor blogs that frequently take positions with which I frequently take issue. This often has put me in conflict with people whom I would gladly accept as a fellow pastor or fellow elder in the “real world.” In the blogosphere, their identity and our interactions are dominated by our disagreements. But if we were at Starbucks, I think we’d get along as friends.

(This is not universally true. There are some on the blogosphere who clearly do not accept me as a Christian with my current beliefs as they understand them, and I do believe that fundamentally makes our relationship difficult. Rejecting someone’s profession of faith is a serious matter.)

This kind of selectivity in the information age has the potential to significantly shape our view of what the “conversation” is like in ways that are not beneficial or accurate. It is as if we intentionally subscribed to a collection of newspapers or cable channels that were certain annoy and anger us.

In the same way, however, selecting blogroll and RSS sources that completely reflect only our own views and opinions may also shape our view of the conversation wrongly. We can easily construct an “informational world” that simply reinforces our own beliefs and prejudices, alerts us to only those issues we currently care about, and excludes other points of view except when articulated by approved critics.

I will confess that I have included and excluded blogs from my blogroll based more on my personal reaction to individual issues than to the overall commitment and approach of the blogger to our common faith. Recently, I have noticed two fellow bloggers removing blogs from their favored places on the blogroll. It is likely this is prompted by disagreement over some issue, and is an expression of disapproval or punishment. “Blogroll banishment,” so to speak.

Some bloggers categorize their blogroll into groups based on the extent of their approval. I was once categorized on one blog as spiritually dangerous. My inclusion in a labeled category was a form of public disapproval. When I finally vanished (and the category removed), I was pleased.

The blogosphere lives and grows by the mutual recognition of one another’s existence. Blogroll inclusion exposes a blog to your audience, and has the potential, on many blogs, to drive significant traffic to the blog as a result of inclusion. If that is true, then exclusion is often a form of punishment, by making the blog less visible and discouraging traffic to the blog.

Here are some suggestions for “blogrolling.”

1) Don’t make your blogroll entirely a list of your “team.” Have some genuine diversity of blogs and posts.

2) Include blogs that you disagree with over some issues, but that produce useful, insightful and helpful content.

3) Don’t leave the impression that a blog is completely heretical and outside the bounds of the faith when you have a disagreement with them. It’s absurd to judge so much from even several areas of disagreement.

4) Consider not using the ability to monitor RSS feeds as a way to keep yourself stirred up against certain bloggers, topics or issues by isolating “enemy” feeds.

5) Be critical of yourself- and not just others- when blogging brings out childish, “team sport” tendencies.

Comments

  1. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I’ve decided that my blogroll will only include people with whom I’m acquainted in a real-life sort of way. Sure, it creates severe limitations on the kinds of materials endorsed, but it also does away with the pressures of having to stay equipped for blogwars. I mainly do it so that people will think I’m cool for actually knowing so-and-so. 🙂

  2. 6) And (*cough*) update your blogroll when people (*ahem*) move their blogs to a new URL. Before they start dropping unsubtle hints on the subject. :o)

  3. Apologies for double-posting, but another thought that comes to mind is the different approaches people take to blogrolling.

    Example: one fairly prominent Lutheran blogger asked me to include them on my blogroll. I did so, but then at a later date removed them, simply because I didn’t happen to read their site any more (only so many hours in the day, etc.). I then got a slightly wounded email from them asking why I had done this, and as a result I added them back in again.

    When I moved site (*cough*, *hint*, etc :-)) last month, I finally dropped them (along with a number of other blogs) once and for all, because I decided my blogroll should consist only of sites I actually read, not just sites I vaguely approve of from a distance. I put up a post emphasising (without naming names) that exclusion was not a value judgment but simply a reflection of what I happened to read.

    Others, however, prefer to have comprehensive blogrolls covering every blog that they consider to fall within a particular “class” of which they approve. I’m sure there’s a place for that – it’s just not on my sidebar. 😉

  4. I tend to decide what goes in my RSS reader based on whether or not I find it helpful or interesting to read. I have a hard time imagining why I would want to continue reading something if most of my reactions to it were negative.

  5. Michael,

    Great topic and one about which I’ve thought a great deal with no clarity: I link to blogs that interest me and diversity comes into play. E.g., I link to Denny Burk who differs with me on almost everything but I’m curious to see what he’s saying and he’s a good guy. I like to Steve McCoy because I’ve met him but mostly because he’s a young pastor whom I admire for the challenge of pastoring a small church with a family who has a robust commitment to a theological approach to pastoring.

    But, Kris uses my blogroll to read blogs and often informs me that “so and so” is not writing often enough — remove him/her — or some other reason. I always feel bad about removing someone so I usually just leave them on the blogroll.

    Bad idea, in my judgment, to think of your blogroll of folks you endorse. I endorse Bible and the Great Orthodox Tradition.

  6. Interesting…I never thought of blogrolling as psychology. I have links on my blog that are mainly reciprocal; someone has linked to me, and I feel compelled to return the favor, even though I may never visit her place.

    I’m getting ready to revamp, though, and only include places where I actually find value. I’d also like to include a brief description of the blog, but I can’t figure out how to do it without consuming too much space. I just know that when I see my blog linked from somewhere, the name of it, which I picked on a whim not knowing what a big part of my life it would end up being, says nothing about what I write.

    I also find some common ground in the idea that you discuss things online you never talk about IRL. This is one of the reasons why I love the internet.

    You also said, “Rejecting someone’s confession of faith is a serious matter.” No kidding. I have seen this done at another blog, and I find it unbelievable. I mean, wow, who would have the nerve to do that? When I spoke up, though, I was shouted down. Me, I have enough worries about my own walk; I have no need to judge someone else’s.

    I appreciate your blog. I’ve found it to be very educational.