On Monday I'll be doing a talk for the annual meeting of the Association of Subscription Agents in London. I last spoke to that group four years ago and quite enjoyed it, so I'm looking forward to seeing them again. The audience is a mix of people who work for agents and people who work in publishing and, unlike some of my more rabid colleagues, I find that most of those folks are fine, dedicated people who believe that they're working for a social good. This is even the case with those who (gasp!) are opposed to open access (or rather, opposed to some of the mandates or to the moralistic tone of much of the debate -- I've actually met no one in publishing who is opposed, on principle, to the notion of providing broader and easier access to scholarly material).
But then, that's part of the issue, isn't it? I spend time actually talking with them and trying to get to know them as people. It's much harder to demonize someone after spending an evening in the pub with them. You may still disagree vociferously, and you don't necessarily personally like each and every one of them, but you may find that the disagreements are honest and they aren't the evil, lying, money-grubbing bastards that they're portrayed to be. This doesn't mean that you can't still sincerely believe them to be wrong.
My disgust with the open access movement came about when the level of rhetoric on the blogs reached such a pitch that people were making crude and utterly unfair accusations about the moral character of people that I happen to know. The self-righteousness of many of the open access advocates, who seemed completely unaware of their own rhetorical spins and flourishes was a real disappointment, even though in my idealism I still share many of the goals.
But the problem, I'm afraid, is inherent in the nature of internet communication. It is so easy (and emotionally satisfying, apparently) to accuse a whole group of being rotten liars when you can do so from the solitude of your own computer and never really be called to account for what you say. Unlike my friend Marcus, I don't believe that there's much chance of developing mechanisms for strong and effective conversation on blogs (although I do admire his idealism). The noise ratio will always be too high. Substantive conversation requires actually listening, paying attention to the arguments of the other, bringing real facts into play, and always being aware of the possibility that you yourself may be wrong. As my friend Lonnie used to say (paraphrasing Housman), "A moment's thought would have shown him the error of his ways, but thought is difficult, and a moment is a long time." I'm not saying that I think it never happens -- but pick any 100 comment threads at random and you're not going to find very much of it.
Nonetheless, I'm happy to see the blogging guidelines that have been developed by MLA's Task Force on Social Networking. The principles are pretty straightforward and commonsense -- but then, what one might think of as "common sense" is sometimes in pretty short supply.
If I was writing guidelines (which I'm not) I'd add one: when you're getting ready to unleash the full force of your rhetorical armamentarium against someone or some group, ask yourself if you'd be willing to say the same thing to that someone's face.
But oh, how boring the blogosphere would become...