Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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August 24, 2005

All I needed was the publisher and year of publication for Paul Osterman's Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics in America, so I logged on and headed over to Behemoth Books (Music, Video, Apparel, etc., etc.) Online. Well. Datum by incremental datum, Behemoth's pages have grown cluttered. Behemoth wants you to know how much it knows about the book you're interested in and about other people who are interested in that book. What it evidently didn't want me to know was the year of publication for Gathering Power, so down I scrolled.

Behemoth advised me to buy this book together with Rules for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice by Edward T. Chambers, and directly below that I was told that customers who bought Gathering Power also bought Rules for Radicals and five other books, one of which, I was encouraged to see, was by the great community organizer Saul Alinsky. Under that we had reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, with a link to more reviews, and under THAT, voilà, the nitty-gritty I'd been seeking about publisher and year of publication: Beacon Press, 2003.

I had what I wanted, but I was intrigued, so I kept scrolling. Under "Customer Reviews," there were two; I was invited to contribute a third, but "No, thanks," I muttered, "I've got a review due at the Women's Review of Books in barely three weeks." I was also advised that 10 out of 10 people had found the first review helpful; for the second review, the tally was 6 out of 6. "Was this review helpful to you?" I was asked. Yes, I clicked, at which I received an invitation to sign in or register. I declined.

I kept scrollin', scrollin', scrollin' . . . "Listmania!" What was this? Evidently Behemoth likes lists. Gathering Power had garnered three: an anonymous copyeditor's list of books edited for Beacon Press in 2000-2002 (no dish, no dirt, no incisive comments: boring), followed by "A Progressive's Guide" and "A Progressive Booklist," separate resource lists compiled by two different people. By clicking on each list, I could learn how many people had viewed the list, how many found it helpful, and what other lists the compiler had compiled, and of course I was invited to express my own opinion. Enough already. I bailed.

For blogs on the mass-blog sites, I can learn that the most recent entry was posted at 5:27 p.m. and so far it has elicited 12 comments. Do I scan the comments? Rarely; I barely have time to read the blogger's blogs, and that's what I'm there for. On AlterNet, the articles inspire comments and the comments inspire comments: the stacked and substacked titles, each with poster's name and time, look like an oak branch in late November. In general it's the most intemperate and puerile posts that elicit the most responses, which makes me wonder what the payoff for the participants is. Sometimes I wish I could engage a particularly interesting writer in conversation, but there's no way to do that: the thread spins on and doesn't double back; even if you only post a few times a week, it's just about impossible to tend all your little seedlings and see what's growing around them.

For conversation and discussion, the fermenting, fomenting, free-flowing kind, I much prefer e-lists and e-groups. My first foray into online communication was on old GEnie, the SFRT (Science Fiction RoundTable). It was 1994 and both were well past their heyday, but there were plenty of witty, wise, and well-informed people to rub virtual shoulders with: the whole was invariably larger and more fun than the sum of its parts. Same with the e-lists I've been active on the longest: they're like sitting around a big table, or like moving through a congenial party. The highly structured communication allowed by Behemoth and many mass-bloggeries is more like sitting row on row, everyone facing the blackboard. You say something. Someone else says something, and someone else, and someone else. The things roll forward to the front of the room, balls of yarn rolling and unraveling but not allowed to tangle.


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