I don’t actually remember when the madosphere was all fields, of course.
First because it was never fields, what with it being a thing that has only a virtual existence on the internet. And second because I wasn’t in at the beginning: by the time I came along a little under 5 years ago it had been up and running for ages. I was actually a real johnny-come-lately – which is, if you think about it, better than being described as a johnny-come-prematurely. Although I’d actually prefer you to think of me as a johnny-come-at-precisely-the-right-moment-to-guarantee-maximum-pleasure-to-his-partner. Oh, yes. That’s most definitely what I’d like you to think. Yessiree, bob.
But enough of bo(a)bbies and johnnies.
It occurs to me that some people may need a little help with the term madosphere. It was, IIRC, invented by the brilliant Seaneen to describe the mental health blogosphere. It was intended to be semi-humorous, and also to save the labour of repeatedly typing the phrase mental health blogosphere. Of course, being semi-serious and semi-humorous makes it a neat little parallel of one of its parent words, blogosphere, which the late Brad Graham invented as a semi-joke, and then almost immediately wished he hadn’t.
But what, you may be wondering, has brought on this little spurt of internet-based nostalgia? (Netstalgia we could call it, since we’re in a neologistic frame of mind.) Well, it’s a few recent posts on The World of Mentalists blog relating to the TWIM awards.
TWIM – This Week In Mentalists – itself is a great thing. It’s a weekly round up of blog posts made by some of the contributors to the madosphere, both patients and professionals. It’s been running for years, first at the sadly-missed Mental Nurse site, then for a brief while at another ex-site, before arriving at its current home. The heroic Zarathustra has been involved from the very beginning, and the equally-lovely Pandora now shares the burden, and between them – and all the other people involved, both now and in the past – they continue to make a wonderful thing. I’m glad they do it, and I’m grateful for their hard work.
I like TWIM because it’s so good at creating and nurturing a sense of community, primarily in the way it introduces people to each other. I also think it’s valuable as a platform where patients and professionals meet on equal terms – the power relationship in most interactions between patients and pros is very unequal, and starkly obvious in a way that makes things difficult for people both sides of the divide. But it’s the community-building that I think of as its greatest strength, and that means I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to the idea of TWIM giving out awards for the ‘best’ blogs.
The problem, as I see it, is that the practice of handing out awards actively works against the idea of a nurturing community. TWIM itself says to people who feature in its round-ups “you’re speaking to a group of people who understand what you’re going through, and empathise with the problems you face, and who value you for the contributions you bring to us”. But, for the majority of bloggers who don’t win, the TWIM awards tack on at the end “…but not as much as we value that other person’s contributions”. The awards inevitably create a sense of better and worse, and so replace community with hierarchy.
The problem isn’t one of jealousy – I’m not suggesting that people who don’t place first resent those who do better than them – but of the effect it has on people who may already be struggling with low self-esteem, who are subconsciously latching on to every signal that they are worthless, incompetent, not-good-enough. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that people with these kinds of issues are likely to be found in the madosphere, and their welfare might be something to think about.
Now, you might just put this down to sour grapes since, even back in the days when I was a signed-up member of the madosphere, I never got better than a bronze TWIM award (which I always thought of as the equivalent of a pat on the head and “well done for trying”). To be honest, I can’t remember what, if anything, I said about the awards back when people were kind enough to nominate and vote for me. I know I was caught between a desire to say “I want nothing to do with this divisive nonsense” and a desire not to throw people’s kindness back in their faces. The likelihood is I dealt with the impasse by ignoring it – that is, after all, my default strategy for dealing with almost everything.
Anyway, in recent times I’ve become detached from the madosphere (for reasons I droned on about at the start of this post), and in the meantime the TWIM awards have continued to develop. The 2012 awards were, for the first time, judged by an appointed panel rather than by the community themselves (the shortlist was still crowdsourced). My opinion on this counts for nothing, of course – I’m no longer involved in the madosphere – but I didn’t see this as a positive step. At least when it was TWIMers voting for TWIMers it was a question of the community ranking itself, but with a panel making the final judgements it seems to me that the last vestiges of the TWIM awards as a community event was lost. (I’m not questioning the dedication, hard work, credentials, good intentions and all-round niceness of either the people on the panel, or the people who appointed them. But there’s no getting round the fact that the “by the community, for the community” aspect has been lost.)
There’s no question that appointing a judging panel has given the TWIM awards a much more professional sheen: the Costa Book Awards are judged by an appointed panel, and now the TWIMs are, too. In fact, it seems that professionalism is becoming a more and more highly-valued commodity in the world of the TWIMs. In a recent post, Zarathustra began the process of developing with the present-day TWIM community a set of criteria to be used in judging future TWIM awards. The post is entitled ‘What makes for a great mental health blog?’ and includes suggestions from Zarathustra himself and others that to qualify as great a mental health blog has to be, among other things,
articulate and lucid
written in a clear, grammatical, well-punctuated style
illustrated with pretty pictures
As criteria for judging professional writing, I wouldn’t disagree with any of these.
But here’s the rub: who ever said that mental health blogs had to be professionally written? Who ever said MH bloggers had to be interested in attracting a broad readership? Who ever said that the madosphere has to be outward looking at all – aimed at people who aren’t part of it – rather than inward-looking – aimed at the people who are? Who ever said blog posts written within the madosphere had to present themselves as journalism, and be judged by criteria appropriate to journalism, rather than treated as contributions to a mutual support group and not judged at all?
And some of those criteria – articulate and lucid, for example? Don’t they pretty much exclude blogs written by people who are unwell? Psychotics aren’t known for their lucidity of thought, for example, nor depressives for their articulacy. And, for that matter, people experiencing the pressured speech of a classic manic episode probably aren’t going to produce a blogpost that’s neatly sub-divided into paragraphs and correctly punctuated: you’ll pretty much get a wall of text. Is it really the case that a MH blog written by a person experiencing and displaying the symptoms of mental illness can’t be a great blog about mental illness? That, by definition, only blogs written by people who aren’t unwell are great?
And it’s not just the mentally ill. These criteria exclude the dyslexic, the visually impaired (how to include pretty pictures in a blog if you can’t see pictures?), non-native English speakers and the poorly educated. Just because someone didn’t do well at school – maybe they were kept home by alcoholic and abusive parents, acquiring the experiences that trigger the PTSD symptoms they’re currently struggling with – they can’t write a great blog? Really? Because someone sometime’s gets there English a little bit wrong, theyre automatically excluded from greatness? [Sic. for all three deliberate errors in that last sentence, btw: wouldn't want you dismissing what I have to say because you think I lack linguistic accomplishment.]
As I say, if these were criteria for professional writers, I wouldn’t disagree with them. Despite the best propaganda efforts of the big charities, it’s sadly the case that serious mental illness closes a lot of options and opportunities to the people who suffer from it most profoundly, and professional writing is amongst them. But this isn’t professional writing – in many of the TWIM categories, it’s mentally ill people blogging about their experience of mental illness. So what if it’s sometimes untidy, or awkwardly expressed, or hard to follow? In the madosphere, of all places, surely the mentally ill should be rewarded for bearing witness to their own experience, even if they can’t manage to do it with brio and elegance? In a mental health blog – whether written by a patient or a professional – surely the mark of greatness should be authenticity of experience, not literary achievement?
Well, this is pointless. I’m still mad and I still blog, but I’m not really of the madosphere any more, and my opinion counts for nothing. It’s for the present-day community to organise themselves in the way that seems best to them, and if that means prizing professionalism above all else in mental health blogging, then so be it. I can be safely dismissed as the kind of blogger who opens a post with an ill-advised attempt at humour, and dawdles along all kinds of discursive digressions, rather than editing all that out and cutting straight to the lucid, articulate heart of the matter like a dutiful blog-drone would. Like some sort of free-thinking anarchist, I’ve disregarded the Recommended Daily Allowance of Whimsy, and exceeded the Approved Quirk Quotient: better call security. Or better yet, just ignore me like the grizzled old greybeard I so obviously am, maundering away to himself about how great the amateurish, spontaneous past was, and how your modern life is rubbish.
But you see that madosphere? I remember when that was all fields, and we’d play out in them all day until sunset, and it never rained, and you could leave your front door unlocked, and everyone knew everyone else’s name, and the postman called three times a day…
If you follow that link I gave for neologistic, you’ll see that the word has a mental health connotation, relating to the way people with certain psychotic conditions will invent new words. So that apparently whimsical/ annoying little cul-de-sac about ‘netstalgia’ actually relates directly to the core subject matter for this post: the way people with mental health problems use language differently, and the effect that might have on the way they – sorry, we – blog. And the ‘free-thinking anarchist’ quote is from an old Simpsons episode which plays with the idea of madness, and of people being reproved because they fractionally deviate from the rules. And dissing contemporary life by naming a record that was dissing contemporary life 20 years ago: well that’s just me making a knowing reference to the futility of nostalgia, which is the theme of the last couple of paragraphs.
Honestly, sometimes I dazzle even myself with my total lack of brilliance.
But actually I’m not just blowing my own
horn trumpet here. I’m making a point which normally I’d leave implicit (so as to avoid exhibitionist autofellatio) but today I’m making explicit because it’s directly relevant: this is the way my mind works, and it affects the nature of my blogposts. A bit scattershot, a bit allusive, a bit playful, a bit tangential, yes – but not irrelevant.
My posts may not display perfect straight-to-the-point clarity, they may not always be entirely easy to follow, but they’re about the subject they claim to be about for all that. Quite often, as here, they involve doing the thing under discussion rather than just talking about it – what better way to get to grips with the way my posts tend to work than to actually write a post that works in the way my posts tend to work (and then talk about it in this little postscript, on the off-chance that anyone missed what I was up to)?
Yes, I could edit this stuff out. These days, I don’t blog unless I’m reasonably compos mentis (hence the long lack of posts recently), so I can’t claim that I can’t help blogging like this – I could help it if I wanted. Editing would certainly make my posts shorter, and probably easier to follow: they might even be read by more than the small band of people who usually suffer through them. But it would come at a cost, and that cost would be distinctiveness, personality, idiosyncrasy. It would no longer be me writing, it could be anyone.
This isn’t a plea on behalf of myself. I’m not really of the madosphere any more, so it doesn’t affect me. But it still saddens me, for all that, to see the madosphere become a place where conventionality and homogeneity are valued above individuality and raw experience. The madosphere used to be, among other things, a welcoming space for people who interacted differently with the world, because of mental health problems or developmental disorders. Surely the madosphere, of all places, should be a space where it’s ok to be different? A space where deviations from the norm aren’t greeted with averted eyes, and an uncomfortable shuffling of feet, and a quick “Oh, look at that person over there: they’ve got a psych diagnosis, but look at how nice and normal they managed to be in their blog. Normal is good. All hail normal – and good punctuation.”
That’s not what the madosphere should be about, surely, nor the thing that the TWIM awards should celebrate?