I remember when the madosphere was all fields…

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?

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6 Responses to I remember when the madosphere was all fields…

  1. eliana says:

    I agree with everything you said here… and I’ve never really been 100% comfortable with the TWIM awards, as they’ve always seemed to be some sort of popularity contest, but changing to a judging panel, that presumably read what the last month’s worth of posts..? Who are, as you say external to the madosphere… I’m not convinced that was an improvement.

    Though I could just be sore because my posts are always full of errors, and are all naval-gazing… but yes, I think perhaps quite a lot of people have self-esteem issues surrounding such things “even the other mad people don’t like me…”

  2. gun street girl says:

    I’m always so happy when there’s a new Aethel post!

    I did not realize that the TWIM folks were still around; I lost contact with them when Mental Nurse went away and a lot of my favorite mentalists stopped blogging. It was one my favorite ways of finding new people to read and I learned so much from some of them. So I’m glad to hear it’s still about.

    I’m not a competitive person and I’ve never really understood awards in general. There are so many meaningless internet awards out there that I mostly just ignore those little badges people clutter up their pages with. While it is certainly nice when someone whose work I admire gets recognition for it, I imagine that most of us really find our validation (if that is what we seek) in the comments, in the number of people who read us, and in whatever sense of personal accomplishment or emotional catharsis we get from our writing.

    I never really felt that the TWIM awards were just popularity contests but it was the case that there were so many truly talented regulars that it was hard for anyone else to break out of the pack. If something made the cut and I felt it was truly excellent I’d vote for it, but otherwise I pretty much ignored them. I certainly didn’t think about it when I posted and I doubt I’d ever change my writing (pretty pictures, wtf?) to put myself in the running for one. I figure if people like what I write they will tell me. Lord knows they do when they hate it.

  3. Zarathustra says:

    Hi Aethelred

    Perhaps if I could contribute a bit here as to why the TWIM Awards took some of the directions it did.

    Why did we bring in a judging panel? Basically, the reason is that in the nominating rounds for last year’s awards, there was an unpleasant business when we discovered that somebody was not-very-subtly spamming the nominations in order to promote their blog. We then had to disqualify that blog, which caused all sorts of arguments and recriminations which carried on for some time. The judging panel was brought in to try to prevent a repeat of this.

    That said, when we did the #Twentalhealthawards, brought in this year as a Twitter version of the TWIM Awards, we went back to crowdsourcing the results in full. I’m happy to say there was no abuse of the process as far as we can tell. No decision has yet been taken as to how things will be done next year.

    Regarding the post about bringing in a judging criteria, there actually wasn’t a judging criteria being used in the 2012 Twim Awards – we just left it to the judges to make their own decisions about what they think is a good blog. However, after the awards some of the judges said they would have appreciated having a criteria. Hence I did a post asking people what they think such a criteria should look like, in order to try to crowdsource some ideas.

    Although I did mention some criteria that had been suggested, such as Sectioned’s suggestion that blogs should be “nicely written”, I don’t think these are being presented as truths. More as points for discussion that people can agree or disagree with. I actually think that your point – that some people may write in a certain way because of their mental health condition – is a very valid one. The New Republic strikes me as an obvious example, and that’s a blog I’ve consistently found interesting and enjoyable to read.

  4. Pandora says:

    I can honestly see what you’re saying. The reason we decided to appoint a panel was to, at least in large part, to mitigate a potential popularity contest – though the nominations had a bit of that, we realise, and we’re looking at ways to mitigate this next year, if we can.

    As to hating Internet awards in general: I agree. When I was writing Serial Insomniac and other bloggers said, “wow, Pan, have this award!” I wouldn’t ignore it as such – but when it came to Mental Nurse and its successors, the awards felt ‘real’, not just some old meme. In fact this year, I wanted to get actual trophies – but the anonymous nature of mental health blogging kind of prohibited that.

    I do get, of course, that there’s always going to be people ‘left out’. Also, some people – with justification – don’t like the way we delineate the categories, though I’ve discussed my position on this on TWOM many times. But both aren’t perfect, I realise that.

    BUT, Z and I do the best we can I suppose, and ultimately I’d rather reward people making a difference in whatever way than not do so.

    All that said, this was a very reasoned, rational, articulate and accepting post, and I’m glad you’ve expressed your views and opened the floor to other comments. Thank you :)

  5. Pandora says:

    I’d so add that the award were less hegemonic this year than ever before; there were many new names being shortlisted or even winning – in the latter case down to our (quite reasonable panel of) judges. The thing, for me anyway, is that the Madosphere is normative. You may, reasonably or otherwise, say I’m biased, but I think the opposite is true. The results – even the shortlists – in 2012 seemed to me to be the most wide-ranging, esoteric bunch that’s ever been in the TWIM Awards (that’s not to say we didn’t have previous entrants doing well again, but they have their own individuality – and there were plenty of new, different, thoroughly divergent people joining them). So I suppose what I’m saying is that I don’t ‘get’ the idea that the blog and its awards don’t celebrate individuality; to me, it’s increasingly becoming the opposite.

    Best wishes

    Pan :)

  6. Thanks for the comments, and especially to Pandora and Zarathustra for joining in. I hope the two of you believe me when I say how big a fan I am of TWIM, and how grateful I am for the hard work you put in: you should both be very proud of yourselves, and I hope you are! (Re-reading before posting this, I worry that might sound snarky: it’s not meant to be, you really should be proud of what an amazing thing you do with TWIM – you and everyone else involved.)

    I wasn’t aware of the ballot-stuffing episode: I’d see that as another very powerful argument against handing out awards in the first place. Sorry, as well, if I wasn’t clear enough that the criteria are merely proposals from several people at this stage, and if I also didn’t make it clear that my concerns about creeping ‘professionalism’ (and the homogeneity of style that will result) are as much to do with the effects the criteria will have in the future, if they are adopted, as they are to do with what has already happened.

    I’d like to emphasise really very strongly indeed that my principle concern about holding the TWIM awards at all is not that some people are ‘left out': to me, that feels like a very unfair caricature of my position. My concern is that someone lays bare their most intimate fears and secrets in a blog, thinking they are doing so as part of a nurturing and empathetic group, only to find themselves judged and found wanting at the end of the year, perhaps because they failed to include ‘accessible’, ‘articulate discussions’ and ‘lucid’ descriptions (to quote you directly, Zarathustra, not Sectioned).

    Maybe the awards could be made self-nominating, so only people who make a conscious decision to put themselves forward to be judged are exposed to the process? Or why not do away with the idea of awards altogether, and run a series of This Year In Mentalists posts each December – written by invited guests, if you like that idea – to allow people to draw attention to some of the best, most effective writing, without getting into the whole success/ failure thing? Bloggers that were mentioned in a TYIM post could be given a button to display on their blogs, if they/ you think that’s important.

    If (or, more likely, when) you continue with the awards, I’d be interested to see a clear mission statement for them. What goals do you, as organisers, have for them? What purposes are you trying to achieve by holding an annual awards ceremony? (Driving traffic to blogs you think are good? Enhancing TWOM’s status as a community-based hub for patients and pros? Widening the lay public’s understanding of mental health, and the roles of MH professionals?) If you think about these questions the structure the awards need to take, and the criteria against which blogs should be judged, will probably emerge quite naturally. A big part of my current concern is that the TWIM awards don’t seem to serve any particular purpose – it seems rather like you have awards just for the sake of having awards.

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