:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Les Blogs: Me + Mena

(Health Warning: this is a rant)

Mena Trott (co-founder and president of Six Apart) gave, in my opinion, a badly toned and way-off-base speech at the Les Blogs conference in which she requested for more civility in the blogosphere. She appealed to bloggers to be kinder in their commenting, and think about the feelings of the person they are communicating with.

I found it very jarring on many levels. For a start, this was a European blogging conference – and one of the underlying challenges I took away from it was how we mediate the different cultural approaches to blogging across the different European countries. And that’s before you factor in the various different American cultures too (there were more Americans at this conference than anyone other than the French!).

How people comment and how people relate to one another on the blogosphere is a cultural issue – and it seemed strange for Mena to be advocating what sounded like a very ‘West-Coast America’ approach to a conference of Europeans. Europeans are, if anything, known for their frank exchanges during conversation – certainly more than the Americans.

It was also unfortunate that the examples Mena gave mainly concentrated on a post by Jeremy Zawodny (another Californian). Her examples also seemed to be indicating factual inaccuracies rather than matters of “civility”.

But overall I just found the presentation to be simply ill judged for the audience she was addressing. Sure, it might be a positive aspiration for everyone to be “nicer”, but surely that’s not an issue for the blogosphere? Surely if people don’t relate to each other in a nice way all the time, that’s a matter for society in general?

I certainly didn’t think it had any place at a blogging conference. Even more so when you consider blogging is still a niche and is being driven into the mainstream by the very type of people who are opinionated and want to get the conversation and debate started – and opinionated views aren’t always “nice” to one the parties being discussed. Asking bloggers to water down what they are saying – and how they say it – seems very counter-productive.

It’s is my understanding that Mena has come under for some criticism on the blogosphere – both professional and person. Professional stuff, such as picking over business decisions she/Six Apart has made seems fair game to me – that’s business. Even more so you choose to take a figure-head role in a company pioneering, by definition, a highly opinionated market. If you don’t like it, step down, take yourself out of the limelight, etc.

However, I understand that there have been a number of personal comments written about Mena too. I’m not aware of what’s been written, so it’s difficult for me to comment on that – but what I would say is that people writing nasty personal things about each other in every medium – it’s case in point for why this is a matter for society, not specifically the blogosphere. People have written some pretty awful comments about me – and you just have to roll with the punches.

I would say that at times it did sound like she was speaking from a very emotional and personal position – clearly upset by what has been said about her. However, she was introduced as “Mena Trott – president of Six Apart” and as such I felt it just wasn’t appropriate to ‘make it personal’ within the environment and context she was addressing.

Whilst all of this was going on, we were making our thoughts known on the conference backchannel (like we did for every session, good or bad). From what others were saying it was clear her speech was getting a lot of other people’s backs up too, not just mine. I wrote several times that I found elements of the speech patronising – especially when the idea was floated about a suggested “terms and conditions” for commenting.

During the backchannel conversation I did finally loose my cool and describe what she was saying as “bullshit” – which I concede is a strong word to have used. However, this was a backchannel environment and as such I feel it went up to, but didn’t cross the line, of what you can reasonably expect from “backchannel discourse”. I also want to reemphasise that that the tone and content of Mena’s speech was so unbelievably way off what was appropriate given the nature of the audience. This sentiment has been backed up by others someone even described it as “startlingly naïve” during a post-session chat about it.

However, my “bullshit” comment hadn’t gone unnoticed, as the backchannel was also being projected onto the screens at the front of the auditorium. Clearly this was the straw the broke the camel’s back, and Mena highlighted my comment. Shel Israel came to her defense and demanded for “dotBen to stand up and show yourself” [clairification: Mena asked me to stand up, Shel voiced his support]

And being the no-shit kinda guy I am, I did. In front of 400 influential bloggers and opinion formers I stood up

What followed was a brief but frank discourse between Mena at the lectern and me, with a radio mic, at the back of the hall.

At this point my thoughts were as follows:

  • I was shocked and angry that I was singled out from a group of many users on the backchannel who were all saying the same thing
  • I was also shocked that Mena had just done the self same thing she was telling everyone else not to do. She had called me an ‘asshole’, and I understand from others possibly even a ‘fucking asshole’ [update: she just called me an 'asshole' and used the F word at me separately].
  • Intentionally or unintentionally, events were unfolding here to make me look like a fall guy – and my immediate instinct was to fight back.

    However airing our ‘dirty laundry in public’ would have done neither of us any good. Although I was angry that someone was trying to make me look foolish, my integrity told me not to do the self same thing back to her. Defending myself would ultimately mean attacking back, and I didn’t want to want Mena look a fool in return. Aside from this conference speech, I have a lot of respect for she and Ben Trott have done with Six Apart.

I did immediately respond by saying that I felt her speech was patronising – because I felt (and still feel) it was. That was the response to the direct question of why I wrote what I wrote. However I did my best to diffuse the situation by suggesting that this wasn’t the best place to do this, and that we take our disagreement ‘offline’.

Shel voiced his opinion that maybe there should be a show of hands to see who else agreed with me, to which there was a general groan of “no”, that that was a bad idea. I’m glad there wasn’t as I know that the room was very divided on whether her speech was appropriate or not. Either way, one of us would have gone away looking silly, and I didn’t want that for either of us.

Mena and I had a very productive conversation, the details of which will remain private between ourselves. I’m pleased to say though that it ended with a smile, a hand shake and we even went outside to both cool down and reflect on things.

During the rest of the conference many people – from individual bloggers through to representatives of blue-chip companies – came up to me to support what I did. Thanks to all of you who did – it meant a lot to me.

As I said before, I have a lot of respect for Mena and her husband and co-founder Ben with what they have done with Six Apart. And I’m not writing that as some crappy “bullshit” (for want of a better word) to brown nose, etc – I do have integrity even if I was accused otherwise.

I really didn’t want to write this blog post, as my take on it all is that Mena and I have patched up our differences and this is all water under the bridge. I’ve moved on

However I’ve read a couple of posts circulating on the blogosphere that have wildly inaccurate accounts of what happened – even by people who introduce their post by saying that they weren’t actually at the conference. I know that most people will take these kinds of posts for what they are – second hand accounts.

However, the fact that my reputation was put on the line – and continues to – has meant that I feel it appropriate to write up at least my take on the days events.

Nevertheless, I guess I won’t be getting a discount on a MovableType licence in the future!

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