[Note: I added a section about Bug's Question of The Day into this post because of an oversight on my part and because its hard not to talk about online communication in the dance scene and omit one of the most popular sites right now. I also posted the additional section into the comments in case you don't feel like reading the whole thing again.] From the wall of the Facebook page for this blog:
I have never been this into facebook stalking someone I don't even know. Thank you for all of the amazing posts.
Wandering & Pondering - JSAlmonte
You're welcome. Now you know how I feel stalking an entire community.
-March 18, 2011
When I first started dancing, I became as obsessive as the next person and devoted much of my waking hours to learning how to get “it.” When I wasn’t doing it, I was researching it online. But back in the early aughts, internet resources weren’t organized or accessible. Video was rare, and sometimes only after an eternity of downloading a couple of megabytes before searching for the correct codec for one of a half dozen possible media players that could process it. There were a few websites offering tips, but mostly they were instructors just giving you enough to convince you to take lessons from them.
Discussion boards were the main places to go, and I hit those with a vengeance. All three of them at the time: Yehoodi, Jive Junction, and SwingoutDC. When conversation didn’t keep up with my curiosity, I delved into their archives looking for just about anything related to the mechanics of the dance. I ended up copying and pasting over 100 pages worth of posts, which I still have somewhere, divided into various topics such as styling, musicality, technique, etc. I still regret that I didn’t properly annotate all those posts detailing the early thoughts of people like Peter Loggins, Justin Zillman, Jenn Salvadori, and so many others.
Even back then, I don’t think that many people realized how much information by knowledgeable people was out there. The hard part was wading through all those posts trying to figure out who knew what they were talking about and who was BS’ing. Fortunately, living in DC, I had the luxury of being in a scene with a lot of people who knew their stuff. From there I figured out what their usernames were and then observed how they related to other online personalities. Who they deferred to; who they gave props to; and who they conflicted with. Then figuring out the real names and then tracking down VHS tapes of their dancing as the final litmus test of their knowledge.
That’s what separates the Lindy Hop online community from others. Any schmoe can type all day about whether Kirk is a better captain than Picard (although my money is on Sisko), but the best way to know who can dance the dance is to see for yourself or even feel for yourself in person. To truly be a part of a social dance community like ours, you have to get out from behind the keyboard and show up to the dances.
It didn’t take long for discussion boards to pop up for every city. Sometimes they had more than one depending on their local politics. I learned a lot about dancing and the culture in general that way.
However, it’s a popular myth to say that those boards lost importance as social networking tools because of Facebook. In fact, most boards were fading long before even Friendster became popular. In part nine of my Artistry In Rhythm paper, I noted that a Yehoodi thread in 2002 about the North Atlantic Dance Championships was one of the last times many high level dancers converged on an online discussion topic en masse. Even by then, many of those dancers were avoiding online forums.
The simple fact is that talking about dancing is difficult. Those dancers most knowledgeable about it simply lacked the time and patience to deal with the more aggressive and/or obtuse posters. They were the first ones to start leaving, and as time went by, more and more people followed sensing the diminishing critical mass.
I’ve also noted how important The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown was in allowing people to record their own dance footage. Combine that with the ever increasing easiness in distributing that footage online-culminating in the introduction of YouTube in 2005-and it made it easier for dancers who knew what they were doing to simply demonstrate their stuff on the dance floor rather than write about it.
So discussion boards faded; many of them closing outright. The thing that has surprised me the most is how long it has taken for Lindy Hop related blogs to take off.
When I started this blog just under 2 years ago, there were only a handful of blogs out there, and most of those have stop publication since then. However, within the past year, maybe even the past six months, the Lindy blog-o-sphere has exploded.
According to my Google Reader, I subscribe to almost 800 blogs and other sundry RSS feeds. That's a lot, but I don't read most of the several hundred items that get sent to my inbox every day. I have a lot of subscriptions simply because I find it easier than surfing 800 web sites. I go though my reader like I used to go through the newspaper: skimming headlines, skimming a few of posts that catch my eye, and only completely reading a handful of articles a day depending on how busy I am.
I'll admit that I subscribe to an obnoxious amount of blogs. Most people keep the number pretty low so it’s more manageable. It was a little overwhelming at first, but now I've trained myself to keep up with it efficiently, spot what interests me the most, and not waste time on BS.
I can’t get an accurate count out of my RSS reader, but I'd estimate that out of this total, there are about 400 Lindy Hop (and balboa and blues and other assorted vernacular jazz dance curiosities) related feeds. You can see why I gave up doing regular posts just highlighting links.
Only about a 1/4 of these feeds are straight up dance related blogs like Swungover or Art and Dancing. Another 1/4 are club and venue updates like The Jam Cellar blog. The last half are people who talk about dance with some frequency like Jo Hoffberg or Rik Panganaban.
That still sounds like a lot of reading, but fortunately the vast majority of them don’t update on a regular basis. The ones that do mostly talk about what the next intermediate class is going to cover or who the band on Saturday night will be. Sounds tedious but it gives me a general feeling for what is going on, who is getting hired to teach workshops, and also more recently, to find out about lesser known musicians and bands.
As for the personal blogs, I honestly don’t read them too carefully. As I mentioned before, I look at a lot of stuff so I don’t spend much time reading what you had for dinner the other night. I usually skim for references to dancing or events before moving on. I hate to sound like an jerk, but a lot of people just don’t lead interesting enough lives for me to hang on every word about why they don’t have enough time to blog on a regular basis.
It does feel a bit voyeuristic and sometimes downright weird at times. I admit there are times when I stumble onto something that feels way too personal. People breaking up with significant others. The death of loved ones. When they aren’t talking in excruciating detail about the meal they had at the new fancy restaurant, bloggers are generally a pretty depressing lot.
However, I do find a lot of unintentional hilarity in foreign language blogs if only because Google Translate isn’t very good at translating informal banter. Interestingly enough, many people usually spell out “Lindy Hop” no matter what language or alphabet they use which makes their websites easy to find. It’s a little refreshing to see how honestly people will talk about dancers and events when they don’t think anyone is paying attention.
Then there’s stuff that I wish I could unread like the vast majority of posts I find about blues dancing that are almost always related to sex. Both from newbies and experienced dancers alike. Blues dancers complain that they are unfairly stereotyped, but the online presence out there doesn’t help that perception.
On the flip side, there isn’t very much chatter about balboa out there. This seems odd to me since bal people are the most anal retentive people I know. You would think they would write down half of the rambling they like to do in person.
The vast majority of Lindy Hop posts are very rudimentary. People trying to describe it to their non dancing friends, usually accompanied by the Hellzapoppin clip or the ULHS 2006 Liberation final. Typically, the people who try to give a "serious" go of blogging will start off trying to explain it before succumbing to the dreaded “can’t find the time to blog” virus that eats most blogs.
Other times—admittedly very rarely—I’ll find something so deeply moving that I make it my mission to share because it’s the kind of thing that enriches the fabric of our community.
Now you're asking: how the hell I find all of these blogs? Thanks to the magic of technology I can be as lazy stalking everyone as I am surfing all these websites. You may know that you can Google blog search: plug in a word or phrase (e.g. your ex-girlfriend, a questionable Match.com inquiry, the puppy you lost when you were a kid that your parents said ran away but you think they gave to your cousin because they didn’t feel like taking it for a walk every day) and find blog posts with those words. In addition, you can set that search set up as an RSS feed so it'll periodically send you all the new stuff whenever it pops up.
Creepy, ain't it? I call it convenient.
The downside is that depending on how popular the term is, you may end up seeing a lot of crap. I probably get 100-200 articles sent to me every day just from these searches, but 99% are spam. People will just tag random posts with a phrase like "Lindy Hop" and 1000 other terms just to generate hits. After awhile though it gets easier to see the crap just from eyeballing domain names and anonymous authors.
Even a lot of relevant links aren't that useful since they're just advertising weekly classes and dances or very commonly: a random person telling their friends that they're about to take a Lindy Hop class or just went to a dance last night, but never mention it again.
This is the reason why I find it difficult keeping my list of blogs updated. There is very little consistency out there outside of a very small number of blogs. Both in terms of frequency of updates and in terms of level of interestingness for the average Lindy Hopper. I would estimate that at least half of those 400 blogs haven't updated in a year.
The newest thing these days are the Tumblr blogs. At least in terms of Lindy blogs. Honestly, they’re kind of a pain in the ass to follow partly because I feel that Tumblr designed the whole system to be followed from the inside. It’s very unfriendly to casual outside readers and the posts tend not to display well inside RSS feeds. Depending on how fast other people re-blog, I may see a re-blog before the original post. Re-blogging is the most maddening thing since 10 people will typically re-post a video that one person has posted. Then there’s the issue that many Tumblr blogs are closed to outside comments, making it impossible for outsiders to chime in. Just recently someone asked a question about the “A Day at the Races” clip. Of course I just blogged about said clip, but there’s no way to respond unless I get a Tumblr account, and that is not going to happen any time soon.
Interestingly enough one of the Tumblr bloggers asked some basic demographic questions about their followers and the responses reveal that the typical Tumblr Lindy blogger is female, college aged, and has not been dancing very long (less than 2 years in most cases). I think this demographic make up puts as much distance between them and the rest of the online community as does the technical limitations.
But then again, the online community is pretty fragmented as it is. Discussion boards were very much a street corner sort of activity. Anyone who found the site could log on and contribute to a conversation. This was long before most other social networking tools developed, so those boards were the only shows in town. If you wanted to talk about Lindy Hop, you went to Yehoodi. If you wanted to talk shit, then you went to Jive Junction. Etc.
If you think about it, Facebook isn’t that open in the sense that, in all likelihood, you’re only interacting with your “friend." On discussion boards, you were a target for anyone gunning for you. That’s also probably the reason why most people left them. Of course a recent thread on Yehoodi perfectly illustrates the frustratingly circular viciousness of online discussions with people you don’t know very well.
Speaking of Yehoodi, I think they missed an opportunity with the upgrade a couple of years ago to lead this wave of new blogs. It looked as if they were going to go to blog-centric format, but there was an outcry from long time users during the initial testing phase concerning elimination of the discussion boards. This is one of the times when a web developer should have ignored client feedback because it was largely coming from a segment of people who didn't dance very much and valued their online niche over Yehoodi's mission to serve as a national online destination for Lindy Hop. In the end, the developers tried to compromise and the relaunch still has not gained much traction in terms of participation. Although thankfully, most of those less dance inclined users have since moved on, so it's not a total loss.
The Facebook page, Bug's Question of The Day, so far is the the best adaptation of the old discussion format while overcoming it's deficiencies. With over 1000 followers and counting, Bug Brockway asks a question posed by herself or one of the followers and lets everyone have at it. Since it is on Facebook, everyone's identity is available with a click onto their name. This transparency keeps the trolling to a minimum and also helps people identify who they are responding to since your reply to someone's point may change if they are a newer dancer or if you're talking to an established international instructor. However, I still notice from time to time how people may break off from the main question and post replies on their own walls. On the one hand it spreads the discussion, but at the same time it limits the potential debate to a group of more sympathetic "friends."
Still, blogs are very much islands unto themselves. If you want to challenge a blogger, you have to go to their home court. Even if you can deal with all their friends and supporters who congregate on that site, that blogger still has ultimate say on whether you can post or not.
Despite my earlier threats, I’ve been pretty lenient in terms letting people have their say about my posts. Granted, I have yet to encounter anything what would warrant even a consideration of censorship, but I do enjoy the rush of power logging in as the admin to this site.
This is why I find recent blogs by Nick Williams and Sarah Breck & Dax Hock very interesting. In his “So You Want To Be a Traveling Lindy Hop Rockstar?” post, Nick starts off by talking about how much he dislikes the way the term “Rockstar” is used in relation to him and his fellow instructors. Yet his post, along with some of Dax & Sarah's recent opinions, reinforces this view because they talk about issues from positions of authority by way of their skills that clearly puts them at the top of a social hierarchy.
This is just another reason why I miss Jive Junction, and even the old Yehoodi, where there really was much more of a competitive free marketplace of ideas. Yes, there was a lot of ridicule and penis jokes, but there were also a lot of honest challenges to opinions regardless of who you were in the scene. You couldn’t post on the old discussion boards unless you were prepared to take on all comers; those serious and those many more that were not. This is why most of my blog posts are so damn long. I’m imagining and anticipating arguments and insults that largely don’t ever appear.
Alice Pye from The Rantings of a Lindy Hopper, wrote about some old blogs that Naomi Uyama had written several years ago. Naomi was and still is my favorite Lindy Hop blogger even if she hasn’t posted anything in over four years. Every once in awhile, I ask her about posting again even though I already know the answer.
I think if you take to airing out your opinions in a public forum, then you should be prepared to
throw down answer challenges to your position. But that does take a lot of energy even when people agree with you; not to mention the responsibility.
Dax Hock put up a post about dressing up in our dance scene and how he thought that dressing more casually back in the day (2000-2003ish) almost ruined the dance. Nicole Zuckerman made an interesting point on the April 15 Yehoodi Talk Show where his position sounds a little absurd, but that he may have known that in phrasing his post. IF he did, then he has a certain level of responsibility to explain that to his readers because he is one of the more high profile dancers in our scene. Otherwise people who don't know any better will just take him at his word that this is how things went down. If you look at the comments in that post, it takes about 50 comments before a voice from the past, Paul Overton, chimes in with some perspective. He's later backed up by a nice response from Andy Reid. But most of the comments before are unrelentingly supportive, especially from those people who weren't there.
This is a good illustration of how useful it would be to have an easier way for all these websites to interact more with each other. Linking all these blogs through an aggregator could help with that, although I do realize that it’s being done already. Sam Carroll over at dogpossum talks about the issues with that, and I’ll just say that I agree. There’s a reason why you don’t ever see mention of a certain nonsensically titled site on this blog. It’s not an accident, and not one I plan on fixing any time soon unless I start seeing regular checks for being a “contributor.” Can you really call it contributing when no one asks your permission?
This brings up the idea of anonymity on the internet. In short: it doesn’t exist. This is where my earlier point about participating on the dance floor comes into play. Eventually, you have to see the light of day to talk and dance with people in order to fully be a part of our dance community. Which is why I am always suspicious of fancy looking sites that don’t ever list who is behind the site, or even worse, listing a false identity.
I keep saying that our community isn’t that big. Sure, 200 people showed up to your local workshop this weekend, but how many of them will be back next year? Out of that number, how many of them will become serious dancers in terms of time and effort invested into getting better? We’re not talking about a large number of people in that last group. Even worldwide. Since they all take lessons or perform and compete to a limited number if instructors and venues, I only need to contact about a dozen people to get the low down on any of those advanced dancers anywhere in the world. It’s not an elaborate network; it just doesn’t have to cover a very large group. It only seems massive because it spans the entire globe, but you can see how technology is bringing everyone closer together. Or at least closer to people who make the effort to look.
I think the lack of anonymity is one of the reasons why-even with the proliferation of lindy blogs within the past year-I've found that very few people are interested or willing to write about larger issues in our scene with any kind of depth. It all seems geared towards newer dancers, even blogs written by the more experienced dancers. There’s a lot of: “here's a video I like” or “this is an event I went to.” There isn’t that much writing about the dynamics of the scene outside of why the good dancers seem like snobs or the occasional technical dance geekery.
Disagreements don’t come all that often, but when they do, they’re still civil such as the blogs following Bobby White’s initially innocuous dance analogy earlier this winter. And then later there was a post about dancing in heels by Sarah Breck that triggered some rather vociferous responses. What intrigues me the most is that the more serious dissenters came from more geographically isolated areas like this one from Sam in Australia. It’s as if in the absence of anonymity, then distance, even virtual distance, is what makes it easier for people to seriously challenge others.
As polite as the blogs are these days, people still love a trainwreck. I know I do, and I have noticed that the posts on this blog that garner the most attention are the ones where I turn off my asshole filter. It’s made me understand the popularity of extreme right and left wing political commentators. More than hearing stuff they agree with, people love picking apart the flaws of those they don’t. In response to that Fusion post, I read one particularly thoughtful Facebook note by a guy who called me a "self righteous douche bag" and compared my rhetoric to that of white supremacists. I thought about responding, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by pointing out that everything he wrote just validated my post.
To be honest, I just like to read more opinions about the dance, even ones I disagree with or find absurd. I just want to see more critical thinking about the way we’re growing as a community and as an art form. A couple months ago an instructor emailed me their attempt at defining Lindy Hop, and the damn thing is 30 pages long. In their defense, the actual definition is only one sentence, but the rest explains it. I'm still digesting it and have written about 10 pages of notes trying to respond to it, but it's incredibly challenging. And the subjects we're talking about in relation to the definition could easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood if you haven't known us for several years. It's one of those conversations where I wouldn't want to go back and re-hash some minor point for every other person that would stumble into it.
That sounds a bit elitist. I realize that I'm contradicting myself a bit, but I guess that's also the nature of the internet beast: a powerful network of information and opinions that's often gummed up by frustration and confusion. But that's what makes it interesting, and quite addicting. There are all kinds of discoveries to be made out there. Also still plenty of opportunities to make connections and contribute some new perspective like Andrew Selzer's recent post about LA during the Gap Ad Era where he utilizes some really old Jive Junction links from its old Tripod site from 12-13 years ago.
The challenge in the future is finding a way to effectively get all these virtual islands to communicate with each other and to facilitate interesting interactions for
me us to enjoy. Until then, I do what I can posting links onto the Facebook page for this blog.