Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In Which I Rant about Muni Diaries

Muni Diaries is a blog I love to hate on, and for the most part, it doesn't let me down. There are very measured and thoughtful posts on there (I'm a fan of Eugenia's posts, for instance) but so much of it reeks of elitism, casual racism, and an utter disregard and contempt for others.

Today's atrocity is this post, which is a seemingly innocuous story of how a midget got on a bus drinking sake out of a paper bag and proceeded to barf on himself. First, ew. I'm not arguing that isn't disgusting, because it is. But second, the narrative offers helpful clues as to the writer's intentions, which details "shady" parts of town like the Western Addition and Mid-Market, and also offers completely unnecessary details like the fact that the drunk midget got on the bus at the Western Addition.

I see no difference in judging the drunk midget who puked on the bus on the 5 Fulton as I do the drunk bimbo who puked outside of Bar None in the Marina. And I'm not saying that "Alison" is racist, because she's clearly not. I just don't see the need, which Muni Diaries is essentially founded on, to constantly point out the "otherness" of population of Muni riders. When we do so, we inherently put a distance between "them" and "us". That attitude, while we might think we are more highly evolved and can see things with a critical eye, doesn't help to make Muni any better, doesn't help to add anything to spirit of San Francisco, and only gives those who already believe otherwise another reason to attack.

To put it mildly, I think Muni Diaries' attempt at just "telling stories" is akin to Sarah Palin not denying that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist or not an American citizen, or whatever. She doesn't actually say it, but by not denying it, it allows others who want to believe otherwise vindication for believing so. Muni Diaries may think it's a fun blog joking about some of the always-bizarre things that happen on our daily commutes, but it's essentially a verification of many people's worst thoughts about public transportation.

I am a person who is entirely dependent on public transit in San Francisco, and who believes sincerely that Muni is the one service all San Franciscans, users or not, benefit from, and thinks that running a dependable and reliable transit system should be the single most prioritized service that a city should provide.

I generally find Muni Diaries *could* be a nice collaborative blog on the more entertaining and unique experience of riding transit in San Francisco, but is instead a circle jerk love fest of spectacularly like-minded entitled suburban drama queens.


Allan said...

So how do they fix it?

eddo said...

@Allan StreetsblogSF has a series they do occasionally with rider profiles. These profiles do attempt to paint a broader shade of the average Muni rider - they've interviewed students, elderly Chinese people, etc. I think Muni Diaries is relatively disingenuous with their "stories". They tend to be told from the same perspective - the uptight young person horrified by the strange goings-ons of the "other". Muni is a lot of things to a lot of people, I wish they'd represent that more in their blog, or make a better attempt at recognizing that the sub-population they represent is exactly that.

Allan said...

Right, so what can Eugenia and Jeff do differently, with the readership they've got and the submissions they get, to paint a more complete picture?

eddo said...

I didn't start Muni Diaries and I am not completely sure what they're attempting to do. If they started the blog for this purpose, that's fine by them and I don't have to agree with them or the blog. But I've met with and chatted with Eugenia and I like her vision and attitude towards MD, and I'm pretty sure that the ends of what their blog accomplishes does not exactly align with its intentions.

Instead of saying - well, we gotta go with what we have, why not actively seek out points of views that aren't necessarily of one demographic? Because it's harder, and "hey it took me 25 minutes to get to work and I transferred once" doesn't necessarily get as many hits as "a Chinese woman broke the neck of a chicken on the 30 Stockton". It's the same as journalism versus Fox News/MSNBC "journalism". It might get more hits and more attention, and it might be more exciting, but it's not exactly the right thing to do.

Whirlwind said...

thanks for this post, i've been inarticulately grasping at this sentiment ever since I first saw that blog.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Muni said...

Hey Eddo, way to try to rip MD a new one. That bit about Sarah Palin was rough, especially because even my cats had Obama campaign collars!

I wish you had commented this on Muni Diaries instead. You know that your opinions - whether we like it or not - will have a voice on our site.

We take this all very seriously, and we've always sought a more representative slice of Muni stories. We're not gonna cry that "it ain't easy," but instead we are looking for ways and ideas from our readers - including you - on how we can reach those riders who are underrepresented on the site.

The tone of the conversation on Muni Diaries is driven largely by submissions. As a reader-generated site, we walk that fine line constantly. We can either publish only posts we agree with (and risk losing contributors and watering down what people really think), or we can publish most posts that come to our inbox and try to paint a full picture of our readers. How we can best accomplish that goal is something that we think about daily.

We are also very aware that online conversations about Muni are limited by the digital divide - and that the homeless, the poor, or anyone without Internet access are not able to talk back or join the conversation. This bothers me, as it should any online writer.

Yes, we have posts that poke fun at people. But we also have poignant posts, such as a post about a wonderful encounter between a blind couple and a boy. We've worked hard to include voices from riders as well as perspectives from of a driver's wife and an operator.

We have tried to redirect the conversation gently, like in this post (http://www.munidiaries.com/2010/03/04/faces-of-muni-riders/), where we used some great images to remind our readers that it's not all bad.

The mission of Muni Diaries has always been to be a collaborative story-telling, experience-sharing space. But there's always going to be some content we disagree with. That's just part of this whole thing.

This is to say: if you have criticsm, we want to hear it. Tell us on our site and let us hear some of your solutions. Or, do us one better, send us a Muni story that you'd be proud of telling.

- Eugenia, with Jeff and Tara

eddo said...

Thanks for the comment, MD (Eugenia, Jeff & Tara)! Although my blog post alluded to it, I clearly did not explicitly say that MD can be a good source of vital Muni information, and I'm sure it's not easy to keep up with all the service disruptions, etc., happening systemwide all the time, as well as the political stuff that happens in the back room, so thank you for that, and for your active Twitter feed.

And I do think that some of these negative entries are valid - it is the most frustrating thing ever to have to wait 30 minutes for a bus or getting stuck in the tunnel and feeling like you're stranded and completely at the mercy of Muni with an unsympathetic bus driver being your only point of connection with the agency.

But - and I think Eugenia touched on this in her entry re: bus fights right after the Oakland Epic Beard Man fight, which I linked to - a lot of negative entries/complaints on MD are simply people's discomfort at needing to be in close proximity with people unlike them. Which as a whole, is something that says a lot more about the individual person than it does Muni.

Muni clearly has issues and is not the perfect agency. But it moves 800K passengers a day in a city with a population of around 770K, the 2nd highest per capita transit agency behind NYC. Let's not let other people's personal discomforts negatively mark a public service agency that on the whole, gets its job done.

Simply mixing in "good" stories with "bad" ones isn't necessarily what I'm looking for, but in starting a blog looking for a unique shared experience on Muni, please be aware that some of these reader submissions are not "Muni" stories, but instead use Muni as a vehicle (purposeful pun!) for their own personal discomforts. And I think in this blog, when certain content is chosen, especially negative content, there's a responsibility to accurately reflect where the negativity stems from. Otherwise, in the worst case, we get physical violence and further alienation from each other.

Keane said...

Great post. Very insightful!

Jeff Hunt said...

Hey Eddo,

Aside from publishing stories like the one you reference here in your post with the author's byline (which we did, and continue to do), I'm not sure how much clearer we can make it that it's their story, not ours. I'm not sure how else to "accurately reflect where the negativity stems from." Whether you think her take on the Western Addition is valid or not is another topic. Clearly you don't. But to Allison, it's small part of a story worth telling. In its "something you don't see every day on the bus"-ness, I thought it should be told. That's what Muni Diaries is all about.

The way I see your critique here, simply commenting on her post and letting her know that you think it's unfair to characterize the WA as shady would've sufficed. I'm still not sure why or how the post was indicative of some larger failing on my or Eugenia's part. We do our best to step out of the way of people's perspectives, and let them speak for themselves. We also try to make it clear in our terms of use the things we DON'T allow on the site (i.e., incitement to violence).

But still, thanks for reading Muni Diaries.

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