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About on-line conversation: how to make it work?

Anne Dalke's picture

I wanted to tease out here a couple of things that have been emerging in the in-my-brain intersection of our last two class sessions: Paul Grobstein's conversation about conversation, and Tim Burke's description of the evolution of his blogging persona.

The (to me quite compelling) argument that Paul developed last week, in his conversation with us "about conversation," was a call for us to think out loud on-line in order to construct new knowledge, an argument that several of you (spleenfield, jrf, ShaynaS) have since run with. 

The first thing that struck me in our conversation with Tim, this past Tuesday, was how much his original reasons for blogging were in accord with Paul's argument. (As per Burke's Home For Imaginary Friends: "Because I want to introduce some unexpected influences and ideas into my intellectual and academic unsettle the overly domesticated, often hermetic thinking that comes with academic introduce a 'mutational vector' into my scholarly and intellectual work").

In line w/ these ideals, Tim made the decision, during his last review, to ask that his blog be counted "as service, not scholarship": this was a way of "keeping open" the work he might do there, not have it be constrained by "entirely interior" scholarly protocols, but free to operate rather as a "bridge to public conversation."

Given these ambitions, I found it particularly ironic to hear Tim's description of his actual experience in blogging: he found that he "did not want to adapt to the presence," in his blog, "of some people I don't want to talk to," didn't want to "let them shape what I was saying." Tim was originally led to blog because he was frustrated by the ways in which conversations on the early asynchronous threaded boards were "always affected by the last thing posted": there was "no chance to establish your own voice." But "if you create a blog," a friend advised him, "you can control the front end," and "not be driven, in what you say, by the last thing said."

However: in trying to avoid being reactive "to the last thing said," Tim created a blog where, years later, he now feels caught in the echo chamber of a voice he has crafted for himself, "anticipating--even knowing--what most commentators will say." "I am trapped in the voice people expect of me," he said. For me, the keynote of our conversation was how "confining" Tim's on-line voice has become for him, how "restrained" he feels by the "voice of reason" he's assumed, in order to avoid non-productive blog wars.

I actually think that this story highlights a much larger question, not @ all unique to Tim' s project: our really comic (tragic?) general inability to "ignore people who are not useful on line." As Tim observed, we haven't developed the  "mental heuristics" necessary "not to be diverted" by commentary that is not productive--but instead  find ourselves repeatedly drawn into shouting matches. Tim suggested that "trollage works because "keeping a conversation civic and dialogic is such hard work": the appearance of a troll operates as a "recreational break, a carnivalesque moment" in what otherwise may seem to be constant slogging.

We had a interesting comparative discussion about the ways in which "skillful trolls" can also flourish in classroom discussions, by taking advantage both of the restraints of classroom protocol and the responsibility most teachers assume for making the group conversation a productive one. It's actually quite striking--and quite curious--to me that, on-line, we don't all of us take on that same responsibility: trying to make everything useful, but (when that fails) just ignoring the sow's ears that can't be turned into silk purses, and turning our attention instead to lines of conversation that seem to be more interesting, more potentially productive...

Also of particular note to me in this discussion was Tim's highlighting the importance of a good (flexible, but reliable) platform for on-line work: a site that is easy to write in, easy to correct in...and that will remain permanently supported, as an archive of what has been said. Of course I'm curious to know how close you all think Serendip comes to that ideal. What fiddling is needed to move it more in that direction?


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