A parable of online communication

Let’s say a friend and I are on the subway, discussing what we consider to be Obama’s failures. We have discussed political matters before, and thoroughly — so that the abuse of the fillibuster, the extremism of the Tea Party, and basically all relevant matters that a reasonably informed person would discuss in this context have come up in previous conversations, the results of which are reflected in what we’re talking about now.

Then let’s say someone overhears us and says: “What you guys are ignoring is the role of Republican obstructionism.” We’re only seconds away from this person’s stop, and so we have no chance to follow up. What is our response likely to be? I’d say we’re most likely to think this person is, at best, presumptuous. The odds that we’re going to take the comment seriously are near zero — the person has made basically zero impact.

Now let’s propose another scenario. This person makes the same remark, but still has some distance to travel. What is our most likely response? “Sure, we know very well that Republicans have obstructed Obama’s agenda to an unprecedented degree, but….” Given my experience, such a person will likely reply defensively: “But no one could’ve told that you knew that from your conversation — you were just dumping one-sidedly on Obama.” At that point, the exchange is likely to remain at that meta-level, where we debate about the person’s “right” to make the comment. Productive exchange is unlikely.

It seems to me that we could tweak the second scenario somewhat to make a productive exchange possible. Let’s say that the stranger enters our conversation, not with a proclamation of our inadequacy, but with a question — for instance, “But don’t you guys think we should cut Obama some slack given how unhinged his opposition has been?” We might then respond, “Oh, absolutely — but even in areas where he has a relatively free hand, he hasn’t done what’s necessary….”

See how that works? No one is put on the defensive, and the space is opened up for a substantive, non-meta conversation. I think that this little thought-experiment is helpful for online conversations as well! Maybe when entering into a new conversational space, one should be relatively humble, given that one is by definition not fully aware of the background of the discussion. And maybe if you come in guns blazing, you shouldn’t be surprised when people react negatively! They are of course responsible for their contribution to the exchange, but you bear extra responsibility as the one who initiated the exchange and set the tone.

If people could follow the same common-sense rules when joining an online conversation as they would use when jumping into a conversation among strangers at a bar, I think a huge number of blog fights could be averted.

6 thoughts on “A parable of online communication

  1. Adam,

    I tried that method in the OO blogosphere, and it resulted in being politely brushed off. As I felt that I knew where people were coming from better, I became firmer. Now I am much less politely brushed off. I’m not convinced that the issue is just approach or wording among more regular correspondents, especially because the analogy breaks down in real life. Have you not ever, possibly frequently, had someone attribute a way-off-base view to you such that you wonder if they know you at all? (Or is that just me?) I suspect academia trains us to be looking for attack from all quarters….

    Aside, and not to be contrarian but to be serious, is “going meta” always bad? I see it treated with abuse frequently … perhaps because I engage in a lot of it I suspect … but from my perspective if one cannot solve a problem one might/should more into a vocabulary where it can be solved. (Like mathematical problems and number systems if you’re familiar.) Then one goes back down in the the prior vocabulary. Is not teaching a persistent “meta” conversation? Perhaps not, but I throw that out there.

  2. I predict that a future comment on this post will be nominated as an example of precisely the sort of unproductive contribution the post was talking about. Perhaps even this one!

  3. In terms of going meta, I think that an argument between strangers about how the one stranger was right to attribute view X to the second stranger in view of the materials at hand, etc., is unlikely to be enlightening even in the best of circumstances. I can see situations where it could be very valuable to clarify definitions, for example, but I also know how often classroom discussion can devolve into an endless circle of definitions where there’s really no hope of getting agreement on anything specific — or how often discussions in grad seminars in particular can result in an interrogation of the presuppositions of the question such that you never hit the ground.

    The distinction between meta and substantive conversations can never be made 100% airtight, but I think our aspiration should be to keep meta to a minimum and use it only to serve the substantive issue at hand. In my context at Shimer College, it’s easier to make this distinction because the substantive issue is pretty well-defined — the explication of a given text — and because it becomes immediately clear when a meta conversation is far afield of anything that could immediately serve that end.

    For instance, I once asked whether the God portrayed in Genesis was a “moral” God, and it devolved into a discussion of “well it depends on what you mean by moral, etc., etc.” It was obvious that unless I just cut that conversation off (or else it sputtered out on its own), it was never going to lead organically back to the text. Similarly, I don’t think the strangers in scenario 2 of the post were ever likely to organically get back to the topic of Obama unless someone either cut off the defensive line of conversation about “well, from what I had to go on, it sounded like this, so I must’ve been right to ask…” or else the defensive person just got tired of defending himself or herself.

    Another possible guideline for when you’re dealing with a pointless meta conversation: it’s boring and tries your patience.

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