Thursday, December 08, 2005

Blog Civility? Collecting Thoughts for a SXSW Panel

Today I was mining blog and discussion board posts for resources to help inform my thinking on the panel some of us are doing next March at South by Southwest. First, I realized I had not taken the wraps off our planned work. So I wanted to do that today.

I also wanted to open my explorations to my blog readers -- and tap your mind and ideas. It seemed fitting to do it today with all the blog conversations about Mena & Ben's interaction at LesBlogs2. I need others' thoughts and experiences because I know I have my own patterns and biases.

Before the "what" I want to tell the story of how this came about. Last August a few of us starting talking about the tensions around US and THEM, both online and offline. There was one particular incident that followed BlogHer had me wondering about my avoidance of conflict, and the complicity implied if I did not speak up. The tone and content of another writer just had me in knots. Were my experiences or expectations realistic? Pollyannaish? Bill Anderson suggested we convene a telephone call - so we did. We both posted an invite on our blogs. We wrote "The primary task of this conversation is to explore the question "How can we reflect on our experiences (blogging, working and meeting in groups, ...) without falling into the familiar 'us / them' patterns?"

A nice handful of folks joined us (US and UK) and we continued to sporadically have calls through the fall (North American fall). Encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the conversations, Bill and I thought that this would make a juicy offering to SXSW, so we sent in a proposal. Once that was accepted, we found our great panelists. But let's get the content down -- I'm wandering, as usual!

Second, the what. Here is our blurb:

Us and Them: A blog conversation survival guide
The online experience of communicating with each other through blogs can sometimes feel more like a sparring match than a conversation. Even outside of the A-list blogs that use conflict as an attractor and entertainment factor, there are plenty of examples of blog comment streams that contain a good deal of invective as well as personal attacks. This isn't true of all blogs but it happens often enough that we wonder if we can find more ways to have conversations with each other with blogs, or if we should even expect this? This panel explores and questions our individual and collective behavior in blogs and blog comments.
  • How do we support authentic personal expression and its consequences in the blog commons?
  • How do we have constructive conversations in an arena of differing views?
  • Is “civility” fake, dishonest, or really useful?
  • As we promote blogs as a medium of self-expression, and a basis for online interaction and community, what gets in the way of listening and sharing?
  • Do we split ourselves into "us" and "them" as a rhetorical device, and a way to entertain, or as a way to stay independent?
Finally, the fantastic "who." It is going to be a grand adventure to do this project with Bill Anderson of Praxis 101, my co-conspirator in planning the panel, joined by Koan Bremner, Grace Davis and Tish Grier. (Yes, Bill, we have you outnumbered!) This configuration reflects 5 people who wade into all kinds of interesting online interactions with a range of views about how we interact with each other online. We are not without controversy. :-)

Over the next few months we'll continue our conversations with our other colleagues, tather ideas from blogs and really dig down to what we think about productive blog conversations. There is so much to think about -- what civility means, how we talk productively about the hard stuff, when throwing rocks might be a good ideas and that sense of creative abrasion. Oh, and the demonization of nice. Or the demonization of assholes. :-) Above all, I want to be clear: this is not about enforcing one set of norms or values, but finding out when and how to negotiate a path when we need and want to. The diversity of our world, online and off, makes a single practice not only unwanted, but impossible.

Some past posts related to this below, and if you want, you can track our bookmarks with the usthem and SXSWPanelPrep tags on

Past Related Posts:
How it Happens Changes Us
Difficult Conversations
Blogs, Forums, Us and Them
Community Indicators: Hello and Good Day

Some Inspiration:
“Relationship is the primary connecting dimension of our system, however, understood not merely as a warm, protective envelope, but rather as a dynamic conjunction of forces and elements interacting toward a common purpose. The strength of our system lies in the ways we make explicit and then intensify the necessary conditions for relations and interaction.”

-Malaguzzi, Founder of The Reggio Emilia School

"If we can solve all these problems by laying out the flow of influence, the role of trust and conflict in discussions, magical things will happen to the marketplace of ideas."

- Mitch Ratcliff, Cloudmakers R Us

Categories: , , ,


Blogger orcmid said...

What I found hilarious about the Ben and Mina video was the fact that Ben was posting stuff to ICQ while he was there in the room and he thought it was inappropriate that Mina called him on it.

I suggest that, contrary to how Ben thought it should just be put up with, that this *too* is real life where you communicate stuff and you may be challenged for your conduct. His appeal to stop the conversation was pretty funny since, technically, he was shouting in the room (textually and visibly to all).

Not exactly a response to your question, but maybe there's something here.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ratcliffe said...

I'm not sure that the issue is blogs, but human nature and the expectations we bring to blogging.

The very direct exchanges in European culture that Ben was referring to are healthy, in my opinion, and the American desire that everyone be "nice" is out of kilter with the experience of the rest of the world. So, it was silly for Ben to be upset about being called on it and, likewise, for Mena to call for civility while accusing a critic of being an "asshole."

So, the question is whether the tools for communication can change us, or our "practices," or if there is a single culture of blogging at all (I don't think so). If blogging must be civil, is that too high a price for people who are accustomed to being more direct and, sometimes confrontational? My take on it is that blogging is just a format that will take many directions, as every other organization of information has, but there is no culture of blogs, but more expressions of human culture flowing through blogs.

Thanks very much for picking me as an inspiration!

3:09 PM  
Blogger Scott Berkun said...

Great topic - I think it's worth taking blogs largely out of the equation to sort this out (I like what Mitch said as well).

- Few of us are good at either giving criticism or recieving it. We often see personal attacks in what are really differences of opinion, and often present differences of opinion as personal attacks. A good communicator can make their point without the other person feeling attacked.

- Text based communication makes it easier to misinterpret: there is no secondary feedback of tone or body language (unlike voice and face to face). We rarely reflect things back to others (When you say X, do you mean Y?) to confirm what they mean before we counterattack (er, respond).

- Blogs are indulgence prone. There is no editor and no mediator to force reflection or consideration.

- Speed increases assumptions. Seperating out my assumptions about a comment from the intentions of a comment takes time. Few can sort that out in 10 minutes, but many can sort that out in a day - lag can be benefical.

The saving grace for many is a sense of dignity and self respect. They avoid responding to things that are set the wrong tone - and if they do respond, they take every effort to raise the quality level of the conversation and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

There's also much to be said for the downsides of communicating in front of an audience. It amplifies everything and adds the pressure to what's said. The best resolution is a conflict is often to pull people aside and chat with them privately, less formally. When an argument is bound up digitally, it can be harder to make that happen, and the options are more constrained (a chat over coffee is always better than a private e-mail).

3:24 PM  
Blogger Nancy White said...

I'm grinning with glee on the input. First, THANKS all. I could dig into one of many things the three of you have already raised. I'll go with "recency!" :-)

This idea of blogs as self indulgent is interesting:

>Scott - Blogs are indulgence prone. There is no editor and no mediator to force reflection or consideration.

This raises for me the idea that self reflection itself is often missing in our lives, especially when we get going too fast, read 100+ blogs, participate in a passle of groups and communities.

Hell, slowing down may be one of the key steps! (Said by someone who has a hard, hard time slowing down).

Keep it coming. I've alerted the rest of the panel and I expect they will be blogging as well.

Last year when I was on a panel, we worried that we'd "talk out" our topic before the event. This time we're going for a different approach. That will be something else interesting to watch!

3:42 PM  
Blogger Scott Berkun said...

I think you're right Nancy - reflection is missing. I see much advocacy for blogs as a journaling tool: the only problem is that if you are broadcasting to the net, it's no longer a personal tool for reflection. It's something much different and much more dangerous.

Diary's used to be sacred: some had locks on them, as they contained things only meant for one's own review.

The desire for (and media attention around) fame, combined with the tools we have leads lots of people to confusion about what self-reflection and even self-respect mean. Those were probably blurry concepts anyway, but as of late it's gotten blurrier.

On going to fast: There's many good books on this. James Gleick's faster was, well, a fast read. Also much of this thread makes me want to go back and re-read Neil Postman's Technopoly.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Nancy White said...

This ties back to the comment Nick Noakes just posted on my post today (Dec 9) about the fact that "backchannel" is not "back" at all. It is foreground.

So privacy, the need for visibility/recognition (help, fame!) -- all create a mix with quite a few unintended consequences. Oi vey!

4:32 PM  
Blogger Tish Grier said...

Hi Nancy,

Great post! As for the issue of backchannels at conferences--well, they're a bit distrating first of all. And, once projected, cease to actually be anything "back"--they do indeed take a larger space on the stage and can be used to cut-up and, to use a theater term, upstage whomever is speaking.

which, unless done unconsciously by a very cute child in certain circumstances, is rather rude many members of the audience who might not want to "hear" the backchannels.

it's like someone talking during a movie. you just want to tell them to shut up.

I think Scott B. underestimates alot of bloggers by saying we do not reflect. Even though I was somewhat unaware at first, both my blogs have specific intentions--and I think many bloggers have intentions before they blog. I can clearly articulate why my one blog is deeply personal (it is on-going memoir--like many, many hardcover memoirs out there) and my other isn't. I can also say my blogging is very different from what I still keep in a written journal.

This does not, though, give anyone the right to be rude to me. but, I understand that there are many, many people with issues, and that I might become a lightening rod for someone's issues. But that was the risk I took when I first started posting on a forum, and it is also the risk I take when I have a conversation at a bar or at a party. Hence, an asbestos skin.

I do not, though, like snarky anonymity. that, IMHO is indeed cowardly. If you have the cojones to say it, you should have the cojones to say who you are.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Great topic, Nancy

One reason I love conversational media, such as weblogs, is that it gives you a chance to explore a topic collaboratively. If you're a person with a generally flexible, tolerant, inquisitive mindset, it's a great way to evolve your views and learn.

In my experience, blog comment threads (and other types of online discussions, such as forums) go awry in a variety of ways due to misbehavior. Sometimes that effect is intentional (trolling), but surprisingly often it is not.

My general approach is to find ways to discourage misbehavior -- mainly by ignoring it as much as possible. (I'm talking about actually misbehavior here -- not skepticism, dissent, or disagreement.) I also work to encourage good behavior in online discussions. I've discovered a fair number of techniques to accomplish both goals. Personally I find it helpful to figure out *why* a person is misbehaving. That often indicates the most effective way to snuff the flames and enhance the conversation.

About a year ago I wrote a series on how to deal with various types of online "vermin" (people who tend to derail discussions). You might find it amusing and possibly useful:

So -- are you going to podcast your session?

- Amy Gahran
Editor, Contentious

4:32 PM  
Blogger Koan said...

Well, even if Nancy doesn't podcast it - *I* certainly intend to record it (even if it's just off the panel table, as I did for the "how to Get Naked" panel at BlogHer) - mind you, I don't know what SXSW Interactive's policy is on people podcasting the sessions themselves. I seem to recall they're a little less laissez faire about that than BlogHer was.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Nancy White said...

I'll let Koan do the podcasting! (I still can't bear to hear my own droning, but the other people on the panel will be great.) If SXSW discourages podcasting, maybe we can ask them to feature this in one of their vlog offerings. (I hosted a couple of them last year. I should ask Hugh).

Amy, I have bookmarked your stuff as source material. The more I research this, the more I think there needs to be a resource wiki for all the great stuff I'm turning up.

The other interesting thing is the more I think about some of this stuff, the more ambigous I feel about some of my long held assumptions.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Sue Thomas said...

Nancy, re those long held assumptions, I've just posted about this discussion at WDL because it so much reminds me of the agonies we went through in the early days of listservs and online communities. The more sophisticated the software became, the more opportunity there was for ownership of control to be spread more thinly, and for some people to exploit and abuse others. I always thought it was intriguing to watch societies in formation and to see how, once it was understood how much damage some antisocial behaviour could cause, people started to develop processes to discipline themselves and their social groups - e.g. the Rape in Cyberspace incident at LambdaMOO described by Julian Dibbell. This wasn't just a rather silly story, it was a key moment in LambdaMOO's growing up and learning how to use freedom responsibly.

Social software and Web 2.0 are bringing us fantastic new opportunities but I do not think that just because the technology allows certain behaviours, we should automatically accommodate them. There should be a leavening, and the Les Blogs discussion began that process. I look forward to hearing more at the SXSW panel.

12:48 AM  

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