Friday, January 05, 2007

Online ranting and raving

So I've got all these swirling thoughts and now I'm going to give them freedom to fly.

I've watched my group of women cyber-friends attempt to sort through how they will exist online now that my website that hosted our conversations will be closing. It's been an odyssey to watch them discuss what they value, to see each person's vision come up against someone else's, to hear what some wanted all along and didn't get when I ran the board.

I've learned so much as a moderator. And as you'd expect, I have more questions than answers at the end of it all. One of the most oft preached values in grad school has been the aim for dialog between differing viewpoints. I came to grad school suspicious of the term, having been trained to believe that dialog was a code word for manipuating people with strong convictions into watering down their beliefs to be more like the liberal elite. Sometimes, I don't think I was too far off the mark!

Still, the way many online conversations go, I can't say that the alternative to the lofty idealism of dialog is much better. I have been on more forums than you can imagine - everything from politics, to religion, to ex-fundamentalism, to schooling styles (home and un), to homosexual activism, to arts, to sports, and your basic assortment of groupie sites like U2, Bengals, Bruce Springsteen and more. The fun breaks down when someone becomes vitriolic or hostile about someone else's comments.

Ranting about the topic doesn't have to be a problem. In fact, it is welcomed if the group is ranting together at a shared target. In fact, fan sites do more ranting than religious ones! You should have read how fans ripped U2's last CD that ended up winning the Grammy for Best Album of the Year! And of course, Bengals fans were positively dangerous after last Sunday's game - posts detailed how $32K basements designed to honor their team were about to be jackhammered into oblivion! So yeah, just being angry online is not enough to create problems.

The real problems start when a poster decides that another poster should go take a flying leap off a three-story building. Personal attacks are the most egregious, but it's possible to feel attacked without ever being called a name.

There are subtle maneuvers that are unconsciously used by posters to marginalize an unpopular view (and every forum has a popular view - whether it's that being gay is okay, Christianity is God's gift to mankind, the Bengals suck or Republicans are idiots). It goes something like this:

The poster risks stating an unpopular view. A vocal poster immediately makes sure that the popular view is posted as a counter-weight. The unpopular view attempts to re-express the viewpoint more carefully or with nuance or to simply explain why the unpopular view means something to that poster. More posters of the popular view rally to post why the unpopular view can't be the one that is most true. They get angry or express hurt feelings or pressure the poster to recant. They do so with a variety of styles: lengthy essays in three point, statistically driven, terrible and cold logic that is expected to undress the insubstantial view of the unpopular one, or cuddly, affectionate posts that offer warm hugs and kisses intended to gently steer (manipulate) the errant poster back to the right view—and everything in between, including ignoring the new poster.

In some instances, the posting degenerates into name-calling particularly if the first person feels attacked or overwhelmed or judged or picked apart by the popular view.

Here's what fascinates me from the thousands of hours I've spent online in discussion groups. Very few (and I mean a teensy, eensy percentage) people ever actually make contact with the unpopular view long enough to just hear it... without having to do anything with it.

I would be the poorest woman alive if I only got paid for every time someone on a forum said something like this:

What I hear you saying is that you think/believe/feel.... because that thought/belief/feeling adds X dimension to your understanding of Y.

Somehow the presence of an unpopular view most often feels like an attack... even when it is not.

I want to talk more about dialog in another post. I have some difficulty with the liberal notion of dialog, though I believe that some version (hopefully with a different term to describe it) is useful online to facilitate conversations so that people learn things about each other rather than debating and protecting self.

So I'll stop here. I'd love to hear your experiences of online communication and what you make of it.


Ampersand said...

Just a quick comment, for now...

I love online ranting. I love reading other ranty blogs. Even if I don't agree, I am thrilled at the sheer force of the other person's belief or opinion.

Where it gets trickier is to try to communicate about those beliefs and opinions. Because when that happens, I tend to appreciate the passion of the belief-holder despite disagreement, and then I am left feeling so damn lonely when I don't get that back.

Dave said...

I love blog posts that begin with the word "so." It's one of my favorite ways to get the words rolling...

Your experienced (weary?) eye has insightfully discerned the typical life-cycle of on-line forums, istm, and it's good to know that an accurate pattern for how these things go is now easily accessible for future reference. I think what you wrote here coincides with similar thoughts I posted to the PoMoXian email list the other day, so for the benefit of non-subscribers there, let me post my own quote here...

One odd thing about being a moderator as well as a participant in [a] list is that I often have to weigh the potential impact of whatever opinions I express here - I don't view myself as the "official" voice of [the group I moderate] - I really want [it] to be a diverse group, not necessarily beholden to orthodoxy of any particular sort. But if I come out with a clear point of view on any of a number of controversial topics, I know that runs the risk of leading people who disagree with me to think that perhaps their views aren't "compatible" with this list. Likewise, if I issue a "reaction" to something that someone says to another list member, it is likely to be weighed more heavily as a possible "censure" than just another bloke throwing in his observation on some little scuffle taking place in the group. So I really do try to tread lightly as much as possible... though there are times when I will just go ahead and say something hopefully measured and balanced enough to avoid one person or another feel that I'm taking sides "against" them and "for" their counterpart in the discussion.

I think that this kind of perspective is fairly rare among list-moderators, if that's OK for me to say. I'm not saying I'm "better" or anything, just that I put a high priority on wanting to avoid too much homogeneity of views, which is not so important to other groups/lists/forums.

I think a lot of this has to do with fundamental insecurities we feel and the desire for validation to ease up that anxiety which draws us to participate in these groups in the first place.

julieunplugged said...

Dave, I'm glad you quoted yourself because that post was one I especially liked this week and shaped some of my thinking.

I like what Kim says too: that when extending grace to someone's passionate perspective, it would be nice to get that same respect or grace back.

I hope to give some models of how a conversation between polar opposite views might be conducted. I'd like to see what you all think of whether this is pie-in-the-sky idealism or within the realm of possiblity to achieve.


Rachel said...

Your description applies even when the scope is narrower; when "popular" and "unpopular" are replaced with "mine" and "anti-mine". Groupthink emboldens me to shut down a dissenter, but I can also manage to do it when the group I'm part of is me, myself, and I! Funny thing is, anybody with an original thought will always feel himself in the dissenter category...and will therefore also have to put everyone ELSE into his "holder of ideas that aren't mine" category. Consequently, I don't see a shortage of opportunities to be both--suppressed and suppressor, which is why I'm so danged good at both. ;-) It's no wonder original thought isn't as common as it oughtta be. It's so often viewed and used as a weapon.


preacherruss said...

Well, all I can say is that the whole concept is about enough to generate a heavy sigh from me.

I'm sure it's not impossible to get intelligent dialogue around polar opposites, but quite often it just doesn't happen because I think people get frustrated when they're asked to even clarify wth they're talking about.

This is going to sound terribly elitist - so I'll just say it anyway - but the more educated people are, the higher your chances are of getting a good, spirited, and even-handed dialogue around topics.

But when the redneck factor kicks in - or the fundy gene - it's all over but the cryin'.

Rachel said...

Preacherruss said "...but the more educated people are, the higher your chances are of getting a good, spirited, and even-handed dialogue around topics."

The exposure to lots of different ideas helps, I think, along with the experience of being intellectually challenged. Anything is scary and threatening if you've never seen one before, even ideas! I'm wondering, though, if "good, spirited, and even-handed" bears up any better with highly-educated folks than with rednecks when it's not TOPICS that they're gathered around, but rather deep-seated, long-cherished, foundational identity-bearing beliefs. If you start poking at an educated person's core, is it any different than if you poke at a fundy's? Maybe it's just harder to hit an educated person's core because all that education has provided lots of padding. What do you think?


Ampersand said...

If you start poking at an educated person's core, is it any different than if you poke at a fundy's? Maybe it's just harder to hit an educated person's core because all that education has provided lots of padding. What do you think?

Rachel, I'd be inclined to agree with this. I think it is actually easier to get to the core with less *educated* people, but you may have less to talk about when you get there. (Feeling squishy about using the term less-educated).

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I think it is extremely difficult to have non polarized discussions about things that matter for a whole host of different reasons which include, for starters, a person's need to assert themselves, a person's need to think or feel they are right, the widespread acceptance of our competitive society, blind spots in our ability to interpret what others really mean or intend, poor communication skills, lack of tolerance, an exclusive orientation to all truth, and things that are easily triggered from our past...I like when you suggested one might try responding by saying, "What I hear you saying is that you think/believe/feel.... because that thought/belief/feeling adds X dimension to your understanding of Y."...This is the kind of advise marriage counselors give to couples who are having a hard time communicating and I have personally found it helpful...

julieunplugged said...

Rachel, I think you're right about this. I've seen it happen in grad school. Sometimes the well-educated substitue smugness for a fundamentalist's over-bearing zeal.

Sandie said...

I think one problem with online communication is that too often it is hard to 'see' or understand there is a real living breathing person on the other side of the screen.

I also think that education often gives more padding, more experience, or exposure at least to opposing view points. In an academic world opposition is not understood or experienced the same way it is in a 'non-academic' world.

Heated and spirited discussions that don't turn into shouting insulting matches happen when the people involved share something they find more valuable than what they are discussing.

I will often play devils advocate or take the position I don't hold in a debate because it is easier for me to defend it and not become emotionally involved too.

Not sure if that was what you were asking, but those are the thoughts your post and these comments brought to mind.

Carrie said...

Can I say something that sounds really Stupid? ;-) We are how we are. People are all insecure and needy to some degree. Very few of us have the ability to see our deepest beliefs deconstructed (or even challenged) without fear--a feeling similar to being caught in an earthquake.

Okay, so simply talking about another option might not be deconstruction, per se, but it still feels that way at times. Threatening. I'm not sying this should be how it is, but I think it is how it is. To deal with this reaction, patience and the ability to look back and remember what it feels like to have your world shift are key.

Yes, we should do better, love more, listen carefully, affirm as well as possible, be willing to be interested, and more. But although that is the goal, we are all at different places along the way. I don't weant to roll my eyes and say, "Gee, why can't they get it?"

Any community I am part of is imperfect the moment I became a part. I know that sometime in the future I'll have a disagreement with someone there, and I hope I remember that it doesn't have to be the end or the worse thing that can happen. It's part of life and each blow of iron sharpens this iron a little more.

I hope my skin gets a little thicker and I get a little gentler. :-)

julieunplugged said...

Carrie, that doesn't sound stupid. I get what you are saying and I agree that alternate views challenge our beliefs and can feel threatening.

I hope I'm not presenting myself as some kind of guru of online communication as much as an observer (of my own reactions and posting habits as well as those of others). What I hope to get out of this conversation is some kind of understanding of what turns the tide to enable real communication.

To me, the problems we see online are simply demonstrative of how most of us live period. But in our globalized reality, it becomes increasingly important to see what we ordinarily dismiss, kwim?

I totally agree with this:

To deal with this reaction, patience and the ability to look back and remember what it feels like to have your world shift are key.

I like to use the term "encounter" over experience. I think as we truly encounter an alternate worldview and it impacts us, we do gain more empathy and interest in when that happens for other people.

Carrie said...

Thanks, Julie.

I understand and agree with you. I guess I was saying (in too many words).. What we're up against here is human nature. Like you said, this is indicative of how people live.

We are all in for a long, long slog to overcome not only our own innate protectiveness, but to help explain it so others can see it, too.

7 years of EA and TD have helped me immensely, but not many people have had that experience! I sometimes forget that when I get frustrated. (And I also know I still exhibit much of the same traits of protectiveness and isolationism myself.)