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.