Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On this conversation

Yesterday, I was going back over discussions on blog posts I have been tracking and something rather unsettling came to light. To put things into context, bear with me while I take a quick detour down Allegory Lane.

My stepdad isn't a very bright man. He's a lovely, salt of the earth, blue collar guy who cares about nature and the outdoors. However, when he is with my extended family, he comes over all insecure. The conversation flows fast and furious, full of wit and riposte... and he can't keep up. So he drinks a little too much and makes loud, off-topic statements, trying to claim a space in the conversation for himself - usually without success. One of my uncles is a deeply gentle, gracious man, who can almost always be relied upon to engage him one to one. One of my aunts is quite patronising and condescending towards him, but my stepdad doesn't have the subtlety of nature to have realised this (especially after a few beers)... and he adores her. My heart aches for him when I see him in this uncomfortable position - especially when he embarrasses himself.

Yesterday, I began to wonder if I am not like my stepdad in this read/write web conversation. For the first time in a long time (since CoComment stopped working for me, really), I was looking at a long list of the conversations to which I have contributed. I comment on many posts, but am seldom drawn into the conversation. Other comments will refer to one another, but my comments seem to off in a side eddy somewhere. I don't think I had had that vantage point from which to view this vista before.

I began to wonder whether in fact, I have anything of value to add in this space. Not in a self-pitying, bring-on-the-violins kind of way. More from the perspective of my dissertation. You see, I have been taking the view that the whole web 2.0 social media/networking thing had empowered the whole community, the whole connected world to access the conversation. And in theory, this is absolutely true. But in practice, the community has the power to vote with its feet, to ignore posts it finds uninteresting, to ignore the loud off-topic statements that come from the slightly insecure person in the corner who hasn't quite figured out that s/he is out of his/her league. So, in fact, it becomes a self-selecting conversation between those who 'get it'.

And this makes me worried about us also-rans. If 2.0 spaces do not, in fact, enable us to engage because what we have to say is not high-brow enough, does that not effectively reduce the pool of contributions? Are we not back with a form of elitism, albeit a more democratic one?

My mother-in-law has a little homily stuck on the side of her fridge:

The forest would be a quiet place if no birds sang but the best.

I know this sounds all Zen tree-falls-in-forest-ish, but if we're making our contributions and they are being ignored/overlooked/choose your word, are we really making any contribution at all? Do we really have access to the conversation? Are we really engaged in the exchange, adding our 2p worth to the sum of the network's knowledge?

Hmm. Is a puzzlement....


Barry Sampson said...

Are you an also-ran? I thought the foundation of the read write web is that there aren't any also-rans.

I think you're working from some faulty assumptions;

1. That those who do the most talking have the right answers, are the most interesting or add the most value

2. That those who form the new establishment are right (they're still the establishment after all, and sometimes they need knocking off their perches)

3. That the 'high brow' conversations are intrinsically high value. Inside a university or out on the web, it doesn't matter, the elitists will remain irrelevant

4. That those held up as having all the answers will still have the answer tomorrow, or next week, or next year

Robert Jones said...

we also-rans are an essential part of the community. Without us. who would the superstars have to preach to :-)

Seriously, I don't really ever spend any time trying to figure out who is contributing. We are all winning by being part of the community of reflective practitioners.

Treenz said...

I agree with you Karyn. Sometimes it is only a selected few who carry on a conversation which sometimes make the others feel left out.

But according to me, I feel one should still keep on adding bits and voicing opinions...

The upsycho said...

@Barry I am flattered by the implication of your opening question. Thank you. With regard to you four very interesting assumptions, since I am doing a lot of the talking, I don't think I make the assumption that those with the most to say add the most value, or have the right answers. One of my points is that there are some of us out here doing a lot of talking and going unacknowledged by the bloggerati.

I also don't think 'rightness' or 'wrongness' is at the heart of the issue. It's a matter of how much access/impact one can have when ones contributions appear to go unremarked (and I'm not only talking about me, here - this is not a 'woe is me' post)

@Mr Jones This is not a perspective I have taken before, either. I certainly benefit by being a consumer in this space, but this aggregation presented me with a picture that made me feel uncomfortable about the disconnect between my own perception of my role as a contributor to the conversation and the actual contribution I make.

@Treenz Hmm. Perhaps we need to adopt the approach of the guy throwing back the starfish. Do you know that story?

Treenz said...

Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Yup, I guess we need to adopt that approach :)

Joanna Young said...

Karyn, I found this an interesting post. I agreed with you up to the point that communities have the power to vote with their feet - but not that this means it becomes a conversation amongst those who 'get it'.

There are thousands, millions of conversations and communities on the web, and many of them are full of kind, quirky people who are interested in making connections with people who don't 'get it', but have something of interest to say.

If you're not enjoying that sense of connection and community, I'd encourage you to look elsewhere for it. Easier to do with web communities than families, which we tend to get stuck with :-)

If you want somewhere welcoming to start... come over to Confident Writing any time. Look at the list of regular commenters and hook up with them. You might not find the intellectual connection you're after... but you'll find a warm welcome for sure

The upsycho said...

@Joanna Thanks for the comment. I have indeed subscribed to your feed (instead of being an occasional reader).

The community that I was referring to was that of the leading edge learning professionals. I have engaged all over the place with the quirky people you talk about and I love them to bits. But when it comes to professional development... and there needs to be space for that, too... there are certain conversations that it is beneficial to follow. It is in this space that I sometimes feel invisible. And I am not alone. I see other commenters getting the same measure of short shrift as I do.

One thing I try to do is to engage with every commenter on this blog. I don't ever want anyone to feel that their contribution has not been noted and appreciated - no matter how far off base I think it may be. But I especially like to see one commenter engaging with another in reaction to one of my posts. I get such a kick out of the idea that these two people have connected at 'my house'.

A similar thing happens between people who comment on my FB status or activities. They never knew each other before, have no common ground other than me, yet they address each other directly, and sometimes a whole conversation ensues. For all I know, they friend each other, and develop a relationship that has nothing to do with me. That would be best of all!

Joanna Young said...

What a shame that's how leading edge learning professionals behave! Seems they have much to learn :-)

The upsycho said...

@Joanna :oD

Jason Allen said...

At the risk of a long distance psychoanalysis - I have posted (as have others) to your blog before about extremely bright people (especially women) experiencing "impostor syndrome."
I think the reality is that your contributions are widely respected in the community - most importantly, I think you provide an utterly essential "real life" perspective that is firmly grounded in the learner experience - and NOT in the ivory tower.
There are a lot of 'also rans' who consider you anything but - the thing to remember is that just because your voice is atypical, it doesn't mean it is any less valued by the community.
Now go look at the 'sheep/wolf' cartoon hanging above your desk. :)
Jason (janoallen on twitter)

The upsycho said...

@jammasterjay Way to mess up a girl's mascara, mate! No. Genuinely. Thank you. Those are very kind words and I deeply appreciate them.

Anonymous said...

I am a learning professional. I subscribe to lots of feeds from lots of experts. And I dip into them occasionally. However, it's YOUR feed I feel compelled to read every day because I like your perspective and your content. End of story!


The upsycho said...

@Cindy Thanks for the compliment. It is reassuring to know that there are those who consider my contribution to the conversation to have value.

I still believe, however, that the conversation could be wider... not necessarily here because, as I explained to Joanna, I try to engage with every commenter who takes the trouble to contribute here. But there are spaces in which the conversation tends to be unofficially restricted to the 'regular suspects'.

Perhaps I hang out with those regular suspects too much. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the many voices I encounter in spaces where the regular suspects don't hang out... that way ensuring that there is a wider range of perspectives being heard!