Inform vs Transform – Limits of Online Discourse

by , under Blogs | Social Networks | New Media, Technology

Been thinking about the post I wrote yesterday, and wanted to respond properly with a post rather than a comment.

Actually, with a question, I think, which is this:

Have you ever had your viewpoint transformed by online discourse?

Sure, we’ve all received information, and perhaps become informed by discussions. We may have actually changed our view because of a piece that we’ve read – in other words, we’ve found something someone has written transformative. I’ll take these as granted.

But my question is this: have you ever changed your view as a result of an online discourse, perhaps with another commenter on a post, or as part of some other online discussion? Because, honestly, I’m not sure I have. And I’m wondering if that’s just me, or something else.

Thinking back, my feeling is that entering into discourse online too often leads to entrenchment and subterfuge, dodging challenge, rather than acceptance of the view of the other and allowing that to have an impact. And I wonder if that’s a function of the stripped-down nature of virtual discussion: no sense of gesture, of facial expression, of nuance, of body language, of smell even… And these subtle things, once removed, leave the raw type of our comments too cold to be transformative. Yes, they can inform, but not – in a back and forth between two parties beginning with some opposition – transform.

Actually, I wonder if we have subconsciously all had a sense that this is true because my feeling is – and it would be interesting to see if people agree or not – that there is now less discourse on blogs etc than there was a few years ago. Sure, there has been more of a move onto Twitter and Facebook, but I’m not sure that that accounts for the diminution I’ve perceived. It may be, genuinely, that I’ve just had less traffic. But it may be that people have just become bored with online discourse, because it so rarely produces movement.

I think this is a pretty important thing to reflect on, especially as we see education – which is, if it is anything at all, about the interplaying processes of informing and transforming – is going to increasingly move towards MOOCs. Personally, I think it could lead to trouble… though this is pretty inevitable when the economics of market efficiency (huge ‘class’ sizes for each ‘teacher’) become applied to human interactions.

And thus, the ironic request: do leave any thoughts / agreements / disagreements in the comment box below 😉


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  1. Jesse

    Hey Kester,

    I appreciated your last two posts. I’ve followed the same twitter conversations you talk about. One thing I noticed is that the word critique gets thrown around a lot in academia. Coming from the art world I was confused, because it all seemed like criticism dressed up as critique. (I wrote about that here: http://turridesign.com/blog/p57c11wqfwpy6z6uiqpds473y5q5yd)

    We should probably all get better at whichever one we’re doing (critiquing or criticizing) and try to understand why we’re doing one as opposed to the other, because I don’t think they’re not the same thing.

    Anyway, one benefit for me of online discussion is that I’m forced to write my thoughts down. Typically, writing has a calming effect, at least for me. If you’re a thoughtful person, writing forces you to think very carefully about the words you use. However, if you tend to be a bit more impetuous, it could lead to the stuff you point out, e.g. coldness, meanness, entrenchment etc…

    Another point, if you like McLuhan, is that we become what we behold. Since blogging is a written medium, we have to keep in mind that the phonetic alphabet is a linear, sequential, and abstract communication tool. So if we’re using phonetic writing as a tool to communicate, there is always a danger that we’ll become linear, sequential, abstract and cold, while neglecting our–and other peoples–emotions/feelings in the process.

  2. Tobit

    that is a good last paragraph, and I have nothing as eloquent, but I do have a yes for you.

    the context is as much about me, and where I was at the time, now about 12 years ago, but my whole fundamental world view was up ended and positively transformed by patient and helpful people people on Youthnet’s ‘thesite’.

    The conversation online was a radical reframing of what i thought, and essentially I think it was the trigger to the following years of change in relation to faith, culture, belief, etc.

    So, a view transformed, but it doesn’t happen often!

  3. Acetate Monkey

    I wonder whether true nuanced dialogue which bounces backwards and forwards towards something (synthesis?) can happen online. In addition to all the para-language stuff which needs converting into emoticons if it is to be at all implied, sometimes when true dialogue happens it can feel a bit exclusive and overly exposing like ‘get a room’ with the option of intellectual voyeurism. Alternatively there is the risk that someone less patient and helpful than Tobit’s community experience will chip in and Troll / derail the conversation with an ill-thought through point to make.

    I’ve not at all followed any of the discussion you allude to Kester, but on other discussions I’ve read, on a variety of subjects, I’ve felt frustrated when I can see two people talking sensibly and then someone else (impetuous as Jesse says) unhelpfully puts their oar in and causes dissent / entrenchment which then requires the original blog host to spend extra time (which we all know is too short to read everything) mollifying their original conversation partner.

    I totally agree that critique is used as a euphemism for criticism. I’m not really sure that many of us do know when one becomes the other (I certainly mix them up) and certainly don’t see it as a solely online phenomenon.

    ot very useful thoughts, but you did ask.

  4. Lisa

    Interesting topic. I remember years ago when my ideas of church and God began to change a lot and I was at the stage where I was among the younger generation that could not really find a church, or that seemed to be our slogan. Then the churches started online podcasts and it made it easier to follow teachers that were not in your location – it then seemed to heighten the conversation about whether that was a bad idea – giving these church wanderers “food” without being required to attend. Then it seemed like this church building presence vs the ability for teachings to impact and change lives without attending. Seems we are still wondering about that. But it also seems to suggest that just because we are present that we are “really” present or more present – when that is not always the case either, some congregations that tow the line for years and maintain can have the appearance of presence and be very far off or not really taking it in or allowing it to change anything. Then to me I wonder more about the question as to what aids in becoming present and present in a beneficial act in life….will continue to think on this, thanks.

  5. Marika

    I agree that writing is linear and sequential (though isn’t speech the same?); but abstract and cold? Sure, you lose some aspects of face to face communication when you write ideas down; but it seems odd to suggest that the written word is somehow unemotive. The whole world of literature and poetry says otherwise, surely?

    Honestly, I think I could probably tell you more books that have changed my life than I could conversations. And the more time I spend reading online the more I would want to add to that list blog posts, articles and even tweets that have stopped me in my tracks, made me see something differently, or made me ashamed of myself and determined to be better.

    I haven’t had very many direct confrontations online, and although I love a good argument I’m not sure any of the disagreements I’ve had in face to face conversation have changed my mind … at the time. Because isn’t it partly about the pace of change? When I think about the times I have changed my mind, it hasn’t happened instantly: it’s something more like the seed of an idea being planted. It takes a lot of humility or guts, or something that I’m far from sure I have, to admit that you’re wrong in the heat of the moment. But later on? That’s a different question, I think.

  6. Anne priest

    Afree o line discourse is transformative only if you have a pre-established relationship with the correspondent so that you understand the nuances of language and can ‘fill in’ the body language…

  7. Stephen Keating

    I’m so sick of this crap from you, Peter Rollins, and Tony Jones. You’ve been on these platforms for years, have large followings, sell lots of books, build your brand. Then all of sudden, when you start getting some criticism that people pay attention to, you fall back into this holier-than-thou B.S., drop in an out of context Macluhan quote and show all your followers how you’re more rational, prioritize the tête-à-tête, and things were so great back in the good old days when no one criticized you or your friends.

    (Bonus points if you point out that I’m building my brand by writing this comment!)

  8. KB

    Have to say I was quite surprised by this comment. Obviously in the context on the post above I’m skeptical that an exchange here and not in person will do much to bring people out of trenches, but I do think it’s worth correcting a few points.

    Firstly, it feels pretty irrelevant to talk book sales and brands, for me at least. I teach High School math full time and do what writing I can. I wish I did, but genuinely, I don’t sell a lot of books! I don’t know if this has come out of some kind of professional disappointment for you right now, but I can assure you – I make almost nothing from writing.

    Also, I really don’t get a lot of criticism, but what criticism I have had I hope I’ve tried to engage positively with. You tweeted last night about being sick of people ‘benefiting from the academy and then trashing it’ – and followed up by saying that I did that ‘a lot.’ Yes I had a pop in that post, but ‘a lot’? Be interested to know where you’ve got that from. The stream of talks I’ve put together at this year’s Greenbelt festival is a genuine attempt to try to bring people into the same room – academy and not – and engage in critique. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘prioritize the tête-à-tête’…but I’ll admit that I do think that offline interaction bears more fruit. Be interested to hear if you disagree.

    Most importantly though, you seem to have taken my post to be only criticising one side. In fact I’ve been pretty pissed off with the way people have reacted across a number of streams on all sides. You mention Tony above, who is a friend, but he’s also someone I’ve called out a number of times in public (and one to one) for the manner that he’s done stuff and the content too. You’ll note I didn’t get involved in the recent spat that he stirred up, and certainly didn’t do anything to defend him. But I wrote the post with a far wider set of interactions in mind, many that probably don’t overlap with your work at all, and many that I feel people on ‘my side’ didn’t behave well in.

    You said you felt that that was passive-aggressive to not name names, and you may be right. Interestingly, your comment that people will ‘quite likely fill in the blank with whatever conversation they are familiar with that happened recently’ feels like a valid thing to do: by not naming specific names, people more generally can allow the blanks to act as a mirror, and reflect on what they see. With your comment about me ‘subtweeting’ you it seems like you felt I was talking about interactions you’d had with Pete – but to be quite honest, because I didn’t follow you on Twitter I pretty much missed all of that.

    Anyway, look forward to your post if you get round to it. Sorry if you’re ‘sick of this crap’, and if replying only makes it worse.

    PS – did a quick search, and I’m struggling to find a single place where I’ve quoted Macluhan. Then again, perhaps you’re just lumping me in with others. Whatever, but feels like we should probably try to do better than that.

  9. Stephen Keating

    I’m not going to apologize for making generalizations. It is a common characteristic of us white dudes to think that we are all unique snowflakes and perhaps the most offensive thing I’ve ever said to you or Peter Rollins is to imply, in any way, that you might share qualities with the groups that you are a part of. Once again, the white dude is the universal subject who gets to define everything about themselves in complete abstraction from their social ties, while everyone else (including, apparently, the academy) can be generalized away (“rioters are hoodlums! christian women are mean!”). You may in fact be more generous/nuanced/whatever than Jones or Rollins, but when I happened to stumble onto your blog, you made arguments in the exact same form as them.

    I don’t subscribe to your blog. Someone pointed me towards the last two posts and hinted that I was a potential target for what you were writing. It just so happens that what you wrote in the previous post, according to your own admission here, fits exactly my recent conversations with Pete. Just because I thought that you might be referring to me doesn’t mean that I agree with the generalizations you made (Wow, you made some more of them! Perhaps you do this ‘a lot?’). Also, you can stop trying to psychoanalyze me. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at professionally. I do think we live in a shitty world and I think that temporary autonomous zones, ted talks, and ‘transformance art collectives’ contribute to making it a shittier world. I’ll write my post soon about why I think this is the case. So, yes, I am passionate about that. If I may offer a generalization: people get passionate about things that they care about.

    To come back around to the original post, I wholeheartedly agree with Marika. I personally have changed my mind based on arguments that I’ve participated in or watched online. If you really are in earnest about why this privileging of the “face to face” is so problematic, might I suggest the work of Jacques Derrida.

  10. Steve Pinkham

    I’ve transformed some of my views largly because of online discussions, but the impetuous has mostly been tribal rather than base on arguments: I found that most members of one tribe I consider myself a member of vehemently disagreed with some claims made by another tribe I used to strongly identify with.. This caused me to reevaluate and eventually leave one of those tribes.

    I think that’s what happens more often than not: the impetus for change comes mostly from being exposed to the ideas of other people you consider to be like yourself, though the actual change is often then mediated by evidence and discourse.

    This is why many groups must so strongly demonize others, because if they considered them to be humans basically like themselves, they could no longer claim certainty in the same wat.

  11. KB

    Stephen, it feels a bit like you’re making my point for me as the level of your interactions here have felt entrenched and a bit snarky. So I’m not quite sure how to respond to much of this. But I’d be interested in any specific Derrida references though if you’ve got them.

    Steve, I like what you’ve written here. I’m still struggling to think of a time when I’ve changed my view as part of online dialogue. Reading a post, yes. But not in dialogue. It may be a fault with me though. Been mulling on what the process of change actually is though. Think the tribal idea is good. Be interested to know just how people think change does occur.

  12. Stephen Keating

    Kester, all day I’ve been thinking about the way that I engage in discussions online and I think that I clearly have not (in this post and at other times) responded appropriately. Obviously I think disagreement and passion are important, but I’m failing to articulate those in a way that is conducive to this structure. I apologize for reacting before sufficiently thinking through the consequences.

    I think that, at its best, the academy offers an example of a way of furthering ideas and thinking that allows traditionally marginalized voices to be heard. I believe it is possible to do this online, but I have not contributed to that goal thus far.

  13. KB

    Thanks Stephen. Apologies too if I’ve come across as less than passionate about debate / discourse, and the academy in general. And you’re right – it does bring in those other voices, voices we need more than ever.

    I would genuinely be interested in the Derrida references with regards the privileging of face-to-face, partly because professionally the whole debate around MOOCs is becoming more important, and also for my own thinking about online vs offline interaction. Being 40 I grew up slightly pre internet, and thus, while being able to embrace the tools it offers, don’t think I’m ‘native’ in terms of feeling fully comfortable with it as a substitute for physical presence – something I’d like to interrogate.

    With regards the post in general… I’m still unsure about the process of how I change my mind, and still can’t honestly say I’ve done that through online dialogue. Strikes me that that should be something I work on, and perhaps boils down to a lack of academy experience.

  14. Stephen Keating

    Well, I think that first and foremost, MOOCs cannot be understood without working through they way that they are part of the broader strategies of neoliberalism. They go hand in hand with the financialization of everyday life, the pastoral power of debt, and the creation a new subjectivity that is directed towards individual creativity within neoliberal institutions. There’s a lot to unpack because I see MOOCs as one small part of a major shift in the historical workings of capital. The classic resource for thinking through this would be David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, which is a long read, but fun, with lots of art and cultural history as part of the analysis. A shorter one is The Making of Indebted Man by Lazzarato.

    As to Derrida, the classic text critiquing the metaphysics of presence is Of Grammatology. He does a critique or/of/by extension of the Levinasian ethics of presence in The Gift of Death. But, I really do think if the whole focus of the MOOC discussion is on presence/abscence, or technology (without thinking of technology in a Marxist sense as related to value production and the (re)production of life), then it’s going to miss the underlying power dynamics that work both at social and ideological levels.

  15. Stephen Keating

    I guess I should explain why I brought up Derrida before. I think that privileging face to face conversations can often be a way of disowning the way that one’s writing has disseminated. I.e. “Well, if you had heard my tone of voice, then you would know I have good intentions.” Derrida totally flattens that type of disavowal, which, I think, is mostly just a way for those in power (whether that is as little power as having sold a couple books to having a few thousand followers on twitter or whatever) to retain their power while disowning it. All the benefits of the platform with a built-in excuse when needed whenever things get messy. Ethics doesn’t begin until we see the way those power relations are functioning.

  16. KB

    Hold on a fuckin’ minute, you’re going to end up changing my mind in an online discussion! Ha, genuinely – loads in both comments there for me to think over, and make some changes as a result of. I’ve missed those elements in my thinking on MOOCs – focusing too much on my own classroom practice I guess – and those corrections are going to be very helpful in terms of helping my institution reflect on introducing more online content-delivery.
    ‘All the benefits of platform with built-in excuse…’ Ouch. Point well taken. May have missed posts focusing on this in past/recently, but this is clearly massively relevant in terms of recent stuff. Thanks.

  17. Jesse

    @Marika, no doubt, writing is definitely emotive. When I said “cold” I meant logical, as in a disconnected Spock type of thing.

    If I have McLuhan right, I was more or less referring to his observation about the differences between western phonetic language and eastern pictographic languages and how that has helped shaped paradigms etc. The linear, sequential phonetic language of course led to the development of the syllogism and eventually dualism, while the eastern pictographic image based language contributed to a more holistic understanding of reality.