Writing echo chambers

Double-dipping on the recent series of articles from Inside Higher Education.  In "The Facebook Mirror," Lisa Lebduska makes an interesting observation that the more you think your writing's audience is like you (especially holding similar beliefs about what you're writing about), the less likely you are to be explicit about your reasoning.  And as a consequence, the quality of your writing suffers.  On the one hand, it's good to preach to the choir every once in a while, but, on the other hand, without a devil's advocate around, it becomes pretty empty verbiage.  Lebduska sees this in spades with the writing on Facebook:

On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.

This is an interesting observation, but  a few things.  I've kept a journal off and on since I was in high school.  My audience for the journal is me.  Usually me 5-10 years down the road.  It's an  exercise.  I don't imagine myself all too different from me when making entries, but but I do expect some skepticism.  So how is facebooking different from journal entries? Facebooking, according to Lebduska, doesn't even have that critical distance.

Teachers spend years working to broaden students' intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore

So Facebook backyardifies writing (my term!).  That said, I think there are some subfields in philosophy that function similarly.  Elsewhere, I've called them "societies of mutual verbal petting" (Forthcoming in Philosophy and Rhetoric 44:3).  In light of this, Lebduska does make a nice point at the end:

The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers. . . . If in reading their words we find that our young people have no sense of others beyond and/or different from themselves, we should supply them with that sense.

I'm not sure what Lebduska's suggestion amounts to in its specifics, but is it that we should be like essay graders in making responses to Facebook walls?  I, by the way, have opted out of facebook — maybe it is my duty as a blogger and commenter on other blogs?  It certainly seems that blog comments do that already.  Is there a Facebook norm against criticism? It's certainly the case in the societies of mutual verbal petting!

4 thoughts on “Writing echo chambers”

  1. I liked this on facebook.

    I have some friends who use their facebook pages like blog entries, inviting criticism, even trollish criticism.  Others seem to put things up entirely for approval of their friends.  When someone "likes" something, like a blog post, it would be surprising to hear a chorus of boos.  Perhaps the reason for this is that one might invite unfriending.  Facebook, like running your own blog, gives you that opportunity–you control the discussion. 

    On another point, Lebduska's approach to writing, which I "like" as well as like, could perhaps be called the "strategy of Canadian disagreement": i.e., imagine a country populated with nice, reasonable, non-violent, truth-focused, practical people some of whom hold views unlike your own.  You have to convince them, but here's the catch: they can be convinced only be good arguments and gentle rhetoric.

  2. Not only do I find it difficult to disagree with some people without being booed, I find it hard to tell people that I agree with their claims…but find their arguments fallacious.
    On YouTube or in forums, when I tell people that I'm "on their side", they have no problem with that. When I tell them that I'm "on their side" BUT their arguments really suck and their angry and fallacious ranting is not going to convince their opponents, they completely miss the point and usually (1) thank me for supporting them (2) angrily rant about how I don't support them, or (3) commit a lot of other fallacies.
    It does feel like some people don't even bother to read (or read carefully) before they comment. But they do feel good.

  3. John, the Canadianification of argument would be OK with me.  The only trouble I think I'd have is that the gentle rhetoric requirement may be too  culturally loaded (no rude Americans allowed!)
    Sean,  the point about online exchange is right — that the flame quotient seems higher when you're not face to face.  Just because people are disagreeing, that doesn't meaan you're getting quality feedback.
    Ray, I do wonder if there's a connection between being able to write well and being able to read well.  Your experience points to it, for sure.

Comments are closed.