Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Medium and the Message (and Blogging)

"The medium is the message." - Marshall McLuhan

(this post is based heavily on a comment I left at the excellent blog "Fun with The Friesens" a while ago)

As my own blog is no stranger to controversy, I have been reflecting on the weakness of the blog medium (and the written word in general) when it comes to discussing things that we may disagree on. A problem with blogging (besides the possibility of people sometimes abusing anonymity) is that so much of a person's message is unclear or left up to interpretation. In face to face conversation you can see facial expressions, detect the tone of the speaker, and hear which words are emphasized (and which ones aren't). These are all important clues to what a speaker is really saying that are missed when communicated in the written word.

A commenter may mean something as gently sarcastic, playful, tongue in cheek, humorous, etc. but readers may hear it as an attack, an insult, jaded, argumentative, depressed, etc. There is so much opportunity for miscommunication! And unlike a face to face conversation, you can't tell if what you are saying to someone is landing on them incorrectly until it is too late. Thus repair attempts (common in face to face discussions) don't happen right away and people can get upset. Strong words fly back and forth and pretty soon what was a discussion of opinions degrades into "personal attacks."

At least that is what has the potential to happen when we jump to conclusions about our interpretation of what others write.

Another weakness of the blog medium is that if someone is offended by a comment or post on a blog they can simply just not comment back (the equivalent of storming out of a room or the silent treatment) - never allowing miscommunicated thoughts to be questioned or corrected. So then even if you think you've offended someone (or if they have been honest enough to tell you), getting specific feedback on what exactly it was that offended other is challenging because the person is under very little pressure to respond. Often they think their job is done! Just telling someone that you are offended by what they said is not feedback. Feedback has to be specific (time, place, what was said/done, explanation). We often congratulate ourselves that we gave someone "feedback" ("You were out of line!") but unless we get specific it is only doing half the work. And work that is only half done can be just as bad as doing none at all.

Blogging is great, but it takes specific writing skills to communicate clearly and accurately. This It also requires patience - patience to ask "Do they really mean what I think they mean?" Emoticons (as much as I hate them) would be helpful but because of their "cheeziness" factor will probably never be utilized. Being honest, specific (not vague), questioning, respectful, and extremely patient/gracious are key factors in entering blog conversation successfully. I am convinced that most people are capable of this. But not all.

May light increase!


Stacey said...

*long post warning*

Great post Mark. I think this has crossed nearly everyone's mind who blogs. If you've ever written an email where you attempted to converse on a deeper level with someone you may have had the same experience. It's one of the weaknesses in today's society where there is less face to face, less phonecalls, and more "written words" as a form of communication. There are benefits too. I would not have as much interaction with many, especially living far away, as I do because of the Internet, and for that reason I am greatful for it.

As someone who considers herself a 'writer in training' and have been a part of many writer's groups and written a few pieces, some published--I have had the painful and arduous task of learning to communicate my message clearly. But to some extent you have to relent to the fact that not everyone will agree with you. Not everyone will automatically 'get' what you are trying to convey. Have you ever read a book or an article only to later hear an author describe it and be totally taken aback? This has happened to me on numorous occassions as well. As you say, with written words there is so much left to misinterpretation.

In fact I have a short story that I have been told is ready to publish. It's fiction. And I write what I know... some of it is based on experiences of living in a small town. Some of it is exaggerated... it is fiction afterall. But after seeing what happened to a local make it big (from my hometown) and how other's reacted to the depiction of this 'small town'... I doubt I will ever attempt to publish it, call me chicken.

As far as blogging, I guess it depends what you are using the blog medium for and who your audience is. (As far as emoticons, while cheezy, this is why they were developed, to convey emotion - a little smiley face never hurt anyone... I think us Internet users are all used to it by now :) see?)

If you're reading someone's blog that you know, I think we all need to cut each other a little slack. As the blogger we need to be mindful of others sure, and to be respectful, the same respect we'd give in a face to face setting. And to be congizant of how your words may effect your audience.

Having said that, even though my personal blog is hardly controversy (at least I don't think so), I wouldn't enjoy writing if I wouldn't be able to state my point of view, my personal beliefs or experiences. But I welcome comments and I'm open to discussion. I suppose if you're going to blog and have your comment area open to all you should expect it.

I don't know if this helps or makes sense... but just my two cents. Interested to see what others will have to say.

Jay Boaz said...

I'd expand this post to "communicating via the internet medium" in general. Message boards and e-mails have the same problem. I quite often don't want to use emoticons but I do because I'm trying not to offend people.