Blogger Pronouns: thoughts on simplicity, exclusivity, openness, and privacy

Hi Eli, Colin, Serena, Josh. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Blogging in the Second Person post.

Eli, your response makes me think of Dear Dealer, a recent segment on This American Life. It is an essay addressed in the second person. For this essay, at least, the POV frames the story in such a way that personalizes the issue far beyond a third person report on the subject. Tying the idea of simplicity to POV here is interesting. By no means do I think we should say something prescriptive, such as a blog reply ought to be in the second person. But perhaps what we can say is that the second person might help simplify some responses in ways that give them much greater clarity and meaning?

Colin, I agree that the “reluctance to exclude some readers” is probably a key reason why we bloggers sound like editorialists. This thought provokes the question further for me: I’m curious to what extent does it feel alienating to read a text that is written as correspondence? Is this principally a concern with perceived contextlessness? I am imagining someone reading these words who did not read the initial text that sparked this conversation: does this reader presently now feel more left out or uninvited to participate than had I written this in the third person? (It’s an honest question: I’m not sure.)

Serena, I have also contemplated the concern that blogging as correspondence might “restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder.” On the one hand, I agree it’s a very fair and valid concern. And, simultaneously, I wonder if there anyone reading this post who feels excluded from this conversation, or unable to participate in it? If we grant the hypothesis that public writing is about engagement, does not a text’s inherent publicness itself invite input? Perhaps this exchange is akin to leaving messages to your pen pal on a public bulletin board, or adding to the ‘thread’ of a graffiti exchange? Could we also suppose that open dialogue is in another way more inclusive and invitational of external input than it is exclusive?

Josh, I love your question, “would some individuals be uncomfortable having a ‘letter’ written to them made public without prior permission?” I’m fascinated by the psychology and cultural underpinnings here, and the proposition that a shift in pronouns might be felt to necessitate acquiring the permission of the intended recipient — who is the same person regardless of the POV of the text. I wholeheartedly agree that the grand traditions of ‘open letters’ and ‘letters to the editor’ in print media have earned reputations for public shaming and one-sided takedowns. But how much of this expectation is contextual, genre-based behaviour? As Serena says, “I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section.” Do we not write very open, public messages to one another all the time already? I wonder: by nature of maintaining a presence on a platform — one which bakes comments or responding into its infrastructure — do we not implicitly agree that others will write both to and about us? What does this mean in the blogging context? By nature of a person presenting their ideas publicly to the whole world, do they not inherently invite the world to respond however it so will?

I appreciate the input and perspective that all four of you bring to this question. The more I think about, the more the blogosphere sounds like a parliament: instead of addressing our interlocutor, we address the Speaker of the House, who happens to be the impersonal whole of the internet. This observation isn’t intended to outline a ‘problem’ that demands a prescriptive ‘solution.’ But I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion with you.

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Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web?

When we bloggers refer to one another’s posts, we usually default to writing in the third person. I suspect this is because writing publicly incentivizes accessibility for the broadest possible audience. Whatever the reason may be, the third person voice is the ‘genre tradition’ of blogging. We tend to write sentences like this:

In a recent blog post, Riley writes that…

Although I am obviously responding or reacting to Riley’s post, I am not formally writing to Riley. Instead, I am prioritizing my address to the nameless, faceless recipients of the internet who might also read this post, not Riley. I am now writing about my interlocutor, which is an awkward way to carry on a conversation.

I have been thinking about the nature of correspondence, and pondering the value of intentionally writing and framing ‘reply’ blog posts in the second person and first person:

Hi Riley. Your blog post makes me think…

This perspective feels much more like a conversation than a commentary. While there is nothing wrong with commentary, I suspect the usual, detected third person POV will always sound more like an editorial than an exchange. Of course, there is nothing wrong with editorials, either. The question is, do I personally want to be more of a reporter or more of a conversationalist in this space?

I have been thinking about ways that I might contribute to making the open web a more inviting, social environment. In turn, I am wondering if a subtle shift in pronouns might make the independent blogging world inherently look a little less lonely? After all, when you are writing in the second person, you are intrinsically writing in the context of some relationship.

Another reason I find the idea of ‘blogging in the second person’ compelling is that I have a nostalgic — if not anachronistic — fascination with letter writing. We all know that the estates of the rich and famous often release the correspondence of iconic leaders and visionaries for publication. These become crucial primary sources for historians. But the letters of the elite and well-known are a mere tip of the iceberg: for generation after generation, written correspondence was the sole and de facto platform for sharing ideas, discussing politics, and expressing emotions across distances.

What we forget today — in the world of archive-it-and-forget-it email — is that personal correspondence has historically embodied much more than a temporal mental exchange. Letters’ dependence on physical media endowed them with staying power: when you discover the chest of old correspondence in your grandparent’s attic, you realize that letters can live long beyond their original delivery date. A message can be a letter, or an epistle, or an archival record. Once you entrust the message to the postal service and it’s final recipient, it goes on to have a life you no longer control and might have long term value you cannot imagine.

My point is that there is — or, perhaps more accurately, could be — a stronger parallel between blogging and traditional letter writing than apparent at first blush. Like letters, blogs can be shared beyond original recipients. They can be cited. Repurposed. I am curious to experiment blending the two: I want to try using blogging as a proxy for letter writing, and correspondence as a model for blogging.

If the cross-pollination of ideas is at the heart of ‘small b blogging‘ — an attitude towards writing online that isn’t obsessed with the scale of the audience — I wonder if emphasizing the pronouns of direct correspondence might bring the emphasis back to the exchange of thought.

For now, I’m leaving this post here as a theoretical point of reference. As I occasionally address other bloggers in the second person, I want to have a ‘linkable explanation’ for what I am trying to do and why. If I write a post directly ‘to’ you, the above paragraphs are here to clarify my underlying logic. Please feel free to respond in kind: using our blogs as vehicles for open correspondence has the potential, I hope, to foster a critically needed atmosphere of dialogue.

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Why Press the ‘Publish’ Button?

In thinking about ways that the internet is changing writing, Colin Walker asks: what exactly happens in a person’s mind when they push the ‘publish now’ button? Why make one’s words public?

Writing privately, as a way of life, might be a means of self-development. Maintaining a personal archive of thoughts for future reference is a way to grow and hone my understanding. But why am I posting this text publicly, for all the world to see?

(Hold on: this is about to get real meta. Only continue if you are ready to ingest yet another blog post in the overly saturated genre of writing about blog posts!)

The reason I made this text public, so far as I can reckon, has something to do with you, the reader. These words are here — and not in a private journal or encrypted file — because I want to share them with you. If this were text intended for my purposes alone, it wouldn’t be here. And there are untold rough drafts and iterations of these paragraphs that I am inclined to keep private.

I think we must acknowledge the performative, ‘recipient-oriented’ dynamic of any public action. As Maria Luisa commented earlier: a dancer who says, ‘I don’t care what the audience thinks of my performance’ seems to be making an incoherent statement. Why perform in front of an audience at all if audiences are nothing more than fake brain ornaments, propped up in rows of chairs like mannequins? If the thoughts of audiences are categorically void of all meaning, why bother climbing on to a stage at all?

To me, this is why the grand declaration of selfie culture — “This is my identity, and I don’t care what you think of me!” — boils down to a non sequitur. “I don’t care what you think of me” dissolves into a self-contradictory statement. As humans who have opinions, it seems nonsensical to act under the pretence that the opinions others do not matter.

I made this text public because I want your attention. Like a performer preparing for opening night, I have spent time in private orchestrating these words into a (hopefully) coherent structure. And, like a photographer who has toiled with light, I now present my creation to you. The culminating question of our inquiry is, therefore: now that I have your attention, what do I want you to think or do? This question might not only be applied to this blog post, but to every public presentation. Why post a picture of my dinner? Why share a status update that places me at a specific event or with particular people? What am I hoping that you will think or do as a result of me posting a picture of the skyline on my way to work?

How do we separate the performer from the performance? What is the dance without the dancer? What are words without the writer? How are thoughts distinct from the thinker? What is beauty without a beholder? We do not share our photos, dances, and blog posts as disembodied, discreet objects: we share them to share ourselves. We press ‘publish’ to inform the way others think, and I purpose this act is indistinguishable from seeking to inform the way others feel about us as individuals. It does not make sense to separate the act of publishing from the desire to engage other people. (There is a much longer discussion to be had here about individualism, the renaissance, and whether the reliefs Pharaohs and self-commissioned oil paintings of nobility count as ‘selfies,’ but I digress.)

A creator might envision limited directionality (I post, you ‘like’) or a multidirectional interaction (here’s my book to contribute to the discussion in a particular field, and thus an invitation for others to debate or refute my ideas), but in either case the project sets out to intersect the attention of others. ‘Publish now’ presumes that human brains could or should connect or influence one another in some way.

In follow up to my earlier Writing versus Posting? article, David Ashworth speculates that “posting is about me and the space I live in” and therefore amounts to a diary that one intends to be read by others. A monologue for an audience, as it were. (I like the theatrical description of a soliloquy here.) On the other hand, “writing [in contrast to ‘posting’] is about us and the space between us.” Writing sets the stage and invites dialogue, which is distinctive from broadcasting the personal details of one’s life for an audience that may or may not be listening. One activity tends toward fishing for validation, and the other tends toward courting variant perspectives. (Corporate social media has excelled in incentivizing the former largely at the expense of the latter.)

At the bottom line, my motivation for publishing this blog post and another person’s reason for sharing a selfie with their breakfast cereal is the same: we are both looking for engagement. It is the same reason dancers perform, and painters exhibit their work. The kernel of difference between our publications and presentations rests in the kind of interaction we hope to galvanize or inspire in others. The distinctive ways we frame these ‘terms of engagement’ in our public activities reflects something about how we define value versus minutiae.

So, what do you think? Does pressing ‘publish now’ boil down to a desire to engage with others?

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Intentional bloggers

Hi Colin, I appreciated your post about the scale of social networks and how fits in the picture.

I prefer reading people’s blog posts above all else. I’ve lost interest in learning about all the minutiae of people’s lives that has come to characterize social media use in general, mostly because I’ve lost interest in sharing all the minutiae of my life. I’m not trying to sound elitist here: I am intrigued to no end when people post thoughtful ideas, crafting and deliberately presenting their thinking. But I can’t be intentional about with my time if I devote my all time to following the lives of people who aren’t demonstrating intentionality with their time.

For me, presents the opportunity to find some bloggers who are doing interesting work and who also happen to share my values about fostering an open and independent web. I use more as a gateway, or a hub, than a ‘platform’ per se. It is like dropping by a dinner party where you know you are likely to find some people with common interests. But day in day out, RSS is where I live, because it’s where people take the effort to flush ideas out and hone their thinking. This, to me, seems like a much more intentional use of my time than what has become an almost ‘universal’ social timeline experience. The beautiful thing about to me is that finding the person is synonymous with finding their RSS feed.

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Would we talk about this over coffee?

I wrote a piece back in 2010 called Coffee Shop Integrity on the Internet. It’s a thought experiment: imagine sitting together at a coffee shop and the ‘script’ of our conversation is the words we post online. Does our dialogue make sense? Do we actually talk about the pictures we took of our dinner the night before? Does the content of our digital personas make for meaningful (or coherent) real-time interaction?

Today I had a wonderful coffee conversation with a dear friend. Is it a conversation we could have had online, on any platform? I don’t want to assume the seat of judgment on what counts as ‘meaningful,’ but since leaving social media, one of the most acute realizations for me has been how much time and energy have been liberated for other activities. Like coffee. It is not that social media is inherently terrible, but perhaps it represents an opportunity cost that outweighs its potential return on investment in time.

As a footnote to all this, it is interesting to me how much overlap I experience between my real time conversations and what I blog about here. It varies in directionality, but very often the topics I feel compelled to write here have emerged from conversation. Blogging intersects with what I am learning and discussing with friends in a way that ‘liking’ a post just doesn’t seem to capture.

All things considered, at the moment, anecdotally speaking, blogging feels more ‘social’ to me than social media. Maybe this is ironic. May it’s not.

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