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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You and I find ourselves sitting in a pub. Within earshot, we can faintly overhear two other conversations.

One conversation sounds like a rigorous dialogue between two intellectuals. The level of their discourse renders you and I as curious laypersons. We admire their knowledge and academic prowess in the field of their expertise (even if we are confused by their technicality and lexicon). Their discussion seems to exude urgency.

The other conversation in auditory range involves two enthusiastic individuals pouring over colourful, popular magazines. Their exuberance is as visible as it is audible. We hear snippets of their fast moving conversation, which touches on flashpoints of fashion, the rumoured lives of popular celebrities, clips of sport highlight reels, viral cat videos, and the domestic complexities of fictional characters on television.

On the surface, the two conversations seem like they belong in alternate universes. As we sit here, we would likely (and easily) differentiate between the flaky banter of pop culture and the consequential exchange of the specialists. Yet our judgments themselves are superficial. Consider what the two conversations have in common.

Both discussions are intensely relational. While we might suppose that the academics are “all business” and the boisterous cultural consumers are “all play,” such an arbitrary division only exists in our minds. The learned experts are no less relational creatures than their counterparts. In fact, to the same extent that popular culture creates a shared language for human connection, you will sense and see no less human need for commonly held values at a scholarly conference. Both conversations, different as they may be on the surface, exist as essential platforms of human connection. The extreme dissimilarity of their content does not diminish the identical nature of their function — two humans interacting in a pub over a set of creative and shared ideas.

Equally, both conversations include reference points for respect between people. Both frequencies of dialogue come with their own codes of conduct, and both celebrate different domains of knowledge. Even so, do we calculate their value differently? What shall we say of consequence?

On one level, we might hypothesize that the conversation between two research professors about theoretical chemistry of a new vaccine will have ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ impact on the world, but we would be remiss to ignore the fact that reality television influences the lives — and minds — of millions of people. Fluency and influence in either domain can lead to ‘consequence,’ and how we go about differentiating impact ‘value’ will be in large part dependent on what we value in the first place.

The point of this reflection: we humans are a connective species, and our need for interconnectivity underscores everything we do. Consider a brilliant discovery in a laboratory by a single scientist (a notably rare scenario as most discoveries involve teams): even the biggest breakthrough carries no consequence until the network of social nodes succeeds in transferring the knowledge where it needs to go. Ultimately, ‘consequence’ is simply the result of where we move knowledge.

So is there a fruitless human conversation? Could you ‘waste’ time in a meaningless dialogue today? Or, could buried treasure lay in every interaction of humanity, across the bizarre, divergent, and creative landscapes of our imaginations? I suppose the only way to really find out is to listen — non-judgmentally — to both conversations.

What are your conversations about today?

[This post originally appeared in Caesura Letters – Volume II: All That We Are, released 03/20/2013.]

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Humble Inquiry: or, How to circumvent the pernicious inclination to fix other people

An emphasis on problem-solving can be problematic. And dangerous. When you set out to solve a problem, you march forward with an arsenal of assumptions: you are already convinced that a problem exists, you believe you ought to fix it, and you believe your solutions will be superior to the current state of things. That is a lot of assumptions. One does not need to look very hard to find examples of ‘problem solvers’ who only left a trail of greater problems in their wake.

In describing the deficiency and prevalence of the problem-solving bias in management and development thinking, David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva propose an alternative approach: appreciative inquiry. The goal of appreciative inquiry is “discovering, understanding, and fostering innovations in social-organizational arrangements and processes.” Appreciative inquiry is about curiosity, not chasing solutions for their own sake, because “a problem-solving view of the world acts as a primary constraint on its imagination…”

Consider how adopting appreciative inquiry approach might impact your approach to international development or addressing poverty. Instead of tromping into someone’s village or living room and proclaiming yourself as the fixer of their problems, you instead assume the permanent position of student. You prioritize their knowledge, not yours. Appreciative inquiry aims to expose the inherent blind spots that come with assuming you possess expertise on a subject.

This mode of thinking has profound implications for leadership and business management. How many times have you heard an executive describe their eagerness to respond to the concerns of their employees — only to hear their subordinates, in turn, express their hesitancy to speak up for fear of the potential cost to their careers or reputation within the company? How is such a chasm bridged? Appreciative inquiry invites one or more parties to approach the other in a spirit of seeking knowledge without ulterior motive or judgement.

To enact appreciative inquiry, one must assume an attitude of humility: it means learning from not giving to the other person. Asking, not telling. Edgar Schein defines humble inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

Personally, I find this idea of ‘humble inquiry’ to be an indescribably liberating way of being in the world, especially in today’s ruthlessly polarized climate. It means I can discuss even the most contentious issues without needing to ‘correct’ other people’s ‘erroneous’ views. It means I can try to understand what makes other people tick, without trying to ‘solve’ the problem of their ‘delusions’ or ‘cognitive inability’ to see the truth. It means I value the process of ‘self-discovery’ for others as much as I do for myself, which means placing the utmost value on honest, curious questions. (For more along these lines, listen to And What Else? The Art and Anatomy of a Question.)

In some respects, I feel like the ‘social innovation sector’ has significantly lost its way since Cooperrider and Srivastva wrote about appreciative inquiry in 1987. Today, we are all about solving problems. We are obsessed with problems — identifying them, describing them, researching them, and fixing them. The first thing we see when we look at a community is what appears to be wrong with it. Appreciative inquiry drags this unconscious bias into the light and invites us to rethink the way we describe community itself: not as a mire of issues to address, but as the source of a continually emerging future that we are constructing together. Don’t rush in to fix it, but humbly tip-toe in to ask questions about it.

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