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.

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.

If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

An Independent Web that is More Social than ‘Social Media’

I’ve been thinking about ways that I can support more people participating in an open and independent internet. There has already been a lot of discussion on how to reduce the technical barriers to entry: how to help people setup their own blogs, host and own their content, and so on. But while these technical challenges are not insignificant, I don’t think they represent the greatest hurdle.

Let’s consider Riley, a hypothetical Facebook user. Riley might have misgivings about Facebook’s use of their data. And they might very well know that a simple blog on open source platform like WordPress allows them to own, maintain, and migrate their posts down the road. Riley might even deeply resent the degree to which Facebook has weaselled itself into their life. Riley might really want to deactivate their social media accounts and ‘go independent.’

In the end, however, Riley decides to change nothing about their online habits. This decision is not only informed by questions about the time commitment and technical know-how required make a switch but by the network effect of Facebook itself: when Riley posts something on Facebook, there is almost always feedback. Riley’s friends often click an innocuous-looking ‘like’ button that serves as a low-cost, high-value social signal that reinforces Riley’s use of the platform. By contrast, Riley has no guarantee that sharing their thoughts on a personal blog would reach much of an audience at all.

Inasmuch as Facebook is a social experience, anything that provides less social feedback amounts to a categorical waste of Riley’s time.

My thesis is that the technical challenge of setting up a personal blog is not Riley’s principal barrier to, say, escaping Facebook. The critical challenge is a lack of reinforcing social validation. Facebook, despite all of its ills, gives Riley the sense that their words and pictures capture the attention of others. Facebook offers Riley a voice. As a social species, the notice of others is the paramount currency. Loneliness is a far more significant psychological threat than some company called Cambridge Analytica or the most recent updates to a terms of service agreement.

The independent web is not only in competition with platforms that make self-publishing technically frictionless, it is in competition with platforms that algorithmically reward our most basic human needs for acceptance, reinforcement, and validation.

For the Rileys in my world who make the leap, one of the most important things I can do is interact and engage with them in their newly established spaces. This is about human to human engagement, not just typing ‘like’ in every comment box. Annotate, dialogue, amplify, and interact.

The only lasting antidote to social media’s current data monopoly is to create independent networks that are more wholesome, creative, interactive, and, yes, behaviourally reinforcing, than what any corporate AI or algorithm can provide. The Rileys of the world are only going to leave Facebook if the alternative is a manifestly more validating human experience, psychologically and emotionally. The only way this is going to happen in a decentralized network is if a whole bunch of us make thoughtful engagement and amplification of new voices a serious priority. If the independent web is going to survive, it must become a human web.

‘Complete’ is not a word well applied to human conversations

One of the most common sentiments I hear from people who have recently been interviewed is, “Oh, I wish I had said…”

And one of the most common sentiments I feel after listening back to an interview I have conducted is, “Oh, I wish I had asked…”

It strikes me that formal interviews are no different than informal conversations in the sense that their ‘completeness’ is an arbitrary definition. How can we ever say a conversation is ‘done?’ How do we know there was nothing more to be said, uncovered, or explored?

Conversations don’t ‘end’ in any absolute sense. They are just temporarily punctuated by the silence of distance until we reconvene.

Dinner Conversation

A lady sits down at a table. She checks her phone, then peeks at the menu. She leans back in her seat. It is quiet.

A man joins her. They make small talk about gas prices, the unusually cold weather, and the latest faux pas committed by some celebrity. The exchange of pleasantries is simple, warming, inviting. But ever simple.

Is any discourse ever in vain? Does not even the most superficial chatter of conversation pave the way for deeper connection? Without the jovial, how could the serious even exist?

He speaks. She speaks. The narrative of their verbal transactions follows a rigid script, one written by the agencies and forces that pen the strokes of popular culture.

Of course, no human discourse has ever transpired outside of human culture. Why then does the genre of gossip and tabloid talk strike us as less valuable than the ruminated prose of academics? Is there not a place for all this creative human articulation, regardless of how banally inconsequential it might be?

What do you make of their conversation? How do you describe them as people if all you ever hear from them is this cornball regurgitation of the weather and surface-level commentary on the routines that comprise everyday life? How do you regard their thoughtfulness or intellect?

We know that the intervals of our existence are lived in the weather, on the waves of pop culture and in the banter of politics. Yet we somehow know there must be more to talk about. We demand it. Perhaps our obsession with the weather, pop culture, and today’s tech toy bespeaks our obsession with something that we hope exists beyond it all. Or perhaps we’re too lazy, too insecure, too unwilling to risk the vulnerability to talk about those others things.

Oh well. What’s trending on Twitter today?

I Heart Your Icon

Dave Humphrey recently wrote a post on the possibility of expressing love online. His question, essentially, was this: can humans genuinely express love (deep friendship, appreciation) to one another over the medium of digital communication?

Reflecting on his post reminded me of some statements made by Hans Urs Von Balthasar in Love Alone is Credible, written long before the days of email and Twitter:

In order to gain an insight into humanity, the individual must encounter an other. The human being exists only in relation to others; he truly is only in the reciprocity of an I and Thou. [Think: Martin Buber] The otherness of the other is a fundamental fact that he must acknowledge if there is to be any possibility of forming a harmonious community in the commonality of human nature… we must recognize that the actual individual human being is not merely the key to nature as a whole, but also the sole object of philosophy: philosophy is in the end nothing other than anthropology. It therefore follows that “the new philosophy is founded on the truth of love…Where love is lacking, there can be no truth.” Only in the love of the other as other, wherein I passes wholly beyond itself into the sphere of the Thou, can we find the way from man to mankind.

Or, in briefer synopsis, Balthasar recaps:

Man sustains himself—indeed, he first comes to himself—in an encounter. When one man meets another face to face, truth comes to pass, the depths of human existence come to light in spontaneously, in freedom and in grace.

This interplay between love and truth was recently alluded to in beautiful, poetic conciseness by my friend Luke Hill in a short piece entitled On Truth and Knowing:

Truth must be known, not as facts are known, but as lovers are known, partially, fleetingly, uncertainly, overwhelmingly, undeniably, impossibly. It can be known only with a knowing that never defines or delineates or delimits, that never assures or guarantees or promises. It can be known only so far as we are in it. This is why we can never have the truth, why we can only ever be in the truth, and even this is beyond all guarantee.

I wonder if human, face-to-face interaction is itself the greatest practice of truth in which we can engage. Not a linguistic or philosophical truth, nor a truth governed by the properties of mere human premonition (like our arguments of objectivity), but a kind of truth that is, as Luke Hill muses, something that we can only be in, but never own for ourselves.

Returning to Humphrey’s contemplation on whether love can be expressed online, I believe it is worth noting that we can never be “in” digital communion with other people. (Digital communication, yes; digital communion, no.)

Even in person — even when face-to-face with Thou — my pride, prejudice and presuppositions can tragically objectify Thou into an It. The internet paradoxically amplifies my own human insufficiency of perspective: on the internet, the Other is always an It; and it can never actually be the Thou that it merely represents. In essence, we all turn into avatars of ourselves and the only thing we can genuinely love of the other is the icon of Thou, but the icon itself is itself an It. On the internet, we can only love what images and words represent, but not the images and words themselves, for they are nothing but vectors of values.

Intuitively we would say that the greatest expressions of love occur when the masks are diminished; but the internet is itself a continual masking of pixels and language. In the real world we do the same thing, often projecting inauthentic metaphors of our own character into our conversations and ways of being with one another. However, when face-to-face, beyond the veil of pixels and the emotional firewall of written language, the self meets another self in a human way that transcends the fiber optics of the words you are reading now.