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.

I am not convinced

I am not convinced that ‘online communities’ will be defined as ‘communities’ indefinitely: it is quite possible some future generation might rebel against pixel-based approximations of human interaction as the sham of their parent’s age.

Living in the crossfire of an ‘attention war’

Daniel Nesbit proposes a metaphor shift from ‘attention economy‘ to ‘attention war,’ in part because “viewing the landscape as one of war instills the right mindset for those caught in the crossfire.”

Invading forces want to not just have our share of attention, they want to own it. The war of attention is a battle over resources: who gets to dominate, where and when… We have to defend our territory (our attention) appropriately.

The wartime conflict metaphor conjures notice of the collateral damage, particularly the innocent civilian ‘causalities’ — all the co-opted time, all the defrayed mental resources, and all the cognitive and psychological externalities absorbing the actual cost of this rampage.

In what ways do online spaces co-opt personal expression?

In a sense, digital social platforms homogenize personal individuality as much as they amplify and incentivize it.

One of the most interesting contradictions of the ‘digital revolution’ is how big tech endlessly promise better tools to express our creativity, individuality, and unique voice in the world…

…as we are happily baited into using platforms and devices that funnel an increasing scope of our human experience into the homogenizing, universalizing portfolio of a ‘user.’

The Podcasting Panel: Beginnings

On Friday, October 20, 2017, I hosted a panel discussion (in partnership with Innovation Works) for anyone interested in learning more about starting their own podcast. This discussion is produced and made available as a resource for anyone in the community thinking about joining the ranks of the ‘DIY broadcasters.’

Thanks to a great panel of experienced, funny, and informative people!

The Panelists

  • Charles Blazevic is the General Manager, 121 Studios (unLondon)
  • Stephanie Ciccarelli (@StephCiccarelli) is Founder and Chief Brand Officer at Voices.com. Author of Voice Acting For Dummies (Wiley Publishing, 2013), The Podcasting Ebook (2005), and The Definitive Guide To Voice-Over Success (2005)
  • Stuart Clark (@StuartClark) is an IT professional, writer, podcaster and technology enabler. Co-host of the Canadian Tech Podcast
  • “Backstage Ben” Cummings (@BackstageBen) is Producer and co-host of Jeff and Rachel in the Morning on 97.5 Virgin Radio, voiceover artist, movie reviewer and overall pop-culture sponge
  • Dan Dawson is a retired, veteran broadcaster, and a popular public voice and announcer at community events of all kinds in the city
  • Lindsay Harris is Coordinator, Public Service: Innovative Spaces and Services for London Public Library
  • James Shelley (hey, that’s me)

Links to equipment discussed on the podcast…

Panel’s suggestions for further learning…

Next event… Join Janet Frood, Jennifer O’Brien, Heenal Rajani, and James Shelley at London Public Library for a special edition of Curious Public entitled, The Art and Anatomy of the Question (Monday, November 13, 2017). This will be an interesting discussion for interviewers, researchers, journalists, podcasters, and anyone interested in developing their question-asking (and listening) skills.

Rehumanizing Twitter?

I tried an experiment on Twitter last week:

Set @tweetbot filter to remove links, media, retweets, quotes, and auto-posting clients [i.e. IFTTT, Buffer, Hootsuite] from timeline. Feels like old @Twitter — human again.

By ‘human’ I mean: all that remains is conversation; people talking to each other…not so much selling, promoting, positioning stuff.

Zapping the automaton, self-promotive stuff, and graphic eye candy out of the feed does a lot to refocus attention on human interaction.

“It’s frustrating watching yet another promising platform disintegrate on its own doing,” @EliotLandrum said.

Which made me think, “Twitter’s redemption might be that it still allows the deep customization of the experience through third party apps… But I don’t think it can attract new users to the same highly relational space that it originally spawned when it was only text and people.”

The end of user growth spells deep problems for platform sustainability.

The problem with social media right now? It is no longer principally designed for socializing, but for commercializing.

The Good, Great, Bad, and Terrifying: adapting to the world of social media

When we weigh all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

…does it bring people together to mobilize for their rights? Or just give corporations and governments the ability to track our every move?

…does it introduce us to new ideas and different perspectives? Or does it surround us in “echo chambers” of our own voices and beliefs?

…does it spawn innovation, creativity, and collaboration? Or is it a psychological liability that leaves us addicted to our newsfeeds and notifications?

On Monday, I hosted a panel in the Curious Public at Central Library series to explore some of these questions. My guests were Tim Blackmore, Emma Blue (@EmmaJaeBlue), Carmi Levy (@carmilevy), and Rowa Mohamed (@RowaMohamed).

Post-Truth. Alternative Facts. Fake News. Blimey!

To what extent did ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ ever exist in politics and broadcast media before? How do the algorithms of social media fit into an evolving definition of propaganda today? Is society more ideologically ‘polarized’ than it has been in the past — and what would be the benchmark to measure this? How can accusations of practicing ‘post-truth politics’ and broadcasting ‘fake news’ be abused as politically rhetorical devices in their own right?

It boils down to a timeless question: what is truth and why does it matter?

Tim Blackmore is a Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at Western University. He has researched and written at length about war, war technology, propaganda and popular culture. His book, War X, focuses on the way humans understand the world of industrial warfare. Tim is especially interested in understanding how we use images and media to make war look attractive to ourselves as societies.

Related Blog Posts

Designing the Mobocracy

In an attention economy, there are distinct incentives to leverage everything at your disposal to stimulate user engagement. It is a straight forward equation: To sell ads, you need eyeballs. To get eyeballs, you need attention.

To put it another way: attention equals good analytics… and good analytics equals cash.

Thus, to optimize engagement, social media corporations build content algorithmic distribution models that (inadvertently or not) seem to foster ‘echo chambers’ and ‘flame wars.’ Some call these designs mobocratic algorithms. Ultimately, the driving economic incentive of social media is to garner a user reaction — and nothing galvanizes us to furiously click and comment on things more than directly confirming our biases or assaulting them.

The ‘mobocratic algorithm’ hypothesis suggests that the growing polarization and ideological battles we see online are, at least in part, facilitated by the technical design of these platforms, which are in turn reciprocally animated by the commercial imperative to harness user attention to generate advertising revenue.

(Image credit: Nathan W. Pyle via buzzfeed.com)

So how can we invert the U-shaped distribution into a normal distribution, where productive conversations represent the norm, rather than the exception?

(Image credit: Canada Conversations Design Hackathon initial framework webinar.)

I keep coming back to this conundrum: it seems like the more data we have to sift, decipher, and filter, the more incentive there is for someone to be as loud and as obnoxious as possible to win our attention.

On Talking to Canadians

I was recently interviewed by Jeremy Marks for the Talking to Canadians podcast, which is produced by Jeremy and along with Ryan O’Connor. It is a long and wide-ranging conversation that touches on many ideas, including the reign of the algorithm, learning from history, power and inclusion, the value of ignorance, and the topic of water protectors and reconciliation in Canada.