By Meredith Farkas | January 26, 2006
I got my library science degree through distance learning, which was definitely an interesting experience. It’s fascinating to never meet most of your classmates and yet form definite opinions about them since you connect with them through online chat and asynchronous discussion. What was more interesting was how we viewed our professors. I was in one class where most of my classmates could not stand our professor. The class covered tough concepts and she was a tough grader, but that wasn’t all it was about. She has a very dry wit, which really didn’t translate well in the online medium. I never really had a problem with her — probably because she gave me A’s — but for students who were struggling in the class, her dry wit transformed in their minds into callous indifference to their plight and an air of superiority. I never met this professor in person, but some people who did told me she was nice. Not the cruel ogre my classmates had assumed she was. Those students, already frustrated by grades they were not happy with, inferred more meaning from the professor’s comments than perhaps was actually there. And it’s very easy to do that online. When we read a blog post, we don’t always know the tone in which the blogger was writing. Maybe to us their comments sound angry, when they didn’t mean for them to sound that way at all. We can’t hear the inflection in their voice and we can’t see their facial expressions. And that gives us the opportunity to make the seemingly logical leap that leads to us assuming things that are more a product of our own biases and thinking than reality. Combine a preexisting sensitivity to an issue with written comments that don’t convey all the information that verbal comments do and add in not knowing the writer personally, and you have a recipe for misunderstanding.
Just a couple of months after I started blogging, a well-known blogger made a rather nasty comment about something I’d written. He’d completely misunderstood a completely innocent post and wrote something that was snarky and hurtful in reply. Not knowing any bloggers personally at the time and just having started blogging, I was really hurt by it. Now that I actually know the person, I would not be so hurt by the things he wrote, because I know his personality. But at the time, it really bothered me.
Back when I was doing that Survey of the Biblioblogosphere, I was part of another misunderstanding. When I created the survey, I had accidentally made a certain question mandatory. To answer this question, one had to have an MLS, and I had meant to make it optional so that library folks who didn’t have an MLS could just skip it. But as a result of my mistake, Walt Crawford couldn’t fill out the survey. I’m going to take a leap here and say that, based on what he’s written in the past, the whole “people with an MLS are the only REAL librarians” is a sore subject with Walt. Strangely enough, it’s actually a sore subject with me too. Before I got my MLS, I worked at a public library where the opinions of anyone who didn’t have an MLS (even if they’d worked at the library for 20 years) didn’t count for anything. I found that really offensive, and it is a feeling that hasn’t changed now that I do have an MLS. But Walt didn’t know all that. Walt just saw that I had excluded people without an MLS from my survey of the biblioblogosphere and it pissed him off. So he wrote some angry comments. As soon as I saw them, I fixed my mistake and explained to him that it was 100% accidental. And he apologized. It’s just another example of how, when we already have a certain sensitivity about an issue, we can infer meaning from people’s writings and actions that don’t really exist. He saw something sinister in an innocent mistake.
Funny enough, I did the same exact same thing yesterday. When I read Stephen Abram’s post from last week, I made assumptions about what he was “saying”. I inferred from his writing that he was saying that all of the criticisms regarding Library 2.0 were based on stupid, nitpicky things and that people who criticized Library 2.0 were resistant to change. Considering that I’d read a lot of confrontational rhetoric about Library 2.0 in the past, I made the seemingly logical leap that Stephen was trying to create an “us versus them” dichotomy where none needed to exist. And I responded with some snarky and inappropriate comments about what he wrote. What I didn’t realize was that Stephen was only writing about certain critics of Library 2.0 who were being nitpicky and ones who had personally attacked friends of his. I hadn’t seen the latter going on (though I was aware of the nitpicking) so that also led to confusion on my part. Stephen meant to criticize certain people, but I heard (saw) a blanket criticism of those who have criticized Library 2.0. And I responded based on what I saw, not what the reality was.
I may be opinionated and I may something write things I shouldn’t, but one thing I do have is the humility to admit that I was wrong. I’m sorry, Stephen. This whole thing has taught me a valuable lesson about the leaps our mind sometimes makes in the absence of enough information and in the face of already held biases. And I’m going to make sure I don’t make that mistake again. Unless something is as crystal clear as Michael Gorman’s criticisms of the “blog peoeple” I’m going to give people the benefit of the doubt. I love the things Stephen writes — he is irreverant and inspirational, a great combination — and perhaps that was also why his post bothered me so much. His original article in Sirsi One Source on Web 2.0, Library 2.0 and Librarian 2.0 really did a great job of explaining all of these ideas.
So take a lesson from me and all those bloggers who came before me who inferred too much from a blog post and then wrote a response that only made things worse. Especially if you don’t know someone, don’t take the liberty of assuming things. We all have built up pictures in our heads of the bloggers we’ve never met based their writings. Consider next time you’re thinking negative things about someone that your “picture” of them may not be at all accurate.