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.
Just an encouragement – there’s a reason why so many people read your blog – you write well, and you write well about things others are interested in. Even when you have an opinion that’s different from mine, you explain your side well – and everyone learns something.
So – keep up the good work!
Meredith, what you say is very true! I. too, have been on both ends of spectrum you outline. Many of us probably have.
But Stephen’s problem (among that of many others and even myself on occasion) is the attempt to be nice or vague or many other things and not addressing the actual situation. I, too, was greatly offended by Stephen’s post and I know of at least one other. Now, I doubt he was addressing his comments to me but … what is his defintion of “nitpicky” and just who are his friends?
Because of the way his post was phrased it was directed at many of us just as you describe. While not his intention, he and any one else who writes or speaks like that needs to realize that the sender does not control the meaning. Readers and listeners help to create meaning, even if it is as simple as filtering the message through their own preconceptions, beliefs, and values.
This style of communicating is a form of moral minimalism and it is rife in our profession. The opposite does not imply one has to blatantly attack another or resort to ad hominem attacks, but if one wants to call just a few shovels spades then you ought to say which ones are the spades and which aren’t. And that can still be done civilly, professionally, and even collegially.
I often fail at both ends of this spectrum, and publicly. It may cost me in the end, but I am getting better at finding the middle ground. And while it might be in my best interest to quietly hide in a corner and not engage in such public attempts at dialogue, at least until I have a job and possibly even tenure, I simply cannot do so. It is a fundamental ethical decision and responsibility that I cannot shirk.
To label a group and their claims as wrong, misguided, unwanted, or whatever one’s beef is without specifying who constitute that group and what these claims are is simply unethical.
I also think that the only way to avoid misunderstandings is to be as specific as possible. Even though communication on the web often does a poor job of representing tone or emotion, it isn’t possible to read anyone’s mind and know what they meant to say or what they are leaving unsaid.
I think a lot of this boils down to making sure one is clear. Given that a lot of blogger are aware of the medium’s limitations that you outline so well, they should know better. Maybe I am a bit more cynical, but I tend to find it “convenient” when someone shoots a few across the bow, gets busted for it, then goes back and simply says, “oh, I did not mean it that way.” Oh really? Now, I am sure a lot of people may in good faith post things that did not sound the way they intended it; however, I am also sure a good number shoot anyways then back down (if you can call it backing down) when caught. And no, I am not saying I am perfect, far from it. However, I do tend to maybe think a bit too much at times about posting something because I worry about how it may be taken. Civility does take some effort, something that unfortunately some people are not willing to do (not as bad in our neck of the blogosphere). Not so much that I give much about what others think, but more worried about those who right away jump to assumptions. Anyhow, as I said, I may be a bit more cynical than most. Best.
Count me as another one who thinks that being specific helps in these matters; I guess we all at least admire the fact that Meredith went ahead and snarked Stephen Abram specifically rather than saying “a certain prominent Canadian, Mr. A____,” even if she regrets it now.
And as for this: “We all have built up pictures in our heads of the bloggers we’ve never met based their writings.” I think a real photo of Stephen Abram (by Michael “Libraryman” Porter) is worth a thousand words:
The written form is a fraught medium; written communication is so often simply meaning stripped of context. Blogs are even more problematic because they often involve a more conversational style, usually in an effort to encourage commenting and to improve readability. In being so they can easily be misinterpreted (or at least reinterpreted in an unexpected way).
As a commenter and erratic blogger I have yet to find a solution to this, though expressing oneself well to begin with undoubtedly helps. Emoticons can seem a little silly but at least they flag when humour is at play.
Tangognat’s comment regarding specificity is salient but I sometimes wonder if being too targeted in one’s points can come across as being slightly aggressive. It’s a fine line between being on-point and being interrogative, that’s for sure.
Or have I entirely misunderstood what your post was about? 😉
“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.”
Oddly enough, that’s not true–and if my comments on the incident were bitter or irritable, I must have been having a really bad day. I apologize, if a few months too late. I typically say “I’m a library professional, but I’m not a professional librarian,” and as an ALA member I’m comfortable with having “librarian” preserved for those with ML[I]S degrees.
Now, as for Abram’s post…well, I guess I need to go see how the comments have grown. I sure read it as “Discussion is fine as long as it’s one-sided discussion,” but, of course, since he never mentioned me or C&I I couldn’t possibly imagine that it might be in any context intended as a blind criticism… (No, I still don’t use emoticons)
I also reacted fairly negatively to Stephen’s post, mainly because I felt it was a blanket criticism that damned everyone who wasn’t a L2.0 cheerleader. I’d probably have reacted a lot less strongly if Stephen had linked to specific examples – I don’t think I’ve seen any posts where people were personally attacked, so it felt like he was generalising about everyone who had been sceptical of L 2.0.
For some reason it seems as though L 2.0 is an issue that produces strong emotional responses all round. As a result, it seems to me that many people on both sides are perceiving attacks where none were intended, becoming defensive and responding with attacks of their own. Many of us (definitely including me) need to remember the old “if you’re angry, wait half an hour before posting” rule.
Walt, I actually didn’t phrase that as I’d meant to (I was writing it quickly first thing in the morning, trying to get it done before a 9:00 meeting). What I meant to say is that I got the sense that you were bothered by the stance that the ideas of those who have MLS’ are somehow more valid than the ideas of those in the profession who don’t. That’s what I’d meant to say, but of course I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I’d have liked. 😉
And yes, you did apologize back then and I hadn’t let it bother me since. I was just using it as an example of how much we can read into the things other people write, or, in that case, a simple mistaken omission.
Well, now, Meredith: If you put it that way, how can I disagree? I might refine that just a little–that is, if the area under discussion is informed by specialized education within the ML[I]S, then the degree holder speaks with slightly more authority–but in general you’re right.
But I’d have to say that, wouldn’t I? If you posit that ML[I]S-holders are vastly more qualified to speak on anything remotely related to librarianship, I’d have to stop writing.
Meredith, I posted a comment to your original — as you described it, “snarky” — reaction to Stephen Abram’s post, without realizing that you had apologized and misunderstood his intentions in this post. I read this post today and thought it best to comment here in further response. I’m left wondering if there is a part of the “conversation” that I’ve missed and continue to miss. Anyway, I agree that it is easy to misinterpret what is written, perhaps hastily written, in a blog entry. Same goes for email. That calls for more careful attention to the tone and attitude of the words being used. I’m as guilty as the next person on this one. However, accepting that I, too, misinterpreted that post…why then is there no further response or clarification given to my comment? This is at least part of why I tended to think negatively about the whole thing.
Steve, I totally understand your feeling about what Stephen Abram wrote. My mea culpa was in response to a private e-mail sent to me by Stephen about what I’d written. At first I’d felt very badly about what I wrote, but then I started to think about how easy it was to misinterpret what he wrote and how the author also should have some responsibility in the matter if their post is intentionally vague. If you look at the post I wrote subsequent to the Mea Culpa post http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/index.php/2006/01/27/on-being-vague-in-the-online-medium-with-no-apology/, you’ll see that I put a large part of the blame for the whole “misunderstanding” squarely on his shoulders and railed against people who write negative things in a vague way and then hide behind “that’s not what I meant” when someone calls them on it. I do think it’s easy to misunderstand people’s intentions online, especially when we don’t really know the person, but I also think that bloggers should endeavor not to be vague and have only themselves to blame when someone misconstrues a vague post.