Can we talk?

I've just discovered Amy Gahran's The Right Conversation blog. Really provocative. She's got lots of ideas about how to get e-conversations going, and how to make them useful or at least enjoyable for everybody. Got me thinking about what I should be doing here.

As she points out, "In-person conversations generally must meet the highest standards of relevance, since they require more from you and are harder to get out of quickly.... Online media offers more control over which conversations you'll join, when, and how. It allows delayed responses and divided attention, which is a blessing for less-crucial conversations, or conversations in which you wish to think carefully about your contributions, conduct research, etc."

And of course, "Through hyperlinks and other cross-reference tools (such as tags), you easily connect online conversations, or introduce relevant materials such as articles."

Now, I'm asking your help: How do I get more conversations going here, to make this blog more lively, meaning more interactive?

I think I know at least some of the reasons that it isn't, so far. I've been using a print model. The whole technology of blogging is so new that most of us are still applying old, pre-Internet formats that barely take advantage of the new possibilities.

When I was just starting this blog back four years ago, I sort of imagined it could be a "magazine", with me as publisher and editor-in-chief and other people, with different specialties, as co-editors. That's easy (technically) to set up on Blogger. What I was imagining was maybe a more modest version of what Slate and some other sites are doing on a much bigger scale (and with backers). I still like that idea, but I didn't put enough effort into it to do the two necessary things: First, define the site's aim and target audience, and second, pull together a group of editors (could be just two or three, but you need a variety of voices). Basically, just what you'd have to do in a print magazine, but without all the tremendous start-up costs (paper, printing, mailing lists, etc.)

But that was too ambitious for me. Would have taken nearly all my time, when what I really wanted to be was not a publisher, but a columnist in a magazine or newspaper. So I began writing my little essays and comments as though they were op-ed pieces.

That has been fun, and occasionally I hear from somebody who likes what s/he reads here. But not often, and not so we get a conversation going.

Here are some things that I think I should be doing differently (if conversation is my aim, and right now that seems like a really good idea). (1) Not sounding off like an expert-- If I already know it all, why should you bother trying to tell me something? (2) Suggesting hypotheses rather than conclusions, and asking you to help me confirm them or disconfirm them. (3) Actively inviting comments, like I am now -- rather than just leaving a "comments" box for anybody who is so moved. (4) ANSWERING people's comments with public "comments" of my own, visible on the site, so anybody who wants to can jump into the conversation. The few times I've received comments on the blog, I've answered privately instead, so the only conversation possible is one-on-one instead of the free discussion the Internet permits. (5) Taking up and responding to people's suggestions about what to discuss here.

For example, a month or so ago, a friend asked me what I thought about Evo Morales in Bolivia. A reasonable question, since I'm keenly interested in Latin America. I didn't say anything on the blog because, frankly, I don't know what I think about Evo Morales. Or rather, I don't have any confidence that my impressions of the man are at all right. I think what I should have done is just say that, that is, here are my impressions but don't take them too seriously without checking other sources.

So here goes, Dirk, a very late response: First, you should know (a) Bolivia is one of the few Latin American countries I have not yet even visited and (b) I have only the slightest acquaintance with Aymara culture (from reading, not from personal contact). On the other hand, I am a trained sociologist and can sometimes spot patterns that seem familiar from other societies. My impression: He's a smart man, which is good if he is also a good man. And though he doesn't have a lot of formal education, he's a quick learner. He is a conversationalist, accustomed to dealing with conflict through dialogue with the aim of reaching consensus -- at least, I think so, because that's the way he got to be head of the coca federation and to become his party's candidate for president, and it seems to be the way he is behaving now that he is president. What I mean is that he listens. He also has a clear idea of what he wants to say (for example, to foreign heads of state), because he is the bearer of a message reached by consensus by his constituency. I don't think he can be manipulated by Hugo Chávez or anybody else, because he continues to be bound (by upbringing, continuing social ties, and by the racial definitions in his country) to represent that constituency. Just what constitutes that constituency is going to be the problem, the doubtful area as he comes under increasing pressure from oil and gas companies, secessionists in Santa Cruz, rivals for leadership of Aymara and Quechua groups, other trade unionists and so on. Who comes first in his chain of loyalties? Coca growers? Miners? The Bolivian poor generally, regardless of race or region? I doubt that he's figured that out himself. But I don't know. Maybe he has. And I wonder what he's doing to secure the loyalty of the army.

I can't offer more than this. If any of you have insights, I really hope to hear.

There are lots of other topics I've touched on in this blog -- literature, Spain, Venezuela, God, the romance of tramp steamers being among the most frequent -- and probably lots of other things I should be doing to stimulate conversation about them. I hope you'll use the comments box to let me know what you think, and let me and other readers answer.


gef said...

So here I am, speaking to myself, just to break the ice. Hope somebody joins me.

Bill Wheaton said...

Here's a speech by the president of the American Bar Association:

on the administration's disregard of the rule of law. There is also an article in last week's "New Yorker" on David Addison, Cheney's chief of staff, that is pretty grim in my opinion.

It is very easy to get jaded by this kind of stuff and wonder if it makes any difference, given the president's stonewalling and the lack of any apparent restraint so far on his ability to do whatever he wants, law be damned. Yet I have to cling to the hope and belief that it does make a difference, and that we have to keep chipping away.

Thanks for providing the forum, Geoff.

Bill Wheaton