The beauty of the two-way web is that it allows someone to post their thinking on any given subject with ease, with the opportunity to receive feedback. As a result an online conversation might develop that is mutually satisfying and beneficial to all involved. Most of the time these conversations are based on virtual encounters with the participants not actually meeting in meatspace. The participants build up a view of each other’s identities based on online characteristics exhibited for example through activities like writing about a subject on a blog, other published work or observations of interaction with others in online discussions. However, a person’s online identity is always incomplete to some degree like a jigsaw with a load of pieces missing. We cannot readily assess a mood, facial expression or have insight into the wider context in which a person is operating. Therefore, when trying to make sense of someone online, we fill in the blank spaces of their persona with our own perceptions, both negative or positive, of what the pieces of their jigsaw might look like based on our own contexts, traits and experiences. When there is disagreement or misunderstanding on the web then the clarity of the big picture of people’s personalities and characters is often lost in favour of pursuing the cloudiness of the missing pieces of the puzzle. Flaming is the annoying extreme of this tendency.
Now meeting face-to-face doesn’t solve these issues either but I’m sure that it does provide you with pieces of the identity jigsaw that you can’t get online. I have enjoyed meeting Ewan McIntosh and James Farmer on separate occassions over the last months. I’ve drunk beer with them and waxed lyrical about the educational benefits of social software with them. They both have that welcome combination of vision, enthusiasm and realism, inspiring enough for me to begin blogging again after a long layoff. It was initially a real surprise therefore, when I read of their recent spat, particularly as I was quoted in the midst of it all. I reckon that they could have had a similar discussion face to face and after a few slurps of the amber nectar, the blank pieces of each other’s jigsaw would have been filled in and they would have moved on.
But the web is different and seems to somehow add more weight to disagreements. However, we should not be afraid of shooting our ideas from the hip, of showing our thinking in progress on the blog as well as our finished masterpieces. This is actually creativity and accountability in action because people can respond to what is written with their own ideas, questions and feedback. We should also not be afraid to robustly defend what we believe or to ask questions of others when we feel we have been wronged. The freedom to do both of these things is what will break us out of the edu-blogging echo chamber and allow us have ultimately productive conversations. Flaming may be something we want to avoid but let’s not replace it with a civility that is based on a measured blandness.