A Variant of the Tree Falling in the Forest Question
If a long form essay posted online gets no readers, is there an idea?
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The Following Charts My Trajectory as a Reader and as a Writer During Adulthood
A lesson from graduate school I learned at the time is that academic papers by economists needed to be unpacked by the reader. Their meaning wasn't immediate. The equations, in particular, needed to be derived. The reader, by working through these derivations, would then begin to understand the text that accompanied them. This meant that to read an economics paper you needed a large flat surface, part for the paper itself and part for a notebook or pad of ruled paper to do the derivations. And you needed a good chunk of time to work through the ideas because those derivations would be far from immediate.
Sometime later, as an Assistant Professor with faculty friends in the Econ Department who did empirical work (I did only theory) and who would try to to read through my papers, they struggled with that task and often couldn't do it. What I came to understand was two things. First, the lesson I had learned in graduate school really only applied to a small subset of the profession. If I wanted a broader audience for my work, I as the writer would have to do some of the unpacking that I had assumed until then was the job of the reader. Second, this applied not just to the equations themselves but to the text that describes what the model is saying. The implications needed to be drawn out.
This need as an author changed the way I behaved as a reader. In graduate school, particularly in the first and second year, the papers we read were assigned to us by the instructors of the courses we took. We read papers that were emblematic of a larger literature, but we didn't read the larger literature in addition. So we achieved some breadth in coverage of topic at the expense of more depth on those topics that we did cover. Readers who are not authors tend to read this way. Academic authors, however, have a different obligation. The author must understand the literature of papers that precede the author's own contribution and the author must be able to explain where the value add is in the author's paper. Nevertheless, the writing is done for fellow academics, who are assumed to be familiar with the literature. That familiarity means the author still can assume quite a bit about what the reader knows. The author doesn't have to replicate that knowledge much if at all. So, to a struggling graduate student trying to make sense of the paper, it would be a slug to get through, no doubt. But for those who worked in the area, the paper shouldn't have been unduly difficult to read.
It is worth noting the parallel pleasure reading done at the time. I joined the Book of the Month Club pretty soon after becoming a faculty member. If I recall their mechanism, you didn't have to accept their monthly offering, which I usually didn't, but you did have to say no in that case. Sometimes I was absent minded and forgot so acquired some titles I otherwise wouldn't have bought. Some of those I read, for example, Ordinary People, which I must have liked because I remember getting some friends to go see the movie with me and we didn't go to the movies too often then. Of course, the Sunday New York Times was mandatory. If you would go out to brunch with a friend, which I would often do then, you'd share the paper and the question was which section you'd want to read first. In grad school, I believe, I'd go for the Sports Section, then The Week in Review. As an Assistant Professor, my tastes changed. My preference was to start with the Book Review, then go to the Magazine.
Eventually, based on liking to read book reviews, I started to subscribe to The New York Review of Books. It had an impact on me that is much more evident in hindsight. It taught what good generalist writing is like that is aimed at an educated audience, though one with no specific expertise in the subject matter. In particular, I became a fan of Stephen Jay Gould. My absolute favorite essay by him is The Streak of Streaks. When I started to push my blogging a bit after I learned that I could generate that type of prose on a regular basis, I modeled the writing after Gould's writing in that essay.
The next dramatic change in both reading and writing for me began in summer 1995 via SCALE. Burks Oakley, who was leading SCALE then, had set up a folder within FirstClass so that SCALE-affiliated folks could discuss the issues they were grappling with. This was my first experience with an online discussion group. Technologically, Usenet News Groups had been around for some time by then, but they were mainly accessed by Engineering types. This FirstClass discussion group had people from all around campus, both those teaching online and those supporting the teaching efforts. It was all very new and for me extremely engaging. There was a lot of exploratory discussion about how to do online teaching effectively. And the people who participated in the discussion were quite passionate about it. (Plus, with young kids at home we had essentially no social life outside doing family activity. So the online discussions provided some alternative.)
Pretty much at the same time Burks set up a listserv for Sloan grantees who were doing stuff similar to what we were doing in SCALE. These people were at campuses all around the U.S. I became a fairly active participant in this forum as well. It was a little different in topic coverage, partly because one of the participants was Frank Mayadas, the grant officer at the Sloan Foundation in charge of this program. He had a vision of how this would all work.
The idea that online discussion would substitute entirely for face to face discussion encouraged the writing to be conversational. Of course, email did that as well. But with email at the time (quite different from now) you usually knew the other person ahead of time or would soon meet the person thereafter. The lags for meeting the people in these online discussion groups was much greater. (Sloan had an annual conference, then at the World Trade Center. Burks had workshops on campus where some of the people in the FirstClass discussion would show up. Others I only met by happenstance.) And the conversation was multilateral so participants might push the thread in all sorts of different directions. I found I did well in this setting, often being able to contribute a novel idea to advance the conversation. Indirectly, I believe my prior economics training was quite helpful with this, because I penetrated issues in a way that others did not. So, to this day, I have a belief that the math and economics I learned has helped me as a writer, being able to better develop an argument that is layered and that needs to be developed fully.
Online communities of this sort have a certain half-life. People leave the conversation for a variety of reasons. The discussion group in FirstClass faded out in the spring 1996 semester. The main factor, if I recall correctly, is that the guys in the group who were really teched-up had muzzled themselves somewhat the previous fall so as not to intimidate the other participants. By the spring their posts were more geeky and the rest of us didn't want to read that stuff because we couldn't penetrate it. The Sloan group continued for about 10 years, at least my own participation continued for that period. (I remained subscribed to the listserv after that but was a lurker then.) There was one pretty obnoxious participant. He irritated me but not enough to drive me away initially. In 2004 there was a guest participant in the group who got quite upset because of what the obnoxious guy wrote. After some time I wrote a post to try to reconcile things and to synthesize the discussion up till that point. I got some private email telling me that was a really good post, but there was no further discussion about it on the list. I stopped actively participating in the group soon after that.
I started to write a blog a few months later. At the outset it was just something to try. I had never kept a journal so had no sense of what it would be like to write mainly, if not totally, for yourself. At the outside I told myself I'd do it for two weeks, one post each day, not tell a soul, and then see where I was after that. I would be able to generate my piece in about an hour and did that the first thing in the morning, before work. I found that the writing satisfied a need I had. I had a lot of issues to deal with that found no other form of expression, more about the general direction we were taking with ed tech than with specific implementation issues. The latter I could talk about with others and did quite regularly. But on the general direction stuff, those conversations never happened, except perhaps with my colleagues on the CIC Learning Technology Group where we would meet quarterly. The dinners the night before the meetings were what I really looked forward to. I needed to have those sort of conversations at least once a week, not just four times a year. But there weren't the right people on campus to have those discussions, for the most part. The blogging was like having the conversation with myself.
One of the things I learned at the time is how different this sort of writing was from the academic writing I had been trained to do. For the academic writing, all the thinking preceded the writing. The job of the writing was to take your prior thinking and put it in a form where others could digest it. With the blogging, in contrast, while there would be a skeleton of what the post would be about as I sat down at my desk, other related ideas would emerge as I was composing. It was as if the entire post was like the paper cover of a plastic straw that has been removed and then folded up tightly. At the beginning all you see is the first fold. Writing becomes like unfolding. More of the paper cover becomes visible as you continue to write. A different metaphor is that you make it up as you go along, but the inventions weren't random, they had to fit in some way. This is why I like the folded straw cover image. The connections are already there. The writer's job then is to find them. Writing becomes a process of discovery. That's what it felt like.
About 5 weeks into the blog I wrote a post called Discordant Views, which crystallized this metaphor after reading some essays by Donald Murray, but then contrasted that with a quite different view of what learning is about. Here are the first three paragraphs from that piece:
Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.
Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.
In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diana Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accommodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accommodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for introspection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.
In fact, this tension between introspection and deep individual thinking, on the one hand, and learning in a social setting, on the other is the core issue that motivated the current post. It seems that social interaction is winning, in a big way now, and introspection is playing at best a secondary role, maybe a tertiary role. I would like to consider some of the causes for that outcome, but want to conclude charting my trajectory first.
Early on with the blog there was really very little difference between writing my posts as I was doing versus hand writing a journal entry into a notebook. I prefer to compose at the keyboard, partly because my handwriting is terrible, and partly because edits can be made more readily that way, but that the posts were online was of no consequence at first. Then I told some friends about the blog and asked them to take a look for their reaction. Burks was probably the first person I told and I got positive feedback from him, which was encouraging. That some friends were looking at what I write was really nothing new. For example, Burks had been part of both of the discussion groups I talked about above. I was used to his seeing my writing.
Things started to take off a couple of months later. This post, How Many CMS Are Enough?, is the first post where I had significant comments from people I didn't know previously. Less than a month later Scott Leslie made this post about my blog. (Note that url for my blog he posted is old and no longer works.) Scott was pretty well known in the Higher Ed edublog community and I gathered that his blog attracted the eyeballs of quite a few people. Pretty soon after that post I started to have a stream of readers. Equally important, for both my reading and writing, is that I became aware of the edublog community as something to pay attention to. I learned how to use a blog reader, at the time that was Bloglines, and subscribed to many blogs that I read quite regularly. I no longer have an archive of my subscriptions then, but this post from a few years later gives the author's then list. (Or take a look at the blogroll here, which is much more extensive.) My subscriptions overlapped with that list and there were several others not on the list that I read as well.
I was in a different situation than the other bloggers that folks would read because I had a senior management position in ed tech. Most people at other campuses with parallel positions to the one I had didn't blog. They preferred to keep their cards close to the vest. So, in particular, the vendors started to read my blog as they were pretty desperate to understand what management on the campuses was thinking on a host of issues. But I also had quite a few readers who were faculty and others who were learning technologists, probably some administrators among them. There were also a large number of people who would find a particular post via a Web search. It was a happy accident for me that Google had purchased Blogger a couple of years before I started blogging. I believe that then Blogger posts would get a privileged ranking in their search algorithm. Further the posts that I made specifically about some technology, for example this one called Futzing with Elgg, would get many more hits than my usual fare, which was not directly on the technology but rather on the social implications from use of the technology.
Writing for the therapy and the learning it provides is one thing. Both of those might be had by journal writing that nobody else reads. That there are external readers has two different effects, one salutary, the other pernicious. The good effect is that some of those readers communicate their interests and their questions. That helps to better focus the writing, to be able to address the audience and make the writing useful to them. Further, when those readers are themselves writers of their own blog, a sense of community begins to develop. Then, as a writer you start to feel like you're one part of a much larger whole. The bad consequence results from hearing praise from readers and developing a narcissistic desire to replicate that, so that you start looking for it. Having a hit counter, for example, can become an object of obsession. Tracking who finds your stuff is a reason to be always online, even as there is a lot of other work to do that is not online.
This came to a head after Stephen Downes, the prolific blogger, he runs the site OLD Daily, announced he was taking a hiatus of unspecified length, presumably because he was burned out from doing his regular work. After that, I wrote a post about burnout. D'Arcy Norman picked up on that and wrote his own post. There was then a little comment thread that followed with several people, about the benefits and pitfalls of being online, but some consensus among the participants that we were all doing it, quite a lot actually. It's worth noting that D'Arcy's post is dated March 7, 2006, more than a decade ago. Then, mobile computing meant laptops, not smartphones. And for many of us, this being online was done from our desks, at work or at home. Being online meant we weren't getting out and about. That was part of the problem.
A couple of years later Clay Shirky published Here Comes Everybody. Web 2.0 had succeeded in enabling any potential author to self-publish the author's work online, for the rest of the world to access. And it meant that a few people with intent and some smarts about how to deliver a message could foment a social movement, armed with no other resources than their wits. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street demonstrated the power of Shirky's hypothesis. Yet online was doing something else to us as readers, probably not what those aspiring online writers were hoping for from their potential audience. First, the sheer volume of stuff out there meant that any reader would have to sort the stuff into two categories. Most would go in the ignore-pile. The rest would go in the okay-I'll-look-at-it-pile. For email we could apply filters to let much of this sorting happen automatically.
For stuff that was out there on the Web, there needed to be some other mechanism. Uber bloggers like Stephen Downes became Web traffic directors. If they thought a post was interesting they'd write a summary about it, link to it, and may of their regular followers would duly click the link. (What sort of read these followers would give the piece is anyone's guess.) Downes did that on occasion for one of my posts, for which I'm grateful. Yet he was also critical of me for being too prolix, sometimes giving him a lot more than he wanted on the subject. (On one post he found my indirect treatment of the subject matter appropriate, but most of the time it was too much for him.) I didn't pay attention to this criticism other than to note it. In retrospect, the criticism was prescient. However, to address the criticism properly, it is unclear whether I should have written shorter posts, or if I should have just stopped posting altogether. That is one of the questions I'm asking here.
Apart from the content filtering issues, since too much content got through to be manageable, people really developed a double filtering approach. They would skim stuff that got through the first filter. Then they'd apply perhaps unarticulated criteria to decide whether to give the piece a more serious read. Yet having too much on your plate was still a chronic issue because, in addition to all this reading, everyone was also an author (of email if not of a blog) and that was on top of work done via face to face communication or on the phone. (An administrator on campus goes from one meeting to the next. The staff who worked for me spent a good chunk of their day consulting with instructors or sometimes with other staff on campus.) Multiprocessing developed as the way to manage the too-much-on-your-plate problem. A cottage industry soon emerged to critique multiprocessing. This piece by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid? was one of the more widely read on the subject. Cognitively challenging tasks (I recall a presentation by Peter Doolittle where he had us count backwards from 100 by 7's) require paying attention and concentrating on that matter only. Our ability to do this has lessened, according to Carr. We've developed habits where we want to divert attention rather than focus - check email, see if anyone has accessed our blog, maybe reread our own latest creation, and a bunch of other stuff like that.
So, if you wrote a brilliant essay and published it in your blog, there really was no way of knowing whether the ideas were being communicated to those people who did find the post and started to read it. This realization is unnerving, especially if your motive for writing that brilliant essay essay is to educate the audience. That said, the reputation of my blog was probably highest right around the time Carr's piece came out. As a consequence, later that fall I received two different invitations to do writing elsewhere, from people who knew me (the first invitation) and people who knew of me (the second invitation). I opted to do the first but not the second, because I didn't know whether I could handle the workload involved in doing both. In retrospect, this was also an error. A fledgling writer should accept all invitations. Who knows where that might lead? Plus, about twenty months later I retired. If I could have had a writing gig in hand then that would have been very good for me.
To this not quite stable situation defined by Web 2.0, the emerging technology made fundamental changes. The three I'll focus on are Facebook, Twitter, and the smartphone. For sharing photos of your cat, or a selfie of you doing something a little bit foolish but not too risqué, or travel photos, these technologies are a pure boon. They make the sharing of stuff like this so much easier. Messages of good cheer, as a rule, benefit from social media, with the recipients and the senders sharing in the benefit.
But there are some downsides. One is something we learned back in the 1990s when we were using FirstClass and similar applications (WebBoard, Allaire Forums, etc.). People have a tendency to say things when composing at the keyboard that they would never say in face to face conversation. Our filters for what is appropriate work differently when operating online. Many of us learned the lesson the hard way to never write an email when you are angry. Calm down first. And, even if we learned the lesson for email, we then forgot it when applied to these other environments.
Next, the newer technology is biased toward short form communication. Nobody wants to read a long essay on their phone, unless they really have to read the essay and they don't have access to it any other way. But short form technology is terrible for discussing complex social issues. I am amazed that so many people don't seem to understand that. If you care about an issue, write a white paper on it and then write a good two-page executive summary, which is what other people will read. But writing a white paper takes time, while blurting out something is a snap. And, given current reading habits, many people won't even read the executive summary. If you want a broad audience for your ideas, a Tweet does the job, even if it does a total injustice to the subject matter.
Then there is the problem that you don't know your audience when composing your stuff. This is surely true for Twitter. It is also true in Facebook when you comment on a friend's post, where a friend of that friend might respond to your comment, but you don't know that person.
It is an ideal in our society that we can argue with one another when we disagree about the issues. Earlier I wrote a post called On learning to argue with people where we disagree - what's possible and what isn't. My view is that most people don't know how to argue, but many of these people feel obligated to participate in contentious discussions on uncomfortable subject matter, with the obligation stemming from the ideal articulated in the first sentence. Some of us blindly enter into arguments online that invariably don't go well. As a writer I know that I will shape what I say based on my knowledge of the audience. Why doesn't that same thought apply to these online discussions? We seem to have the mistaken belief that in arguing on contentious matters that our response should depend only on our own beliefs and not on the beliefs of the person we are arguing with. It then becomes a contest to one up the other person rather than to illuminate the truth. That mistake leads to a lot of too glib responses as well as to very frequent ad hominem attacks on people who don't deserve to be treated that way. We let the convenience that these technologies afford impair our good judgment on these matters.
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I was very slow to use Twitter, because it was antithetical to the blogging I do. But I do have this odd habit of writing rhymes. Eventually I learned that the 140 character limit tends to improve the quality of those - it doesn't give you enough rope to hang yourself. So on most days I post one Tweet, a daily rhyme, if you will. I have it set up for Twitter to feed Facebook. That works maybe 60% of the time. The rest of the time I copy the Tweet and repost it in Facebook manually. Some years ago I had my Blogger feed repost as a Facebook note. When that stopped working I took to do it manually. So my friends in Facebook are now exposed to both of these forms of expression. Add to that one more type of post. I take one of the four quotes of the day and repost that along with a quip from me that relates to the quote.
As I previously mentioned the narcissism in monitoring my blog hit counter, I want to note that watching the red Notifications indicator light up in Facebook is that much more addictive. The Like button, in particular, is on the one hand genius, on the other hand an instrument of the devil.
From this I know that they rhymes have a much better batting average getting through to my friends. The quotes with the quips are next. Now, and for the past several months, the long form essays are like grapes dying on the vine. I don't know if that's a permanent thing or more a consequence of the times in which we live.
My dilemma is that working through a piece like this one is part of my personality. I need to do the thinking that is in the background to produce this sort of essay, if just for me to keep being me. I am usually motivated in writing one of these essays to problem solve on a social issue and then to offer my theoretical solution, using the writing to enable to process to work it all through. Until I got involved with ed tech, I was quite used to coming up with ideas that other people ignored. That happened all the time. During my time as an administrator on campus, however, people started to pay attention to what I said, sometimes even to act on it. I got used to the attention I received. When I retired, I got several emails from friends that said they valued my opinions. It did not occur to me at the time that some of the value was not in what I wrote, but rather in the position I had when I wrote my stuff.
The opinions of retired people, particularly when they are not expressing about their own self-interest, are not as valued as the opinions of others, no matter how well articulated. It's too easy to put the guy in the doddering old fool category. The simple fact that he produces these very long pieces is evidence enough that he's lost touch with reality. Everybody else is too busy to read them or too impatient to read them.
Further, there is still the writing in well regarded periodicals that remains in long form (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.). There is an abundance of this sort of writing. The diligent reader doesn't need to add to the pile. It's already too hard to keep up.
In figuring out how to close this piece, I wondered if I was writing an obituary. I decided against that. Instead, I imagine myself as a latter day Don Quixote. Chivalry is dead. Thinking, if not quite dead yet, has fallen by the wayside. So I will tilt at my windmills, not expecting anything to come of it, but still hoping for a miracle that something does.