Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Web as a Consulting Company

I read a really interesting and provocative essay about the web a few days ago that has really stuck with me. I thought I'd share it with my five loyal readers, and ask what they thought.
Here is the essay: The Web is a Customer Service Medium, by Paul Ford

I think it is worth reading the whole thing, but here is a snippet: 
I like to think about media in terms of questions answered.
Here's one question: “I'm bored, and I want to get out of the house and have an experience, possibly involving elves or bombs. Where do I go?”
The answer: You could go to a movie.
Here's another: “How do I distract myself without leaving the house?”
You might turn on the TV.
“I'm driving, or making dinner. How do I make a mundane thing like that more interesting?”
Radio! Especially NPR or talk radio.
“What's going on locally and in the world, at length?”
Try this newspaper!
A medium has a niche. A sitcom works better on TV than in a newspaper, but a 10,000 word investigative piece about a civic issue works better in a newspaper.

For Ford, the fundamental question of the web is "Why Wasn't I Consulted?"

(I should also mention, it is worth reading the comments at the metafilter post on this, where the founders/moderators talk a bit more about their philosophies. There is also a great story about Craig Newmark, of craigslist)

This struck a chord in me, and I couldn't help but look at pretty much all of my Internet activity, from my recent (too extensive) comments on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog or elsewhere at the Atlantic, or at Inside Higher Ed, or even this blog, seems to answer this question. And it bugs me, that even when I feel I have added value to this world, it was often coming from a place of "Hey I have knowledge of this issue, why hasn't anyone asked for my important opinion?"

I have lately been putting a lot of time and energy into the TNC blog, because, I tell myself, it is such an amazing community of commenters, and because Coates himself is eloquent and sophisticated about so many of the things I care about. Really, how many blogs have great posts on hip hop, history of race and the civil war, Michelle Rhee, data on high school drug use, and a guest post by Michael Chabon... about hip hop?). But what I had previously neglected was how much I enjoy feeling "consulted" by this group of people, and even Coates himself. It is such a thrill for me to be engaged by a writer whose work I respect, and a community of people whose opinions I respect.

But it has a dark side. In search of responses, and, to a lesser degree, of "likes," I find my comments drifting towards a certain side of my personality, nitpicking and finding disagreement wherever possible. I find my tone nudged, as if by some unseen force, into patronizing and pretentious lecturing. 
I no doubt have this in me, but it bothers me to see it come out in public forum. But I can't stop, given that even this pretentious lecturer gets responded to, engaged, paid attention to, in this web community. My intellectual diatribes (78 likes!) give me enough intoxicating approval that it keeps me coming back. But as I step back, it disturbs me. I am not on the whole "google is making us stupid" train, but I do believe that different media encourage different kinds of relating, and even when I find a great match for my interests (hip-hop AND Dungeon Dragons AND education AND history?) it encourages certain kinds of expression at the cost of others.

Maybe it is the contrast that this provides with my daily life of college students, many of whom regard their classes, especially science class, as times to receive knowledge, rather than question it, engage the thinkers, or challenge me. I am still trying to work out a way to talk about the evolution of the eye so that a few of them feel safe enough to challenge me. Or talk about the science of their emotion, or memory to convince them to think about changing just a small bit of their lives. But in person, I am so consciously aware of not offending, of carefully building a trusting and safe place for intellectual inquiry. Ok, there is still some pretentious lecturing (I am a professor, after all) but my oppositional web self is replaced with a conciliatory discussion leader, trying not to say, "Umm, no, that is wrong, as it says here? On the first page of the reading?" and instead "That is a really interesting observation, and a common misconception, you are not alone in making that judgment."

So here is a resolution of sorts. To create my own work, then to consult others, risking the wrath of criticism, or worse, apathy, instead of taking those ample opportunities to offer my consultation to those who didn't really ask for it. And maybe, try harder to convince a few 18-year-olds to speak up and let their own long-buried curiosity express itself, instead of writing comments as if I am speaking to a nation of 18-year-olds, whose desire to be consulted never has any problem being expressed.

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