April 9, 2008 | 3 Comments

Category: Activism, Web

Love them.  Hate them.  The bane of my existence and a way to get things done.  Listserves can both create consensus and seed a sense of powerlessness.

Sometimes I dread sitting down at my computer and facing a string of a conversation where no one is showing evidence of listening but just putting themselves on record with an opinion.  You can tell a good listener in a room full of people.  Those folks seem to draw out thoughtful responses, modulate the bombast, get the quiet folks to talk.  Listeners in a listserve often disappear.  In a listserve there is no voice tone, timbre, intonation patterns or quiet words to quell those who are thumping chests.

Yet, strangers can gather on a listserve and in a matter of days start to coalesce into a group.  Personalities emerge.  Leaders begin to show themselves.  The articulate have a chance to practice their craft.

Some folks, in a real room, won’t let the scathing, inner voice be overheard, but on a listserve, they have little hesitation to unchain the beast.  Digital mayhem.  Words with no smile you can see, no lowering of voice, no deferential nod, no shrug at the end.

I know an activist that in person is charming, sweet, yet confusing.  She often shrugs.  The shrugs come fairly frequently, and I can’t tell what they are punctuating or what the shrugs might be referring to specifically in the room.  This person is unusually quiet during meetings.

In a listserve she is a predator that takes no prisoners.  The same person in a different medium becomes a different person.  The medium is the person.

I’ve concluded that the shrugs that I can see when we’re together are responding to a predator’s internal dialogue.  The shrugs signal to herself, and we observers see some sort of tip-of-the iceberg evidence of the turmoil underneath.

In a listserve, one can neither see nor intuit when the shrugs are signaling her or his dissatisfaction.  There are no analog signals to inform the words she or he says to moderate or balance the communications.  So, they stop shrugging.  Instead of the tip, we get the iceberg whole.  We get the cold words of a person on the prowl.

Listserves can both create consensus and seed a sense of powerlessness.  They can also empower people who have difficulty speaking in the analog, in the world.


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3 Comments so far

  1. Mark S on July 7, 2009 6:02 am

    “I know an activist that in person is charming, sweet, yet confusing … In a listserve she is a predator that takes no prisoners. The same person in a different medium becomes a different person. The medium is the person.”

    This first reminded me of a character from a Cold War thriller I loved as a kid, a fighter pilot who was socially awkward, shy around girls, introverted, etc. who, once in the air, became a fearless predator who took no prisoners. Looking back, he was also a proto-video-gamer; millions of shy, awkward kids have now had much that same experience, and as part of a gaming community at that.

    More recently, though with less drama, I learned to see what matching a fresh medium to a person could reveal, during the late nineties, via email, while long-distance wooing my future wife, a woman I’d thought I’d known — as a friend for most of ten years. We settled on “text-only [yournamehere]” as our term for the aspects of self which are only available to conversation via the fairly rapid turn-around in replies afforded by email. Come this decade, we’ve been part of a far-flung community on Friendfeed (which bests any old-school chat room for real-time, multi-party, text-only conversation), and we’ve seen much the same as what you note, Andrew, with the same mixed results.

    It’s made me wonder, though: these “icebergs whole,” with their text-only personae, have they been here all along then? There’s now a means for them to converse with one another, at any rate, a means for forming communities and coming to self-awareness — for only the first time, arguably, since the invention of text 5,000 years ago. Or were the Icebergs Whole present prior to the creation of the Written Word? Were they perhaps *responsible* for the creation of the written word? How about for the creation of the internet, this other-than-analog means of communication that’s bringing the written word on a par with the spoken word — in terms of interactivity and real-time involvement — for the first time, ever?

    Sure, maybe the first use of writing was for keeping tax records and warehouse inventories — much as the first use of computers and the internet was to serve the interests of the powerful. Yet culturally, along with the rise of computers, we’ve seen such a turnaround in the fortunes of the “geek” that most people under forty have no awareness that as recently as the 1970’s, being identified as one was about as empowering as being identified as a
    homosexual in the 1950’s. He’s a cliche now, but even three decades ago a shy, geeky, not-a-jock kid who turns predator when faced with a cockpit full of gauges, buttons, and switches was still nothing but a comical promise of possibility.

    And now? Yea, though the verbally gifted, the extroverted, outgoing tips-of-our-icebergs have overrun Twitter and Facebook and the rest of the internet with incessant inane chattering, surely it’s still the geeks, the Aspergian Tribe, the text-based life forms who built the joint and keep it moving forward, who are native to it and know its hacks often better than those of analog reality, who *need* its other-than-analog means of expression in order to recognize one another and experience themselves as a community.

    These people you write about, Andrew, these people who may have brought the full autistic spectrum all the way from the paleolithic or beyond — I’m thinking specifically of the functional, vast majority who simply carry markers for autism, rather than the full complement necessary for a DSM diagnosis — I’ve long thought of as the most secret of all secret societies, because at least throughout recorded history, its members (and I count myself one) seem not to have even known one another.

    Granted that it’s always chancy to suppose that we, yes, we in our lifetimes, are straddling an epoch-changing cusp, it does seem that after centuries or maybe millennia in complete or relative silence and isolation, the arrival of the internet may mark the beginning of a re-membering, a calling-home of the children for the sort of minds who made it. Such a homecoming could well take centuries more to play out of course, but something Icebergian may be rising — and while those who set their store by the tip-of-the-iceberg and the analog signal may well see it as a Rough Beast whose hour has come round at last … maybe it’s all just a matter of perspective.

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