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May 3, 2005
korby parnell asks: 'when will you stop be[r]ating your colleagues?'
Gotta love a setup like this. Korby Parnell frames his recent discussions with me about the backchannel this way:
Liz Lawley me on my indignant, gut-level reaction to back, back channels: those secret cabals where the “popular kids” congregate in virtual space to bitch and bemoan the sophomoric inadequacies of everyone else. Liz, I’m holding my ground: social software should enable, but not by default, the creation of back, back channels. IMO, the back, back channel is as anti-social as it is social. This issue is very relevant to a project I’m working on… When you and your family make the move to Redmond ;-), we should meet at Victor’s Coffee or on campus to debate this issue in greater detail. Congratulations on your new job! JFYI, as a member of the Redmond Planning Commission I will be happy to provide as much information as you’d like in deciding whether to locate here, especially with regards to neighborhoods, parks, schools, natural features, and planned development, both now and 20 years into the future.
My response: Huh?! The “popular kids” in whose book? (If you’re talking about last year’s MS symposium, some the people in that back-back-channel were among the least well-known of the participants.) By whose account did you determine that the people in the backchannel “bitch and bemoan the sophomoric inadequacies” of their colleagues? (Probably not anyone who’s actually participated in one.) Gol-lee, I wouldn’t like a place like that either, Korby. (And you know that!)
You’re setting up a straw man here. You’re assuming that private is necessarily elitist, and that anything people don’t want made public is necessarily mean-spirited. At the symposium, I asked you why you saw IRC as different from other contexts where people can break off into smaller, private groups. Are private, friends-only LiveJournals (which are as easily enabled in LJ as “back-back-channels” are in IRC) something you find as distasteful? Are a group of friends sitting together at a dinner elitist? Should we assume that if two people walk out into the hallway to talk that they’re bitching and moaning about the sophomoric inadequacies of those they left behind?
Of course people can use IRC to say mean things about each other. They can also use IM, email, hand-written notes, and whispers to do the same. So, why does this particular technology evoke such a strong reaction? (Not just in Korby, but in many people I’ve spoken to.) That in and of itself is something worth understanding.
(An up-front disclaimer: Korby is smart and funny and delightful to spend time with, and I’m not trying to pick a fight here any more than I was at the symposium!)
5/4 Update: Let me clarify that what Korby is talking about is not the public, open backchannel that’s increasingly becoming available at conferences and symposia. He’s talking about side conversations that break off from the main group, and that aren’t publicized. He feels that the software should “announce” private meetings that form in that way, and I disagreed. There’s value in allowing people to meet and talk privately, I think, and “calling them out” by default strikes me as invasive. I’m also troubled by the underlying assumption that private is more likely to be negative or “anti-social” than public.
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