Digital Rhetoric

or online writing moves fascinate me….

I had a parenting experience the other day that I thought would make an excellent article idea. I also realized that I was way too close to the situation (read totally hot button issue about it) to give it a fair shake. I decided to share the idea with a writing list I belong to, and this is where my title comes in — the way online communication works fascinates me or rather the way online communication doesn’t work.

I thought I wrote to the list saying I was too upset about this issue to hear any advice unless the advice said I could eat her/lock her in her room until she is 40, etc. etc. Here’s the situation, take it, talk to experts, write a researched article that will tell me whether I was right or wrong.

What I expected — I thought someone might use the article idea, but I also fully expected to get some various perspectives on the issue I outlined. I expected some reasonable comments — something along the lines of “this is my experience/thoughts,” and I did get that too. What I forgot to expect — the person who reads what you write and interprets it in a totally different way than what you intended.

I also forgot that online communication is often a license for some people to just be snarky. So what happened? Instead of a reasonable “I don’t think what you did was correct, here’s what I would have done/what I think….”

There is one woman who THINKS that is what she did — offlist. What I THINK she did was judge, condemn and snark. It is basically a response that doesn’t address the content of a post but instead condemns the author. It is what parenting experts say you shouldn’t do to your children — tell your children they are bad when what you really mean is the behavior of the child was bad….

I responded with sarcasm, which is a response that my husband has so often told me is our personal equivalent of poking the angry bear — don’t try to talk sense/logic to the crazy kid in the woods. Walk away slowly. Do not engage.

It is a lesson I need to learn over and over again.

So why blog about this?

My students in my online class were talking about the advantages of online learning — specifically how they felt it was safer in part because they aren’t judged online. This conversation was happening at the same time I was being what felt like attacked in an online forum I frequently think of as safe. I think there is an extra measure of safety in an online class that might not be present in other online venues, but it has been my experience that online brings out extra venom in people. I’ve seen disagreements online that wouldn’t happen face to face.

Other places online conversation goes wrong are relatively tame…. As an instructor, it may be when a student e-mails me to say “I won’t be in class today,” but the student uses a hotmail or yahoo e-mail address, doesn’t sign a name and doesn’t indicate what class they are going to miss. The student assumes I will know, but I have a lot of students and teach several classes. I can’t always know.

It also happens when a student e-mails me to say, “I didn’t understand what you wrote. Could you explain it to me?” And the student doesn’t indicate where the problem passage was located. Was it what I wrote this week? Last week? In the discussion forum? In a comment on their paper? In the week’s lecture? I have no idea.

When has an online communication gone awry for you?