Having one of those stretches where it is really hard to get my head above water. Most of the time March and April are like this. One thing I’ve been doing when I have a spare moment is adding books to LibraryThing and reconnecting with the community there. I still have most of the basement’s books to add, which is quite a few.
LibraryThing is a great site for teaching people about folksonomies and metadata, and the interestingly debatable choices and problems they present for organizing information in a digital age. But it’s also one of my favorite examples of social networking in several respects, and looking at it again has been opening up some wider thoughts about blogging and social networks.
I spoke earlier this semester to a really interesting group of students at Bryn Mawr about how I see blogging as a form and practice as I think about it reflectively. One of the things I talked about with them is an issue I’ve occasionally reflected upon within the blog, which is how the voice that I’ve crafted here is both a treasured accomplishment and a frustrating confinement. I might have an inaccurate understanding of myself and the impression I leave in person, but I often feel like I’m looser, jazzier, more amusing, less pompous, in my daily work as a teacher and colleague than I am as a blogger. But when I try to write in that voice, it comes out snarky, barbed, and maybe altogether too typical in the hurly-burly Punch-and-Judy show of online discourse. So the Man of Reason is what I’ve made myself out to be, and so I’ll largely have to remain.
How does this connect to LibraryThing? Well, partly because LibraryThing is one of the sites that solves for me the problem of connecting me to those connections that I’d both ideally like to have and finding for me those connections which I never knew that I wanted but that seem indispensible once I discover them. It also gives a clearer, truer picture of who I am in many ways than this blog or my Facebook page or various other public selves I have on display. That’s always been the driver for me in online writing and reading: the hope of serendipity, of strange attractors, finding people and ideas and conversations that I can’t find in my immediate environment, but also of self-definition.
Partly also because LibraryThing is a likeable design. One of the things I said to the Bryn Mawr class was that I don’t do more in the online environment that their class is being taught within (Serendip) because I find it frustrating to use. I have enough trouble with organization when I have complete control over my environment, so finding my way through a non-standard UI maze not of my own making is often a non-starter for me. So the way that words and interfaces connect on the screen is part of what makes online sociality work for me, the same way that the architecture and acoustics of a room can have a profound impact on how well a group works together or converses in that room.
What LibraryThing does is balance the strange attractors with a sense of discovering dopplegangers. It produces the warming, pleasant feelings of confirmation that the online world sometimes allows, a revelation that out there somewhere, there are people who are strikingly like yourself in some respect, who have navigated the dizzying variety and complexity of contemporary culture with an eye to the same guiding stars.
In every online venue I’ve been involved with, I hit a point where those discoveries start to grind to a halt. The warm and fuzzy security of discovering that you are not entirely freakish in some of your affectations and habits fades, and you often start to discover that the person who looked like your twin is really not nearly so alike as their online persona might suggest.
At some point, in a given space, there is no more novelty, no more unexpected voices. Or the unexpected voices that remain are simply too alien or difficult or repellant: I find my boundaries and no matter how notionally open I might be to their rearrangement, to a continuing traffic across that frontier, I have no desire to remain infinitely open. That feels too much like surrender, like a complete loss of individual distinctiveness.
I think this is one place where I sometimes part company with my friends at Bryn Mawr who are interested not just in studying emergent processes but in deliberately incorporating emergent principles into their own institutional and personal lives. Some of what I have learned and continue to learn by exposure to online community and discussion feels emergent in that sense, but I’m not willing to cast off the line of my boat and just drift anywhere the sea chooses to take me. One of the things I told the students was that the individual authorship of my voice (even the stilted, sometimes pretentious, always verbose voice of this blog) is also a big priority for me. I don’t see that there’s anything attractive about embracing dialogue so completely that your next thought is always directly produced by the last thought of a dialogic partner, a smothering tit-for-tat. Some good thoughts come from solitude, from the unexpected recesses of the self, from not answering to the last reply or bouncing off of the last link.