Bakhtin vs. LJ: context in fannish discussion

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Title: Bakhtin vs. LJ: context in fannish discussion
Creator: cereta
Date(s): April 4, 2007
Medium: journal post
External Links: None, Archived version
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Bakhtin vs. LJ: context in fannish discussion is an post by cereta.

The post has 60 comments.

"I've been thinking a lot about context lately. It came up in the squee/Cheerio pissing discussion, it came up in the discussion of race in fanfic, and I'm sure it came up somewhere that I'm not aware of (see, context! That's a joke, son.)"

Excerpts from the Post

Bakhtin, who is one of my personal gods, argues that all utterances (speech, writing, any act of communication) are inherently responsive. He's speaking primarily of response to other utterances, but I'd expand that to say: pretty much every time we open our mouths or put fingers to keyboard, we are responding to something. An episode of a TV show, a current event, something someone else said/wrote, heck, banging our shin against a coffee table. The point here is that context, the situation that prompts someone to speak (I like the word "exigency," myself; it just sounds nifty), is key to shaping the utterance and thus key to decoding it. In other words, you have to know what prompted something to fully understand it.
Many moons ago, I looked at how hypertext can complicate context. I mean, the whole point of hypertext is that chunks of text can be read in varying order determined by the user. That's gotta complicate things, no? I drew these elaborate charts of mailing list and bulletin board discussions that number posts chronologically, then put them in a chart by response train. It was fun (for values of fun that equal "pain in the ass but it took up a page of my diss"). Part of the point was that a message that dropped 195th in your mailbox might actually be a second or third tier response, and that it would read very differently if read, say, second or third after the starting post verses being read after a long, involved discussion. And the tech at the time allowed a great deal of end-user control over how messages were read and in what order.

LJ is both better and worse at this context. On the micro-level, an immediate discussion is threaded such that pretty much every reader at least sees the comments in the same order, and each post is visually situated as a reply to whatever it, well, replied to. There's very little end-user control except in selection of which posts to read (not trivial, but not as powerful as being able to re-order posts with a click of the mouse), and there's also very little end-user control in situating your post. The once pervasive "response to thread" post is pretty much gone, or has mutated into posting in your own LJ, in which case you have little guarantee that the participants in the original discussion will read your post.

Which gets me to the larger point: on a macro-level, the context of any given utterance on LJ is tremendously more problematic and difficult to discern than a message on a mailing list. This is true for a number of reasons.
1. As a culture, we kinda sorta suck at being specific about what prompts a given post. We don't link back, we don't point to specific discussions. Instead, we tend to make vague statements and assume that everyone reading our post knows what we're talking about.


2. Everyone, literally everyone has a different reading experience. Every has a different flist, which means every person reads a different set of posts on the subject, or reads them in a different order at different times.


3. Every LJ creates its own context. We can talk all we want about public posts being read by anyone, etc, and that's certainly true. But the truth is, most of us write most posts in our LJ as if we are writing to a particular audience of people who have at least a passing familiarity with us and our ways.

So what am I arguing? That the burden here goes both ways. Yes, I think it’s in your own best interest if, when making an overtly argumentative post, particularly one that is likely to be read outside your flist, you make your context as clear as possible. That’s just good rhetoric. However, as I argued in the squee discussion, I think that readers, particularly when reading outside their flist, must also take a certain amount of responsibility for at least realizing that there might be a context they’re not aware of, and finding out. I’m not just talking about making the two clicks that would tell you that someone is not a sociologist with no real experience in fandom politics (no, that’s never going to stop being funny). Maybe we should get better at asking, "Hey, before I respond, are you talking about this thing?" (I say this having made exactly that kind of mistake recently, assuming a response to one thing when it was really a response to something else.) And if doing so prompts a clarification of the post itself, so much the better.

It’s been argued that it’s naïve to expect readers always to know what response you want, and that’s fair enough. But I think it’s equally, if not naïve, then perhaps not thinking about the nature of LJ, to assume that every post is going to be accessible to every reader on the same level, and that particularly when you follow a link, that the person making the post will have thought to, or is even obligated to, provide context for those who do not regularly read her LJ.

Excepts from Comments at the Post


Great post, and incredibly relevant to my own experience of late. It's kind of morbidly fascinating to me that no matter how carefully you try to phrase an opinion, no matter how much you qualify it, people (even people you think know you and might understand where you're coming from) will make assumptions about your motivations and respond accordingly. And when metafandom gets involved, all bets are off. It's beyond frustrating when people sail in on a link and comment on your post without even having read it, much less having considered the context in which your post was made.

This way of looking at it is interesting, but it sort of makes me think it's hopeless to expect that you can ever really have a good discussion on LJ. I was on some fandom mailing lists before shifting my fannish activity to LJ, and I remember a lot of people at the time bemoaning the fact that it was really hard to have a discussion in a "discussion forum" format as compared to a mailing list. Do you think that's true?

I think LJ is inherently harder to have a focused discussion on precisely because things are so fractured. On the one hand, you'd think it would be easier, because we can link to things in a way we couldn't necessarily on mailing lists (if, as frequently happened, a discussion crossed mailing lists). On the other hand, the prevailing tendency when you have an offshoot or related but not quite on topic or even just longer response is to go do it elsewhere, on your own LJ - which, admittedly, I was advocating in the squee discussion. This scatters discussion and makes getting the full context of something more difficult.

I don't know how solvable I see the problem being, just because my two solutions (do your best to establish context when it really matters, but also, read carefully and investigate or even ask about context) seem sometimes to be much more controversial ideas than I've given them credit for being. The first can sometimes run counter to the "it's my space, I don't owe you anything" theory of LJ, and the other runs counter to the "public post, I can respond however I want" theory.

Actually, as I type this, it hits me just how big a clash there is between those two ideas, and just how much that clash might be at work here.

I, um, probably wasn't very reassuring there, was I?

why would someone feel the need to make a comment that opens up no dialogue and adds nothing to the conversation (as far as I can see)) is because we can.

I ran into that, too, and it makes no sense to me, either. I just don't understand that sort of hypersensitive/hypercritical mindset at all. It must suck to find so much on LJ so upsetting that you ABSOLUTELY. MUST. COMMENT.

The first can sometimes run counter to the "it's my space, I don't owe you anything" theory of LJ, and the other runs counter to the "public post, I can respond however I want" theory.

Actually, as I type this, it hits me just how big a clash there is between those two ideas, and just how much that clash might be at work here.

Yeah, I think this is the major divide that makes a lot of discussions go off the rails, because not only do different people feel differently about this, but the same people can feel differently about it depending on the issue being discussed, even strictly issues relating to fandom, and there is often no way of knowing who feels what about which issue, especially coming in from a link on a newsletter or via friendsfriends.

In my own post about squee-harshing, a lot of people seemed to think the answer to my question (which is, why would someone feel the need to make a comment that opens up no dialogue and adds nothing to the conversation (as far as I can see)) is because we can. As if context and a moment's thought about what might be considered appropriate in what forum were completely unimportant.

I'm still kind of baffled by that.

The hypercritical/hypersensitive thing is something I've noticed and just DO NOT GET on Lj moreso than in other web spaces. I find it both fascinating and really rather morbid. However, I can't seem to tear myself away. I just lurk and observe, but I've mentioned it a time or two myself. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

- here from metafandom FYI :-)

Mailing lists have closed membership for the most part, and you have some reasonable expectation that the people participating and reading along also have read the messages that spurred the discussion in the first place. Of course, when there are multiple MLs involved, that gets complicated.

I think you're right that those two competing views of LJ as a blog (where you publicly post ideas and they're open to whatever interpretation or response) or as a faux-private journal (where you have an expectation that only your "friends" will read what you post and that this is your space and people should be civil to you here) are part of what's complicating the issue. People seem to hold both of those ideas at once, including me.

*nods* The problem is that LJ, or a given LJ, is seldom just one thing. Sometimes, it's your personal soapbox from which you shout your views to fandom. Sometimes, it's the place you look for advice or support from people you assume to be friendly. Sometimes, it's the small corner where you vent about something.

And it's both true and fair that you can't always expect readers to know which post is which. I would just argue that it's also both true and fair that readers should be cautious about their assumptions about which is which, and especially not assume that because something is linked from a newsletter doesn't mean it was ever intended for a wider audience.

Bakhtin was a long time ago for me :) but on the practical level of LJ posts and fannish discussion, I wish, wish, WISH more people would link to exactly what prompted their own posts. Because when someone says, "So this wank's been making the rounds on my flist" or "If I see one more person saying X" -- I often go to that person's flist and try to look for X, try to pinpoint the origin of the problem. I am aware that there's always a particular context and generalizations are problematic -- I'm curious about sources, nosy, whatever. So I'll do the work of finding out, but I really wish I didn't have to. (Plus, man, it can get time-consuming.)

And I've been trying to think of a way to discuss this issue without being offensive about it (so I'm glad you've now made this post, so I don't have to), but sometimes, when I've successfully hunted down X, it turns out X wasn't a really big deal at all. And it just got blown up into something because someone ranted about it without linking, and then people jumped on the bandwagon assuming a bigger problem than there was.

Maybe providing links to the original source wouldn't help, maybe the post stands on its own merits, maybe it'd squash discussion before it started. I just wish more people posting meta would provide that choice to their readers.

(and see, here I am, not linking or specifying the instances I'm talking about, because that would be wanky or bad form or whatever. sigh.)
[trobadora ]:
I completely agree with you - I'm having a lot of trouble forming an opinion on an issue if I can't see that issue clearly. And I can't see it clearly if all I have is one person's description of it. Like you, I often try to find the context myself, and that's not always easy. I really wish linking back weren't considered to be wanky.

Even linking doesn't always help -- this is from the other side, as someone whose post was taken up and discussed by another LJer, who did link back to me -- for *her* readers. But*I* didn't know about her post until months later (and only because someone mentioned a new LJ-search thingy, and I tried it out, ego-surfing, of course. *facepalm*)

What happened on *that* post was interesting, because while I was very careful to avoid taking a side in an argument I really dislike (slash vs. het), the other poster put words in my mouth as if I had, which incensed several people who commented on her post, one of whom said, and I quote, "I'm not going to bother reading the original post..."

Nobody from that post, including the OP, engaged with me at all. The link might as well have not been there. Sheesh.
I think it would be cool if LJ had something like the trackback ping thing in blogs making it easy to indicate you linked to something automatically. I mean, I find the unthreaded discussion interface in blogs very cumbersome, but having trackback would be nice. I kind of hoped it'd be implemented one SixApart took over LJ, what with it being originally a MoveableType thing afaik, but that hasn't happened so far.

Well, but you're assuming that what people are actually after is some kind of understanding of what the author meant, so as to foster productive engagement of some kind. I think in a lot of these instances, that's not what's going on. I know this is a contentious example, but I saw a few posts (and comment threads) in the recent race discussion that clearly were not even about trying to refute someone's argument, but rather were about finding social validation for the authors' sense that it's an imposition for them to have to think about race. (It was obvious, for instance, that some of the posters/commenters hadn't even read some of the posts in question, as they were attacking points that the posters had explicitly said they were not advancing.) Posts can serve social purposes which basic textual competence not only doesn't advance, but can actually hinder. (Imagine if the folks at fandom_wank had to actually read each post being carried on about and think carefully about what it meant in context before deciding whether the author should be insulted over it! Why, that would take much too long, and cut down on the number of targets unacceptably!) So I'm not sure how much good asking people to develop textual competence is going to do. It's often, particularly in heated disputes, not what meets their needs. (And if they didn't pick it up in their educations and haven't figured out that it's incredibly useful in life, I'm not sure that they're going to develop it for fandom purposes, either.)...

I often think that people who approach fandom participation in a primarily, predominantly, or even significantly intellectual as opposed to social mode are a tiny minority. (Not that there's anything wrong with either mode, or that one is better than the other--but when you get mismatches in expectations, you create a lot of friction...)

*lurves Bakhtin*

Wow, I remember so much lit up when I first read his stuff (in translation of course!)

Your meta makes so much sense about patterns of communication in fandom (although I think in another way, the textual nature of fannish interaction lets us see patterns that existed anyway--think of how "news" or "gossip" moves orally through a community (suddenly that sounds slightly dirty) in some major game of "telephone" with all the rumours/distortions that take place, and people reacting without knowing all the context (suddenly now thinking about the mainstream media as well).

Having spent some hours when I was home sick reading the SGA race debates/posts, and probably not even getting to all of them since I'm not in the fandom (just working from metafandom and fandom_wank), and reading all the comment threads, I was frustrated by the same patterns you're discussing above.

I like how you put emphasis on the readers' responsibility to seek out context, think, etc., not just on the writer (again, I'm a huge fan of pushing people to think about how readers make meaning, and there is no single/easy authorial intent). I like it--but I'm not going to hold my breath until they do because, well, mostly people don't.

One example that flabbergasted me (and I can track down the link if you all wish!) was in the discussion at liviapenn's journal, where a woman basically said: "I'm a barista, I'm overworked and underpaid and tired, and I just want to relax with fandom, and just because you have thousands of hours to analyze all the racism in fandom, you're finding all this stuff and ruining it for me." I read the comment as assuming LP was an academic (something about wasting all those hours analyzing stuff!, which may be my own bias!). But as she replied to the comment, that accusation is not true (she works temp jobs). That was part of the classism element of the wank, but somehow the immediate accusation of it (from someone who clearly did not know her at all) took me back--and yet the grounds for her complaint could not be addressed by any rhetoric I could think of (what, she should note "I work temp jobs and don't make a huge amount of money" on her meta posts????).

B/c LJ is incredibly bad at letting us see the entire picture or even having a *shared* picture, since our readings and experiences tend to be isolated (i.e., every individual flist looks different). [And in a way, newsletters even as they intrude and alter the place on the public/private continuum also offer a kind of cultural communal literacy of joint reference points which is helpful.]

The other thing I've been thinking about a lot is asynchronous conversation. In a recent small community we were debating various things in various posts and threads, and two of us were getting comments to all the posts emailed whereas our third co-writer didn't and went back and read the posts and comment threads. What I realized was that the two of us had ended up crossreferencing all over the place, in a way having another conversation than the one that later appeared in the comment threads that the third writer saw...

I think the same happens when you post IM threads...taking away the performative context...and before I reiterate my ephermeral trace thesis yet again I let you go :)

Great essay!!! And really something we haven't talked about nearly enough!!!!

You said exactly what I've been thinking a lot about lately in exactly the way I would've liked to've said it. Though I'm mostly compelled to respond to wonder if one says metafandom probably won't link, whether it thereby becomes more likely metafandom will indeed link.

Anyway, as you point out, it happens often enough that something you never really thought of going beyond your own circle gets linked. And besides the fact that it doesn't occur to us to head every post with a disclaimer stating our desired response, I think with most such posts we don't know what our desired response is. We're just throwing Something out there, and because we're interested in our circle of friends/fans/acquaintances/flist/etc, we're interested in what the circle does with our Something.

And even if one does decide how one wants people to respond, I think it happens often enough that the response one thinks one wants might not be what one actually wants at all. Even on posts constructed specifically in view of getting linked on metafandom or being read outside the flist, such as this one--sometimes we think we want a good strong discussion complete with disagreements, etc, and find later we actually only wanted praise. The opposite also happens, has happened to me frequently, in fact.

And lastly, even the context of the statement of your context can be misconstrued. Even if you say, "hey, I don't want you to disagree with me right now" can come off as "I'm a narrow-minded bastard who doesn't care about your opinion" rather than someone coming out of a discussion in which their Cheerios got pissed on, or whatever.

And lastly, even the context of the statement of your context can be misconstrued. Even if you say, "hey, I don't want you to disagree with me right now" can come off as "I'm a narrow-minded bastard who doesn't care about your opinion" rather than someone coming out of a discussion in which their Cheerios got pissed on, or whatever.

That's really exactly why I find the, "Well, just tell people what kind of response you want!" to be a bit overly simplistic, partly because sometimes you just can't anticipate the problematic response, and partly because your statement can then be miscontrued in so many ways.
[zyna kat]:

Thank you! That was brilliant.

I wonder how this will all change, as people become more accustomed to the public, semi-public, and "private" spaces on the net and LJ.
*nods* It will be interesting to see if this situation improves as people get adjusted, or disintegrates as things get more and more fragmented. I dunno - just today I ran across someone actually saying, "I'm just replying because I can," so I'm in cynnical mode.