October 3, 2002, Episode Twenty: One Big Conversation
The Cluetrain Manifesto has been touted as the website/book to read if you want to understand the particular nature of the Internet. Their website has such diverse adherents as AARP and Arthur Andersen. If you wanted to print out the site's list of those who have signed the manifesto, it would take over 250 pages. This week we discuss Cluetrain Manifesto's assertion that the Internet is a global conversation.
If the Internet is a conversation, being able to hear the talk makes the conversation seem more honest and human. Internet Radio is expanding rapidly, with new hobbyists and professionals showing up every day. But although the audio technology getting cheaper and more readily available has led to an expansion, Internet radio has been around for a long while, especially in computer-world time. We discussed the ins and outs of running an Internet radio station with Vancouver T-jays (talk jockeys) Sean Kennedy and James O'Brien of Rant Radio.
Like playgrounds in meatspace, cyberspace playgrounds can be both exhilarating and cruel. We discuss our feelings about cyberspace after 10 years on the Internet each. Can the Internet be one big conversation that requires one simply to sit at the table and talk? Or has it become a place where the popular kids think of nothing but showing how stylish they can be while the "alternative people" display their disdain for the popular kids only in a prepackaged way? We don't solve the question, but we have fun contemplating it.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, an analysis of the nature of the Internet with an eye to how successful businesses can be conducted in cyberspace, begins,
Quote, People of Earth … A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter - and getting smarter faster than most companies. These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny, and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked, close quote.
Predictions about the future of the Internet abound. Claims range from "less and less people to people connection will happen on the Internet and it will become a world wide web of appliances talking to each other, for example, smart refrigerators e-mailing repair shops when they need more freon" to "someday our very brains will be wired into the net and instant person to person communication to anywhere on the globe will be possible." As e-commerce companies have seen their stocks plummet after the heyday of the late 1990s, many news services have discussed the supposed demise of the Internet. In spite of the fact that it doesn't appear to be a get-rich-quick avenue, the Internet continues to be part of many people's everyday lives and the number of people with access and interest is definitely growing.
But is it one big conversation? Certainly, it has traditionally been a text-based world and communication is at the cornerstone of this text. The term "global conversation" suggests a kind of unity that might be misleading. Conversation implies exchange. It doesn't take long to see that exchanges happen on the Internet - talk in chat rooms, talk via e-mail, talk posted on bulletin boards, talk on web logs and on-line diaries, talk in newsgroups, talk on instant messaging services and, increasingly, these exchanges are audio and video based, rather than simply text based. In her book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, linguist Deborah Tannen distinguished between "report talk" and "rapport talk." Report talk occurs in public and is more akin to public speaking than to conversation, as speakers provide information about themselves without providing personal or private information. "Rapport talk" is more private and revealing, requiring a certain level of trust. Both report talk and rapport talk exist on the Internet. In fact, it is quite surprising at times how truly revealing the conversation gets in what is essentially a huge public space.
The French historical philosopher, Michel Foucault observed that making a public confession has become an inherent part of western culture. We are quite comfortable with both demanding and providing confessions in a number of social situations.
Quote, the confession became one of the West's most highly valued techniques for producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide. It plays a part in justice, medicine, education, family relationships, and love relations, in the most ordinary affairs of everyday life, and in the most solemn rites; one confesses one's crimes, one's sins, one's thoughts and desires, one's illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. One confesses in public and in private, to one's parents, one's educators, one's doctor, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to anyone else, the things people write books about. One confesses-or is forced to confess. … Western man has become a confessing animal, close quote.
But confession is not necessarily what one might think of as conversation. The power relationship between the confessor and the listener is not always reciprocal. Either the listener is more powerful than the confessor, demanding the confession and providing the means of absolution upon hearing the confession as in religious, medical and legal settings, or the listener is less powerful than the confessor, often simply a passive vessel through which the message of the confession passes, such as the reader of a public diary, who may offer comment but generally is restricted to the topic chosen by the confessor and is meant to provide the supportive role of listening rather than that of an equal exchange. A better balance can be seen in Tannen's discussion of gossip and lamenting in talk between women. Specifically, she discusses rituals involving grieving:
Quote, when the Greek women gather to share laments, each one's expression of grief reminds the others of their own suffering, and they intensify each other's feelings. Indeed both Caraveli and anthropologist Joel Kuipers, who has studied a similar lament tradition in Bali, note that women judge each other's skill in this folk art by their ability to move others, to involve them in the experience of grieving. Expressing the pain they feel in losing loved ones bonds the women to each other, and their bonding is a salve against the wound of loss, close quote.
Tannen drew a parallel between these folk rituals and the way in which North American and other European women employ "troubles" talk. This ritual strikes an interesting contrast to Foucault's confessing animal. Confession involves a top-down power relationship, which devalues the personal experience of the confessor by subjecting it to the gaze of philosophy, medicine, or religion or devalues the personal experience of the listener by subjugating it to the agenda of the confessor. The purpose of telling the story is to remove it from the self and to find a rationalizing influence over the baser aspects of experience. Lamenting involves a shared power relationship, which values personal experience, while making it central to social experience. The purpose of telling the story is to connect to others and to encourage them to connect to their own feelings of loss. In confession, the narrator finds absolution. In lamentation, the narrator finds community. Both confessions and lamentations occur on the Net and are a large part of the cyberexperience for many users. Both of these experiences on the Internet support the Cluetrain Manifesto's position that the Internet is a global conversation-that the basic building block of the Internet is conversation. But to suggest that such conversations constitute the major use of the Internet is belied by the fact that the top 50 websites in terms of page visits are not conversational at all. They are much more oriented to performance. They are not confessional performances, but rather advertisements for the very things that one finds in other media. The mass media are not meant to be exchanges or conversations. They are meant to sell actively to a passive audience. There is an illusion of choice and interactivity, but it is a multiple-choice test with the options limited to those things that promote the sale.
The Cluetrain Manifesto is suggesting that this kind of mass media will ultimately fail on the Internet because of the perceived smartness of the market, but one wonders if the masses aren't already so familiar with the ritual of this kind of passive acceptance of information that they will not even think to resist it. However, critiques of mass media and attempts at providing alternatives are growing. "Independent" is a term used to denote something other than materials other than those generated by a core of four or five media companies that control a great deal of content on the net. Those who create such material are called "independents." Independents are not only becoming more plentiful on the Internet, they are beginning to find ways to find each other and support each other. Many see hope for a global conversation emerging in these independents. The development of audio and visual technologies that are cheaper and more readily accessible is supporting these independent efforts. Internet radio, for example, has exploded with thousands of hobbyists worldwide who provide some sort of programming, often spoken word and often interactive in some form. But this growth is not unfettered. Governments, with pressure from these core companies, are struggling to control content through royalty payments and levies. Questions of intellectual property have become complicated and murky. Certainly, things are not settled down and it remains to be seen what the Internet of the future will be. This week, we spoke with Vancouver T-jays, Sean Kennedy and James O'Brien about the ins and outs of running their Internet radio station, called Rant Radio, as we explore whether the Internet is one big conversation.
copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002
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