Fragmentation of online conversation

Commentary, sight, side-play….

This pulled from an old draft of some definitions I was working on several years ago. I go back to old writings now and then to make sure I’m not in fact thinking in circles.

Commentary is a form of side play. It frequently involves the kinds of side play that serves as commentary on the exchange at hand. In some cases, however, it comes as if from nowhere. Commentary may be directed to events or news completely extrinsic to an ongoing exchange, or may even be designed not as sideplay to an existing exchange but as the beginning of an exchange. Commentary by its nature offers a face-saving option to recipients of the comment. They can choose to either acknowledge it or ignore it. In principle, the speaker is not emotionally invested in either outcome. For this reason commentary has the character of play. It’s not serious in nature and is not to be taken seriously. This makes it free of any obligation on the recipient to reciprocate.

“For example, the terms ‘speaker’ and ‘hearer’ imply that sound alone is at issue, when, in fact, it is obvious that sight is organizationally very significant too, sometimes even touch. In the management of turn-taking, in the assessment of reception through visual back-channel cues, in the paralinguistic function of gesticulation, in the synchrony of gaze shift, in the provision of evidence of attention (as in the middle-distance look), in the assessment of engrossment through evidence of side-involvement and facial expression—in all of these ways it is apparent that sight is crucial, both for the speaker and for the hearer. For the effective conduct of talk, speaker and hearer had best be in a position to watch each other.” Erving Goffman (Forms of Talk, 130)

Blogging’s popularity now makes the distinction between direct and indirect discourse even more relevant than it was then. Comments on blogs, responses to those comments, the use of trackbacks and sites like co.mments.com… these are all attempt to thread together fragmented and decentered posts, comments, links, responses, and references (quotes). The nature of conversation itself changes when turns are not only skipped but discarded whatsoever. When it’s impossible to tell whether a post is directed to anybody. When all is said, as if it’s said “at” people and not “to” them. Conversation becomes a form of talk in which the participants are not concerned in reproducing their relationships at the same time, in the act of talking. A form of talk that has more in common with the wikification of knowledge and messaging, gathering and aggregating what’s been said, but void of those who say it having anything to do with one another. A form of talk that’s mobile, profoundly mobile.

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