Some communication principles for an e-salon
There are going to be a thousand diverse ways to run a worthwhile blog on a controversial topic. As long as the blog community is willing to try things out, reflect on their experiences and then enforce their own standards through modeling and (civil) correction, I think they’re likely to come up a with their own workable practices.
Still, it’s not like the online world is completely separate from the world of face-to-face communication, and the blogosphere can draw from communication skills already well-developed and understood in “meat-space” contexts. I’ve done a series of posts, for example, on how debate can work online (here and here).
Similarly, in a very interesting post, Judith Curry has identified her objective on her own blog as translating an old communication activity into a new setting:
I am striving for something different, sort of an e-salon where we discuss interesting topics at the knowledge frontier.
Three hundred plus years ago, another prominent woman wrote extensively about salon communication; let’s see what we can learn from her.
Madeleine de Scudéry is often credited with organizing one of the first salons, bringing together men and women across at least some class boundaries to share a pleasant conversation of the topics of the day. Her novels centered around long conversational set-pieces, which she also collected and extended in multiple volumes of Conversations. These works not only provided models for salon wannabes; some of the Conversations conversations were about conversation, and can serve as instructional manuals of a sort.
Warning: I am no Scudéry expert. Students in an overview of rhetorical theory class persuaded me that she was worth teaching, so I did. Take the following only as what I learned from reading a bit of Scudéry, largely with an eye towards contemporary theory and applications.
Being mixed up
There is one thing that all the characters in Scudery’s dialogues agree on: Conversations must include both men and women. All-female and all-male conversations are deadly dull. Difference drives interest–but only if it repressed. Sex is thus a constant subtext in every conversation. Never openly discussed, nor even often openly acknowledged (flirting would be self-indulgent), but adding a bit of spice or tension to the talk about other topics.
Maybe policy/ideological/etc. differences should be treated in the same way in the e-salon? No humping on the tea-table, but still everyone is looking each other over out of the corners of their eyes?
The primary aim of conversationalists should be to keep the conversation going in a way that’s enjoyable to all. This requires some suppression of individuality: no long lectures on one’s own children or merchant ventures; no insistence on one’s own views of some novel. At the same time, everyone has to have a unique perspective to contribute to move the conversation forward. And Bizell & Herzberg (The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd Ed.) provide a nice summary of where conversations are supposed to end up:
Harmony among conflicting viewpoints, not the victory of one of them, should be the ultimate goal (and the topics discussed in Scudéry’s conversations are usually left unresolved for that reason).
Note that “harmony,” unlike “consensus” requires diversity. We do in fact have to live with irresolution in the blogosphere. But can we come to like it?
One can’t openly “win” a conversation without breaking it. But there is still plenty of room for competitive self-display, in the manner one expresses one’s points. Getting the right word (we still stay it in French–le mot juste); constructing prose that is clear, flexible and maybe even a bit fancy; managing interpersonal relations in a subtle way: the conversationalist can win on style points where outright victory is denied.
Achieving this on the spur of the moment in the course of conversation was a high art; it had to look mannered, but not labored.
Now this would certainly be a nice thing to see more of in the blogosphere!