Keeping afloat in group conversations

A disposition for online communities


I came across this tweet by Laura Deming the other day:—

Problem I have in group conversations:

1) don't understand a key concept
2) feel like it would 'hijack' the conversation to chase it down
3) pause all information intake until resolved.

I relate. Whenever confronted with something I don’t know—or whenever I encounter something complex (like a group conversation already at play)—my instinct is to skulk on the sidelines and get a sense of things first. If this were happening in person, I might sometimes adopt a sage countenance, alternating between furrowed and raised brows whilst moderating the pitch of my ‘hmm’s, the pace of my nods and the tilt of my head—all the while thinking ‘I have no fucking idea what they are talking about’.

If I do this for long enough, I can usually weave together enough connections between weak signals to form a +proto-synthesis—so much so that I might sally forth with a soft question or two. If they clam up or respond in a standoffish, brisk or cold manner, I will simply shrug and withdraw (maybe with a pfft)—but most often people respond well to curiosity and interest, and hence before long I would find myself in the conversational flow.

However, if this is happening in a group conversation online—like in a web forum or group chat thread—it can sometimes feel both impossible to catch up (despite being able to ‘search’ the archives) or to interject so as to understand what’s going on (lest you disrupt the flow at play).

Pausing all information intake and withdrawing is a legitimate strategy—you don’t have to participate. In fact1 these online forums and group discussions can swiftly become an attention-vortex, if you aren’t careful. Best to keep your wits about you.2

And yet, I would also suggest there’s another way. And this way comes more down to how we relate to the flow of information.3

A conversation is a river

Not a lake, pond or reservoir—a flowing river. You can admire its flow from afar, but the only way to participate is to jump in.

But just like a jumping into an actual river: it’s worth taking a moment to sense where is best to jump in.4 Some slopes are slippery, and you mightn’t want to dive headfirst because, well: rocks and stuff.5

As a principle: accept you mightn’t understand key concepts. But also know that two thirds of the participants probably don’t really understand it either. A clarifying question is a welcome form of renewal in how we relate to the concepts we might otherwise take for granted. Sure, they might be written about somewhere—but written words are the ghost remnants of past thoughts. Conversations are the living embodiment of knowledge.

We tend to venerate The Written Word in western culture. As a writer and wizard, I am of course a lover of books and words. And yet: I hold knowledge, gnosis, meaningness, mostly-truthfulness, worldview-attunement and sense-making coherence in yet higher regard. This means intentionally engaging in more participatory forms of knowing—even if the relatively introverted parts of me would rather not.

Somewhere between ‘printed’ and ‘spoken’

Tyson Yunkaporta—author of the brilliant Sand Talk—makes important distinctions between print-based literacy and oral traditions, suggesting we oughtn’t put all our ‘cognitive eggs in one basket’.

“The only sustainable way to store data long-term is within relationships—deep connections between generations of people in custodial relation to a sentient landscape, all grounded in a vibrant oral tradition. This doesn’t need to replace print, but it can supplement it magnificently—those two systems might back each other up rather than merely coexist.”

I relate to online group conversations as somewhere between the more amber-cast forms of knowledge found in print publications, and the more fluid forms of knowledge found in ongoing in-person dialogue. There’s time to be considered in our dialogue, and for conversations to manifest relatively asynchronously. There’s a record of what’s-been-said, sure—but the implicit casualness of an online group conversation ought allow for participants to feel as though they can, to a degree, +think-in-draft together (without past words being weaponised agains them). We don’t relate to a chat thread as published print.

This is particularly true for any +cozyweb communities, and the generative spirit in which we relate. As soon as this is threatened, the generative scenius can collapse—and it may take a good while to rebuild. Hence the best group conversations are co-participative in nature: each participant shares in the playful responsibilities of stewardship.6

Ebbs and flows

Online group conversations can easily become a vortex—a whirlpool of wonder and belongingness laced with occasional vexation. Knowing when to surface is key.

For me—beyond the obvious such as limiting screen time in the balance of other activities through the days—this comes down to paying attention to my breath, and having a mindfulness of knowing when my +allergies are triggered. For me, shallow breathing is an early indicator that I may be experiencing a kind of anxiety.7 And because anxiety tends to shut down optionality—limiting perspicacity, empathy and wit—it often pays to notice the signs early. And to then pause, breathe, and allow yourself some humorous distance.

Then—rather than succumbing to the allure of playing the game of “who’s right”—I take a break so as to return and play the more infinite game of making life wonderful.8 A lot of this comes down to a deeper question of asking ourselves what out ‘unmet needs’ might be—and the options we have to go about meeting them.

I am no expert at this—and I tend to get caught off-guard when I am feeling tired or fatigued. Everything is everything—ergo your sense of physiological wellbeing will directly influence you sense of social wellbeing (and vice-versa). And yet something else to remember is: group conversations are still a dance. What applies to you and I applies to all of us. Any faux pas, missteps and misunderstandings can be swiftly remedied, so long as the more bristly hedgehogs and trolls are encouraged to interact with curiosity and kindness.

Like being a good dinner party guest, as a participant of a group conversation it is in part your responsibility to serve as a custodian for the conversation. This means looking after yourself (sometimes: by withdrawing) and looking after the generative dynamics at play. If others are at least semi-mindful of this too then, well—what once may have felt like effort may feel more like flow.

  1. Speaking as seneschal to the mythical Coterie of the Fox; a +cozyweb haven-salon for complexity practitioners and philosopher-poets. 

  2. Whilst also practicing the necessity of missing out, or ‘#nomo’ as Jenny Odell describes it

  3. At this stage, I am deviating from Laura Deming’s tweet—that was more the spur for this piece. I say this so that you don’t suspect me of hero-mansplaining. More like… I overheard this snippet and it made me think. Here’s what I thunk. 

  4. Code for: have a little search for understanding first. 

  5. Ergo: over-confidence and fallacious reasoning might hurt you. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Let your curiosity eclipse any conviction. 

  6. Much as with the spirit of improvisation and infinite play

  7. Buster Benson offers some very practical and nuanced perspective on this in his brilliant book Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement, treating anxiety as a signpost that points to something that our intuition believes is important and under threat. 

  8. To paraphrase Marshall Rosenberg, pioneer of non-violent communication.