The Murky Waters of Participation & Politeness

In reaction to David Lee King’s recent blog post Inviting Participation in Web 2.0, I have been pondering the concept of participation, ways to encourage it and questioning how much participation we can really expect. What exactly are we looking for in terms of participation – not just in the library 2.0 world, but also within the the library blogging community? Are we looking for participation on the scale of Wikipedia, LibraryThing or something much smaller? Can we expect things from patrons that we don’t give? While thinking about participation and what it means, I read Mark Lindner’s A rant and some hopes for the Carnival of the Infosciences. The post is really an entreaty to LIS bloggers to participate in the carnival lest it be disbanded due to lack of participation.

After reading this post, I started dissecting my own tendency not to participate in things. I seriously have enjoyed the Carnival and have found many new blogs (and blog posts) as a result of it. Yet, I’ve never submitted a post to the Carnival. A large part of this is my natural tendency to not participate in something unless specifically invited to do so. I also have a tendency to think that something that I enjoyed is probably meaningless to others (don’t even get me started on my bizarre belief that if people don’t talk to me, I shouldn’t talk to them - being shy can be a real hurdle sometimes). Participation can be a tricky thing – and we are naturally inclined to participate in somethings more than others. Getting people to participate isn’t easy – and I tend to think that it probably fails more often than it succeeds.

After trying to sort out my own tendency to not participate, I came across some interesting blog posts ostensibly about language, its use and the need for people in the library profession to have stronger voices, opinions, etc. These posts (Rochelle Hartman’s Politeness? Overrated., Steve Lawson’s Drama vs. criticism and Walt Crawford’s I respectfully disagree) are interesting reading – and I enjoyed all of them tremendously. Rochelle Hartman writes that “. . . we, as a profession, are too damn polite.” All of the comments on this post are worth a read also. Steve Lawson discusses the politeness issue in relation to commenting on other people’s blogs vs. writing one’s own post. Walt Crawford then discusses the comment issue in a bit more depth. What does all this have to do with participation, you ask? I will admit to taking some of the thoughts presented in these posts out of context a bit – since they aren’t really discussing participation. I thought that their commentary shed some light on some of my own issues surrounding participation.

One of the other big reasons that I don’t often participate in online communities is because I find that there is often a great deal of impolite behavior when there is a disagreement. Listservs tend to be particularly prone to flaming, name calling and disrespectful behavior. I have sent a couple of participatory emails to some listservs – and felt as if the responses were not particularly collegial. I won’t participate again in those venues. I will answer specific questions if I can, but will stay out of debates because I am very bothered by the lack of civility that some people show. Additionally, I’m always amazed when people comment on other people’s blogs to criticize a point the author made, but end up being rude and caustic (admittedly, the comments aren’t always intended to come across that way). This discourages participation for many people. Hence, I find it strange to think that politeness is overrated. I do not believe that one can’t strongly disagree with someone’s point – and still be polite and respectful. I like the way that Walt Crawford put it - “. . . we need to be willing to state criticisms and different ideas–ideally, by criticizing the statement rather than the person making the statement. And that, once in a while, we may need to be less polite about the whole thing.” I would argue that at times we may need to make a stronger argument and stick up for ourselves and our opinions more, but not necessarily be “less polite.” Personally, I think that politeness and respect are important ways to encourage participation (as is disagreement and open discussion) – and can’t be overrated. If we can’t be polite amongst ourselves, how can we be polite to our customers?

As always, when I have trouble sorting out something (or have questions about an issue), I tend to look at myself and the way in which I deal with it. I’m particularly sensitive to the issue of participation because it is one of the areas in which I really ought to be better. But, it is also an area that can be difficult to assess success or failure. You can’t force people to participate in something – you can only lay decent ground work that encourages people to join in. Even if this is achieved, some may join in, but some may not. I’m also particularly sensitive to language (as I think I’ve mentioned before on several occasions) and underlying and unexpressed meanings. This makes it difficult for me to like the “always in beta” argument or to encourage people being less polite. The bottom line is that politeness makes me feel welcome – and makes me more apt to participate in things.

Overall, these are some really muddled thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain over the past week – seemingly influenced by all sorts of unrelated events, blog posts and sleepless nights. I seriously thought about deleting it until I read Meredith Farkas’ Keeping it real post this morning. Blogging, for me, is part of how I work through my thoughts to develop ideas and ways of dealing with real world issues. And this particular post is definitely part of the the evolution of my thoughts about the subject of participation in libraries.

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5 Responses to The Murky Waters of Participation & Politeness

  1. And now you’ve added another well-thought-out dimension to what’s become a really interesting discussion–one that’s taking place primarily within linked posts. And you have, to some extent, disagreed with others without being disagreeable: Hard to argue with that.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Walt, it really is a fascinating discussion. I can only imagine how boring life would be if everyone thought the same way!

  3. [...] next submission is also self reflective. In her post, The Murky Waters of Participation & Politeness, Jennifer at “Life as I Know It”, reflects on David Lee King’s post Inviting [...]

  4. M. Polutta says:

    You have actually echoed some of my own thoughts about this exchange that took place. I think that the whole discussion was muddling two distinct ideas: politeness and the ability to criticize effectively. Courtesy always has a place. Debates can take place and still be perfectly polite. But the overwhelming niceness that these bloggers were referring to is something I have encountered before, and it gets in the way of real, constructive criticism. The old adage, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” is well and good for most situations, but there are times when not offering valid criticisms is actually hurtful. A proper balance must be maintained, and I do agree that the comments of these bloggers was pointing out an imbalance in our niceness ratio. But that does NOT mean we shouldn’t be polite in our dealings with those we criticize.

    Of course, that has nothing all to say to your participation comments, with which I empathize. I, also, am shy.

  5. Jennifer says:

    A proper balance must definitely be maintained. I think what is interesting is that I don’t tend to notice the overwhelming niceness. It doesn’t stand out, so I don’t remember it. Therefore, I don’t notice whether it is pervasive or not. Of course, just one really impolite exchange stands out in my mind as painful – and makes me recoil from the discussion. Again, much of it comes down to how people use language. To me, politeness is a positive thing – while others may think of it as a negative.

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