I’ve been studying and working in electronic environments since 1980, when our poor county high school owned a “slave” computer to the one at the “rich” city school in town (they had a swimming pool!), and we were writing computer programs in BASIC to make ourselves hall passes to get out of class.
I combined this interest with psychology and rhetoric and studies of public space to become something truly unique: a consultant for online writing environments who has studied literally the best examples of every generation of them. From text messaging to Facebook, I worried over the growing dependence on these technologies, even as I encouraged their use by students in critical ways. My M.A. thesis, “Why Argument Doesn’t Work Online,” studied the early use of professional academic email lists, where distinguished intellectuals, skilled in the arts of publishing and rhetoric, abandoned logic and good will in favor of name-calling and emotional appeals in these strange new spaces.
I love social networking spaces and the opportunities they provide for people to connect with others, expressing their opinions, their talents, or even their naked body pictures, but these spaces must be carefully understood, particularly by those who have anything to lose by long-term effects from actions taken too quickly. I use the theories of Erving Goffman, who studied how people could regain what he called “face” after being through some horrifyingly public embarrassment, like prison or community shame.
We have to remember that there are people who have been through much worse ordeals than being unfriended by many people at once, and if any one of us are one of “those” people, then we have more to gain by confronting and explaining those things ourselves than we have by hiding in a corner, hoping they go away, or Google forgets our name. We gain a lot by becoming braver in the online environments that we already use. And we get braver when we understand the environments and their potentials for good as well as evil.
These days, I work with people free of charge in Second Life during regular hours, or with private or group consultations charged by the hour, in Second Life or Skype or email. We work on any writing project, from their online profiles, and how to respond to negative comments, to fixing up resumes and school applications.