Thursday, March 6, 2008

Response 3: Mapping Conversations

Sketching Conversation

Write a short essay about what elements Bonvillain discusses apply to online interaction and which do not.

While I was reading Bonvillain, it occurred to be that people who write fiction well are masters of reading and recreating communicative interactions. Believable dialog in fictions tells us more about that person speaking than what they thought they were conveying. A character's ability to take turns, use repair mechanisms, defer to authority appropriately, allow other to save face, and navigate other structural properties of conversation tells us as much about a them as anything else the author may more overtly signal.

Online, we all take the role of authoring our own dialog. Often, we mimic communication interactions from in-person interaction. This is why, in a text message, we are likely employ ritualized exit strategies such as those Bonvillain describes on page 106 and why we often vary the speed of text messaging to create a comfortable conversational rhythm.

One thing not often seen online is repetition to signal participation and familiarity, although you will often see poster on message board "quote" previous posts. This is mostly for clarity. Clarity is often an issue in off-line communications. We must often be overly polite and face-saving when giving directives in e-mail in order to avoid appear brusque.

Online, there are different norms across communities, but whether they are posting or Macrochan or Metafilter, a user is likely to scolded (obscenely or snarkily as the case may be) if they violate the conversational postulates of the community. In many settings, the postulates of quantity, quality, relation, and manner apply. Online, relevance is especially important.

Although Macrochan and other image boards would hardly be considered "polite" spaces, they function largely on issues of face, both in the desire to be approved of my the community. They are deeply aware of what constitutes FTAs in the "real world" and many of the jokes are dependent on understanding a complex series of iterations based on FTAs.

If we violate the norms of the community we are participating in, we, as Bonvillain describes, signal or acknowledge these deviations. "Sorry to hijack this thread," we write. And, like the Malagasies Bonvillain describes who are reluctant to give information lest it leads to consequences, we are very explicit the limits of our knowledge, "IANAL," we write, "but..."

Draw an abstract representation of an observed conversation

Recently, I had an opportunity to engage in and observe conversation among strangers on a bus. With my eyes closed, in the dark, in sinus medicined haze, I could hear different voices. Sometimes it was easy to determine that people were talking on their cell phones, or to their neighbor. It was usually possible to determine, using some of the cues Bonvillain describes. Sometimes only only conversant would be audible.

Sometimes it was possible to determine where in the bus people were sitting, but sometimes the voices seemed completely disembodied. The disembodied voices behind me felt like sparkling stars, each glowing in the darkness behind me.

The voices popped up like a whack-a-mole that moved at typically slow but varied pace. Some moles were constantly popping up (people using their cell phones to talk the entire bus ride). Some would pop up every 20 minutes or so, accompanied by a neighbor, then disappear.

I wrote down a short conversation that I heard on the bus as an example. In this sketch, the conversation is represented on a black background to signify the feeling of disembodiment that I, as the observer, experienced, in part because I could not see the speakers. The speakers may also felt something similar, as they were strangers sitting side-by-side (in the row behind me) in the dark, only able to partially turn towards each other.

Each snippet of dialog is encased in a square filled with stars, which points to the modular nature of each remark. The vertical axis represents time. The horizontal axis represents invasiveness and cooperation. Conversations in the middle of the sketch are neutral and participated in equally by both parties. When one party seemed to want to end the conversation, their dialog retreats to their respective sides.

First Part
Second Part

Draw an abstract representation of an observed online conversation

There are at least 11 participants in the conversation, but only 6 make more than one utterance. The thread has 33 posts but 567 views, so we can infer that there are some people reading and not participating.

Sketch 1

The original poster asks a question, gives context to that question, and offers alternative solutions. The purpose of the main conversation is to answer that question and give commentary about the context and the alternative answers. There are multiple conversations going on, with one central disagreement emerging. The follow sketch show the topics being discussed in each post, with the main participants involved in the disagreement identified. Red lines signify disagreements, black lines agreement.

Sketch 2

The focus of the conversation shifts over time. An off-topic conversation become dominant for a bit, before another, slightly less off-topic conversation takes over, this one involving the original poster, and the thread peters out. The final off-topic conversation serves as what Bonvillain calls an "exit technique", as the community seems to have little more to offer to offer the original poster. It is also a face-saving strategy to close with an off-topic conversation related to the original poster. This sketch shows the evolution of content.

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