Dialogue in the Blogosphere

One of the great things about blogs is that they can bring many people into the conversation. When I first encountered blogs a few years ago, I thought “What good are these? So many people talking about nothing.” But that is a misconception of the utility of the blog. Although there are many fine blogs that rival the most professional news organizations, the majority of blogs serve a different societal benefit—which is to enable more voices to be heard in the public sphere, whether or not those voices are “professional” or “objective.”

For many years, the International Systems Institute held and annual conference in Northern California, the Asilomar Conversation Conference, where practitioners spent five days in deep dialogue on various topics. Sitting around wood fire, or walking along the Pacific Ocean, we discussed a wide range of social change topics. Sometimes the conversation meandered. Sometimes it became divisive. People got frustrated and occasionally there was anger. But, most of the time, we got to know each other well and learned. Very often, there would be in a moment in the conversation where the struggle to understand each other would coalesce into a powerful group insight. We used to call it the group transformative moment.

This group transformative moment seemed to be a group Aha! moment that disrupted previous conceptions, replacing them with a new mental model. In a sense, this learning was a sort of personal growth, where one’s outlook on the world was shifted. Moreover, those who experienced it felt a connection to each other aftward, for years afteward. 

We found, during those conversations, that reaching a better outcome, both in terms of the quality and productivity of the work done, had a lot to do with the conversational process, or dialogue. Of course face-to-face dialogue has its own unique aspects that change how people communicate with each other and what non verbal signals are used in that communication. However, the increasing pervasiveness of video, audio, and text communication introduces an arena that may also benefit from a dialogic approach, albeit one that is adapted to the particular features of technology mediated communication.

Clearly, there is a shift away from a condition where a relatively few voices (ie., major television and radio networks) engage in one-way, broadcast communications. Now, almost anybody with a little bit of technology can “speak.” The problem we have now is that everybody is speaking— there is a cacaphony of voices all communicating at once. Still, as bloggers and others interact, posting and linking to each other, they are engaging in an online form of dialogue. Not only is information being created, but this communication is an interactive process that creates knowledge among the comunity of dialogers. How much insight and knowledge is captured depends on the quality of dialogue that occurs, so, for a truly high quality, technology mediated dialogue in the public cybersphere, we have to continue to encourage the appropriate equivalent of dialogue.

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