On Words, Meaning and Context
Do you own your words?
I don’t mean “Do the words you write belong to you?” That has an easy answer in these times of automatic copyright—yes, they do, just as soon as you save them to your hard disk or the cloud.
I mean: Do you stand behind what you say—or do you start doing a moonwalk when someone disagrees with you? Or do you find that others do the moonwalk on your behalf, with various forms such as “what X really meant to say was…”?
Three years ago I published “On Disagreement and Discussion” (C&I 7:9, August 2007). I was disagreeing with a librarian/writer who said (or was interpreted as saying) librarians didn’t do a very good job of disagreeing with one another, forthright discussions on serious issues were somewhat lacking, liblogs in particular tended toward me-tooism. I thought the field—and specifically the gray literature of blogs and their cousins—was good at forthright discussion and disagreement.
I didn’t name the librarian/writer in the preceding paragraph (you can read the original essay) because his name, and whether he said those things and still believes them, isn’t relevant to this Perspective. I mention it only because there are times I wonder about our ability to discuss and disagree clearly and meaningfully—in short, whether I was right in 2007. I wonder about that ability when I find people failing to own their words or telling me why other people should not be expected to own their words.
You have something to say. English provides a staggeringly complex set of possible ways to say it. You choose one or more of them, depending on your mood, the medium you’re using, your skill with the language and other factors.
Did you say what you meant? Are there meanings in the set of words you used that you didn’t intend? Or did you fail to say what you meant, hoping readers would intuit your meaning from the words you used?
That’s a set of difficult questions. I suspect few of us consistently succeed in saying exactly what we intend to say, exactly what we mean—and even if we do, chances are some readers will pick up different meanings from what we intended.
There’s another set of issues that boils down to context. You don’t write in a vacuum. Some contextual aspects:
Personal context: Your own history as a writer and person. If I write “ebooks are clearly the dominant future of reading,” it will have considerably different (startlingly different) contextual significance than if David “Teleread” Rothman writes the same statement.
Temporal context: The history of the conversation you’re part of and how it relates to what else is happening at the time. A statement that “BP is one of the more ecologically sensitive energy companies” has considerably different contextual significance in June 2010 than it would in, say, June 2009. (No, I won’t replace your keyboard; spit takes are your problem!)
Medial context: The nature of the medium you’re using for the statement. I discuss this further a little later, but I believe most readers will interpret a set of words differently if they appear as a tweet, a comment in a FriendFeed thread, a Facebook status message, a comment on someone else’s blog post, an original blog post, a column in an online or print periodical—or a formal article or book.
Social context: The nature of the conversation (or other exchange) in which this statement appears. This is related to temporal and medial context, but isn’t quite the same.
Direct context: The classic contextual issue—the larger set of words surrounding a subset of words. “Out of context” usually refers to direct context issues. As a truly blatant example, if someone reads this article and says “Walt Crawford writes that ebooks are clearly the dominant future of reading,” they’re deliberately quoting out of context in a way that distorts what I wrote. Most direct context issues are more subtle and controversial.
I suspect there are more, but let’s leave it at five. Context adds meaning to content, and there’s always danger when interpreting content outside of context. I sometimes think calls for “charitable reading” are partly calls to respect context, but I also think they can go too far. It’s nearly impossible to preserve all contextual aspects of a statement when discussing that statement; calls to do so are, in effect, calls to avoid discussing statements. (If I can’t quote or comment on a sentence or paragraph at a later time without quoting the entire piece, and without using the same medium, the game is over.)
What I’ll call fair reading and discussion should include contextual flags as appropriate. If I sometimes fail to do that, I apologize. So, for example, if you’re quoting somebody directly or paraphrasing what they said, it’s reasonable to indicate the date they said it (and in some cases the significance of that date) and the medium used. I’m not sure it’s the duty of a writer to try to establish personal context for people you’re quoting (I’m not sure it’s feasible, although there’s a tendency to use a brief identifying phrase to establish some context), and respecting the social and direct context is important, but different than trying to replicate it. (Remember ‘David “Teleread” Rothman’ in an earlier paragraph? Because most of my readers are in the library field, that’s a terse way to provide personal context for a David Rothman who’s unlikely to be the first one readers think of—that is, David “Medical” Rothman.)
When you’re participating in an ongoing discussion and commenting on what’s already been said, either in a social context or through more formal means, you’re typically dealing with meaning and significance based on your understanding of (and communication of) the words themselves and the set of contexts. “I’m sick of libraries” said in a 5 p.m. Friday tweet by a frontline public librarian has very different significance than “I’m sick of libraries” as the first sentence in a New York Times op-ed by a bestselling author or, say, the former president of the American Library Association.
Things can get dicey when writers and readers fail to recognize or convey contextual clues. That’s not the problem I’m most interested in here. If someone objects to my characterization of a Friendfeed comment saying “Geez, I was sick, tired, and it was part of a snarky stream,” that’s likely to be a legitimate objection (and I might even apologize and do a followup clarification). I’m interested in those cases where people really don’t want to own their words—where they expect a little too much charity or, for that matter, simply don’t want to stand behind their statements.
That can emerge as some combination of objections like these:
“I didn’t say that”—even though those were the words you used and they weren’t taken entirely out of context.
“That wasn’t what I meant”—the most common form, which can represent honest failure to communicate or what I call moonwalking, as the writer backs away from the statements.
“My real point was X”—where X does not appear in the original statement or appears only as a sidenote. Consider this Advanced Moonwalking, backing away from what you said and trying to point in some other direction entirely.
“You’re being unfair”—without any specific indication of what I did that was unfair.
Some of these are legitimate objections and attempts to clarify. At some level, though, these and others are attempts to avoid disagreement—to neuter discussion. If you can’t ascribe meaning and significance to someone else’s words, you can’t disagree with them.
Clearly there are levels of discourse—where and how you say something influences the way it should, ideally, be read and interpreted. Levels of discourse particularly influence how reasonable it is to use hyperbole, generalization and other sloppy rhetoric. I don’t claim that I don’t get this wrong at times, but a broad set of levels would be something like this:
Quick reactions to someone else’s facetious FriendFeed item (or comment), tweet, Facebook post or the like: Ideally, such reactions get left out of serious discussions altogether. If not, they should be assumed to have very little significance—they’re mostly just idle conversation.
Precursors to such reactions—that is, apparently-offhand FriendFeed items, tweets, Facebook posts.: You’ve initiated the discussion, so it’s reasonable to assign a little more significance—but not much.
Anonymous trolling: In general, I take anonymous writing less seriously than signed writing; there is no personal context and it’s clear someone doesn’t intend to stand behind what they say. Anonymous trolling (in the eye of the beholder!) is even less significant than anonymous writing in general.
Comments on blog posts and serious FriendFeed items: I think this is the point at which it’s reasonable to assume that you’ve thought at least briefly about what you’re saying before you hit Enter. Letters related to traditional media items may fall in roughly the same category.
Blog posts and other net media: It’s fair to ascribe more significance to a post than to comments on that post, although some comments are similar to posts.
Columns, op-ed, articles: The dividing line between blogs and traditional media (or “net media,” traditional media carried over the internet) is a vague one—but I’m still inclined to assume some additional care with words and their meaning, if only because some traditional media involve copy editing.
Scholarly articles and books: The highest level of significance and direct context, I think. Here, it’s reasonable to assume that the writer has done serious, extended thinking about what they’re trying to convey and that they’ve had help refining those statements. A truly stupid paragraph in a published book is harder to excuse on the grounds of inadvertence or casual expression than the same paragraph in a blog post.
Perhaps one reasonable cutoff is that it’s a little harsh to fisk anything above the blog-post line—that is, you probably shouldn’t do detailed demolitions of Facebook posts and comments on blog posts. In my less charitable moments, I believe the line should be a little tougher: That apparently-thought-out comments on posts are as subject to critical examination as the posts themselves.
Here’s most of a June 1, 2010Walt at Random post:
Stephen Abram posted “Today is Quit Facebook Day—for Dummies” at Stephen’s Lighthouse on May 31, 2010. (If you go to the link, be sure to read “About the Author”–about which I will not comment.)
I thought it was an insulting post, right from the first sentence:
I wonder how many info pros will announce to the world they don’t have the information skills to manage privacy by leaving Facebook today.
This seemed to me to say that librarians (“info pros” lost at SLA and I’m not about to use it) can’t reasonably quit FB based on principled objections; if they do so, they’re “announcing” that they’re dummies. Hokay. And I started wondering about this:
It seems to me that it should be a reasonable user expectation of librarians and information professionals that they should be able to manage privacy settings and use the full range of web tools. [Emphasis added.]
Really? Every librarian should “use the full range of web tools”? Why? Well…
I also would expect to be able to receive informed, current and excellent advice and training on how to deal with the emerging social tools from my professionals in the social institutions I frequent (public libraries, schools, univerisities, colleges, etc.).
And here I come up short. [By the way, that was a direct cut-and-paste, not retyped.] Should I be able to take a workshop on Effective Facebooking at my library? Maybe. Should I expect that I can walk up to any librarian–every librarian–and get “informed, current and excellent advice” on every “social tool”? I think that’s unrealistic, and I think it privileges “social tools” over nearly everything else in life. I don’t expect every librarian (or any librarian) to tell me where I can find the best asparagus or whether I should sign up for Safeway’s Club Card. I don’t expect every librarian to offer informed, excellent advice on how to improve my (nonexistent) golf game. I don’t expect any librarian to be a source of current, excellent advice on which software would be best suited to producing a self-published book, and certainly not on how to use each program–although I might be delighted if the library (not every librarian) had a workshop on the topic. And I don’t believe I should be able to walk up to any librarian and say “should I be using Flickr or Picasa to organize my photos–and how should I set up my Picasa account?”
Abram then tosses in a stick:
Will they exit Twitter and Google too for collecting private information? I suspect that would make them unemployable. At least, ironically, they’ll be easily identified by professional recruiters and HR folks through the standard tools and the digital trail they leave as they exit and discuss their position.
Set aside the simplistic equation of FB’s deliberate undermining of its former policies with Twitter and Google policies. Is it plausible to regard a librarian who doesn’t Twitter as unemployable? Really?
I commented as follows:
This is a touch offensive. It’s extremely unlikely that any librarian is leaving FB because they can’t figure out how to handle privacy settings. On the other hand, it’s quite possible for a librarian, or anybody else, to decide that FB as currently managed is simply not trustworthy as a social network, and to leave on principle. Or don’t principles count?
Abram responded at some length. He started with an indirect slap at my reading abilities:
If anyone is reading this post as a direct insult to librarians’ skills, please read it again slowly. I am not a self-hater.
I didn’t say he was directly insulting librarians’ skills–I said the post was offensive. The interesting part is what follows–why “bailing is a very poor strategy for you as an individual or for collective influence.” Quoting in part–you can and should read the original:
1. Recruiters and HR types may not have that same viewpoint or see a principled stance as a plus for their researcher hiring to client’s specs. What justification is there for hiring a researcher who won’t play where the majority of users are? I doubt it will come up in an interview for people to explain, since they wouldn’t make the cut in the pre-interview screening process where resumes are fodder for internet screening.
Wow. First off, if I was an HR type, I’d expect a librarian to investigate claims before making them–such as “where the majority of users are.” Compete’s analysis says Facebook had 135 million unique visitors in April 2010: That’s a big number, but it’s nowhere near a majority of internet users. Even the highest number claimed for Facebook usage, by an ad agency, comes out to 35% of Internet users–by the ad agency’s own assertions. In what universe is 35% a majority?
And in what universe is it reasonable to say that librarians must be where the majority of users are? By that standard, it’s reasonable to reject anybody applying for a U.S. library job who doesn’t attend a Christian church or who doesn’t use Microsoft Windows. (Depending on your definition of “where the majority of users are,” you could extend that to rejecting anybody who isn’t part of a heterosexual marriage with children or, for that matter, anybody who believes in evolution…)
Apparently, somehow, social networks are special–so special that it’s reasonable to reject a librarian outright if they deliberately choose to avoid one. I find that pretty shocking.
I won’t fisk the remainder of the comment. I sense a little slap about retirees in there, and there’s a little comment that seems to say anyone making a principled choice is using “common consumer mob revolt tactics,” but the key here is the assertion that it is the duty of every librarian to be part of whatever set of social media are the flavor of the month, no matter how repulsive or untrustworthy those media might be. (Well, and the factually erroneous assertion that Facebook is used by the majority of Internet users–or, for that matter, that it’s “the most global site,” which it isn’t.)
Have I urged anybody to leave Facebook? No, I have not, and I don’t in the Zeitgeist piece. Am I leaving Facebook? No, I am not. On the other hand…
Do I believe that it is wrong for a librarian to make a principled choice to leave Facebook, or that doing so makes the librarian unfit as a librarian? I do not.
And I think the whole concept that each and every librarian should be an expert on every hot social network or web tool needs a lot of rethinking. I think it’s nonsense.
‘Scuse me, while I go ask a librarian how to set up my router and which fluorescent lights will work best with dimmers. I assume I can ask any librarian and get excellent, informed, current answers. Right? And that I can suggest that librarians be fired if the answers aren’t good. Or does this only apply to social networks and web tools?
Abram commented on my post. Here’s the full comment, so you don’t lack context:
I regret that you feel that I was being personal and making a comment on your personal reading skills. You’ll have to take my word for it that nothing could be further from the truth and I will attest that you read very well. I apologize that you took offense. By way of explanation, from your first comment on my post, I realized that my post could be misread and attempted to clarify and point people on to the main point – how do we influence FB?
You asked “don’t principles count?” Sure they do. I still argue that being one of potentially 25,000+ people closing their Facebook accounts out of 400 million active users is too tiny a number to make any difference (that’s something like 0.000625% altho my math can be error prone and you’re the survey expert). As I noted in the comments, I think that collective action through our associations is a better way to influence Facebook and with us as users not bystanders. It appears that some people defend bailing as a principled act which it definitely is. I just question whether it will have the impact it should. I also question how much power non-users will have over time. I doubt it will make enough difference. It’s a shame that too few are taking up the fight to have FB investigated and new rules/laws in place and using our associations to take collective action. I’ll still be pumping for that strategy while others defend the impact of a boycott. I realize there are different points of view and maybe I’ll be proven wrong and a tiny consumer revolt may have more impact. In the past few weeks the small group of us attempting to get governments to investigate are starting to bear fruit in some countries.
We’ll have to agree to disagree about whether professional librarians need to able to use the primary tools and environments of the web and whether that is a key requirement for hiring.
Lastlly, my sources for saying that the majority of Internet users use FB is the standard Pew surveys. We can probably find competing data as well but is there anyone who wants to argue that a minority of academic and college users are on FB? High school students? Urban users? Canadians? Is it a good strategy for people to be looking for data and reasons to avoid FB and studying its impact on their user communities? I am just saying that being outside the fence is not the right way to run insititutional strategies.
I hope I’ll see you at ALA this year. Are you coming? I’d love to know what is behind your comment on my “About the Author” blurb. Is there something untrue in it? Should I be offended that your comment is some sort of arch comment? Otherwise, I’ll call you if I can’t see you face to face.
Did you read Abram’s post yet? If not, you might want to read it now—given Abram’s assertion that his main point was “how do we influence FB?” Because, even after I read the post a third and a fourth time, I couldn’t find that point. My response:
If your posts (there was an earlier one) had focused on desirable ways to influence FB, I would not have commented in the first place. If that’s the main focus, it strikes me as well-hidden as compared to comments about people’s professional ability and employability–which have nothing to do with influencing FB. (And, of course, collective action through organizations doesn’t require that each member of the organization retain their personal FB account if they regard FB as untrustworthy.)
Reading the post itself for the third or fourth time, it says nothing about influencing FB–not one word. (Unless you want to count the extremely indirect note in the final sentence–an odd comparison, since G8 and G20 are closed groups. I’d argue that protesting will have precisely as much effect on G8 and G20 as anything else an ordinary citizen can do.) The argument that library people can’t influence FB if they’re not members only shows up in your response to my comment. An odd way to make your primary point, by omitting it entirely!
In practice, what appears to influence FB is the constant hammering of commentators, both Gurus and others–well, maybe with a vague hint of government investigation attached. In a way, it’s that string of protests that seem to be having an effect.
The post also said librarians should “use the full range of web tools,” a potentially unlimited set. Now you say “the primary tools and environments”–a very different thing (although still undefined).
To the best of my knowledge, the number of librarians who publicly said they were leaving FB as part of a “me too” boycott is tiny–I doubt that I could identify more than two or three. I believed then and continue to believe that it’s both professionally competent and in some ways admirable for a librarian to leave FB as a matter of principle (also a very small number, at least those saying so in public), and that it’s insulting to suggest that doing so is an admission of professional inadequacy. The whole issue of organizational pressures is entirely different, and also not addressed in your post.
This incident didn’t spark this essay, which I’d been thinking about for some time. Fact is, this was a mild case—relatively few readers jumped in to claim Abram hadn’t really meant what he said, although Abram himself did some moonwalking on the thrust of the post and his initial response to my comment. I’ve dealt with much worse cases.
For me, as a writer and commentator, it matters because it’s difficult to comment on what other people are saying if they don’t stand behind what they’ve written. Every time I hear “but that’s not what I meant” or, worse, “but that’s not what Writer X meant,” I get a little more discouraged about the whole business.
For the field as a whole, it matters because moonwalking precludes actual discussion and disagreement. You wind up with various people making different statements, essentially talking past one another because they’re unwilling to argue points that have been raised. That becomes a sad spectacle, with different Firm Positions staked out and no willingness to move toward possible consensus or deeper understanding.
I don’t think we’re there or anywhere close. In my library experience, most people do own their words—some are even willing to admit the possibility that they may have overstated a case, indulged in hyperbole or even (gasp) been wrong.
At least I’d like to think that’s true.
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