Blog communities, rules, lessons, and BAWS

I’ve had a particularly unproductive (blogs as writerly spaces project-wise) couple of weeks. This week, much of my lack of productivity has to do with much welcomed family fun, but that’s a whole different issue I’ll post about soon on my unofficial blog. But last week, I was obsessing over the conversation on EMUTalk.org that started to turn kind of ugly. The short version is that when the EMU email system crashed for a week, people who use this system were pissed off, and the ICT people weighed in. Some where helpful, some could not really understand what the big deal was, and some were just, um, jerks.

I guess I did get some useful BAWS oriented lessons out of the whole thing though. This outburst was really just one of several over the last 10 months of the site, and it prompted me to do something that I should have done a long time ago: write up some rules. These rules were largely based on other rules that I found at other places, and particularly useful was the Blogging Wikia project (specifically, the Code of Conduct project on this site), along with the codes of conduct from a few other community-oriented blogs.

I haven’t figured out how to formulate this yet in terms of the project, but I think I’ve come up with some answers to the questions I offered at the end of my Computers and Writing presentation in May. To quote myself:

As the moderator/sitedad of the forum, what role should I take in encouraging participation without censoring those who are already invested in the site? How does the site become a space to promote the positive things about EMU and less an opportunity to whine and to host a pity party, and yet maintain itself as an important outlet to point out real problems and to simply vent frustrations? Is it possible to “change the tone� of the forum so it does not collapse into just another internet-version of a talk radio diatribe, or is that sort of communicative entropy inevitable in open-ended community discussion forums?

I think the short answer is to spell out clear rules and to enforce them, and I think the extent to which such rules are necessary to codify and enforce depends a lot on the size and diversity of the rhetors and audience members of the blog.

A little blog like this (less than 100 hits a day, typically) with a limited speaker/rhetor role (e.g., me and an occasional commentator), a very specific audience (mostly other composition and rhetoric folks) who are familiar with the conventions of blogs and online discussion (I assume that folks who read my blog read many other blogs as well) probably doesn’t need much in terms of rules. On the other hand, a much bigger blog like EMUtalk.org (over 1,000 page views a day on average, and much higher than that on occasion) with many speakers/rhetors (20 or so authorized posters and hundreds of commentators), a more general audience (in terms of age, role, identity, etc.) who are not familiar with the conventions of the space (I’m pretty sure that EMUTalk.org is the only blog that many participants here read at all) needs rules. This creates an interesting space where I see the idealism of free and open exchange butting up squarely against the pragmatic but less than ideal reality of the need to shut some conversation down.

I’m not completely sure in my own head then how that fits into the whole rhetorical situation model of rhetors and audiences responding to particular exigencies. Do I, as an administrator, step in and become a kind of über rhetor/audience member? I like to think that the rules I have are designed to foster community and a positive space, but ultimately, they are my rules. I didn’t create them as the result of some sort of democratic process, and, as much as anything else, the rules are designed to cover my ass.

So again, these terms that seem so simple in that little triangle aren’t so simple. Maybe we’re talking about a series of triangles within triangles. Of course, maybe I ought to stop blogging and get back to writing a book about blogging….

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