Inhospitable Writing

Edit: What I describe here is not meant to imply you should write on the web one way or another. Different styles serve different purposes. But I think sometimes people are confused as to why we need wiki, or OER, or other such things when we “have the web”. And the answer is that the conversational part of the web is often hostile to noobs….


Much web writing is “inhospitable to strangers”: it uses text to build a conversational in-group, making it clear to outsiders that they are not a part of the conversation. Here’s an example of inhospitable writing:

Guns and Speech Commodity Activism, A Blog Post

Picking up on Josh’s “quick think” on notions of an activism of symbols, a couple of things come to mind (imagine that, right? Me on a tangent!). First of all, as Jane mentioned, all things are not equal: sometimes words really do hurt. More importantly, the gun divide in our country makes action impossible, This leads to something similar to the Commodity Activism that I’ve mentioned here before. When you can’t take action on an issue, you crave ways to signal concern. Why wouldn’t you?

How’d that make you feel reading that? Did you feel invited in? Or did you feel left out?

Who is “Josh”? Who’s “Jane”?

Why is the phrase “quick think” linked and quoted? Is that an inside joke I don’t know about? Who is this “me” and why is it funny they are on a tangent? Is this “things are not equal” post important? What’s not equal? Am I supposed to have read these previous posts first?

If you blog, you probably think that your posts don’t read like this. And they probably don’t to your friends. But to strangers they feel like this. And to students the papers and posts you assign may feel like this as well.

Posts like this build a community, and use links and references to other conversations to strengthen that community. It feels good to people in the community. But it comes at a price.


These techniques come over from Usenet and BBS culture. See Before Posting to NetNews


13 thoughts on “Inhospitable Writing

  1. I’m certainly aware that my blogging is incomprehensible, but given the amount of extra time comprehensibility takes, I accept the tradeoff.

    • I think that’s fine. I do it too, here, because honestly how am I going to bring you up to speed if you’re not already. Even people that follow me don’t know what I’m on about half the time.

      I think in education though we often wonder why blog posts and the like as OER aren’t sufficient for students. The perception is often there is a web of materials out there that noobs can learn from, but the web is pretty noob-resistant.

    • (You’re also probably the only one of my readers who could make a good guess at what my fake paragraph above is about. After all, who else would Josh be?)

  2. My blog toootally looks like that. But not my HP column or Prof Hacker posts. Different audience. Point taken. But thinking about it.
    Coz ppl (outside the communities) still read my blog for the posts that DON’T sound like that and recognize which ones don’t make any sense to them.

    One of the reasons blogging is good is that it doesn’t require a literature review. I can read a blog quickly within a community coz i don’t need to wade thru that. I know ur not saying community isn’t important. I’m just not sure what kind of action ur suggesting ppl take? Have a separate blog for each community from ur public face blog? But tags/categories do that, kind of.

  3. I suppose I’m suggesting that we see that the in-groups and out-groups we sense in some of our educational designs are the result of decisions we make about style and tech.

    Writing in this way is very good for building community and keeping a community informed. We should keep doing that. But when we hear about people in educational experiences feeling left out, say, in a cMOOC we should be aware we did that too.

    I don’t feel I should have to argue for something very specific just to note this point, but if pushed I’d say that the balance of writing in the forms we use tends to lean towards this sort of thing, and maybe that balance is off.

  4. Mike, I think you’re right that it’s where the balance of our writing leans. I also really appreciate your reminder to think about writing as readers find it, not in terms of the sense or feel that it conveys to us. We’re already inside it, making a homely place for ourselves in thought.

    In terms of people, I realise I have a practice of using full names, and giving an introduction to someone I cite (“Arthur Frank, sociologist of illness” is my go-to, as I seem to cite him all the time), so that if you haven’t heard of them you have some sort of opportunity to settle with their context, and look them up. Mostly I’m referencing people who have no idea I’m engaging with their ideas, so I’m acknowledging their place in my own thinking and saying: look, I got this idea from over here. But it’s certainly trickier if I’m citing someone I’m in some kind of conversation with. A year or so ago, for example, I wrote something that was a reply to you, and I think I said “A reply to Mike Caulfield.” I think of these things as a bit like the dedication pages in books, that balance private message and reading stranger very delicately.

    To me what’s excluding or inhospitable is the assumption that this or that needs no explanation. Fedwiki was a revealing experience for me in that regard as I needed so much basic stuff explained, not just language but the reference points for that language (often people). I watched myself stalling on the start line over and over as people raced away with conversations about concepts they already shared. But I found this useful: it taught me all over again how to be a learner at a cultural disadvantage. I’m quite patient, and I don’t mind persevering. I don’t think anything could have been done to be more welcoming either.

    So the answer I come to in relation to your questions is that I want to think more about the subtle means of excluding in ways that we could improve. For me, it’s not “who’s Josh?” but “Josh who?”

    Sorry this is long.

    • This is a great point. And again, I think the writer parodied above (which is really me, frankly) is doing an excellent job at a lot of things. Talking this way to someone who can read it feels very intimate and close as well as efficient, and I don’t really want to tell people to stop doing that, because that can be beautiful and useful.

      I think your point about small things making a difference is right on. And it can be helpful to us as well — we often envision our knowledge as the “story of how we got there” and the first rule of explaining things to people is that that’s not always the most productive way to help someone understand something. Stripping your story out of the explanation can add a certain clarity and it also can broaden your own thinking. And it gives them room to put their story in which does not involve Josh and Jane but does involve you.

      Again, not always the best way, but sometimes yes.

  5. I had this lovely comment accidentally lost in a mobile iPhone swipe.

    No argument about how language can indicate inside/outside but there is some amount of saying we know a writers intent from their language.

    This “author” might truly aim to please his known readers but it may as well just be some convention of their own writing voice. The beauty of the blog space is defining that for yourselves.

    I see this played out more for new especially student bloggers who can assume I know what the context of their site is (eg course, academic domain) or that I’ve read previous posts.

    I say that you have to write a post as if it is the only thing the reader ever saw if your site. If you refer to “the assignment” or “the chapter” I could be lost. Every blog post needs to be its own island.

    But that’s a lot of work to explain every reference or acronym, so here comes the opportunity to suggest the humble hyperlink, where you indicate context w/o having to detail it. It works for readers in the know (they can skip) or not.

    The vague links are something I use as well as maybe a bit of humor or creating curiosity. Not every post is a reference article.

    But certainly some consideration of your own intent as a writer and how your words might be interpreted by others ought to be in our minds. So is their intended in hospitality and accidental?

  6. I’ve come back to this because Alan’s comment about student bloggers struck me. This is exactly the problem we create for students when we wedge them between “this is your blog” and “use it to complete a class assignment for a grade”. They don’t know whether to speak to an in-group or to a passing stranger. This is a sub-class of the problem that Mike has identified and maybe all by itself it’s a good enough reason to change what we ask students to do in their blogs. I’m really thinking about this.

    • so here is the trick about students. If you, from the very beginning, let them know they will write for an authentic audience (I actually DO let other people read my students’ blogposts and respond to them – it’s true it’s not a 100% authentic audience because they’re my friends and nice academic people being supportive most of the time, but they’re still totally outside the class, yeah?) then they will write differently than if they are writing for their classmates. Writing for classmates is valuable too. But if we’re asking them to write in public, then they deserve to experience this full-on, where the public really does read their stuff… if that makes sense…

      and so here is the thing. It does not annoy me too much if someone calls another person by firstname in a blogpost, as long as they provide some other context to what they’re talking about (who cares who Josh is as long as I am getting told how he fits into the post, you know?). It does annoy me when someone says a term like… Zeitgeist and assumes I will understand it. I look it up. Every. Single. Time.

      Because, you know, in academic writing, you say things like “it’s a very Foucauldian thing to do” and … you know… not all your readers know Foucault, unless your blog is dedicated to postmodernism or whatever…

      Am I making any sense at all? (sorry if my tone sounds clipped… not intentional… just tired)

      • Maha, I really agree with this. I rarely write online from or to people who read the same disciplinary literature as me, and so if I introduce an idea I try to say over and over where I got it. I assume no one knows.

        But there’s another very subtle thing happening in this post. When Mike says “inhospitable to strangers”, there’s an opportunity to know about a conversation Mike has been involved in about Derrida that has happened in more than one spot. I know about this so I hear “Derrida”. But another reader doesn’t miss out because “inhospitable to strangers” works just as well on its own terms.

        This is the capacity in language that was used by Hollywood in the construction of its infamous self-regulatory code of production from the 1930s. There should be in-jokes, the Code understood, because that was how Hollywood was permitted to pursue its primary business under capitalism, of entertaining adults for profit; but other audiences should have no sense that the jokes were there. Risqué interpretations should be entirely deniable. Leaping to the present, The Simpsons often works this way for children. There’s an in-joke or a cultural reference, and there’s a completely satisfactory way to take the whole thing without that knowledge, and without feeling excluded.

        Hospitable writing seems to me to tangle with this question of how ideas shared among those who have met before can be developed without excluding those who just stepped up.

      • I hear Derrida too coz i had been thinking and writing about that perspective for some time now, but assumed Mike was talking in general. Also because i didn’t finish reading the full Derrida as i ran away w my own understanding of what the Derrida concept meant and how it applied to open learning particularly… I actually wrote specifically about hospitality in blogging but in a diff way than Mike does here. Where is Mike btw? Haha. Maybe this has turned into an inhospitable comment stream invading Mike’s blog

  7. This is such an interesting topic right now for me, as we are in the midst of a redesign of our ENGL 101 online course master (which we provide for newly hired adjuncts at my community college).

    Our overarching topic is very meta…in a higher ed system where more and more courses are utilizing digital elements (even face to face classes), what does the ideal learning space look like? Students read, view, and write about things like Domain of One’s Own, Lecture Me. Really., asynchronous vs synchronous, hyperlinked reading, etc.

    We are piloting this quarter, and I can’t wait to see what their final papers argue for. We’ve tried to be very balanced, allowing room for value and disagreement on all sides of the issue, so students have to really think about what they need and value as learners (who may read blog posts from y’all).

    I think this post will provide some food for thought as well. What is the intent/obligation of writer versus need of reader and the inherent promise of some sort of transaction there when you publish online. Hot damn!

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