Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Writing to connect: knowing the “other” outside time & space

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Originally published on Digital Writing Month (Which no longer exists). NOV 19, 2014. This post is special for many reasons – but one of them is that it helped me recognize myself as a “writer”, just being invited to write it was a big boost.

I write and blog like crazy now, and people might be surprised to know that as of November 2014, which is #digiwrimo, I will have been blogging for only 10 months. I am amazed to be asked to guest-write a post for this event, given that I did not start seeing myself as a “writer” until around July 2013 when I was nearing the submission of my PhD dissertation and gaining confidence in myself as an academic. I started writing for magazines first, then realized I sometimes wanted to write my thoughts about something that felt a.) urgent and b.) not necessarily relevant to any particular magazine’s focus. So I first started blogging for myself, blogging to think, to give myself space to think aloud without imposing on others by flooding them with emails. But then I started using my blog for MOOCs, and soon, blogging became a way to connect with others. Here are some ways I write with and for others:

Writing across each other’s blogs, I love how in some MOOCs, when people are focused on the same topic, one writes a post connecting ideas from multiple other posts, taking the ideas further, grabbing comments from elsewhere, and making something new, then recycling the ideas again. It’s a kind of “distributed” collaborative writing. But there’s the more traditional kind…

Writing together, like the Bonds of Illusion articles with Shyam Sharma, that started as tweets and blogs and emails, then turned into collaboratively written articles. We developed a very quick intimacy, finishing each other’s sentences while writing (and we’d only just met from across the world). I’ve written things collaboratively with people I know face-to-face, and I don’t think I reached that level of intimacy of thought. And I have found intimacy with larger groups of people, such as #rhizo14 participants…

Writing to develop a research process, some of us who participated in #rhizo14 are working on a collaborative auto-ethnography, writing across our blogs and Facebook and Google Docs to imagine ways forward for our research. The research process itself is growing and evolving as write to think together about how to take it forward, and as we seek to develop rhizomatic ways of writing that can represent multiple voices in non-linear ways. And yet we also want to help each other be “heard” when we write…

Writing for each other, aiming to amplify each other’s voices, listen to unheard stories of teachers, and pass them on, as we have done with edcontexts.org [now here ] (initially Shyam’s idea, which we implemented after writing our articles together).

Writing to connect with others beyond ourselves, where we would engage with each other’s students and see the wonder and excitement in their eyes that they were connecting with someone from across the world. By the time this article gets published, we will have played #tvsz version 6.0 which is a hack without zombies, and which will involve my students from Egypt with students from the US as well as participants from all over the world.

All this writing has made me start to feel very close to people, through their writing and mine.

Can we really “know” someone online? Do we know their essence or some distorted representation of themselves that is closer to perfection than is humanly possible? I’ve wondered and asked about how it feels to meet people in person when you’ve known them online closely, and people say it’s usually a positive experience. Bonnie Stewart told me that face-to-face is not as hyperpersonal as online. That made sense: is it possible that online we are even more connected to another person?

Hypothetically, can someone represent themselves online as an anti-racist, because that’s how they see themselves, even though deep down this is not their real self? Sure, they can try. But unless they have superior intelligence (as in CIA) training, they will slip.

Someone recently told me she was surprised that another person (who is close to me online) had different political beliefs from hers; this did not make sense to me based on what I knew of him, so I probed further. She came to this conclusion based on a blog post he’d written. But I knew him so well, I was 99.9% sure she had misunderstood his post, and that I knew what he meant when he’d written it. I asked him, and I was right. It got me thinking… I’d never talked politics with this person — he’s American and I am Egyptian, so why would we? But I knew. And yet, here in Egypt, I don’t actually know for sure about the political beliefs of everyone around me (unless they’re blatant about it on Facebook, which is… Funny?). It may be that people’s political beliefs are very changeable here, or some people are not explicit about them, but my point is: I can “know” some people online, through their writing, better than people I know face-to-face in some ways. I’ve made wrong assumptions, sure, but that happens face-to-face as well.

Is it because online, text forces you to make some parts of your thinking more explicit? Is it the distortion of time/space that occurs online, that allows one to have a continuous conversation over days or weeks, during the wee hours of the morning, while in the car or at work or in bed, when our defenses are down? You can’t have that in real life except with a family member or roommate, and it would seem to be stifling to have it with that many people. But online, it’s not. And there’s the danger Howard Rheingold mentions (in Net Smart) of getting used to relationships we can switch on/off on a whim. But I feel as committed to my online friends as my face-to-face ones.

Can we really “love” someone online?

I’ve often felt I do.

If I am really close/connected to someone, I can gauge their mood sometimes.

I’ve seen someone on a hangout and within minutes sensed how they were feeling.

I’ve had almost-traumatic life experiences where I dreamt nightmares (my usual reaction), and in my dream, an online friend was going through something too, and we supported each other. The next day, I thanked her for being there for me in my dream, and it turns out she had just had an emotional day as well.

But it took for one close online friend to be diagnosed with cancer for me to realize how much I loved her. People in my face-to-face all know about her because I think about and talk about her so often. And because she blogs about her cancer, I know more about her experience with it, almost live through it with her, more than I would a face-to-face person who wasn’t a close family member or my closest best friend. Her writing may be therapeutic for her. But it’s also been transformative for me.

This intimacy or closeness online, this knowing and loving, is all contingent upon the amount of mutual sharing and the extent to which people make themselves vulnerable. Every close relationship I’ve built with someone online has had strong elements of private conversation, via direct message, email, hangout, etc, beyond the public. Is it possible that we sometimes trust people online faster because we think we have less to lose? Is this naive, dangerous, or beautiful?

Just like visual-impairment promotes well-honed hearing skills because of lack of visual cues (and you’d think given the prevalence of phone communication, the rest of us would have developed some of this), I think that good online communicators can become extra-sensitive to another person’s text without needing the additional visual cues, or become sensitive to the way they respond on online video (which is still not the same as meeting someone in 3D). They become better able to express themselves creatively with the resources available to them, and understand others in online mode, in order to satisfy their hunger to connect.

So now I write to connect, to others, outside the boundaries of time and space. And I know them. And I have come to love them. This hasn’t been a critical post, because this month we’re celebrating writing, and I owe it to writing to let it know how much it has transformed my life!

2 Comments

  1. This is an intriguing reflection Maha. I like your points about writing across blogs, as well as connecting beyond ourselves. The one question I was left wondering is whether you would right the same post now? I too have written myself about the benefits of connected education. With both posts written a few years ago, I wonder if anything has changed? Would you still have the same outlook?

    • What has changed a lot since that post is that I have now a. Met many of the people I’m referring to face to face and worked closely with them f2f to organize events or to co-teach or such.. So I know better about those complexities and I know that yes, I knew them before I met them. And b. I also now have Virtually Connecting… Which, beyond the sessions people can watch online, is really about a community that works together in the background all the time via text and unrecorded meetings… What people see, the sessions that are livestreamed, is just the tip of the iceberg

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