Forum Cartoon from weblogcartoons.comI’ve discussed before my on-again off-again membership in the online discussion forum Global Affairs. I’ve been banned, reinstated, considered quitting, taken long breaks, thrown up my hands in disgust, been forbidden to send private messages to some members, and received very friendly and considerate messages from others. I’ve won a “post of the month” award, read posts by others that have brought tears to my eyes, or had me literally trembling with anger. I’ve been called a bigot, a socialist, a decent human being, a true gentleman, an ideologue and an apologist. But through all of that, since November 2002, I’ve been an active member of the forum, reading and posting day after day.

So, why?

I’ve been thinking about this in a couple of contexts–one, of course, and always, is the connection and the contrast with the kinds of online “forums” that I run when I teach online. Those are different than the experience at GA (or the other forums where I’m a member and post some of the time, but less frequently–at BroadbandReports, UbuntuForums, Brighthand,TotalChoiceHosting, InternetInfidels, Beliefnet…I didn’t realize there were so many!). A discussion forum where I’m teaching a course is different for me–and I think that it’s different for the students than for the participants in the other forums, too. (I’ve often wondered how it would go if someone I knew from online discussion would take my online class. How would we interact in the class, and how would we interact in the forum, after that?)

And there’s another context–recently my daughter has started her own involvement in her own online discussion forum…and she seems to enjoy it (and be frustrated by it, and drawn to it), just as much, and in the same way, as me. Brings up some interesting nature/nurture questions!

I’m thinking that part of the appeal has to do with the community–which is rather obvious–the people about whom I end up caring, who have characters and roles that feel familiar, and comfortable, with shared in-jokes and jargon. But connected to that, too, is the adoption of a persona. I don’t think that my online persona is all that different from my face-to-face persona, but the fact is, when I look at it (looking back, especially), I’m much freer online–to be playful, or aggressive, or to push arguments way beyond where they can really productively go.

This seems to be what my daughter does, too–the hot political topics of the day, or the bigger philosophical questions (the existence of the soul)–online I get totally involved in discussing these, and discussing how we’re discussing them, and little tiny elements of the discussion of the history of this discussion. Face to face, to preserve peace, or to save time, or just to get anything done, there’s just no time for this.

It’s also especially attractive to discuss these issues with people who are so, so different from me (except that they’re the same in one important area–they like to discuss things online!). I seem to spend the most time, and have the most fun, in forums (like GA) where I’m a distinct minority. Almost everyone (very few exceptions) is politically far to the right of me there–and almost nobody (very few exceptions) has the same kind of experience (professional, personal, academic) that I have. Over and over again, I’m the sole defender of a point of view–against multiple (I won’t say enemies, but opponents). And I must like that, somehow, because I keep coming back for more. My daughter’s role in her forum is the same in this regard, too.

Of course, there are also advantages which are shared in all asynchronous online discussion (as I’ve written about elsewhere). There is time to consider, to take someone else’s argument apart line-by-line, to pursue an off-topic drift or digression. There’s also the entire resource of the internet right there–to cite sources, investigate claims, illustrate with images, and so forth. The “wizard factor” (you want to see a hedgehog? I wave my hand and there’s a hedgehog!) that I enjoy so much in teaching online shares its magic with all online discussion.

Finally, there’s something I notice especially in the tech-oriented forums (and the tech areas of broader-ranging forums like GA). People like to help each other in these forums. How do I get the Beryl Window Manager working in Ubuntu? What should I say on my resume about a college that changed its name after I graduated? What do I do about an invitation from an in-law I can’t stand? In these forums, people ask for help with problems from the mundane to the life-threatening, and they get it…and everyone values both the giving and the getting. That’s a human interaction, whether it’s in the online world or the physical world, which is truly valuable.

There’s plenty more to be said on this subject…but it’s partly what I’m thinking now.