Tag Archives: avatars

How Flame Wars Get Started

Please, don’t flame me! 😉

Though there is a specific context for this post, I prefer not talking about it. For once, context seems to matter less! 😉

Flame wars (FWs) are those personal confrontations which happen so frequently online. FWs are seen as the bane of the online world. I don’t find them particularly appealing myself. Some FWs have been at the centre of the collapse of some online communities. FWs may even be related to some people’s fears of communicating online (or offline!).

There’s a wealth of literature on FWs. This post is mainly based on my experience on (literally hundreds of) mailing-lists, forums, discussion boards, and blogs since 1993. I did read some of the research on FWs but this post is more about my own thinking.

Though it will probably sound more general than it should be, it’s based on something similar to an ethnography of online communication. As such, I don’t think so much on direct causalities but on different patterns, linking FWs with other dimensions of the culture of online groups.

Let’s go.

Ostensibly, FWs come from breakdowns in communication. Moments in which communication ceases to work properly. Note that the notion that communication is a direct transmission of a signal is a very schematic model and that I tend to prefer models which take into account diverse goals of diverse participants as well as inter-subjectivity. Authors that have influenced my thinking about those models include Gadamer, Hymes, Jakobson, Goffman, Sperber, and Molino. (Luckily, all of these authors are easy to find by their last names! Unfortunately, all of these names refer to male speakers of European languages…)

Communication breakdowns (CBs) happen in a variety of contexts and seem to be related to a large variety of factors. Differences in communication norms are quite common, even in contexts which seem to be fairly homogeneous in terms of “communities of communication” (or “speech communities”). According to some, there are speech communities in which gender differences imply such discrepancies in communication norms, causing the “You Just Don’t Understand!” principle. Quite often, a communication event will break down when the goals and expectations of different participants clash on the very possibility of communicating (“We just can’t be having this conversation!”). In my experience, rarely does CB happen when people simply disagree on a specific topic. There are many online groups in which it is quite common to take disagreement “the wrong way,” and get angry because of what appears to be much of a challenge. Though such a perspective on disagreement may contribute to communication breakdowns, my observation is that disagreement alone doesn’t cause CB. Though the term “misunderstanding” («malentendu», «quiproquo») may seem to apply to any CB, it could also be used more specifically to refer to the (very frequent) cases in which discrepancies in the way specific utterances are understood. The whole “this is not what I meant by my use of the word ‘banana’ in this post on electrical conductivity!” and other (funny to the outsider) examples of miscommunication.

In my experience, CBs are more the norm than the exception, in many contexts. Especially in verbal-intensive contexts like discussions among colleagues or fans of different teams. Quite clearly to me, online communication is also verbal-intensive and a talkative (garrulous?) guy like me takes to online communication like a fish to water.

Come to think of it, it’s really an extraordinary event (literally!) when two people fully understand each other, in a conversation. I mean, when each of them really groks what the other is saying. On average, people probably get compatible understandings of the communication content, but the kind of “merging of horizons” characterising true inter-subjectivity is quite uncommon, I think. Notice that I’m not talking about people agreeing with each other. As you probably notice, people often misunderstand each other more when they strive to make sure that they agree on everything. In fact, such a “conflict avoidance” attitude toward communication is quite common in certain speech communities while it’s ridiculed by members of other speech communities (some people probably can think of examples… :-D). Some communication scientists probably disagree with me on this matter (especially if they apply a strict Shannon-Weaver view of communication or if they hold McLuhan’s view too dearly). But, in the speech communities to which I belong most directly, disagreement is highly valued. 😉

If miscommunication is so common, it’s difficult to think of CB as the “root cause” of FWs. As so many people have been saying, since the explosion in online communication in the early 1990s, written language can be especially inefficient at transmitting “tone” and other important features of a person’s communicative intention. Online communication is mostly written but attempts to fulfill some of the same goals as oral communication. Instant Messaging (IM) and other systems of synchronous, typed communication constitute an excellent set of examples for the oral-like character of online communication. They also constitute a domain in which communication norms may differ greatly. Usually based on comparative age (most IMers are relatively young, which may cause a “generation gap”) and not, as far as I know, based on gender (i.e., younger women and younger men seem to hold fairly similar norms of communication in IM contexts). More interesting to me than the tired tirade about the “poor quality” of IM language is the fact that IMers appear quite efficient at transmitting more than just information through a rather limited medium.

So, now, how do FWs get started? Is it just that older people don’t know how to communicate efficiently? Don’t younger people have FWs? Aren’t FWs caused by (other) people’s inability to understand simple concepts? 😉

To me, FWs happen mostly in difficulties in recuperating from CBs. When a CB happens in face-to-face communication, there are well-known (and somewhat efficient) methods of preventing an outright confrontation. In some speech communities, much of those methods centre on “saving face.” At least, if we are to agree with Brown and Levinson. Whatever the method, preventing confrontation is often easy enough a task that we don’t even notice it. Even in offline written communication, many speech communities have well-established norms (including genre-specific textual structures) which make confrontation-avoidance an easier task than it can be online. To me, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that part of the issue with FWs is that specific strategies to defuse conflict are not shared very widely. Some would probably say that this lack of standardisation came with the democratisation of writing (in Euro-America, a larger proportion of the population writes regularly than was the case in the era of scribes). Not sure about that. Given the insistence of some to maintain online the rules of “étiquette” which were deemed appropriate for epistolary writing in the tradition they know best, I simply assume that there are people who think online writing had a negative impact when people forgot the “absolutely minimal” rules of étiquette.

What happens online is quite complex, in my humble opinion. Part of the failure to recover from CB may relate to the negotiation of identity. Without going so much into labeling theory, there’s something to be said about the importance of the perception by others in the construction of an online persona. Since online communication is often set in the context of relatively amorphous social networks, negotiation of identity is particularly important in those cases. Typical of Durkheimian anomie, many online networks refrain from giving specific roles to most of the individual members of the network (although some individuals may have institutionalised roles in some networks). One might even say that the raison d’être for many an online community is in fact this identity negotiation. There might be no direct relationship between an online persona and social identity in (offline) daily life, but the freedom of negotiating one’s identity is part of the allure of several online groups, especially those targeted towards younger people.

In a context of constant identity negotiation, face-saving (and recovering from face threatening acts) may seem scary, especially when relative anonymity isn’t preserved. To those who “live online” (“netizens”) losing face in online communication can be very detrimental indeed. “Netizens” do hide behind nicknames and avatars but when these are linked to a netizen’s primary online identity, the stakes of face management are quite high. Given the association between online communication and speech communities which give prominence to face (and even prestige) as well as the notion of communication as information transmission, it is unsurprising to see such a pattern.

In my personal experience as a netizen, FWs are quite easy to avoid when everyone remains relatively detached from the communication event. The norms with which I tend to live (online or offline) have a lot to do with a strategy of “not taking things too personal.” Sure, I can get hurt on occasion, especially when I think I hurt someone else. But, on average, I assume that the reasons people get angry has little to do with my sense of self. Not that I have no responsibility in CBs and other FW-related events. But I sincerely believe (and would be somewhat unwilling to be proven wrong) that taking something as a personal attack is the most efficient method to getting involved in a FW. As I want to avoid FWs as much as possible, my strategy can be measured for efficiency. No idea what the usual average is for most people but given the very large number of online discussions in which I have participated in the last fourteen years, I feel that I have been involved in relatively few FWs. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I’m just oblivious to the FWs I cause. Maybe I’m just naïve. But I live happily, online and offline.

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Moodle and Collaborative Learning

Something I just posted on a forum about the Moodle course management system.

Using Moodle: Thinking Through Groups

Here are some comments and observations about the “Groupsinterface (where an instructor can put participants in distinct groups) and other group-related features in Moodle.
I’m currently teaching a smallish ethnomusicology seminar and a large (170 students) introductory course in cultural anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. I decided to get my intro students to work as teams on an ethnography project. It’s the first time in my (still relatively young) career that I’m getting students to do teamwork. Yes, it’s a challenge. Moodle has made it both easier and more difficult, IMHO.
Several of these are probably common feature requests from Moodle users and I’m not enough of a coder to implement any of those ideas. These comments also include “pie in the sky,” wacky, wishful thinking, “you gotta be kidding” thoughts about the potential of Moodle’s group-related features. Please excuse the craziness but don’t worry, it’s not contagious.
I’m using “instructor” for my role as the course creator and “participants” or “students” to refer to the people the instructor is putting in groups.

Observations, Comments

  • Listing participants by first name is inconvenient for large university classes. I would like to be able to sort students as I wish, as in the Participants list.
  • In large courses, it’s difficult to select participants who aren’t in any group yet. I understand that the interface is meant to make it possible for participants to be in multiple groups. But I believe it’s common for the instructor to be putting all students in separate groups. In such a case, it’d be so much easier to have the left-hand list of participants hide the ones which are already in a group and only show participants who still need to be put in groups. With 250 participants, scrolling that list back and forth has been very inconvenient.
  • The Participants and Groups sections overlap in function, IMHO. Maybe they could be merged. This would be especially useful in terms of messages. While searching for participants by group, selecting them, and adding them as recipients for a message works, it becomes quite cumbersome after a while.
  • When I click on a participant’s name in the left-hand list, I expect to be able to see to which team(s) this participant belongs.
  • I can select multiple participants in the left and right columns but I can’t select multiple groups to temporarily merge teams. This could be useful, especially while sending messages.
  • Several students seemed a bit puzzled about finding their groupmates. There could be a “group” section for students where they could not only see links to their groupmates’ profiles but also manage a kind of group profile.
  • It’s still somewhat unclear to me how Moodle handles groups. For instance, what does group visibility (separate or visible) mean for journal entries?
  • Maybe they can but I haven’t noticed how group participants may change the group’s name. That would be useful. Especially if they can add some information (available to the rest of the class or only to the instructor) about their group. Something like a group profile. In fact, it could summarize the profiles from all of the group’s members in one page (visibility to students as an option).

Feature Requests

  • In a way, it would be possible to work with groups as if they were individual participants. For instance, we could give grades to a group as a whole and have those grades show up in the group participants’ grade list. Or we could have one-click messaging for a group as a whole, directly from the Participants list.
  • It would be useful to be able to create a new group with selected students instead of having to prepare the groups in advance.
  • It could be neat to have both a group name and a unique group ID, especially with relatively large numbers of groups (I have about 40).
  • The number of participants in a team is very useful data and it helped me rebuild teams which had lost members during “drop and add.” Such data could be put in the interface so that the instructor can sort groups by numbers of participants.
  • Drag-and-drop (through AJAX) would be much more convenient than the current method for adding participants to groups. I guess this one is in the official plans but I want to voice my support for it! wink
  • It could be useful to be able to upload and download CSV or tab-delimited files with all the team information. The data might be available with grades or some such but it’d be very useful to download a grouped list of participants directly from the group interface. It would also be quite efficient to create groups in, say, Excel and be able to implement those groups in Moodle with a simple upload.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • There might be a group building tutorial but I haven’t seen it in obvious places. Given the fact that the Moodle community is full of experienced instructors, that tutorial could have some advice about good grouping practices, maybe with some links to pedagogical issues.
  • I haven’t checked if it might be available already but it’d be useful to have grouped Reports. I don’t want to monitor the activities of most of my students but it’d be useful to know if at least one group member is accessing Moodle frequently.
  • According to many people, it’s usually best for the instructor to create the groups, and it’s what I did. Yet, I wonder if there’s a way for students to create their own groups. If there is, I haven’t noticed it and my students haven’t either. (Maybe it’s a setting…)

Would These Work?

  • There could be a feature which would divide the course up into randomized teams automatically. I eventually used Lab Partners to create random teams that I then grouped in Moodle. It didn’t take me that long but it’s a bit error-prone and cumbersome. Fortunately, my teams will remain stable during the semester.
  • This one may seem like a far-fetched idea but it would be great to have more information about participants while we’re forming the teams. For instance, there could be a database field for majors or even MBTI results. Then, one could combine teams based on theavailable data. Of course, it’s beyond the purpose of Moodle and can probably be done in Excel, but it’s much easier to have everything in the same place.
  • I will have students assess the participation of their teammates. For a while, I was looking at the Workshop module as a way to implement this in Moodle. I ended up deciding on the use of a custom-made peer-assessment system (built at my university) but it could be an interesting feature of Moodle groups.
  • This might sound crazy but I imagine a way for groups to have their own Moodle subsection. We keep talking about peer-teaching and such and I can’t imagine a better than to have students create and manage their own mini-course. One major benefit would be to improve the interface, IMHO. The main Moodle section for the course would contain all the public information and activities. All the “separate groups” activities and material would appear in “group mode.” Students could then understand very clearly what is visible to everyone in the course and what is meant for their subsection only. In separate sections of a course taught by the same instructor (or, in fact, by different instructors) it could also have amazing benefits. I seem to recall something like this instructor-section idea being discussed for a future version of Moodle. But the Moodle take could also have a student-focused structure. Of course, this should not have to go all the way to the Moodle administrator and instructors should be able to create these subsections themselves. But, if at all doable, it would help Moodle leapfrog Sakai (which does handle course sections).
  • I pretty much like the notion of a “session” or “workspace,” which might be the reason why I tend to separate a student’s participation in the course as a whole (through the main Moodle interface for a course) from a student’s participation in a specific team (through a subsection of the Moodle site for the course). So this might be idiosyncratic (and lunatic) but I’m getting a very clear idea of how this might all work. After all, the granularity of “a course” is both too large (“coarse?” wink ) and too fine for many of our needs. Any “course” could become something of a “metacourse” and the structure could be somewhat recursive.
  • Participants could have profiles to be shared only with their groupmates. As it stands, I think the scope of Moodle profiles is system-wide (students have the same profile for all of the courses they take at the same institution, but not for courses they might take on other Moodle installations). Having group-only profiles would be interesting as students manage their relationship with teammates.
  • Another crazy idea: groups working a bit like social networking sites (e.g. Facebook). You get “friends” with whom you can share “stuff” (images, comments, chats, etc.). Those groups can go beyond the limits of a single course so that you would use it as a way to communicate with people at school. The group could even have a public persona beyond the school and publish some information about itself and its projects. Moodle could then serve as a website-creator for students. To make it wackier, students could even maintain some of these contacts after they leave the school.
  • Or Moodle could somehow have links to Facebook profiles.

Ok, I’m really going overboard. It’s just that I really love Moodle and want it to do everything at the same time. Using groups has opened up a whole new side of Moodle for me and I find myself thinking out loud a lot.