bluefluff's blue fluff

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I'd forgotten this useful term, but it popped back into my head tonight after yet another tour of the OU forums I read, thinking "yes, but where's the substance?" as interminable discussions about discussions unfolded.

These metadiscussions relate to both form & content. As far as form is concerned, they are typically prompted by a contributor's use of a particular font that others find difficult to read, but can just as well be about the message order, or the correct attribution of material quoted from previous posts, or the amount of quoted material, or any number of similar issues. As far as content is concerned, it's often humour that proves to be the flashpoint - a sarcastic remark that's resented, a joke that treads on sensitive ground, a light-hearted riposte that's read literally & interpreted as deadly serious. A common second cause of contention is the scope of discussion, in particular the desirable or permissible ratio of chat & banter to serious course-related debate.

Form metadiscussions usually peter out into conciliatory statements about how we're all different & no single message format can suit everyone. Content metadiscussions tend to flare into high-minded exchanges about political correctness & freedom of speech, & can smoulder for weeks or months.

It occurred to me that the prevalence of metadiscussion is perhaps the single most significant difference between online & face to face discussions. Discussions round a table don't often founder on disagreements about speaking order or voice volume (though those can be factors in formal/official meetings). Nor do they usually need more than a couple of minutes to divert into joky/trivial/anecdotal asides & return - without recriminations - to the topic.

None of this is new of course - either the phenomenon or analysis of it - as this commentary in a study from the early days of Internet discussion groups shows,

The lightbulb joke is as relevant now as it was when I first read it ten years ago!