Writing to Connect: Knowing the “Other” Outside Time & Space

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo. She writes at blog.mahabali.me and is one of the facilitators of edcontexts.org.

7757863298_88953dd7fb_zWriting to Connect: Knowing the “Other” Outside Time & Space

by Maha Bali

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 we 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 (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!

[Photo, “Playing with words“, by Fabio Duma licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

21 thoughts on “Writing to Connect: Knowing the “Other” Outside Time & Space

  1. Maha – loved your post. I could feel the love and passion emanating from it. Really interesting questions you raise too, it’s amazing how powerful writing can be, when it’s done in a social context. I think this is insightful: “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.”, and the point you make about having conversations across time, when our defenses may be down intrigues me. I can see how that might introduce vulnerability that opens doors for deeper connection.

    • I suspect it is that very vulnerability that stops people from fully participating in some online learning networks, too. There’s a fine line between control of your words and ideas, and loss of control. I like how Maha really positions the sharing as a positive impact on how we interact and understand people, online and offline.

    • Thanks Tanya, and I loved your post that you wrote after reading it :) I love your blogging and selfishly wish you’d write more often so I can enjoy your posts :) But I am blessed to have you with us on edcontexts and have that connection with you as well :)

  2. I think Maha you are onto something.

    I think we can often connect more efficiently through emotion/thought mediating tools – language, music, poetry, words, blogs, twitter, painting – that is why we have invented these tools to amplify and to explore our humanity.

    Face to face is not overrated it is different.

    • Simon
      Face to face .. different. Yes.
      What I wonder about is folks for whom writing is most difficult and expressing oneself in an honest way is such a high hurdle that they miss out or are held back by the digital writing world. I suppose this means that the teaching we do is all the more important — that we want to provide an access door for as many as possible, so that opportunities are there for a wide spectrum of people (not just the echo chambers of people like me).

      • Kevin, I, too, am concerned about (and daily meet) people like you describe “What I wonder about is folks for whom writing is most difficult and expressing oneself in an honest way is such a high hurdle that they miss out or are held back by the digital writing world.”

        I keep switching between feeling they’re entitled and we should find some other way to engage them (or even to leave them alone, let em find other ways of learning that work for them); and between thinking we need to help them open up, etc. I tend to think of it differently when they are my students than when they are my peers. Isn’t that weird (but normal)?

  3. Maha, writing is more reflective and also corrective. Out loud I’m too emotional and probably too defensive to “let people in.” It might be the lack of cues is a blessing as our over developed self-protection mechanisms are less active? Maybe because writing allows us the chance to literally re-read a person’s words and calm our reactive minds?
    Also, having been very disappointed by people who have let me down in some serious ways I’m primed to mistrust–even to the point of creating personal narratives of betrayal and other neurotic gunk that somehow “work” in 3D but is visibly absurd in writing. And that makes me think of Bonnie’s “hyperpersonal” and where our most genuinely human qualities might thrive online. Is it because the characteristics of “being” are afforded a reflectivity that our fleshy selves are too busy dancing in the messy expressiveness of the body to notice?

    • Scott
      Your response is a great exploration of the power of writing to get at a potentially “truer” understanding of ourselves, but there is also the flip side of identity in online spaces — where people represent who they wish they were as opposed to who they understand themselves to be. It’s a fascinating topic all around and feels right for a “Digital Writing” discussion.

      • Kevin, part of of the power in Maha’s writing is the inclusion of herself as an exploring person (risk taking?) and the recognition of the other as worthy of care and respect. The person I am online is certainly less defensive and more comfortable with myself than the more aggressive person I present to the world–the local physical world anyway.
        Could it be that we perceive our “audience” differently online? Not just that we have our words before us to modify as we type but a more inclusive understanding of “other” as a receiver and less a chamber of reaction? In writing there can be more of ourselves and definitely more to our audience. A responsive audience we feel a more immediate desire to please?

        • I’ve been thinking recently that in writing, more than just imagining our own selves, we tend to imagine our audience, too. Unlike in a class where you teach and see students’ reactions immediately (and respond), when you write, you imagine this. And you let the writing flow to what you imagine. Although I now realize i don’t always write for an audience. Unless it’s something specific like for a MOOC or about something going on with other people like collab autoethnog or TvsZ, my other reflective posts are just me thinking aloud. And yet i hashtag them to places like #rhizo14 and #ccourses because even tho i am not writing for that larger audience, I would like to share my thoughts with those friends in my PLN. I also sometimes write very personal things, no hashtags, and I still get responses. Especially from Scott! :) Thinking now of all I had written before I started blogging and why that never ever ventured outside my desktop except in occasional emails to very close people. A very different ball game to publicly posting stuff…

          • In writing and graphic arts classes it’s common for the participants to build a safe and supportive space around themselves that allows the expressive urge to flourish. It’s interesting that we are able to do this under some circumstances, such as the arts while in other fields we can be turtles with our heads pulled in. This might be what matters in liberal arts–a kind of permission within ourselves that we can share?

  4. …give myself space to think aloud …
    so that I can wander these worlds
    in search of others
    with words to spare, putting ideas
    in our pockets before jumping out into
    the unknown,
    knowing the possibilities of catching air
    might also mean the possibility of missing signs
    and still, we write … we write
    so that we might connect.

    — Kevin
    PS — sometimes, I like to lift lines from posts and build small poems from the ideas. Maha, this is the best gift I can give you for a post like this. Thank you for writing.

    • Anyone familiar with this organization?: The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education
      “The mission of the ACMHE is to advocate for contemplative practice in higher education; to encourage new forms of inquiry and imaginative thinking; and to educate active citizens who will support a more just and compassionate direction for society. The ACMHE supports members in the development of contemplative pedagogy, research methodology, epistemology and organizational designs by creating forums for the exchange of diverse perspectives on contemplative practice in higher education. It supports the creation of a community of contemplative educators, scholars, administrators and students to develop a broad culture of contemplation in the academy.”

        • Maha, thanks for the link to Sean Michael Morris:-) Learning does seem to be a process that might even defy design. Or design might act as a springboard but it requires careful observation to capture and afford that springing moment.

          • As example of digital flow here Maha’s link to Sean Michael Morris and his link to Thomas P. Kasulis got me thinking about process which I find contains the notion of the simultaneous nature of discussions. Not the each of every participant buy the all’ness of the teaching environment where many things are going on at once. Why didn’t this occur to me before?

  5. What a thought-provoking post, Maha! As I’ve noticed you do often in your writing, you start with something ordinary–even seemingly mundane, as well as very humble–but then your writing gains tremendous depth/breadth/height. Maybe blogging has also helped you improve your writing–both the ideas and the expression.

    Regarding connecting (collaborating, relating, loving) online, I think that some of us are better–and do better–than others. I also think that to a great extent, the other contingencies of relationship offline also shape our online connections: the time we have, the access and resources, the needs and desires, the reasons and incentives … Of course, online connection adds some new affordances (of speed, scope, and convenience). But it also lacks some features of offline connection. So, I think that it is hard to generalize and even harder to compare.

    In this post, however, you’ve overcome the difficulty against generalization and comparison and shared some very useful thoughts and perspectives. I’m starting to think that for people like you (and perhaps many others among us are also becoming more and more like you) online connections add a lot of new possibilities.

    I do hesitate to use experiences like yours to draw many educational/pedagogical implications. But I think that teachers/scholars can at least try to better understand and teach/discuss what stories like yours have to offer.

  6. Thanks, Shyam for your thoughtful response, as always. You’ve touched on a lot of important and diverse things! Yes, blogging has improved my writing, definitely. I think it has improved and organized my thinking and un-distributed it, if that makes sense? My problem since I start online learning in 2003 was that most of what I was writing ended up in a discussion forum, achieving the connection aspect but getting swallowed up in an LMS and away from my own thinking space. I don’t know how I would have survived the past year without blogging, to be honest. I wonder now why I didn’t blog thru my PhD. It would have helped me tremendously but I didn’t have the confidence, then. Or the discipline? Not sure.

    You’re very right, of course, that not everyone can or does benefit in the ways I do, and it’s difficult to generalize. I struggle with this as a faculty developer and educator all the time. As in, how much of this is transferable that we should encourage/promote in others, and how much is ingrained preferences that we should leave well alone. If that makes sense…


  7. I think I’m still on that stage Re: Writing for oneself !!

    I can’t believe I have been missing out a lot online for the past months or so. I keep telling Tanya that my drop on online activity means that I haven’t been touching my thesis. But I think I’m going to be more active this year. I should!! I use my blog and twitter to post things I find in the internet which is more often relevant to my academic writing.

    I just made a comment on Tanya’s post that you guys have always been so formal in your blogs. But thankfully you mentioned that you only started with academic blogging when you were nearing your Phd Dissertation. Ohh.. I have a long way to go! haha…

    But I do try as much as possible to catch up with what is happening in academic online activity. It was just difficult to balance for the past year because I just started with my new job, right after Rhizo14.

    There are so many things happening online already I am lost. But I am looking forward for Rhizo15 ;).

  8. Pingback: The value of online connections and, yes, relationships/Social Media for 21st century learning | Here is my map #pdp15

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