Where Does the Public Conversation Start?

Earlier I wrote, “I firmly believe that the point of weblogging is not merely to have your own blog, but to participate more fully in the public conversation. This means reading and commenting on other people’s blog’s – ideally at least as much as you post in your own.”

Jay Rosen agrees with this… and not. He’s taken this like of thought further, with an interesting twist…

Today in PressThink, “Notes and comments on BlogHer ’05,” Rosen wrote:

“Some of the women bloggers had a different point: blogging was fuller participation in a private conversation already being shared across social space. Thus: ‘Moms in the neighborhood were talking about these things, so I put them in my blog.’ Or: ‘I started this as news for my extended family and it grew from there.’

“The desire to make public a conversation already going on among people you know is not the same thing as people’s desire to join the public conversation they know is out there. Both types crowded the rooms at BlogHer, sometimes within the same woman.”

Jay, I suspect you and I are actually playing blind-men-and-the-elephant here. If we both step back, there’s a bigger picture where we probably agree.

It seems to me that private conversations often represent the genesis of some of the most compelling and influential parts of the larger, ongoing, many-threaded public conversation. I personally don’t view the public conversation as a discrete event, or even as a series of discrete topic- or community-specific events. Rather, it’s an ongoing support system that keeps people and groups connected and collaborating. It continually renews itself by branching out to include new themes which arise from all sorts of sources – including private conversations.

I’m not saying that every private conversation should become public. However, it’s true that especially resonant private conversations often can have a huge impact on the public conversation – and, in turn, on what people do and on other private conversations.


For centuries, domestic violence was treated as a private matter, best resolved “quietly” within a family. The police and the law barely acknowledged this problem, which thrived in secrecy and often literally killed people (especially women). On a social level, for centuries it was taboo to acknowledge or discuss such beatings and torture. Talking about it was, in a sense, worse than participating in it.

But still, people talked. That’s what we do, as humans. In this case, it was especially women who talked – mainly to each other at first, in private, often in whispers and tears. Eventually we started talking about it in public.

Ultimately, the taboo shifted. Acts of domestic violence became taboo, rather than their disclosure. This simple but huge shift in public perception led to a revolution in social norms, public awareness, law, law enforcement, prevention efforts, and emergency services.

Now (at least in the US) it’s considered unconscionable to perpetrate, rationalize, or ignore domestic violence. Doing so invites ostracism, derision, and even legal consequences. This not only saves lives and alleviates individual suffering – it strengthens our society and ensures a collectively healthier and safer future.


I think this was exactly the point of the BlogHer session “How to be Naked.” An important part of the emerging culture of weblogs is feeling free to speak up about difficult or even private matters.

Deeply personal disclosure certainly isn’t comfortable, safe, or appropriate for every blogger (or every weblog). However, I think it’s important for every blogger – regardless of gender – to know that this option exists for them, and that it is an accepted and constructive aspect of the blogosphere. More importantly, it’s a crucial aspect of the public conversation which keeps any healthy society alive and vital.

Personal disclosure is a crucial reality-check for us all. It reminds us that we are all human, that society is incredibly diverse, that we all have issues and flaws, and the most of us are occasionally stricken by disaster. Personal disclosure may initially provoke responses of judgement, anger, revenge, or disgust – but in the long run I think they help make society more compassionate. They make it impossible to ignore our own humanity.

This is why I chose, in that session, to mention publicly that I am polyamorous and that I plan to disclose this on CONTENTIOUS (well, I guess I just did that, right?) and as I perform a long-overdue overhaul of my Gahran.com site.

Being poly is only one aspect of who I am. But because polyamory isn’t well known or understood in society, I feel it’s important for me to stand up and acknowledge that I – and the entire poly community – exist. I think it’s important to not be ashamed of who I am. And I like the idea of taking away anyone’s ability to threaten me with being “outed

So, for anyone who dismisses blogs as merely personal diaries or navel-gazing: Get a clue. (OK, first bag the stereotypes, and then get a clue.) The rich texture of humanity not only deserves recognition and respect – it’s also a vast resource which can sustain us as individuals and the entire social fabric. Step back and look at the whole picture, and see yourself in it – as a mere human being, flawed and fabulous.

That may sound scary, but once you do it you’ll find it’s peculiarly reassuring. Even fun. And definitely rewarding, once you wade through the inevitable crap that idiots are compelled to spew. have compassion for them too, they usually can’t help it.

And then go for it. Declare your humanity.

2 thoughts on Where Does the Public Conversation Start?

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  1. I was thinking more about the “terror” comments by Jay (I was hatin’ on him when he stood up to talk – it was such a pat on the head! oh, how brave, in our climate of terror, to face your terror of the internet! – but his post is better by miles and not at all what I thought it would be). How weirded out he seemed to be, that people might talk about doubt, fear, insecurity and still ACT. As if everyone didn’t feel that stuff? Showing vulnerability is not weakness – it’s being so strong you can risk it.

    Clearly, too, if you have less privilege to lose you’re not so afraid to throw it on the table. Among the subaltern, deliberate vulnerability inspires trust – boasting doesn’t. I don’t think any essentialist “women are this way” explanation is necessary.