I should be doing many other things, but every once in a while, there’s a bundle of ideas in my skull that gathers together and sets up a resonance field, and there’s really nothing for it but to write it out. So this is more suggestive than it would be had I the time to really write through it all.

The piece that clicked it all together for me was Jon Udell’s recent post on networks of first-class peers, which has its roots (I think) in the recent announcement of the demise of Google Reader, the death knell for which happened while I was in Las Vegas at CCCC, our annual conference for all things compositional and rhetoricky. I don’t want to project my own affect onto Jon’s post, but there was a sadness there, a nostalgia for the days when the weblog was the undisputed chief of social media. Jon closes his discussion with a look back:

What some of us learned at the turn of the millenium — about how to use first-class peers called blogs, and how to converse with other first-class peers — gave us a set of understandings that remain critical to the effective and democratic colonization of the virtual realm. It’s unfinished business, and it may never be finished, but don’t let the tech pundits or anyone else convince you it doesn’t matter. It does.

He’s responding in part to the “has Google decided that blogs are dead?” portion of the hullabaloo over Reader here, I think, and also hearkening back to something that I think Kathleen Fitzpatrick was getting at in her discussion about civility a couple of months ago. I’m struck by the difference that Udell is articulating between first-class and second-class peers (although that language is freighted in ways that a more networky “first-degree” and “second-degree” might not be). Services like Twitter and Facebook, the argument might run, allow us to treat our discourse as more disposable, less our own.

This cross-blog conversational mode had an interesting property: You owned your words. Everything you wrote went into your own online space, was bound to your identity, became part of your permanent record. As a result, discourse tended to be more civil than what often transpired in Usenet newsgroups or web forums.

Jon cites Dave Winer’s mantra, “Own your words,” and that resonated for me with Ryan Cordell’s “mea culpa” entry that followed Kathleen’s post, about the ethics of conference tweeting and its effect on community. For me, Ryan’s post is a lovely example of all the best thoughts that “own your words” suggests.

There’s another thread to all this for me, one that comes directly out of some of the discussions at CCCC with respect to textbook publishers, and the role (or control) they have when it comes to our field. Because of the vagaries of the conference process, folks had committed to particulars panels, papers, and topics largely before the big publicity rollout last summer about MOOCs, and as a result, other than at ATTW (whose deadlines are later), there was little formal discussion that I heard about. That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t goings-on. In particular, the spectre of MOOCs haunted (for me at least) the annual focus groups, publisher lunches, etc. I don’t participate in those events, but I’m deeply sympathetic to those who finance their trips to CCCC in part by reviewing textbooks, attending focus groups, and/or eating (let’s not call them “free”) meals provided by the publishers.

It’s hard, though, not to see such “partnerships” as more nefarious, or to imagine that these companies aren’t basically doing preliminary research for their own MOOC experiments, whatever they end up looking like. It’s similarly difficult for me not to see these companies, whose budgets underwrite much of our annual conference, acting in the role of shepherd, as KB expressed it:

The shepherd, qua shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and harm. But he may be ‘identified’ with a project that is raising the sheep for market. (Rhetoric of Motives)

It is not easy to suggest to my colleagues, old and new, that they need to go about owning their words here. That sounds a lot like blaming the sheep for the variously scaled loyalties of the shepherd. It does make me think more carefully, though, about what my role and responsibilities are as a member of the discipline, the community, my department, etc. It’s a deeply complicated set of issues; all I know for sure is that I can’t really see my way out of it at this point.

In each of these scenarios though, I’m conscious of nostalgia in my approach to them, the feeling that “if we knew then” which often accompanies the despair of inevitability for me. If only we’d fought hard to keep the blogosphere going. If only I could be more mindful in my approach to social media. If only we could operate at a disciplinary scale that didn’t require the implicit quid pro quo of the textbook companies.

I wish I had an easy answer for all of this, one that offered more promise than each of us simply needing to think our way forward. That’s what I’ll be doing, just as soon as all those other things are done.