I Can’t (Yet) Shift From Third to Second Person

James Shelley posted some thoughts on shifting his blog posts from the third to second person. He makes some very good arguments.

Personally, I struggle with whether I could do this and, if so, if it would still be conversation in the same way to me.

I feel some mental weight in making the decision to post a full-fledged post, as opposed to a quick response. I weigh whether or not the thought is something a broad audience might want to read versus just the individual I’m conversing with and the people interested in that particular conversation. This is a mental model of mine, and perhaps it’s one I should revise. Until then, this limits the conversations I would be willing to have on these terms. I recognize this doesn’t foreclose other channels, I’m simply pointing out that this segregates online conversation into the equivalent of texts and letters, which perhaps is a good thing.

A consequence of this is to push me into writing longer pieces when I’m going to “post” them. This limits the ability to have a back-and-forth because I feel compelled to make all of my arguments at once (as evidenced in this very post). This further adds to the mental weight in responding because I feel the need to have my thoughts more fully formed before responding, as opposed to working through them in the course of a dialog, which I feel is a strength of shorter interaction models.

Also, writing in this way is a deliberately public act, which I feel would change the nature of the conversation. This is publicly stating, “I am having a conversation with another person and I want you to be able to eavesdrop.” As James recently mentioned, it’s difficult to separate the performance from the performer. The performers I am in public are different than the semi-public performers, which are different than the private performers. This inherently changes the performance.

Because of this context shift, to what degree do I move from inquiry to advocacy in my conversation? While writing this post, I feel like I’m advocating my thoughts and positions more than asking questions to better understand the beliefs and assumptions underlying the original piece. This feels like a consequence of the preceding for me. Changing from the third to second person would influence this, but I don’t think it would change it sufficiently.

Further, since this is now a fully public interaction, I feel the need to contend with the problems of writing publicly, and specifically context. If I’m responding on micro.blog or Twitter, a person who reads the conversation (generally) had to have sought it out in some way. This means the whole conversation’s context is readily available, and people likely already have some idea of the participants’ backgrounds and views going in. This is much less true for something posted to a blog online, particularly the other party to the conversation, which means I’m always conscious of what context people do or don’t have. This again pushes responses to be longer than otherwise, further slowing conversation.

Finally, I have concern about the agency of the person I would be responding to. If that person was not already writing and addressing me in that style, is it okay for me to respond in that fashion? When you mail a physical letter, there is no expectation that the message will be made public (though of course today that is always possible). Therefore, there’s no real need to get the other person’s consent before sending a letter. However, would some individuals be uncomfortable having a “letter” written to them made public without prior permission? As an analogue, say I were having a conversation with someone locally and decided to write a letter to them, but had it published in the local newspaper. Would everyone be comfortable with that? Writing in the third person seems to mostly resolve these concerns.

It is an intriguing notion despite my misgivings. Ultimately, I think the question might come down to how wide an audience public posting is for. Perhaps I should make a distinction between public-targeted posts on a blog, and personal-targeted posts on a second, less-accessible blog. I need to ponder further.

(For the record, James and anyone else has permission to write to me in this way if they wish, even if I can’t yet do so myself. I think examples might help clarify some of the questions and concerns I have.)