Awareness of situational conversation

Nov 25, 2011

The other day, in a discussion with other social media leaders at Duke, someone remarked that college students think it’s weird when adults respond to their online conversations. I’ve heard this before, but I’ve had a hard to buying the argument that we should be cautious in engaging with young people online.

I’ve spent the last week thinking this over, my thoughts rooted in a childhood experience: I was in second grade (in Caldwell, Idaho), and one morning was excused to use the restroom. On my way back to the classroom, I passed two teachers in the hallway, talking. When one of them mentioned a trending topic, I blurted out, “Star Wars, I want to see that movie.”

One of the teachers reacted immediately, grabbing my arm, marching me over to a bench and sitting me down. With one hand, she squeezed my cheeks. “Don’t you ever interrupt a conversation like that again,” she barked.

I learned my lesson about impertinence from that reprimand. But I also became attuned to situational conversations — what I think of as dialogue in public spaces — listening attentively whether someone is speaking directly to me or whether the conversation is between others.

This is eavesdropping, clearly. But when is eavesdropping impertinent?

I asked my brother-in-law, Tom Michael (he’s general manager of Marfa Public Radio, and is a great radio conversationalist) to consider this situation: You and I are sitting at a busy outdoor cafe, talking, and we’re aware — consciously or subconsciously — that others around us may be passively or actively listening to our conversation. How do you feel when someone leans over and says something related to our conversation?

Tom: Depends if they offer us directions because they heard us trying to figure out the best way to the outlet mall or because they heard us talking about a friend who is going to have surgery next week.

So, yes, clearly there are lines that can be crossed. Situational conversation depends on the situation, the location, the topic, the people. An empty cafe and someone sitting down close by to intentionally listen in is an affront. Or we whisper, talk cryptically or in Bislama to lessen the chance that eavesdroppers will understand.

But I’ve also had some wonderful conversations because people sitting by offer their ear, their perspective, their thoughts.

Now take the question to social media, where the tools we use to converse — Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and others — give us a spectrum of privacy settings, allowing us to determine who exactly can listen in. Granted, the default for most social media tools is full public exposure, but given the ability to make a conversation private, can we assume that what’s public is fair game to be listened to and responded to?

I’m not sure I have all the answers, but I’m posting this on my blog that is open to the public, and I’m hoping you’ll listen in and join the conversation.


Much of my online activity, and the supporting events I’ve organized (like ScienceOnline2012 and Michael Ruhlman’s recent visit to Chapel Hill and Durham) has been to facilitate conversation. Recently, I’ve seen and heard others realizing that the great potential of social media is to get people together in face-to-face gatherings.

We’ve been promoting that for years with our BlogTogether events. Social media, to me, has always been best to say, “Let’s get together.”

Anton Zuiker

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