Consistency and Conversations

Renée Fleming told me that when her original voice coach died, ten years ago, she was nervous about replacing her. She wanted outside ears, but they couldn’t be just anybody’s. “At my stage, when you’re at my level, you don’t really want to go to a new person who might mess things up,” she said. “Somebody might say, ‘You know, you’ve been singing that way for a long time, but why don’t you try this?’ If you lose your path, sometimes you can’t find your way back, and then you lose your confidence onstage and it really is just downhill. Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better? : The New Yorker

I was reading a discussion amongst a set of designers, and by reading, I mean, “struggling to skim through.” What I realized was, there was absolutely no nuance to the discussion. 

We have, as creators of discussion spaces, embraced fully the notion that possibilities for discussion have been opened up tenfold: we can now have conversations with new people daily, we can have discussions with people we never would have had access to before. But there’s been a blind assumption that this was a good thing, and not much thought to what has been lost. 

Language is a tool: and like any tool, it must be sharpened and honed, it gets more useful and its’ resolution better as we build it for specific situations around us. As a skier, I remember building up vocabularies bit by bit for each coach I ever worked with: with some coaches this seemed to come effortlessly, and with others, I had to build up a sort of dictionary: “OK, when he says to put more pressure on the outside ski, what he really means is that my shoulders aren’t level and I need to drop the one.” Part of it was the nature of language itself, as an abstraction that was only as useful as how we built it. The other part of it was that expertise is usually built around human quirks, quirks of understanding, ability, personality, what have you, and to understand where all those quirks sit requires one to know the person. As far as I can tell, this is true for everything I’ve endeavored at, from skiing to design. 

As developers of social software the breaking down of barriers of conversation has caused us to over value the worth of talking to new people, and to undervalue the value of talking to the same people consistently. As such, we treat conversation as a sort of atomic unit, without really considering that atoms aren’t useful in and of themselves, but rather in the ways that they come together to build up some other physical element.  

While I think it’s amazing everything that we’re doing for conversations themselves, I also think it’s about time to start thinking about what conversations build up into, because many of these conversations are just starting to feel a bit flat, a bit devoid of purpose and nuance.

Also: the article is good, go read it.