What if Facebook were a Writing Workshop?

GrubStreet Founder and Executive Director Eve Bridburg's recent TEDx Talk urges us all to take our words seriously, especially when communicating with one another online. Here, she shares why she believes writing workshops serve as a model for political and cultural conversation, and what's at stake in our social media discourse.

 

While it’s tempting to give up on social media as a platform for meaningful public debate and conversation, we can’t afford to succumb to that temptation, given the ubiquity and power of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Besides, the stakes are just too high. What if, instead of disengaging, we upped our own game and worked harder to hear each other?

 

When I first agreed to give a TEDx talk this past November, I had a general notion of what I wanted to talk about—the power of storytelling among strangers—but I soon realized that TED talks are single, cellular creatures—you can only convey one simple idea. This one idea must be particular, authentic to you and your own personal story and yet also relevant to lay audiences.

 

In search of that potentially impossible one idea, I found myself looping back again and again to how lucky I feel to be immersed in the culture at GrubStreet, where people are respectful and kind to one another, even when difficult topics or disagreements arise, and how this culture of respect stands in stark contrast to the blistering, ad hominem attacks and often dehumanizing vitriol that define so much of our discourse these days, especially online.

 

The writing process at large, and specifically the workshop model of exchanging and offering feedback on written work, trains writers to be excellent communicators. It’s the quality of our communication that is largely responsible for our ability to work through challenges with the palpable kindness found in our offices and classrooms. As a writer and a reader of others’ work, you learn to interrogate word choice, test for accuracy, listen carefully, ask questions to further understand the author’s intent or your own, and to accept thoughtful and fair feedback. You learn to be open to changing tactics, revising your thesis, or digging deeper when you fail.

 

It’s powerful training for life.

 

And it made me wonder: what if Facebook and Twitter were to function like a writing workshop? What if we all thought of ourselves as writers, taking our words as seriously as writers do, and tried in good faith to understand what our fellow writers were struggling to say by listening and asking questions? What if a genuine attempt to connect, understand, and offer constructive feedback became the norm? Having watched strangers help each other tell their stories for so many years, it’s easy for me to imagine the ideas, wisdom, consensus-building, and understanding we might unearth in one another if we held ourselves and others to “writerly” standards online.

 

 

To my mind, the stakes could not be higher. Trust in our institutions has plummeted in recent decades and levels of partisan distrust and animosity are profound. According to Pew, a full 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans view the opposing party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” And according to research by the marketing firm Edelman, trust is down in America across the board—from government institutions to businesses to media and non-governmental organizations—reaching historic lows in the eighteen years the firm has been tracking it. There’s a total assault on facts. Hate speech and white nationalism are on the rise. And bad actors are manipulating social media to sow even more distrust among us. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that liberal democracy is at risk. The references to Gilead, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian America, in my Twitter feed feel less funny or ironic and more on point with each passing day.

 

Given the loss of trust so many of us are feeling in our institutions, and the real and perceived divides found in our rapidly evolving culture (evolving too quickly for some, not quickly enough for others), we can’t afford to give up on each other. We are powerfully in need of human-to-human connection and conversation—even when it’s hard.

 

My hope with this talk is to spark a conversation I don’t see happening anywhere. There’s endless discussion about how polarized we are as a country, how “civility” is dead, and yet there is almost no talk about why we accept an intolerable online culture, our own roles in perpetuating discord, and what we can do together to change it. I want to be clear, though, that I am not speaking to the politics of politeness that has dominated the discourse in the months since I gave this talk. “Civility” is often reduced to a thin politeness that is used to silence dissenting opinions or shut down civil disobedience in the face of injustice. What I’m arguing for is a mode of conduct more muscular and difficult: honest, respectful, fierce, and thoughtful communication that doesn’t seek to silence but to recognize everyone’s voice. It’s value-driven rather than rule-driven, allowing every individual the space to inhabit and define values for themselves.

 

One enormous gift of the internet is that it gives all of us a platform for our voices and the power to spread and share our perspectives and stories. But with this expressive freedom comes an even greater imperative to listen, ask questions, and be open to learning. It’s up to us whether we use social media to take liberal democracy to new heights with new levels of transparency, fairness, and equity, or whether we allow ourselves to be manipulated by powers who would rather see us fighting with one another rather than finding and furthering solutions to long festering and seemingly entrenched problems.

 

Thank you for listening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can improve our public discourse, or to see any articles you may have read about online culture.

 

Eve

 

Watch Eve's TEDx talk here!

About the Author

Eve Bridburg is the Founder and Executive Director of GrubStreet. Under her leadership, the organization has grown into a national literary powerhouse known for artistic excellence, working to democratize the publishing pipeline and program innovation. An active partner to the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Eve was the driving force behind establishing the country’s first Literary Cultural District in downtown Boston. Her work has been recognized by Boston Magazine, who named her one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women and by ​BostInno Magazine who gave her their 2014 Arts and Entertainment Award for driving innovation in Boston. Having graduated from its inaugural class, Eve remains active with the National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Program, a consortium of 200 of the world’s top cultural leaders, which addresses the critical issues that face the arts and cultural sector worldwide. Eve has presented on the future of publishing, what it takes to build a literary arts center, and the intersection of arts and civics at numerous local and national conferences. Her essays and op-eds on publishing, the role of creative writing centers and the importance of the narrative arts have appeared in The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Cognoscenti, Writer's Digest and TinHouse. Eve serves on the Advisory Board of The Loop Lab, a new Cambridge-based nonprofit dedicated to decreasing youth violence and drug abuse by increasing job opportunities. Eve worked as a literary agent at The Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency for five happy years where she developed, edited, and sold a wide variety of books to major publishers. Before starting GrubStreet, she attended Boston University’s Writing program on a teaching fellowship, farmed in Oregon, and ran an international bookstore in Prague.

See other articles by Eve Bridburg