I’ve been living in Southern Illinois for about two months now, and I haven’t really made any friends yet outside Jessica’s friends. I left a note at the local Co-op grocery store expressing interest in volunteering, but no one ever called me. I sent an email to the Big Muddy Independent Media Center volunteering my web development skills to improve their website, but no one responded. I posted on the local Craig’s List about starting a band, but no one responded. One might conclude that this town doesn’t like me, but I suspect it just has different means of communication.

Southern Illinois isn’t big on web-based communication, and I can’t often bring myself to drive the twenty minutes into town, from our place out in Murphysboro, for what often seems like a waste of time and gas. So I stay at home a lot, which I think is a bad thing. We’ve been looking at moving, but our lease here goes through August, so we’ll need to find a pretty nice place to make it worth moving before then. Meanwhile, I’m writing a lot more email and talking on the phone a lot more than I ever have before. But that’s not really making me any friends.

There are a few people in the area who actively communicate via the internet. There’s a group of bloggers at Carbondale Bytelife who seem to share my inclination towards online communication. They were searching for additional contributors when I first moved to the area, and I tried volunteering for that too, but the email bounced and I didn’t follow up, so no friends there yet.

But I believe I am making some enemies there, so I guess that’s a start. Part of the reason I didn’t follow up on my bounced email was that Carbondale Bytelife is full of discussion of Carbondale, and being new to the area, I don’t really know much about Cardbondale, so I have few opportunities to jump in. I do know a bit about electoral politics though, having participated in a few campaigns, served as electoral judge, and managed a voter registration drive. So the Carbondale mayoral election seemed like a good place to add my voice to the mix.

There’s an old saying about the three things you should never talk about in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics. I regularly discuss all three, so I guess I’m a slow learner. Or maybe just impolite. I believe my first comment to a Carbondale blog was to question why Bob Pauls listed the age of each mayoral candidate in a post about candidate websites. It struck me as a way to caricature candidates and vote on those caricatures rather than actual issues (e.g. Obama is "the black candidate," nevermind what his positions are). But apparenly Bob is just concerned about the "digital divide" and thinks age is a big part of it. I’m not so sure age is a big part of it, but I thought better of pursuing the issue and establishing myself through disagreement.

But I guess my better judgement lapsed when I read a post by someone I only know as "dave" on the mayoral primary, which seemed to be subtly skewed in favor of the incumbent, Mayor Cole. Truth be told, I didn’t realize as I was pointing out the bias I saw that I was commenting on dave’s personal blog and not Carbondale Bytelife, which I believe was formerly known by the name of dave’s blog Carbondaley Dispatch. But that probably wouldn’t have changed what I wrote much. I don’t know much about the candidates, but I’ve had an anti-incumbent bias every since I learned that incumbent candidates have a ridiculously high re-election rate. That just can’t be healthy for democracy.

So I’d been reading a lot of pro-Cole discussion in the local blogs, and had the general impression that he was a widely liked Mayor and would probably win by a landslide. But then he lost in the primary (came in second to the only other candidate who will be in the final election), and that made me wonder if the people I’d been reading weren’t confusing their hopes for reality. So with that suspicion, I read dave’s post, which makes an analogy between Cole losing the primary and a famous boxing match between Ali and Foreman. I don’t know a lot about boxing, but I know Ali won that fight, and Cole was analogous to Ali in the post, so it immediately struck me as a sort of cheerleading for Cole.

So I said as much. I suggested dave was letting his own bias slip into his writing in subtle ways throughout the post, and he should state his bias upfront so readers could interpret his words with a grain of salt. At this point, I had no reason to think dave was anything other than a voter who somewhat favored Cole, but was trying not to show bias. I know there’s a widespread myth that people shouldn’t have bias, and I think that’s harmful to public discussion, so in my comment suggesting dave should be more open about his bias, I said It's okay to have a political bias, in the hopes that he wouldn’t feel the need to act unbiased.

I think everyone is biased, and pretending otherwise is just silly. Later in the comments, someone wrote I believe you should tell them you're on Brad's payroll, Dave. I first thought this was sarcasm, suggesting that my perceptions of bias were inaccurate, that I was seeing bias where none existed. But then dave wrote How many times must I say that I maintain Cole's web site? That’s when I realized that the earlier comment was not actually sarcastic. This really changed the whole discussion. So dave’s writing about a mayoral election, and he maintains the website for one of the candidates. I tried to move past my initial reaction of "are you serious?" and actually answer dave’s question, saying I think it's standard practice for writers to include such a disclaimer every single time a conflict of interest comes up.

I do this myself, as you may have noticed. When I wrote about ethanol, for example, I mentioned in the second sentence that my employer has clients in the ethanol industry. I’ve had very little interaction with those clients, and the largest of them had just recently cancelled their contract with my employer somewhat abruptly, so I could make a reasonable case that this doesn’t bias my opinion of ethanol at all. But that would be ridiculous. Everything biases my opinions. Everything I read, everyone I work for, even everything I eat. I likely have a bias towards brown things because I like chocolate. I don’t really recognize this bias, but it makes sense that I would have it, because everyone is biased. Everyone.

Everyone except dave apparently, who wrote a new post today titled Biased my *sterisk, explaining his belief that he is not biased regarding the mayoral election, despite being employed by one of the candidates. He wrote: So what am I supposed to do? Quit? Not comment on the race?

To answer the rhetorical question: no, dave is not supposed to do any of those things. That would be ridiculous. Because bias is so pervasive, we shouldn’t let it disrupt our ability to discuss interesting topics. And we don’t need to go out of our way to try to compensate for it, as dave did by listing a bunch of things he doesn’t like about his employer, Cole. All we need to do is simply state obvious conflicts of interest when they come up. I don’t think that’s a huge burden, and it makes it easier for everyone to understand our perspective.

One might argue that our employers are not actually our primary conflicts of interest, that focusing on them creates a distorted image of our perspective. And I think that would be an interesting argument. But dave doesn’t appear to be saying that. He’s just claiming he has no bias, which I maintain is just silly. Because everyone is biased.

 

Yesterday I was listening to a teleconference, and the local phone was muted. I started thinking about how speaking turns are negotiated in teleconferencing. Turn negotiation is increasingly an issue as less and less of our communication happens face-to-face anymore.

Different communications technologies allow for different styles of turn-taking. In iChat, for example, I can see when someone starts to type something, so I’ll wait for them to finish before going on with the conversation, or I’ll try to respond to their previous comment before they make another. It can be a little awkward at times, though, because the order we start speaking doesn’t always line up with the order of messages as they’re sent.

In email, this is less of an issue because there’s a longer gap between messages, but it can still be confusing on mailing lists when someone who doesn’t check their email obsessively is responding to a question that was asked yesterday and has already been answered several times and forgotten by the rest of the list.

I’m particularly interested in this issue because I’m pretty awful at turn taking in face-to-face conversation. Things should be easiest with all the context of visual cues and body language indicating who is about to speak, but I have a hard time taking what should be my turns in conversation. People tell me I don’t talk much. Hmm… I wonder if anyone ever tells someone they don’t listen much.

A long time ago I read that Ghandi, or maybe it was Buddha, would speak little so the few words had more impact. I remember thinking well of myself when I read that, but that’s entirely justification, not motivation, for my own speaking less. I failed my first driving test because I was too slow to pull out into traffic. If there were a conversation test, I’d fail that for the same reason.

So anyway, that’s what got me thinking about turn negotiation in teleconferencing, and in the process, I think I came up with a decent idea for a business. The elevator pitch: it would be the American Idol model of user-selected media applied to teleconferencing.

Phone Idol?

So rather than calling and voting on contestants you watch on TV, you would call to vote on contestants you hear on the phone. You and another random person listen to each other for a span of time, maybe a minute, and then you each press a button on your phone to vote on how interesting the other person’s speech/song/whatever was.

Then you move on and repeat this process for a few rounds until someone with something interesting to share has come out on top by social selection. Then everyone is patched in to hear the winning person do whatever they want to do on the teleconference for a minute or so. Rinse, and repeat.

The winning audio clips could be recorded and published as a podcast to increase the incentive to participate. Ads could run on the teleconference, or maybe it would work with a 1-900 number. I’m sure someone with an MBA could work out the business model, but I think there’s a business there waiting to be made.

Or maybe someone has already done something like this. I’ve never used one of those "party lines." Are they anything like this, or is that more of a dating thing? I don’t suppose there are many original ideas of things to do with phones any more, but I thought it was interesting enough to write up.