Dedication, active engagement and an inquisitive mind are preconditions of learning and professional development. Where they are impeded by any kind of negative sentiment, an insightful learning environment is difficult to sustain. While the commitment of an interested few is enough to spark activism, kick off projects and lay out action angles, it needs more to maintain impetus and develop things further. This also applies to digital writing.

(Ralph W. Emerson)

(Ralph W. Emerson)

On the day that marks the first birthday of G+ Communities, it is appropriate to reflect on my experience with it. First, I was sceptical about communities, because I feared that my strem would be deprived of relevant information if that info was only circulated in communities and not shared publicly. Soon it turned out that my most important sources still continued to post publicly, so as of now I don’t think this fear is much of a problem, although I still wish Google would let us share posts both publicly and in communities at the same time. But anyway, my most valuable experience I gained when I set up a community myself.

In March, I had a chance to work with a group of peer tutors for #acwri at the writing center of the University of Frankfurt/Main. Our topic was digital literacy and student writing and my task to introduce the peer tutors to digital tools that might enrich peer tutoring. One of the most important lessons I learned that day was about the importance of an administration with an open mind that give their staff a real chance to explore. I learned that professional development not just requires technical training, but first and foremost a commitment to innovation – an honest commitment to innovation, and not the kind of “Oh yeah, and our writing workshop has a blog, which we hardly use and if we do, all we post is ads.”

Given the broadness of the topic and the interest of the tutors, a single workshop was not enough. They wanted to do more and so I set up a G+ community for #acwri peer tutors. About five tutors make up the initial core of that community and they were provided with assist-starting from the head of their writing center, who would join in on the first few monthly hangouts. This small but dedicated group then settled in this environment over the next few months, learning about G+ and Gapps, sharing experience, asking questions etc. revolving around their common topic. Hangouts soon turned into a habit, binding the group together and allowing for constant development.

There is an annual conference on peer tutoring in Germany, for which I wrote a short proposal. The group then presented their community at this conference, hoping to find the interest of more dedicated tutors who might want to join in to communicate and cooperate. At the days of the conference, many more did join, but none of them for the sake of participation. Membership increased tenfold – from five dedicated doers to now 55 free-riders. Quite frankly, the whole thing ended in desaster. Some passive bystanders were quick to demand the peer tutors’ community be made accessible to everyone who may want access, regardless of whether these people actually contribute or just act like leeches. Although I was (and still am) passionately against letting everyone in without clearly informing newcomers about the duties that come with a learning community, I did not speak up. Unfortunately, the Good Men and Good Women who think what they demand is equal rights and open access are unaware that in fact they are poison to a healthy information ecosystem: Active digital communities require commitment, free-riders stifle the engagement even of the engaged few. Lurking is fine as long as the active part of a community outweighs lurkers – if lurkers swamp a small community of doers, the latter are silenced.
In a community aiming at professional development, it is not ok to claim that passivity is alright – because it is not. Participation is at the core of digital writing. If you do not write, you do not participate. If you do not participate, you do not write. Leechers should be told that in a small community their behavior is not without consequence. It kills. Writing center staff more than often are negligent of that and instead lull their tutors into the false assumption that participation were optional. While that may be the case in their institutions, it is not in digital learning environments, where participation is the beating heart of shared professional development. Inviting people to digital networks and telling them at the door that passiveness is fine is to ignore your educational mandate. Digital writing environments are not harnessed through obdurate institutional thinking.
In three months time, no significant contribution was made to the G+ community mentioned here.
Not a single newcomer felt a need to attend the hangouts – they have by now been discontinued.
An obsolete frame of mind has poisoned the roots of what could have become – even already was –  a grassroots movement. That’s what you get, if you listen to the PC but clueless. If you cater for the masses, you run the risk of compromising the passionate.

German writing centers do not yet provide sustainables environments for digital writing – they don’t yet seem to have an idea as to what such an environment could possibly look like. (That this is different in other parts of the world can be seen, for example, from the latest issue of the Journal of Academic Language and Learning, Vol. 7, No.2 (2013), which presents the proceedings from a conference in Australia earlier this year.) In Germany, however, many consider it bon ton to dismiss digital writing on the grounds of institutional data protection policies; while data security and privacy issues are important topics, they shouldn’t be pushed forward as an excuse to avoid proper discussion of digital writing, which is markedly absent in professional conversation (at conferences, etc.). Where it is employed, readers may at times get the impression of a neglect of the changes digital writing brings for genres and for communication. Digital writing, however, is not mainly about tools, it is not your same old kind of writing now hacked into a computer; it is about changes in the minds of writers, changes in habits, changes in attitudes, and almost all of these changes involve others as they aim to bring about a participative culture many academics are clearly unfamiliar with.