In his essay Warrior With Words: Toward a Post-Columbine Writing Curriculum, G. Lynn Nelson eloquently puts forth a theory of the-other-as-listener that creates some tension with the Web 2.0 paradigm of a seemingly limitless audience. Crudely put, Nelson argues that true, sincere, thoughtful self-expression through the telling of one’s own story can have a cathartic effect that displaces the need to use violence. That is, the telling of personal stories facilitates the creation of identity from within the teller; an end that might otherwise be sought through violent acts. If that’s the case, then hooray for the internet because anyone and everyone can be the listener. Not so fast.
Nelson cites the term “deep listening” from The Peaceable Classroom by Mary Rose O’Reilley to make an important distinction between types of audiences. On one hand are active listeners who soak in and process meaningfully the stories that flow into their ears. These listeners are characterized by a contemplative, nurturing, respectful silence. There is no judgment here. Pure and simple honest acknowledgement of the validity and importance of the teller’s story. On the other hand is the giant, faceless audience of the web. Comprised of hearers, this group is marked by its coldness, its objectivity. It lacks an investment in the story. It hears only partially, with one ear elsewhere. It hears without heart or empathy.
The desired catharsis: the craved release that is achieved through personal, serious storytelling cannot be realized among an audience of hearers. Does the internet, then, provide listeners of hearer? Clearly, hearers are in abundant supply while there is a dearth, if not complete absence, of listeners. Consequently, while the age of immediate digital publication has many benefits, it cannot replace the intimate realm of personal story.