Monday, September 15, 2008


Preface that is really an addendum: I posted this less than an hour ago, have come back and added an addendum, but still feel what I can only call guilt. How dare I criticize something that is so essentially good (especially when there is much on the Web that is essentially bad that needs criticism)? Well, I think the topic is the issue here, the idea of "groupspeak", and it is not a criticism of the website I specify in particular. It is the nature of groups, and something that I feel is worth at least thinking about. Besides, I'm a grouch (and you should always take what I write with a grain of salt - an expression I should devote an entire post to). Thus:

I recently joined Ravelry, a huge site that's primarily for knitters and crocheters. Unlike signing up with any other site that I know of, there's a "waiting list" to become a member of Ravelry. They say it's because they've grown so quickly and have trouble handling all the traffic, but there's a part of me that thinks the reason for the waiting list is more psychological.

I didn't think this at first, but since I've joined, there's been things about this site that have bothered me. At first, I was rather excited about Ravelry, and the opportunity to see the work of so many talented fiber enthusiasts. The amount of beautiful knitting being done right now is extraordinary.

But, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable quickly. I attributed this to the fact that it's a networking site, both for social and marketplace purposes. With this comes some things reminiscent of high school, like adding friends, gaining hearts for work admired by others and other indicators of how "popular" you are. I find this aspect of the Web to be a total turn-off and try to stay away from it. And here's a tip for anyone who's depressed and was unpopular as a kid: don't get sucked into the social networking sites. Unless you're really good at social networking, they'll bring up all the issues you thought were long dead and buried.

So I figured that was all that troubled me, and well, big deal. I'm a grown-up. I can handle the vague feelings of out-of-it-ness that the site was stirring up. But still, I felt uncomfortable. Was there more to it?

The answer is yes. The site is filled with people talking in groupspeak. Sure, if you're not a knitter, you don't know the difference between a purl stitch and a knit stitch, but this is not what I'm referring to. It's the adoption of words and phrases that have been made up by someone else and then become the norm. It becomes groupspeak (and starts to feel cult-like) when one gets the feeling that if you don't use the right words, you're doing something wrong, being shunned or any other consequences, however miniscule.

In fact, when I looked up the word (or is it a term?) "groupspeak" on Google, I was directed immedidately to a site about cults! Here's how they describe groupspeak: "Groupspeak” is another feature of all cults. Groups use what Lifton calls "the thought-terminating cliché”. Repetitive phrases, clichés, sayings, platitudes and buzz words are regularly invoked to describe all situations, and prevent further analysis or discussion. . .Lifton argues that the effect of it is critical to mind control “since language is so central to all human experience, .. capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed" Moreover, the “secret vocabulary” reinforces the idea of distance from the outside world."

Let me be clear. I don't think that Ravelry is a cult, but I do find it interesting that there is a subtle push to use phrases, cliches and buzzwords that the group has agreed on. As much as I adore Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's "At Knit's End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much", I object to the adoption of her funny acronyms as substitutes for talking about knitting in our own idiosyncratic ways. And, I am rather sad that my enjoyment of this very funny (and terribly clever) book, which I have turned to again and again to put a smile upon my face, is being eroded by the over-use of her terms.

I used to find SSS (Single Sock syndrome, wherein a knitter stops at one sock and doesn't knit a pair), or SABLE (Stash Acquisition Beyond Life Expectancy - owning more yarn than one can ever use) quite funny. I still do, but I'm irked. If I want to say that I have a problem finishing a pair of socks, I really would prefer to use my own words, instead of saying I've got SSS. But no, I need to learn the "lingo".

I suppose I could be harping on the use of common text message acronyms. It has been argued that the mass adoption of slang and other quick and dirty ways of communicating limits precise and individualistic forms of expression. I tend to dismiss these arguments out of hand, but I'm beginning to wonder if they may indeed hold some truth.

Maybe I'm bothered by the knitting thing because knitting has been such an important part of my life. I feel comfortable with other knitters because we share a common interest. We can ooh and aah over each other's projects, but I bristle at finding commonality with other folks because we know some secret acronyms (and maybe there's a secret knitter's handshake by now, for all I know). I don't want to know. Just let me knit in peace! Or shall I say, I just want to KIP?

Photo note: If I find out that Charles Manson is sitting in a prison cell whilst knitting, well. . .um. . .KIP also stands for Knitting in Prison!

Addendum: In spite of what I would call theoretical criticism of Ravelry, I want to add that not everyone who is on the site is "guilty" of what I describe. I also have much gratitude that such a site exists. It is a repository of so much fiber arts knowledge and creativity that it's rather hard to fathom! I suppose, being the curmudgeon that I am, I'm always seeing the dark side. . .

1 comment:

Will Shetterly said...

Good post. I was googling "groupspeak" and found it. My wife's on ravelry, and quite fond of it, but I'm sure she would agree that it's as susceptible to groupspeak as any other.