Darby Wong

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The topic of my project was the rule in American English grammar that certain punctuation, such as commas and periods, following quotations, should be moved into the quotation marks. For my project, I decided to create a webpage to raise awareness and also to try and incite a rebellion against this rule.

I felt the need to raise awareness since most Americans learn the rule in elementary school. Many people may have since grown so accustomed to following the rule that they instinctively follow it. In addition, there are many people who have little exposure to this rule in their chosen field (e.g., software engineers).

The rebellion I wanted to incite was one in which people consciously disobeyed the rule. As a child, spelling and grammar were taught to me as if they were immovable, set in stone. But as I grew older, I realized that the conventions of language change over time. I realized that dictionaries and rulebooks reflect the practices of the people, as well as the beliefs of their writers. My goal, in trying to move people to disobeying this rule, was to ultimately reform American English grammar.

I created my webpage in the form of a Facebook group. I did this for several reasons. First, it provided an easy way to publicize the webpage. It is easy to invite others to view the group. Facebook features, such as having groups displayed in the ‘mini-feed’ and profile of anyone who joins the group, facilitate viral publicity. Second, there is a signaling effect from the ability to see how many members a group has, as well as the messages group members post on the “wall”. Visibility of the popularity and vibrancy of a group could help sway the undecided. Third, there is a sticky quality to Facebook groups that normal webpages don’t have. With a normal webpage, people read it and then probably forget about it. With a Facebook group, if someone chooses to join the group, it’s on their profile. They’re bound to see it every once in a while and be reminded of its existence.

To make my group, I first developed a name that expressed the thesis in as elegant and succinct a manner as I could think of. Then, I wrote out the arguments and main points for my position in a casual style that I felt would be natural to a Facebook group. I had a strong urge to bullet point some parts in order to make it more clear, but decided the extra clarity was not worth the risk of coming across as overly formal and turning off readers. Finally, I did a Google image search for “revolution fist”, and found an image of a clenched fist to use as the group picture. I was a bit dismayed to see that the drawing had been done on lined paper, but then decided this could be used as a subtle reference to grade-schools.

After creating the group, I embarked on a two-step publicity campaign. I first invited around 40 friends, whom I thought might be receptive, to join the group. After getting my first members, I then picked a Facebook group called “America Needs to Switch to the Metric System” and invited all of its members (around 500). I picked this group because of the similar theme (i.e., switching to a system that makes more sense). I suspected that members of this group would be more likely to support and join my group than a random sampling of the Facebook population. While the conversion rate doesn’t have a direct bearing on the success of the project, more members means more publicity as well as a signal of legitimacy. I did the invitations in two steps on the intuition that complete strangers would be more willing to join a group if there were already a significant number of members.

What I Learned… From My Project

Superficially, I learned that a lot of people agree with me. The group has grown quickly to over 260 members, a respectable size for a Facebook group. I’d like to share three particularly gratifying wall postings:

I have no idea how I was found to be invited to this group, but it musta been someone who knows me bc this is awesome… Who invited me? You rock…

before i was invited to this club i didn't believe in god...

omg... where has this group been all of my life

The first posting is from someone who was invited to the group by someone other than me. The group is still growing, but at this point I think it is more from viral publicity than from my initial invitations.

Working on this project, and this course in general, has taught me a lot about the value of empathic argument. I’ve heard a lot of people say the key to argument is approaching it from your opponent’s perspective. But this is the first time I’ve been able to see first-hand the benefits of empathic argument, perhaps because this was a focus, rather than an aside. When I first started this project, all I had in my mind was that this rule irritated me. But beginning to look at things from the other side, I realized that this was not persuasive. Why would a stranger care about how I feel? Thinking about things more, I realized it would be difficult to make a strong utilitarian argument. I came to be convinced that fundamentally, I felt strongly about the rule because I felt like its existence violated a world view I held. I determined that the best approach would be to figure out the world view, and assuming it was a commonly held one, try to structure my argument such that other people would also see the rule as violating that world view. This process of thought, coupled with the example of empathic argument in 8 Mile, led me to what I consider to be my key argument, which I put on the webpage:

Yea, the world isn't falling apart as we speak, but why should we be content with a mediocre status quo?

Though this project and talking with Professor Nesson, I now know what it feels like to have my argument and familiarity of it strengthened through analyzing issues from the other side. But one thing I also learned was how hard it is for me to keep the empathic perspective in mind. I think I have a natural tendency to want to take polarizing stances, perhaps as a form of self-deception. This came through on the webpage, where I initially referred to the rule as “stupid” and “retarded”. While this may work in some circumstances (e.g., when you want to annihilate the other group), I think this is sub-optimal for trying to win over the general public. I think that for me, one of the most important takeaways from the course is awareness of this tendency in myself. Like most self-improvement issues, I think this will be a constant struggle against my natural tendencies, but at least now I have an experience I can remember back to and compare against.