Home » Archive » The present future of conversations

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Kottke writes:

“… can we have a discussion about where technology and user experience on the web are headed without using any of the following words or concepts:

Ajax, web services, weblogs, Google, del.icio.us, Flickr, folksonomy, tags, hacks, podcasting, wikis, bottom-up, RSS, citizen journalism, mobile, TiVo, the Long Tail, and convergence.

That all seems like the present and past, not the future, no? … What else is out there? Anything?”

103 comments ensued generating a very interesting conversation … well, a kind of conversation, more like many monologues at once.

It was just this sort of phenomena that prompted a real conversation between Dave Pollard and I. When we first started talking we were trying to understand how to better leverage all the great, individual thinking being done on blogs because what Kottke hosted wasn’t a conversation at all. It was nearly 80 people carrying on their own conversations with themselves while others watched. That’s not a conversation — that’s philosophical voyeurism spiced with a hint of insanity.

Since our first chat Dave’s put up a set of guidelines for what might become real conversations through blogs. And while the whole thing is worthwhile, I think there are some highlights to bring out. First, he’s deliberately steered us away from the usual format of blogs (no links, no graphics, and only people invited to participate). Second, it actually involves discussion (actual voices, slightly edited for palatability, etc.). Finally, the people need to be knowledgeable or clever — most blogs with 103 comments usually float a lot of dead wood.

So, to Kottke’s list of over-played words I would add “conversation”. And to the ideas that form the future, I would also add the same.


After kottke picked this up, Will Femia of Clicked on MSNBC grabbed it and said:

“We learned a similar lesson with our chat rooms and message boards; most people were going there to say their piece, not listen to others and discuss. Providing a forum is not the same as conducting a conversation. If the future is able to come up with a new way to conduct conversation it’ll be a bigger revolution than most people realize. Most of our media right now, even when there are guests representing “both sides” consist of nothing more than single perspectives presented in series.”

So, what are we going to do about it?


Good observation. Perhaps we can take some cues from the classical rhetoricians…

The Wikipedia discussion pages are often filled with fascinating debate. It’s interesting to note that while the discussions are not supposed to be focused on the topic of the article but content of the article itself, I often learn more about the topic from the discussions than from the article. Take the discussion on the Intelligent Design article for example. Interesting stuff.

Thanks Sam,

Great thought on the rhetoric. I’ve had some salty fights with a philosopher friend on the tenents of rhetoric, its power, our responsibility, and its use.

What did you have in mind when you suggested it?

On Wikipedia — didn’t even know those debates existed. From your example, it’s clear I’ve been missing out. Thanks for the tip.

The basic problems that the classical rhetoricians faced are pretty much the same ones that we’re discussing now. Debates took place in public, and there were still disreputable, dishonest, or uninformed participants to deal with. It seems like they probably figured all of it out a long time ago, and those texts are out there just waiting to be applied to contemporary technology.

I don’t think censorship is appropriate. Requiring that contributors are “knowledgeable or clever” forces you to be able to judge people and somehow determine if they meet the criteria to chip in. I think it’s better to defend your point of view, and let the audience decide what the truth is. Wikipedia discussions are a great example of this kind of strategy. They have some guidelines to keep people civil and on track.

It might just be an issue of time and energy. Wikipedia has attracted a lot of smart people that invest a lot of time and energy into it. Few weblogs have that kind of community. If nobody’s interested in having a discussion in the first place (or simply don’t know how to), then what you’ll end up with will probably be a little random.

There’s a form of appropriate censorship that’s possible: don’t allow comments that don’t contain either some of the post or some of the resulting comments. That forces responses to specific text, and it seems to me that it’d be pretty easy to get some software together that automates that.

That can be combined with a desired ratio of comment-to-quote, which cuts down on “me toos” and encourages contributions to content, and also requires no human editing. I’d read the comments at Eschaton if something like this was in place there.

When it comes to comments it seems like a lot of time is wasted convincing instead of creating. It’d be nice if on my blog I didn’t have to spend time explaining why socialism doesn’t work or why we shouldn’t teach intelligent design in schools. Maybe before the discussion is begun the participants could be narrowed to a group of open but like minded people.

Most of the ideas being debated today are simply more efficient labeling mechanisms and that’s ok because that’s the first requirement for building systems that build knowledge and facilitate creativity. I’m building one such system and you need a pretty beefy 3d accelerator to make it work.

Guys, this is good stuff.

Sam – (sorry, for some reason I didn’t see this comment till now) Were the debates publically held and the debators debated or were all comers welcome to weigh in? There’s a difference right?

Michael – It’s not so much the “me toos” that ruin the party, it’s the “well I‘s”. The people that want to be heard more than they want to discuss.

Kirk – Have you tried not convincing? Seems like that might cut a fine swath through your audience — define your reader by focusing on the frontier arguements. Only those that can keep up will keep up.

There’s no fix. What you’ve noticed is a basic fact of human interaction, made clearer by the persistent nature of web communication.

In any discussion surrounding a topic of strong interest (a topic generating strong opinions) you will find that — no matter what you do! — less than two percent of participants are interested in or capable of changing their opinions. Most “discussion” consists of people finding ways to oppose, deny, or otherwise overthrow arguments which do not support the opinions they have already formed.

Intelligent and informed people do this procedure cleverly, and their words LOOK like reasoned argument. But if you watch closely, and let the discussion continue, you’ll see it’s just complex rationalization designed to strengthen their pre-established opinions. People without the same resources generally resort to dogma and insult to achieve the same end.

My advice? Look for the two percent or less of the population which is actually interested in and capable of absorbing new information, and changing their beliefs to reflect that information. The rest are just wasting your time in one way or another.

…and by the way: the first thing you, of course, is ask yourself when was the last time you actually changed your mind on a topic you regard as important?

Dirk, glad you dropped by. Especially if your the Dirk from Tasmania, author of several books, and discoverer of hot air rising — but if you’re not, I’m still interested.

I don’t believe you that there’s no fix. Ok, if we’re limiting ourselves to just blogs — then you’re probably right. Otherwise, I’m not convinced.

The current format of blogs is one where we each cast volleys at the wide range of issues. In this case, I’m on your side, we’re sunk. But if we free ourselves up from the current format or even the current medium — I think we can generate change.

Change can come from several directions. And, I agree with you, flipping is usually the least productive. But growing change works marvellously; people love to grow. Just compare the sales of “self help books” with those of “political debate books” and it’s clear — people can be changed through their deep desire to grow.

The trick I’m trying to explore is this: How to change minds on important issues while distracting people with personal/business growth. Frankly, it’s plain economics. A mere incentive makes the difference.

Just too few spend the time to understand the driving incentives.

So, Dirk, what do you think? Too hoecky-poeky, far-flung, and naive? I’m interested, even if you aren’t from Tasmania.

And on important issues where I’ve recently changed my mind, here’s a couple: Shall I continue to seek God? What are the ethical issues involved when deciding to circumcise my son? How can you really believe in something called “The Big Bang”?

Sounds like you’d want some sort of cross-network reputation system to allow you to dial up the signal-noise ratio. One has been used on Slashdot for years now, called “Karma.” Comments are moderated (and moderations are moderated to maintain fairness) as “Insightful, Interesting or Funny (positive) or as Troll, Flamebait or Offtopic (negative). This applies to the individual comment, as well as the user who posted it. Posts by often-approved posters may be given a “Karma Bonus.” There is also as a “Friend” system, for identifying people whose comments you wish to be elevated above the crowd (posts to friends may gain a karma boost in your view).

Here’s a freebee (apparantly worth $20 unexecuted) software idea: couldn’t you establish something like this by drawing some information from Google’s pagerank system? You maintain a personal hotlist of emails/URIs (an inexact, but suitable proxy for a person or philosophy) as a “friends” list. A mozilla plug-in then can call out posts on blogs whose URI appears, (or via pagerank is linked to), a site on your hotlist (presuming the entire post is tagged with that email/URI in the XML).

Jaz I’ve got a Karma Bonus for you … I got an idea where you should stick it too.

Your ideas are great ones. Especially if we’re intent on screening comments (like yours above). But that’s not really what I’m after.

I’m not trying to exclude the trash or raise important comments … I’m trying to raise important conversations.

Filters don’t drive conversations well. And neither do blogs — generally.

Too much room to say silly things you wouldn’t be brave enough to say in person. And not enough security to say the things you really need to.

I’m not convinced the global conversation works.

I think you overstate the importance of actually saying “I agree” in any conversation that isn’t an actual physical conversation. That’s how I look at blog comments anyway, they’re not the same social space that a physical gathering is – and they don’t have to be. Sampling from 50 people stating their piece works quite well.
That’s also why I think trackbacks are a lot more interesting than comments – let people join your conversation into their own conversation and learn from that instead.