Frank Mitchell

Evolving conversation spaces

Blogs are one-way publications

“But at its very heart, blogging is a one-way communication tool. Comments have their pros and cons, but they are subsidiary. Comments are not forum-threads. Blogs are about one person…deciding what she wants to write about and how…every post is one voice going out and replies echo back with more or less of a time-lag.”

Anja Rau

It’s true. Forums, like TTLG, are much better suited for group communication than blogs are. However, the development of technologies like TrackBack and Pingback is pushing the blog towards being its own kind of conversation space. With the advent of community oriented blog sites (Livejournal) we’re starting to see conversations that are akin to something you’d have on the telephone.

That post, comment, response, pattern is an interesting one. Given that most blog publishing software allows you to be notified via email when someone replies to something you’ve posted, dealing with a flood of responses becomes trivial for anyone who habitually checks their email several times a day.

Essentially, this turns a blog into a public repository for a bunch of one-line emails. It’s almost a merging of a blog and a forum, with the caveat that only one person is allowed to create new forum posts. Therefore, it’s one person’s ideas that drive the conversations, and so at its core, communication is still one-way.

Blogs are owned and branded

“I just don’t see conversation flourishing to its full potential in the highly owned and branded environment of the blog.”

William Blaze

You almost have to meet on neutral ground for conversation to flourish. I spent 2+ hours talking on the phone with Sarah last night. The phone is both a natural and a two-way communication space. Email (modeled after letter writing) is similar. No one person owns an email conversation or phone conversation. No one person decides what will and won’t be said there.

But blogs are owned and branded. Can’t Count Sheep looks nothing like, and the ideas that Gina and I publish are our own. While I may talk about an idea she’s published, I do so in my own space. My words are my own, and they fit better in this space than they do in a tiny comment box on someone else’s site.

That’s part of the reason why any comments you see here are going to be set off as quotes. I filter comments and try to integrate them as extensions of my own writings. They aren’t my words or my ideas, but I want them to fit as naturally into my personal space as they possibly can.

Blogs can converse in their own space

“What makes blogs cool is that they are one-way communication-tools with built-in dominoe effect. This easy to use, short genre is perfect for picking up a thought (or meme) somewhere, commenting on it, extending it, transforming it and thus passing it on.”

Anja Rau

Tools like TrackBack and Pingback give bloggers some rudimentary power over the discovery and auto-integration of the sites that link to them. They allow each blogger to converse in their own space, while at the same time ensuring that the links which connect the spaces together don’t get lost.

Technorati takes the concept even further by simply following the links that bloggers naturally embed in their posts. It abstracts the conversation into a non-owned space, thus freeing bloggers from having to track links themselves and allowing conversations to develop more naturally. Everyone gets their own soapbox, and no one has to worry about someone else’s soapbox not fitting into their design.

But as Stephanie Hendrick points out in some of her research, that model seems to be changing, and may not last into the future. There are fewer links than there used to be:

“i believe that weblogers are still communicating, but it is not nearly as easy to follow a conversation as it was even a year ago… people are linking less…but they are still communicating. i believe…that this particular group has already formed its inner core. they read each other and feel a strong enough tie to each other that they feel comfortable in using more personal ways of communicating (chat, email, etc).”

Communities are popping up all over the place (Livejournal as an example again), and once they’re entrenched it’s hard for outsiders to break into them. They have their own terminology, their own inside jokes, and their own conversations that take place outside of their blogs. Yet those conversations directly color the material that gets posted to their blogs. So anyone doing research might get left in the dark simply because they’re not privy to the entire conversation.

Blogs are the future

“…I think the key is to look at the blog as a path towards a better designed conversation space, not as the conversation space itself.”

William Blaze

As more and more of my friends get blogs of their own, I find it harder and harder to talk myself into posting comments on their sites. I don’t want to have to register separate accounts on Livejournal, and Blogger, and deviantART just to leave comments. Heck, I don’t even want to have to type my comments into those inadequate little <form> fields.

I want to be able to comment in comort, not worry about how formatting will affect things, know you’ll receive my comment, and empower you (as the receiver of my comment) to publish it or not as you see fit. After all, that blog is your personal space, not mine. So lets use a pre-existing conversation space that’s designed to do just that.


Even that, however, is not a long term solution. Email has become so overrun with spam these days that unless we develop powerful filters to fight it, email won’t last long as a conversation space. Aggregation, however, might.

What if I can both read and respond to your blog with the same tool? Get message via XML, send message via XML. How hard would that be? Develop a specification for the sending side of things, and then let each blogging tool handle that comment data in the way that works best for it and its user.

Now my interaction with your blog is transparent (which I like), and you can still filter and preview messages before they’re posted to your site (which you like). Yes it’s another communication protocol, but this time it’s riding on top of RSS and Atom, so it’s not that big a jump from where we’re headed now.

If I can get all my information in a single format, I aught to be able to produce information that way as well.

Final thoughts

My not understand the conversation space you’re operating in isn’t a bad thing. My desire for a more flexible future-proof conversation space isn’t bad either. After all, as Anja Rau says, “Blogs are about freedom of expression.” It simply means that I’d like our conversation spaces to evolve to take advantage off all the tools around us, and perhaps that yours are doing just that.