A month ago I asked you all about the best digital platforms for hosting long form discussion. I’ve been exploring this topic, and wanted to follow up.
One reason is that there have been some really excellent conversations on my Facebook wall. The way this works is that I post a leading question, sometimes seeded with a link or image. Some proportion of these sink without a trace, or elicit barely a comment or two. Others catch fire for whatever reason, either because Facebook deigned to display the post to my friends, or because the topic intrigued them, or both. Sometimes the thread isn’t one I started, but one kicked off by a thoughtful friend posting on my wall.
Recently successful conversations have covered an odd mix of topics: the future of American football, the North Korean crisis, very bad puns, personal health and diet, Bernie Sanders supporters and Trump, legacy admissions to elite universities, masculinity and emotions, the idea of Medicare for all, Charlie Hebdo, and the Utah nurse arrest. Each of these featured interesting comment threads which wound their way through opposing viewpoints and different perspectives…
…until they died. You see, once a thread gets long enough, Facebook’s design makes it hard to follow. Clicking on a new comment via the Notifications tab brings you to the top of the discussion, rather than to a specific point. Facebook also hides some of the comments, so people don’t respond to them, leading to redundancy and/or confusion. Meanwhile, none of this is indexed by Google, so it’s hard to find. And Facebook’s structure buried these threads very quickly.
Since we users can’t do anything to influence or even converse with Facebook designers, there’s little we can do.
What are our options, if we’d like to pursue such discussions?
My August blog post included references to a variety of sites, including Facebook, Google+, blogging, and Reddit. Generous commentators reflected on these, then supplied more:
Google+ (thanks to Michael McAllister) (and thanks to G+ militant George Station). G+ has many advantages. Google indexes it, of course. Each comment is linkable. Any user can see content. G+ is really not too far from blogging. Two downsides: few people use it, and anti-Google sentiment is rising.
Discussion boards (thanks to Joseph Ugoretz): I share the admiration for those when they work well. For years I participated in one hosted by Howard Rheingold. I see some modern sites filling similar functions, like Reddit and MetaFilter.
Discourse seems like an updated discussion board. I should be able to run one of these.
Flipgrid (thanks to macurcher): this sounds fascinating, and I’d like to try it. It seems to be more media-centric than others.
Collaborative whiteboards (thanks to Tom Haymes): these have nicely low barriers to entry, and are more playful. They might not work for long-term discussion, though, being better suited to short-term brainstorming and development.
email listservs (thanks to Jason): as old as I am, just about, and yet still going strong. One problem is their closed nature.
Other commentators posed responses not about tech, but strategy. Characteristically thoughtful Alan Levine phrased a question in terms of scale: “Is it hundreds/thousands or more of participants you seek, or maybe a smaller number of rabid conversants?” I didn’t and don’t have a good answer to that. My value is conversation. Does that require a larger scale for obvious reasons (more eyeballs, greater number of perspectives, increased chance of commenting), or simply a round table of eager participants?
Gordon Lockhart raised the idea of not sticking to a single site, but working through multiple venues, using a technology like RSS to integrate the flow, cMOOC style. A hub site could organize the lot.
Where does this leave us?
We have options, although the tide seems to be drawing out towards Facebook.
- Pick one of these tools and settle into it. Today I’m learning towards Google+, Flipgrid, and discourse.
- Embrace the “small pieces loosely joined” model of the web, and knit together discussions across domains. (This is how the book club works)
- Withdraw from social media and stick to “offline” venues like closed email lists and learning management systems.
- Focus on Facebook, and make the damned thing work.
Now, as for me… I have several options, and also some plans that are proceeding which might intersect these choices (he said cryptically) . I’m thinking of trying out Flipgrid and Discourse, then pushing more stuff towards G+. The next round of the book club should continue along the lines of #2 above.
What do you think?