Is there a good digital platform for conducting long-form, multiple participant conversations in 2017?
I’m thinking of conversations that don’t end quickly, but develop and iterate as ideas are posed and reflected upon, with multiple participants weighing in over time.
This question has been in my mind for the past year, due mostly to frustrating Facebook experiences. I’m not referring to that company’s privacy practices or their baffling feed display algorithm, but to how difficult it is to hold a sustained conversation on that site. What makes this especially poignant is that it is the very success of such discussions that brings about their downfall.
You see, every week or so one of my posts will elicit a massive commenting response. Dozens of people will contribute dozens, then over one hundred replies. Topics are usually cultural, political, or technological, and I can’t always guess accurately ahead of time which will win the discussion jackpot. These are very gratifying and interesting. I learn a great deal – well, dear reader, you know my love of conversation.
Then Facebook breaks it up.
After a certain point the entire thread becomes hard to follow. Notifications no longer lead straight to a new comment, but default back to the originating post. Sub-threads race away, but become invisible at times, either because Facebook hides the raft of comments behind a “click here” tag, or simply refused to display them. I’ve seen some of my own comments vanish, and sometimes reappear with a page refresh, which can then hide others.
Some of this is due to the classic architecture of threaded discussions, I admit. But the rest is Facebook’s unique contribution. Its black-box algorithm plays games with promoting or hiding content, and that seems to apply to ongoing discussions. Facebook’s anti-hyperlinking culture means one can’t click reliable into a specific point in the conversation.
Ultimately, the discussion flags as participants can’t navigate their way back in and lose track of where the conversation has led. Inertia sets in. Things stall, then cease.
There are additional problems. People who aren’t part of the Facebook ecosystem can’t play. Facebook content doesn’t appear in Google, so discoverability is a challenge. And over time – in the case of an active user like myself, a few short days – the conversation falls into a profile’s depths, crowded out by subsequent posts, inaccessible.
So what should we do? How can we pursue long-form conversations and avoid these problems?
Here are some options.
The blogosphere Blogs offer better discussion architecture. Each comment is addressable, as is the entire conversation of post plus comments and inbound links (if visible, depending on platform).
Downsides: a growing number of users shun comments automatically. Most people don’t comment on blogs.
Should I experiment with this? I could post hopefully provocative questions on this site, and see if they summon up replies and/or links from elsewhere.
Discussion boards These still exist, appearing in online classes, technology support forums, and fan sites. When they aren’t siloed, as with learning management systems, Google can index and lead us to their content. There’s a longstanding culture of moderation dating back to the 1990s, which helps address troll problems.
Disadvantages: some (the LMS) are siloed. Overall, they have very little visibility, beyond 4chan’s notoriety. My impression is that not many people use them, or if they do, they don’t talk about it.
Would Reddit work? In my experience each /r/ board is very narrowly focused, which might restrict participation.
Make Facebook work Perhaps we can learn to make this ginormous platform work better. People do research into the algorithm, which gives us insights into how to make content visible.
Perhaps we can develop social protocols to keep conversations rolling, like launching a follow-up thread once the first reaches a certain threshold. The owner could post a comment at thread’s end announcing its closure, and relocation to the next one. This isn’t a hard practice to understand or implement. We could quickly grow accustomed to it.
Downsides: Facebook can change up on us at any time. People don’t always like to change their habits.
Messaging platforms, like Snapchat These have the advantages of rising popularity and some privacy, depending on the technology.
Unfortunately, they are often inaccessible to people not partaking of the ecosystem, and their content items are even less addressable than Facebook.
Video Videoconferencing can support thoughtful discussion, from the best webinars to our Future Trends Forum. The addition of visual information and sound expands participants’ awareness of other people, while enriching expression bandwidth. Technology allows us to support at least a dozen people in one space, up to hundreds in the case of Shindig.
The biggest problem video has for my purpose is that it’s only synchronous. Yes, we can record and publish short videos in response to other videos, but YouTube reply chains are too clunky. I dimly recall one platform – was it Hootsuite? – that let users record short videos in a discussion style, but that doesn’t seem to work now.
There’s one other problem for video. It’s much harder in terms of technical skill, network access, and device capability to record and publish video, leading to some digital divide issues.
Audio This is very similar to video in its strengths and weaknesses. The second podcast wave has shown us that we can hold good conversations through digital audio. But, once again, they are synchronous in composition. Although less technically demanding than video, audio does require more user skills, hardware, and bandwidth than does plain text.
Other social media tools I had hopes that Tumblr could serve this purpose, but text discussion there takes a backseat to image exchanges. Medium seems designed to minimize conversation in favor of article publication.
I’m a huge fan of Metafilter, which can host some rip-roaring conversations, guided ably by skilled moderators. Posting to the front page, though, is very tricky, and doesn’t always lend itself to open-ended questions.
A plurality of platforms How about a conversation that sprawls across multiple platforms? We’ve seen that done successfully through some cMOOCs, which run the social media table. Our book club has followed this pattern, with participants contributing stuff through comments on my blog posts, their own blog posts, comments on other blogs, Twitter, Google+, and Facebook. Alternate reality games successfully navigate an at times bewildering range of platforms and technologies. We have some practices (hashtags, email updates) and tools to make this work.
Disadvantages: such conversations can sprawl out of visibility, so that participants only see a slice of it, based on their media habits. Discoverability becomes tricky, as we might Google our way into another slice and miss the whole, or just other segments. And hardware plurality can also make this hard, as power smartphone users dive into apps, cleaving apart from laptop and desktop owners, not to mention tableteers.
…and is that it? Are we at a stage in 2017 where there isn’t a good digital site to host long-form, asynchronous discussion? Have we raced so far beyond the ages of BBS and Usenet that we can no longer capture what they did well? Is this an opportunity for innovating a new platform, or is there just a social media practice awaiting our invention?
Will we get retro and dust off the old BBS? Some hipster might now be coding, well, not an artisanal discussion board, but an interesting and pleasantly redesigned one for general use.
Or the solution lies ahead, in the future. Perhaps we’re heading towards an emergent practice or platform. We might integrate video or audio more deeply into our social media use, especially as we make more of the stuff with mobile devices, so that a video-based BBS becomes feasible, then acceptable. We could use AI to help knit together distributed conversations.
Alternatively, we could lose this discussion habit in general. We could instead use the wide range of other human interaction formats that digital devices make possible… but it would be a loss.
(photos by Mohamed Sahnoun and Quinn Dombrowski)
I also posted this to FB, so excuse cross posting, but my own students have liked using Flipgrid for a video format discussion. These are teachers taking CPD courses online and based across the world, so they like being able to see each other and interact.
I’m going to try it. Thanks!
I don’t have an answer, though I think Google Plus Communities might still come close as a format that promotes discussion. It’s also times like these when I mourn the long-ago passing of Howard Rheingold’s Electric Minds community (archived at http://www.rheingold.com/electricminds/html/). Smart, engaged folks with everything under the sun. I don’t remember any trolling, either. That was for Usenet.
Maybe we should encourage people back to G+ for another try.
(I hear you about Howard’s communities. I spend a *lot* of time in Brainstorms)
Is it really a platform question? While many blogs do not get rich discussion, I can cite a few that do. For every thousand single digit subscriber lists podcasts, there’s a Serial.
So I would start with the one that works best for you as producer. But then you have to build it up, likely though other platforms.
The problem now is one of diminishing or diluted attention energy– in the “old days” there were relatively few places, so people would “go” to a board or a forum. Now, I have serious reservations how few people or entities are strong enough that people will make a dedicated effort to keep “going”, hence the allure of Facebook, as Jonathan Worth describes as “going where the fish swim.” So FB gives you the place where you might get the numbers, but you are at the mercy of the algorithm.
Is it hundreds/thousands or more of participants you seek, or maybe a smaller number of rabid conversants? It happens (some, not platform wide) in Metafilter, but that community has built up over a long haul.
It happens in almost every platform, but not entirely *because* of the platform. It calls back to the call of a story.
It is often about story.
Alan, I’m asking both for myself and for the general internet.
For myself, I’m cobbling together from all of these, and am still not satisfied. I want more participants to enrich the conversation. Maybe G+ is an option.
For the digital world in general, FB seems to be where people are headed.
Perhaps you need to approach the problem sideways. Instead of a linear conversation space, how about a communal whiteboard. One platform that does this is Nureva. Their Span system is like a giant cloud-based virtual corkboard/whiteboard (https://www.nureva.com/span-system). It is designed around a hardware system but you can just get the software for free or a subscription fee (max. $15 per month). In your situation you’d only need one license to create canvases. You might want to start with free and then get a plan for $120-180 a year if the experiment works out for you.
You could then share the canvas out via a link as part of a challenge blog, post, or tweet. You can decorate and organize the board and you have complete control over the environment. You use the traditional platforms (blog, Facebook, Twitter) to solve your discoverability issue only. The conversation is on the canvas. The other good thing is that the commitment is marginal if you do the free version.
I find the idea of a visual collages very appealing as ideas are connected and struggled over in two-dimensional space – allowing more complex thinking. You could then go in at the end and develop a linear narrative out of the discussion. While their hardware products are pretty slick I really think Nureva has come up with a killer app in the form of a cloud-based collaboration board. I’m plugging this in part because I want to see where people take this medium. The product is relatively new (2015) and they’ve mainly been plugging it on the hardware side. I really think the software is where the paradigm shift will occur.
Tom, that sounds like fun.
Are items discoverable? And how far into the past can it go?
This is definitely an ‘in the moment’ kind of technology. However, it is persistant and you can just keep creating new canvases for new discussions. However, I don’t think it’s discoverable unless you archive a PDF and then publish that (but that’s frozen then).
I think good long form for bouncing ideas is still email listservs – if you can find one with a good group of people.
Good point, although that final provision is key.
What do you think about Web-based archives, Jason?
I am a founder of a new product called sushi. The goal is to bring an authentic conversation driven network with restricted size group chats. And bridge online communities to offline interactions. I can invite you to the early version if you reach out over Twitter @reggie_startups
Just pinged you there.
I favour a plurality of platforms in classic cMOOC style but some sort of hub to bring things together is also needed. This can be done quite simply in some circumstances. I wrote a very amateurish program that I ran during the Rhizo14 and 15 courses; my ‘Comment Collector’ ( gbl55.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/mooc-comment-scraper-update-4/ ) generated brief summaries of most WordPress and Blogger posts and comments by scanning and aggregating around 70 RSS blog feeds carrying the course tag – an example is here ( iberry.com/rz15.htm ). Of course participants have to have a blog but starting a blog is so easy these days.
Should we try for a new hub site, or just set up hubs as conversations flow?
I’d say try for a new hub site and use it to launch the activity, announce a tag etc. I recall that Stephen Downes’ ‘GrassHopper’ operated nicely as a hub during some of the CCK MOOCs but it did invite and publish comments about the various blog posts on the hub itself resulting in a sort of duplication which I found a bit confusing. I think the main advantage of a DIY hub though is openness and destiny control!
Hm. Maybe for the book club?
That could work and maybe has the advantage of a reasonably unchanging core of members (as books change) having RSS accessible blogs.
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Have you considered Slack? Discoverability and access aren’t the best, but once you have a group in a team, it would do what you want.
I did, Ben, but those two issues loom large.
Moreover, how well does Slack support accessing older content?
It does support threaded conversation and has good search capability. But, sounds like it’s not quite what you are looking for if you want discrete conversations rather than an ongoing chat. I think of it as modern IRC.
It feels like chat to me.
And so does Facebook, really.
I wish I had a good solution for this same question (been thinking about it in context of a class, but also for personal use). I still think discussion forums are a really good platform as a type–if they’re well-designed and functional. The problem is that I don’t currently like any of the ones that are/can be integrated well with WordPress (that’s the problem for a class). For a long time I was extremely happy with Simple:Press forums, but I started running into problems and they started becoming more fee-based. I’ve never liked bbPress at all, but it seems to be what we’re stuck with inside of WordPress these days.
I’ve been, over the years, outside of work, involved in multiple online forums that use dedicated discussion boards. That still seems to me, if the community is strong, to be an ideal way to build the community and have productive, searchable, long-form discussions. The Straight Dope and Subaru Forester forums are very active and usable.
Just recently, however, on the East Coast Cichlids forum (am I revealing too many of my own interests?), I’ve been following an interesting discussion about this very question. (ECC Forum uses vbulletin). The thread started off being about the current status of the aquarium hobby in general, but has migrated into a discussion of the hobby’s presence and activity on dedicated forums vs. Facebook groups. (Most seem to agree that you get far more participants on Facebook, but far less expertise–more signal but much more noise, so the ratio is not good). Some people in the group were somewhat lamenting the change. When people tend to use Facebook more, they tend to be less committed to the hobby, less committed to the quality of the information. On the other hand it’s easier to post pictures and videos to Facebook for most people.
I like dedicated discussion boards more. Definitely. But I’m going to go where the activity is in the communities I’m interested in. These days most of the fish and aquarium discussion really is on Facebook (and definitely most of the best pictures–with YouTube for how-to videos). It’s true that the best advice and information (and easiest to find) is in the dedicated forums. It seems that for most quick “look at this” or “I like this,” Facebook is really best. But for really finding out how to keep lepidiolamprologus hecqui from fighting too much, I’ll turn to ECC forum or Cichlid Forums. Or for really informed discussions about the state of the hobby or which collection points in Lake Tanganyika are environmentally threatened. Or detailed exploration of what makes an LFS (local fish shop) successful.
Joseph, did we take a wrong turn in migrating from discussion fora to Facebook?
I agree about those positive experiences. I’ve had some of my own, both in public (Reddit, now) and private (a discussion group hosted by Howard Rheingold).
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