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.