One of the eternal refrains/laments/excuses thrown at most forms of social media, perhaps especially Twitter, is that “you can’t have a conversation.” Everyone has heard this and many of us have said this.
Whether it’s because of the character limit, the permeable membrane between public and private, the not-quite-real-time interaction, the fact that Twitter and Facebook are things usually at the edges and not the center of our attention, or any other reason — many, many people are unhappy with social networks as a medium of conversation.
Some of this a pushback against what frankly were and are exaggerated claims about what digital media could do to promote conversation. “Want to join the conversation? Add a comment below!” — as if it were just that easy. As if the fact that the group of people formerly known as the audience had and could immediately transform themselves into something else entirely, just by the sheer fact that they too could write for an audience.
Now, this is not true only of comments or Twitter or other social media, even if they get regularly hammered most as being “bad conversations.” Online forums, where people gang up on and ignore each other. Email, which is both now too formal and too cluttered. Texting runs into some of the same problems as Twitter and email. Skype and other video chats sometimes still seem a little weird, performative, almost uncanny, more like you’re acting in someone else’s home movie (and they in yours) than talking to them. Branch and other startups have tried to figure out a way to engineer a conversational structure, but I don’t think they’ve quite gotten a handle on it.
And obviously, you can take it to its limit: there are some conversations that people refuse to have over the telephone, and that it’s considered right and proper only to do in person.
But let’s stipulate that it is possible to have a technologically mediated conversation of high quality. Because it seems like with some things, we get there. The right Twitter or comment thread. A really good podcast, or TV/radio interview. (Although I think interviews are a little different.) A really good round of instant messaging.
And let’s stipulate that there are sometimes genuine hindrances to these being good media for conversation. Those hindrances may be technical, or conventional, or accidental, but I think they are real and not imaginary. Even if some of us have had and are having what we think of as good conversations in these places, not everyone always feels the same.
What makes these conversations work? I’m tired of people saying “you can’t have a conversation on Twitter” and other people replying “of course you can, dummy.” That pseudo-conversation has played itself out. I would rather try to figure out how, why, and under what conditions meaningful conversation happens.
I want to anatomize conversation. Or rather, I want to anatomize conversations, because they’re not all of one kind, and what counts as a good conversation in one kind of media is probably not a good conversation in a medium with different characteristics, strengths, or weaknesses.
Let’s make this even more ambitious. How can you make a conversation as a media object? I’m asking because I think the reason we circle around conversation is because we really do think that the interchange, exchange, and participation of ideas, the emergence of something new as part of a collaboration between two or more people, has inherent value.
Conversation is something we enjoy doing, we enjoy hearing, we enjoy seeing. And despite our misgivings about new media, conversation is not something old media did well, especially for public consumption.
The 20th century gave us the article, it gave us the debate, it gave us the interview. As McLuhan and Ong and Postman and everybody else told us, convincingly, it transformed oral culture into something new, that print culture and technical media could understand. It gave us the telephone and the radio, but neither of those get us all the way there.
We want something else. We’re dying for something else. It feels like with everything we’ve learned, with everything we now have, that something else is, or should be, within reach. What could get us there?
Five years ago, I wrote a blog post, inspired by a conversation with Robin Sloan, where I called for an “iMovie for conversations.” Now, five years later, inspired by a conversation with Jess Zimmerman, I’m asking again. How can we make this work?
From M. John Harrison:
A Happy Christmas to everyone else, the best possible Christmas to the fucked up and the nearly done, all the deadbeats and ne’er-do-wells, the metaphysicians, atheists and losers, all the so-called scroungers, all those not in receipt of a Royal pardon, all the thoughtful, intelligent and above all decent people who believe there is such a thing as a society, the readers and the writers, students and philosophers, and — especially — a big shout out to the 32,000 people in the UK who didn’t receive their benefits on Christmas Eve due to “administrative error”.
Over here, we have Calexico’s Green Grows the Holly on repeat. Merry Christmas!
Finally, an online advice column where all of your questions about life are answered by one of five cartoon columnists. I’m not a heavy tumblr user, but this is probably the best use of tumblr’s “Ask” Box I’ve seen.
Because, really, no one could answer a question about daydreaming better than Mulbert the cartoon moose. Fantasies are fascinating creatures, aren’t they?
This short post is about starting areas in MMOs. When you create a new character in, say, World of Warcraft, where do you begin? How much of the world is available to you, and how soon?
Here’s the author Keen’s ideal starting situation — one that apparently goes against the grain of modern MMO design:
Players start hours apart, and in areas of the world so different from each other that the social mechanisms are different. I remember seeing people say, “We do things differently in this part of the world.” Someone hunting in Crushbone might be used to players behaving differently than those in Blackburrow. Even the experiences are totally unique; players on one side of the world might have a dungeon crawl deep into the depths of a vast cavern network, and players on the other side fight camps of orcs in a forest. The unique experience matters because people can swap stories.
Because people can swap stories! That’s so great, and so important. I don’t know exactly how this applies to domains beyond MMOs, but I’m quite sure that it does.
In two weeks of blood and fire, one of the greatest intellectual and cultural legacies the world had ever seen came to an end. Crushed under the hooves of a mighty foe (in one case literally), a dynasty, an empire, a city, and a library all disappeared. It was perhaps the swiftest and most complete collapse of a civilization ever, still felt to this day. Now, how about for some context?
What an opening, right? That was the opening salvo of a Metafilter post 3 days ago. It feels like a sea creature from the deep – defiantly, resolutely Old-World-Internet, ignoring many of the unspoken rules that posts today follow. Large, well-spaced paragraphs? Nope. A gentle introduction, for those completely new to the subject? If you’re interested, you’ll figure it out. Careful sprinkling of links? Here’s a wall of them.
This is the web on hard mode. Tread slowly, watch your step, and pace yourself – it’s going to take you days, if not weeks, to get through all the gems. (Here’s some of the highlights.)
In a months-ago message to my email list, I shared a handful recommendations for other lists; one of them was Craig Mod’s Roden Explorers Club. It has about the same pace as mine — it might even be slower — so there haven’t been any dispatches since that recommendation… or there hadn’t, until today. And now, I feel like I want to send a one-word message to my list: SEE??
It’s just a wonderful piece of writing to find waiting in your inbox. I wish I could link to it, and at the same time, I’m glad I can’t. Email has different physics, and accordingly, our relationship to it is different — less performative, I think. (Present post is obviously an exception.) I know some people are professing email newsletter fatigue these days, but I think that’s driven by the weekly blast format, the oh-great-one-more-thing-to-read format. But many lists have a pace more seasonal, possibly celestial, and for me, their pleasures are comparable: a voice reappearing like a bird, blooming like a tree.
But you gotta be around to see them bloom.
P.S. Don’t forget, my list is a beautiful seasonal organism, too!
Oh yes. Of course.
Link via Waxy, just like the good ol’ days!
This could hardly be better: simple evidence of brains at work, and muscles too; tiny collections assembled and abandoned. A photographer haunts a university library; he spots and captures stacks of books.
The photographer writes of his first encounter with a noteworthy stack:
However, by dint of the peculiar juxtaposition, it seemed as though I happened upon the mineral tailings and spent fissile materials of a speculative research project born a few hours prior.
It’s totally enjoyable to click through the images, remembering that each one represents a real person’s migration through physical space; I think the wacky juxtapositions are therefore interesting — and occasionally melancholy? — in a way that, say, browser histories are not.
I only wish you could link to individual images!
Via Alexis Madrigal’s 5 Intriguing Things.
This 3D-printed “room” — really more of an architectural sculpture, as you’ll see — was designed by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. They call it a (the?) Digital Grotesque, and in its totality, it’s pretty astounding —
— but it was the close-ups, in the video, of the object’s various twisting crenelated modules that made my jaw drop. Beautiful.