The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17
Does Your Digital Business Support a Lifestyle You Love? § Stock and flow / 2017-02-09 18:15:22
Daniel § Stock and flow / 2017-02-06 23:47:51
Kanye West, media cyborg – MacDara Conroy § Kanye West, media cyborg / 2017-01-18 10:53:08
Inventing a game – MacDara Conroy § Inventing a game / 2017-01-18 10:52:33
Losing my religion | Mathew Lowry § Stock and flow / 2016-07-11 08:26:59
Facebook is wrong, text is deathless – Sitegreek !nfotech § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2016-06-20 16:42:52

Conversation Media

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?


Stimulus, thought, dialogue, and synthesis.

That’s what I want out of a conversation space online.

Stimulus – Most conversations have a jumping off point of some sort, a blog entry like the one above, an image/video, or some shared life event. Without your post above, I’d probably just write “First” as my comment. This conversation isn’t much of anything without that seed.

Thought – Sometime there is a spark and other times it is a slow burner, but this is the part that online was supposed to solve. Removing barriers of time and space. Unfortunately, this is usually the wrench in the digital conversation, since the next step is time/space constrained.

Dialogue – The quick bouncing back and forth of some idea. Taking tangents, bringing in new thoughts, building on some, tearing down others. I don’t know how to do that without shared attention. If it happens (even digitally), it would necessarily be constrained by time/space.

Synthesis – Taking all of this and forming it into something new and greater than its individual parts. 2013 had some great examples of this, with the oral history of Trading Places, the original iPhone launch, and Baby Got Back. But there are also some digital tools that are trying to help, like Storify.

Finding an actual solution from this is a bit more difficult. If I was to build a tool specifically for conversation, I would structure it similarly to Kickstarter:

Anyone can provide a seed. Create a video, blog post, or post an interesting question.
That seed comes along with a goal. If x many thoughts are received by x date, then a moderated dialogue will happen on y date lead by the person who posted the seed.
Anyone can submit a thought, they’re held in a queue where other users can only see the names of other members who have chimed in. Those thoughts aren’t published until the goal has been met.
Alternatively, if a thought isn’t provided, users can subscribe to a conversation, to receive the synthesis at the end.
If the goal is met, the thoughts are published a day or two prior to the moderated dialogue.
Anyone who submitted a thought can participate in the moderated dialogue (lead by the person who submitted the seed). That dialogue would be scheduled for a limited timeframe.
After the dialogue, a synthesis will be provided by the seed provider, using a tool similar to Storify that allows you to connect objects from the dialogue into the narrative of the synthesis. As well as a transcript of the full proceedings for anyone subscribed to the conversation.

Tim, I think it helps to remember that one person’s “good conversation” can be perceived by someone else as a complete waste of time. There’s no universal definition of a good conversation, except in the eyes of each beholder.

A conversation is a proxy, a tool, for connection between people. Our culture instantiated it as something that happened via language: typically mainly spoken language with some body language mixed in.

Now we have the world of online, and new forms of conversation become possible. It doesn’t bother me that in the mere twenty years we’ve been colonizing this new world we haven’t found a perfect way to use this new medium yet.

Like G Love above, I’m a fan of rich media tools like Storify. I ran the #eventprofs weekly Twitter chat for two years, and we collected some Twitter conversations there:

But rather than wring our hands at what I see as a time of necessarily chaotic transition, I suggest we dive in and use the tools we have, enjoying, extending, redesigning, and improving them. That’s how this kind of technology works, just as the refinement of the printing press didn’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, conversations, large and small, public and private are growing like crazy in this new soil. I’m not worried about what the resulting blooms might be like; the best plants will survive and share their genetics with the following generations.

Coming to this again from a different angle, it feels to me that one of the newest formats of a conversation is the independent, card-based, view of a conversation.

Storify is mentioned above, but one of the most interesting projects to watch is Relay ( It is an open-source program that is trying to take individual ideas (from multiple users, using multiple digital mediums), place them into cards and present them in a timeline format.

The card-based method of writing is core to Circa’s ( approach to delivering content on mobile.

Matt Penniman says…

I think it would be worthwhile to look more intently at conversational media objects on Facebook – precisely because, like many great face-to-face conversations, they take place in semi-private space. You can’t easily package and present the comment thread from one of your friend’s posts for public consumption, the way you can hoover up tweets with Storify – and that lack of affordance is an important spur to conversation.

An anatomy of conversation suggests a definitive guide; I would propose that great conversations more resemble a menagerie of many fascinating specimens, with the perpetual promise of more to be found, out there in the bushes. Here’s some of the ones I’ve encountered:

1) The start of the conversation is a weak thesis, a statement that leaves room for modification or disagreement.

Not “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident” but “Lysias says that favors should be granted rather to the one who is not in love than to the lover.”

2) The participants are aware of a potential audience but not overly concerned with it; they’re talking to each other, not performing for a crowd.

3) Vulnerability.

It seems I can’t let this idea go. The idea of a digital format or tool that encourages real conversation, rather than drive-by comments, or ideas breathed into the ether.

The most interesting format I’ve found so far is The Regulation Room ( It seems built around a week thesis, then encourages commenting and a format of building and rebuilding a discussion summary.

The technology they’re using is Which basically allows for inline commenting.

I’m still interested in the possibilities of a format that begins with a weak thesis, goes to blind responses (as a ticket to enter), a restricted discussion, and a public summary. It might be impractical for light web discussions, but for more substantial discussion (strategy documents, rulemaking, etc) I think it has some potential.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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