January 27th, 2014
Being Some Thoughts on the Perceived Need for, and Function of, Ephemeral Content
I have started to believe that we — by which I mostly mean I, but there are a number of people in the boat with me these days — have been missing something in our discussion of the trend towards ephemeral content online.
Writing When the Internet Is Your Hometown a year ago, I saw the emergence of ephemeral-by-design online communication largely as a reaction to the longstanding drive towards the Internet as a permanent record. If you’re embarrassed by what you posted to Facebook as a sophomore in high school, then it seems reasonable that you start to gravitate towards services that avoid creating that same situation for your future selves.
In short: because your offline self can evolve as time passes, your online self should be allowed to do the same; let’s stop defaulting to permanence online just because we can.
I still believe that this is a significant factor in the development of the ephemeral-by-design corners of the digital world, but my perspective is evolving and it feels to me like there are a number of other interesting factors in play.
Take Confide, the ephemeral messaging app that has been pegged as “SnapChat for businesspeople.” As early articles about SnapChat were required to make at least one mention of sexting, Confide articles almost invariably bring up the specter of scofflaw businesspeople sharing insider information and laughing at document retention requirements. This is a reasonable concern, but probably a little overblown and possibly missing something important.
Jon Brod, one of the app’s creators, has a neat creation story for it: he says that the app arose from the hassles of scheduling an off-the-record employee reference discussion with Howard Lerman, now also a Confide co-founder.
“We’re busy and it took us six days to connect,” he said in a phone interview, explaining why they created the app. “Professional relationships require tools for impermanence and confidence. We wanted to take the proven model of meeting for an off-the-record cup of coffee and bring it online.”
That quote has stuck with me, because of the phrase “impermanence and confidence.” Does the confidence just refer to “confidence that this message won’t be shared,” or something more than that? Most of the “ephemeral web” coverage has focused on the left-hand term, but I think there may be more buried in that right-hand “confidence.”
I increasingly suspect that the confidence Brod is talking about is in large part confidence that the recipient understands that this communication requires their full attention – that this communication is important. When we have enough input that a Facebook status update that goes out to a thousand people might get no acknowledgement, perhaps we’re starting to feel the need to identify which messages are actually important.
My mother has a framed telegram on the wall of her apartment: it’s the telegram that her grandparents received when she was born. Telegrams, with their associated cost and effort, signified that the information being conveyed was important. Today we have no such mode of communication (other than those delivered by a process server, perhaps), and I think that some “ephemeral web” developers, perhaps without fully realizing it, are trying to address that issue.
When you open a SnapChat message, you know that you need to pay attention, because you won’t get a second chance to see it. SnapChat demands focus, even if a very small amount. When you sit down to have coffee with someone, you demand one another’s full attention, even if it’s just for twenty minutes.
But when you send an email to a busy business person — so busy that it takes them six days to find time for a five minute phone call — the odds are that they’ll be “processing email” when they see your message. They’re probably already thinking about the next email as they type their response to you. A Confide message, on the other hand, would be more like SnapChat, demanding the recipient’s full attention.
I’m sure there’s a niche market for the “HR/legal should never know about this message” functionality that Confide offers, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what Confide’s founders are trying to create. It feels very much like they’re trying to create a mechanism for Important Business Messages, but in the end just making another inbox.
November 20th, 2013
The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.
- Clay Shirky, Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality
Clay Shirky’s post struck a chord with me, as I have burned into my memory a meeting at which I actually heard a manager say those five exact words —failure is not an option — to his team (which did not, thankfully, include me).
From that experience, and the epic failure that inevitably followed, I came to a realization: with the exception of raging assholes, there are only two places from which a manager will ever speak those words, and neither of them is good.
The first place is one of ignorance. The manager doesn’t have a real understanding of the project, or how well (or badly) it’s going, and that makes them nervous. Instead of actually digging in to get that understanding, however, they just present the edict: the project will be successful. With this comes the implication that they don’t want to hear any more about the topic, as they have now done everything that could be expected of them.
In this scenario, the team has probably long since realized that the person in change has no idea what’s actually going on. The declaration itself, however, can be poison even to a project that’s actually going well: having the person in charge highlight their lack of trust in the team and ignorance of the amount of work that everyone has put in is a killer. Maybe the project ends well, but you’ve now got good odds that the people responsible for that success depart as quickly as they can.
The second place is one of fear. The manager knows that failure is a very real possibility (if not a certainty), but doesn’t feel that they can do anything to mitigate that possibility. Perhaps the manager has been issuing glowing progress reports despite knowing about difficulties encountered along the way, or committed up front to a scope or timeline that was unrealistic to begin with.
Here, whether the fault is the manager’s for suppressing problems the organization’s for refusing to hear the problems that person raised, the end result is the same: abject failure. And again, the people who worked hard on the project (and may well have done some very good work in the process) will be looking for the door.
Either way, no one involved ends up in a good place.
As Shirky points out, it is a cultural failing that lets things get to the point where someone feels the need to make this statement, and if that happens the organization has failed, even if the project doesn’t.
November 19th, 2013
Earlier today, James sent me an email noting that he had commented both on Andy’s recent blog post and on the link to Andy’s blog post on USV.com. He had commented on the same piece of writing in two different places — and both places even use the same commenting engine — but the two discussions were entirely separate. You might participate in one without ever knowing that the other existed.
That led James to suggest that it would be cool if all instances of the discussion around a blog post shared the same comments. I thought I remembered some experiments being done around that a few years ago, but I couldn’t dig up any examples, so I did the next best thing: I did a (really, really hacky) experiment myself.
If all goes well, by the time that you’re reading this the comments on my own blog (where this is posted) and on USV.com (where I’m posting a link) will be in sync with one another.
Does that make for a better discussion? Does it help or hurt the community feeling around discussion? I don’t know. Feel free to discuss.
March 12th, 2013
There was a little flurry of press out of SXSW yesterday, covering Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley’s statement that the service has the potential to act like the “Marauder’s Map” of Harry Potter fame: “There is enough data that we should be able to make that Harry Potter map and give it to everyone in the room.”
With the amount of data Foursquare gets, and the increasing number of data sources available to them, Crowley thinks (and I largely agree) that Foursquare can start to act as a living map of the people and places that matter to us.
But this also reminded me that Crowley had actually made a similar reference nearly four years ago, crediting Kevin Marks for the the proposition that “we need to not be building the Marauder’s Map and instead be building the Weasley Clock.”
I remembered that particular tweet because it kicked off a chain of thought for me that ended up in writing a blog post entitled Magic, Technology, Synthesis. My reading of the statement pretty much comes down to this snippet from the post:
You’ve got one artifact [the Marauder's Map] that shows you a constantly changing, basically unfiltered stream of what’s happening right now, and another [the Weasley Clock] that reduces a similar complex set of real-time data into a simple form that is immediately accessible and useful in a specific context. The clock offers a reduction—an obvious, almost ridiculous oversimplification—of what is offered by the map, but that reduction is what makes the clock useful. The clock tells you basically, not exactly, what’s going on.
I still think that this “reduced” view offered by the Weasley Clock is potentially more interesting, and more valuable, than the live map approach (though also much more difficult to build), but that’s not what I’m here to write about, exactly.
Part of the point that Crowley was making was that Foursquare has a crapload of data coming in. And it’s being piled on top of several more craploads already accumulated. And that got me to thinking: one of the things that you get when you get a big data set is the gaps, the ellipses. You start to see where things aren’t, as well as where they are.
And that opens up a whole new world. Possibly a creepy and unsettling world, but it’s one that’s worth considering.
If Foursquare sees that a friend and I have been checking in around the same neighborhoods, but not checking in together, why doesn’t it sugest that we meet? Or if I haven’t checked in recently with someone who was once a frequent companion, propose a reunion.
And the model can be extended further. What if Path, or Facebook, noticed that one of my friends hasn’t posted anything to the service in a couple of weeks and called that to my attention? If that person is really a friend, maybe I should check in on them, right? Maybe they’re just busy, but maybe they’re at a point where a text or a phone call would help them.
This introduces some social complexity, of course: maybe I’m not checking in with Alice or Bob because we broke up, and I don’t really want a reminder of that fact. But the fact that these social services have massive data sets that point to what isn’t happening, as well as what is, feels like an area worth exploring.
Services like Timehop mine your personal history, giving you reminders or where — or who — you were in the past, why aren’t more social services looking more closely at the people who are a part of that past?
At this point I suspect that we have more than enough dots to start filling in some of the gaps between them, sketching out the lines that are personal relationships. If this software really is social, after all, it’s those lines that matter.
January 16th, 2013
Settle in and get comfortable, kids, this is a long one.
I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of digital natives.
The term, generally credited to Mark Prensky, is intended to draw a distinction between the relationship to digital technology experienced by people who grew up with it (“digital natives”) versus those who came to it later in life (“digital immigrants”). The most commonly used illustration is that a digital immigrant might have bought a new digital camera, where a native simply bought a camera. It’s not unimportant to the native that their new camera is digital, it’s simply not particularly noteworthy or surprising.
But I’ve come to believe that this formulation of digital natives requires some refinement, and also that it has implications that I’ve only recently started to consider. The most obvious issue in designating people as ”digital natives” is that “digital” isn’t a fixed monolithic entity. Being comfortable with a filmless camera doesn’t necessarily imply the same degree of comfort with a Kindle, SnapChat, a Makerbot, or Reddit. “Digital” isn’t a coherent thing, but rather a thread that is being woven through an ever larger part of our day-to-day lives.
Nor, for that matter, is there a clear line of demarcation. As digital technology continues to evolve, even its natives are presented with new and unfamiliar facets that will seem pedestrian to people born just a few years later.
The digital native/digital settler dividing line seems to make sense when you’re of the generation for whom everything digital (with the possible exception of that Mattel Football game) represents a fantastic new world of possibilities, but that breaks down very quickly. The experience of a kid who has an iPhone in her pocket all the time is different from that of a kid six years earlier who had a Dell in his room at home. Neither one might ever think to prefix “camera” with “digital,” but lumping them together as digital natives seems overly broad.
And even if we limit the scope to pre- and post-Internet people, which hews closer to my interests anyway, we encounter similar difficulties. The Internet that I browsed on a Powerbook 160 is not the Internet we have today.
As with the broader digital, the Internet is not monolithic nor static. It’s not much of a stretch to characterize the Internet as a city full of neighborhoods: at any point in time the city is adding new suburbs, has neighborhoods that have remained largely unchanged for years, others that are undergoing rapid gentrification, and some experiencing slow decline. It’s always in the process of becoming something else.
But as crude and problematic as this pre-Internet/post-Internet split is, I still think it worth exploring. For all the changes to the various neighborhoods, and all the new people moving in, I believe there’s one constant of huge significance in the city that is the Internet: the degree of access it enables, both to information and to other people.
Growing up in a world where you can take advantage of that access without giving it a second thought does, I suspect, create a mindset that’s different from earlier generations — a native mindset. But I also suspect that there is a cost involved.
E.B. White’s city was New York, rather than the Internet. He wrote beautifully about it, and I bring this up because I take every possible opportunity to bring up Here Is New York and recommend that people read it, but also because Mr. White saw this all coming as far back as 1948. He wrote:
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. [...] Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.
A number of years ago I was struck by how well that characterized what I saw happening on the Internet. You can read the post if you like, but the key idea is this: I feel like I, and many people I know, are settlers online. We made the decision to move here because it offered possibilites we couldn’t get anywhere else. The Internet also has its fair share of commuters, people who come for work, or maybe a little entertainment on the weekend, but for whom it’s just a place they go sometimes. And (an update from the original post in 2008) I think there are now some true natives hanging around, who never had to make the decision — that metaphorical move to the city — that I did.
And there’s that idea of “city” popping up again.
In his speech Innovation Under Austerity, given at the 2012 Freedom to Connect conference, Eben Moglen also briefly touched on cities. As with Here Is New York, I strongly recommend that you read (or watch) the entire thing, but here’s the part I want to bring up:
There is a reason that cities have always been engines of economic growth. It isn’t because bankers live there. Bankers live there because cities are engines of economic growth. The reason cities have been engines of economic growth since Sumer, is that young people move to them, to make new ways of being. Taking advantage of the fact that the city is where you escape the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm. “How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” was a fair question in 1919 and it had a lot do with the way the 20th century worked in the United States. The city is the historical system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living. We are closing it.
And that’s another role that the Internet fills these days. How much — or whether — your identity offline and your identity online overlap is a matter of choice. Even if you don’t make the physical move out of your hometown, you have access to a “system for the production of anonymity and the ability to experiment autonomously in ways of living.” The access, to information and to people, that the Internet provides lets us explore who we are, or who we might become.
The Venn diagram of my online and offline identities is pretty much a circle (though I’ve heard that the online is somewhat funnier), but my presence online begins when I was an adult with a reasonably good sense of who I was. And in addition, the commercial Internet itself was in its infancy when I got online. Sure, I may have created a regrettable GeoCities page or two, but they’re gone. Ill-advised forum posts? They disappeared when the sysop got tired of running the server. Despite the efforts of Google and the Wayback Machine, the Internet actually used to forget things reasonably often.
I feel increasingly confident in saying that is no longer the case. For post-Internet people, the digital natives, the Internet has the potential to become a hometown that you can never leave.
For a 21 year old who joined Facebook in 2006, Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2010, how many former selves are already recorded on those services? Josh Miller, in a Branch discussion around the introduction of Facebook’s Graph Search, wrote “I’m just peeved that the stuff I said as a sophomore in high school is now going to be easily retrievable by my friends. Sure, it’s public now, but it’s impossible to access.”
If you’re a digital native, for whom the Internet has always simply existed, and also a high school sophomore who has the decision-making skills of a high school sophomore, that seems like a complicated situation. The tools that we’re using to share things online are now real, big businesses doing their damndest to stay big, and they do that by making it easy and worthwhile for us to put more of ourselves online (and keeping as much of it as they possibly can).
For generations already among us, the 15 year old self is no longer the contents of a carboard box in somebody’s garage, but the bottom of the Facebook Timeline. And it’s probably visible to a surprisingly large number of people.
Some time ago I ran across a very short piece of writing somewhere on the web. That original source has — appropriately enough — since disappeared, but you can still find it online if you know where to look. The more I see the Internet turning into some form of the Permanent Record that loomed large in junior high mythology, the more I think that this uncredited, untraceable writer saw something sooner than the rest of us.
The Ghost Postulate
These people will not own cell phones. They will not run blogs or update statuses on social networks. They will not have email addresses, they will not watch movie trailers or download music or buy apps.
And in that way, they will not exist. They will be a part of no corporate consumer surveys, they will not receive personalized advertisements, google and facebook will know nothing about them. They will speak to their friends face to face or not at all. They will carry paper and pencil and know only what their eyes and ears tell them.
Mark my words.
Eventually, there will be a subculture of ghosts.
November 14th, 2012
Reading Dalton Caldwell’s Understanding Like-gate on Medium, I went off on a little tangent. I was reminded that the platform’s “kudos” feel a little strained to me, an add-on that’s not quite in harmony with the rest of the platform.
But at the same time, ever since Kirk Love shifted his creative attention to his own single-serving site (which is Medium-like in its lack of comments, like buttons, or associated bells and whistles), I’ve been missing the lack of a way to signal to him that I read something he posted and enjoyed it. I think that I’ve emailed Kirk once or twice about posts, but after five years or so of Twitter and Tumblr I’ve grown accustomed to having a low-effort way to give people a little pat on the back.
And that, I think, is where my discomfort with Kudos lies. If I may get fuzzy for a moment, Medium feels to me like it’s intended to be a more contemplative space. You don’t comment on posts, or reblog them: you read, you look, and you think. Dropping the lowest common denominator of user response — and no other — into that space strikes a discordant note for me.
The reduced emphasis on reacting to the content inherent to both of these examples is an interesting area to explore. Likes, hearts, and stars certainly aren’t going away any time soon, but the web can use some spaces that ask you to sit on your hands for a few minutes and simply engage with what’s being offered.
October 9th, 2012
Earlier today Stowe Boyd posted a quote to Tumblr:
How Airbnb Evolved To Focus On Social Rather Than Searches - Cliff Kuang via Co.Design
For a couple years, registered Airbnb users have been able to star the properties they browse, and save them to a list. But Gebbia’s team wondered whether just a few tweaks here and there could change engagement, so they changed that star to a heart. To their surprise, engagement went up by a whopping 30%. The star, they realized, was a generic web shorthand and a utilitarian symbol that didn’t carry much weight. The heart, by contrast, was aspirational. “It showed us the potential for something bigger,” Gebbia tells Co.Design. And in particular, it made them think about the subtle limitations of having a search-based service. “You have to have search,” Gebbia says. “But what if you don’t know where you want to go?”
I noted elsewhere that I think there are other factors in play here as well, but it got me thinking. A 30% increase in engagement is a good thing, right? Probably, but let’s move into gedankenexperiment territory for a moment.
While “user engagement” seems like something that you want headed up and to the right under all circumstances, the truth is that it’s like any other metric: it’s only meaningful in the context of clear goals.
Consider two possible scenarios:
A. Users who spend more than X minutes on the site are more likely to book through Airbnb. Changing the star to a heart eliminated a psychological barrier that some users felt, and the resulting increased engagement takes a non-trivial number of users over that X minute mark, so Airbnb gets more bookings. That’s good.
B. Users who “star” listings were more likely to convert to booking through Airbnb when they get a reminder notification. Changing the star to a heart eliminated the psychological barrier that some users felt, but the new “heart” people don’t convert to booking at the same rate the star people did. It’s actually a little harder to identify high-potential users now. That’s bad.
Since Airbnb seems like a well run company I assume that their situation is closer to the former case, but it’s a good reminder in any case: no matter how important the metric is, don’t confuse the metric itself for the goal that it supports.
September 6th, 2012
“…any club that would have me for a member.”
Back in the day, Facebook and Twitter spurred extensive debate on whether these new “social” services were enhancing, destroying, or simply changing our formulation of ideas like “relationship” and “intimacy.”
Around the same time, the rise of Foursquare and the location-based scene brought with it discussions of privacy and the possible dangers of blurring the lines between online and offline relationships.
Of late, sites including app.net, Medium, Branch, and Svbtle have kicked off a new round of chatter, this time focused on the social/ethical considerations, benefits, and drawbacks associated with “inclusive” and “exclusive” models for social services online (along with a sprinkling of debate on definition of terms in this context).
That this kind of discussion is happening seems like a positive thing. While there’s never any shortage of blog posts about hip new services, the writing in this case focuses less on the services themselves and more about the implications of the services; this suggests to me that we may be starting to break a little new ground here, and that’s good fun.
The chain of posts that came to my immediate attention was this:
- Anil Dash: You Can’t Start the Revolution from the Country Club
- Fred Wilson: Inclusivity
- Josh Miller: A False Dichotomy
The posts linked above — particularly the last two — struck me enough that I want to join in, and while in the final analysis I fundamentally agree with Josh, I’m going to start by picking at an aspect of his post with which I’m uncomfortable.
[Also: you've now read the posts, right? I strongly recommend that you read the posts.]
Fred’s post hinges on the belief that “open” inherently means “inclusive.” I don’t agree.
Fred is right that Reddit is large and messy and magical. But it is also notorious for having norms, inside jokes, and a personality that makes outsiders feel like, well, outsiders. 4chan is infamous for this. So is The Huffington Post. And Hacker News.
This is true as stated, but I feel that Josh has swung too far in the other direction when reacting to Fred’s proposition. As I’ve said any number of times over the past few years: software doesn’t create communities, software supports communities.
An established group of people may not be welcoming to newcomers, and that is an unfortunate characteristic of human beings, but it says little about the character of the software supporting that group. An architect or designer can create a bar that’s designed to be welcoming, but can not control the regulars’ behavior.
The distinction that I think Josh is glossing over in his post is that the “open” model that Fred promotes gives anyone the opportunity to contribute without asking anyone’s permission, and that’s meaningful regardless of how the community involved responds to those contributions.
Take Twitter: the only requirement to sign up is an email address. Once on Twitter, I can @reply Josh, Fred, Anil, or anyone else. I can join any conversation I choose to, though it’s up to the others involved to decide whether they’ll acknowledge my contributions.
I can also comment on AVC with just an email address, or on Anil’s blog with a Facebook account. The bar for participation is set slightly higher in the latter case, but it’s still entirely my decision whether or not I contribute. Here again, my contribution may not be acknowledged by the regulars, but I can take my shot.
Medium, where Josh’s post appears, falls at the far other end of the spectrum in that it virtually does away with the idea of interaction and participation. I can write [am writing] a response to a Medium IMHO post, but Medium doesn’t offer me any way to place it in the context of that original item. Most of the people who read Josh’s post will never even know that I have a perspective on the topic, because the platform doesn’t allow for it.*
Branch is in between these two extremes, but it’s (by design) much further away from the first two examples. It’s up to someone else to decide whether I can contribute to a Branch, and let’s be honest: the psychological barrier created by having to ask permission to speak can be huge. As I’ve noted before, I think this is an interesting and worthwhile approach for Branch to take, but it’s also less of a free-for-all…less open.
But here, hundreds of words in, is where I get to the important thing: where I very much agree with Josh, and veer off a little from Fred and Anil, is on the idea that the “exclusivity” of less wide open communities necessarily makes them country clubs. Some are, certainly. Others are darts leagues, or support groups. Having different rules does not make Medium or Branch inherently any better or worse than Twitter, a blog with comments, or a Usenet group.
Just as I think that some forms of anonymity (or pseudonymity) have an important role online, I also think that some forms of exclusivity have a role. A person, or group of people, may want to create something — or simply discuss something — on the public web without letting the entire Internet participate, and I don’t accept the idea that the resulting communities are inherently any less valuable than the wide open Reddits or AVCs.
* Bonus Micro-Post on Medium
It’s worth noting — probably worth a post in and of itself — that I believe Medium doesn’t allow for in-context responses [comments, reblogs, what-have-you] because it’s exploring a different approach to contextualizing the things that we create online. Their decision to eliminate the user-centric “blog” in favor of user-agnostic topical groupings is fascinating: as a Medium user you don’t have a personal blog. There’s no way (as far as I can tell, at least) to see all the posts by a particular user grouped together. The user who created the post isn’t the frame of reference, but rather the kind of post it is. Medium seems like it has far more in common with Tumblr than with WordPress. Tumblr made the single-user, reverse chronological blog into a secondary output, with the multi-user dashboard as your primary view of the bloggers you’re interested in; Medium takes that a step further and does away with the single-user blog entirely.
August 20th, 2012
I received my Branch invitation this weekend, and made my first contribution.
It hasn’t changed my initial assessment that Branch could end up being something rather different from what has come before in very interesting ways, but it did cause a few more ideas to bubble up in my head.
The most interesting ones have been around the characteristics of conversations.
I hadn’t given it much thought before, but face-to-face conversations (at least the worthwhile ones) are largely sequential: only one person can speak at a time, and the other participants are listening. Each contributor in the conversation must take in (or at least sit through) what is being said by others, and wait for the opportunity to make their contribution.
And in a face-to-face situation, the overall direction of a conversation is guided by consensus: if the group cannot achieve a rough consensus on where the conversation should go, that conversation ends.
Online conversations generally don’t follow this model. Whether it’s comments on a blog post or a discussion in a topical forum, multiple participants can and do respond to each contribution simultaneously. In the time it takes to type a thoughtful response, three other people may have already added to the conversation. Participants don’t necessarily have complete information about the overall direction of the conversation when adding their part to it.
There’s also no requirement for consensus on an online discussion. If the participants don’t agree on what the conversation should be about, each sub-group can continue “their” conversation in the same location — they all still share a single thread/post/what-have-you — but it’s no longer really one discussion with a single, directed flow.
It fascinates me that thus far, the Branches that have felt most worthwhile to me have hewed much more closely to the offline model of a conversation than the current online model: each contributor seems to be (metaphorically) waiting their turn and then adding to the conversation as a whole. They feel much more measured, perhaps even “slow,” than most online discussions.
But the catch is how to encourage and facilitate that experience online.
When offline elementary school teachers and management consultants encounter the kinds of issues that online conversations encounter, they often reach for the “talking stick” — you talk while you’ve got the stick, and when you’re done you hand it to the next person. It’s crude, but surprisingly often it can help.
Is the talking stick a metaphor that has value for a class of online discussions? It’s limiting, it can be frustrating or even feel demeaning, but it accomplishes something.
If the goal is to collaborate on creating a directed, coherent discussion online, do the individual participants need to accept some new constraints?
August 16th, 2012
Stowe Boyd posted some thoughts on Medium this morning, which included this:
I submit that this early version of Medium is a speculative design intended to challenge us to consider implications of the deep philosophy lurking within, rather than the test of a fully fleshed minimally-viable-product.
It’s interesting to consider the philisophical implications of a product, but I think it’s more interesting to consider the implications of the existence of a product that’s intended to make us consider the philosophical implications of that product. [My theory: it's early adopters, all the way down.]
But the actual point is that Mr. Boyd reminded me that I have recently been thinking about the philosophical implications of a product: Branch.
I haven’t yet gotten my Branch invitation so take my opinion for what it’s worth, but from what I can see it looks like Branch is breaking with the mainstream philosophy of the “social” web in some interesting ways.
When you look at the social web that has developed in the past five or so years, a rough orthodoxy has been established.
First, in the context of a given service, you “follow” other users that service. There’s a bit of a schism around asymetric vs. symetric following (Twitter or Foursquare model?), but the overarching concept of following — which was relatively new and still a little weird in 2007, mind — is the standard. Even services that started without it (think Disqus, Kickstarter) have moved towards accepting the follow as a core social mechanism.
The second pillar of orthodoxy is the completeness of these follow relationships. When you follow another user of the service, you get everything they put into it. You can’t get just the graffiti pictures that I post to Instagram and not the ones of my kids, nor can you see my music posts in your Tumblr dashboard and not all the other crap: you get the whole person, all the time.
And the final pillar (closely related to the second) is persistence: once you have followed another user of the service they stay followed until you actively remove them. While you are establishing relationships in the context of the service, they are not relationships that require active maintenance. I may never like, heart, star, or otherwise validate your presence on the service, but that doesn’t matter: having stated my interest in you once, I need do nothing else.
So how does this relate to Branch?
Well, Branch is obviously a very social service: you’re asking a group of people to have a discussion on a particular topic. You’re indicating to those people that you’re interested in them and that you value their opinions, which is a key part of most healthy relationships, on or offline. And the discussion itself is visible to a much larger universe: because invitation is required, participation in a Branch discussion is making your relationships visible.
But to accomplish this very social undertaking, Branch is almost completely ignoring the established conventions of the social game. The conversations themselves are put at the center, rather than the participants.
You don’t follow other users, you ask them (or are asked) to participate in a specific discussion. The relationship being created is very focused and explicitly bounded. You don’t have to read the other Branch discussions that someone has participated in, nor they yours. And the relationship has no persistence at all: each new conversation requires a new set of invitations, an explicit renewal.
It’s difficult for me to come up with a more contrarian approach to a social service, but it could actually work. For all the people complaining about social overload and trying to build tools to manage it, very few are doing anything that’s really different. Path limits the number of people involved, but adheres to the social orthodoxy. People build tools to filter, mine, timeshift, spindle, fold, and mutilate your social streams, but they rarely question the principles underlying the construction of those streams.
I could be wrong, but I think that the Branch folks are building something that’s legitimately a part of the social web, but proposing an alternative to the current model. Branch seems very different from Tumblr, or Quora, or Twitter, but I’m not sure that’s a problem. This could get very interesting.