Conversation: Online/Offline


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?