Internet Conversations Have Gone Astray

Compuserve Tree Structure With Topics, Poster, Dates and Folders

Conversation, defined by Merriam Webster as an “oral exchange of sentiments, observation, opinions or ideas” has gone astray on the social-media-focused Internet. Everything but “oral” is applicable here because technology and the Internet have altered the way we conduct many of our conversations.

Take Facebook as an example of the decline. One person may be expressing a point-of-view and another commenting, yet another may simply take the option of liking or disliking a post or a link or a status update. These short exchanges may involve one, two, or a dozen people or more with commenters directing their attention to the original post. A post reader “likes” or “dislikes” a post or responds with a multiple word comment, perhaps a sentence or two and that’s the end of it. Even the Quora website platform, purported to be a catalyst for conversation, following the Q&A approach, does little to induce anything beyond limited, minimal exchanges. Why?

Did Social Media Contribute to the Decline of Online Conversation?

People are not talking to each other in any meaningful way and maybe the fault is not in ourselves, but in our stars (replace “stars” with the online places we communicate.) Starting with Webster’s definition, a conversation at its best should involve an exchange of ideas on a topic or a sentiment with participants agreeing or disagreeing. A catalyst, other than a thumbs up or down to gauge interest or a Twitter retweet, is needed to keep the conversation going and provide an easy method of following what is being said. Being a “follower” does not mean following a conversation.

Maybe there is something lacking in the means? I leave open the possibility that Twitter, Linkedin and the their ilk might really have no compelling economic interest in making changes.

Perhaps these prominent social media platforms lack a sense of history of online places where conversations could stretch on for days or weeks. Looking back over the past decade there were online locations such as newsgroups, The Well, Wikis, to a limited extent chat rooms, and my personal favorite, Compuserve. While Compuserve remains as a small subset of AOL, a shell of its former self, some of these other forums persist and thrive albeit in the Internet’s backwater.

I’ve been carrying a torch for this topic since 1999 as I observed that a once promising world wide web attribute was disappearing. I pitched a version of the Compuserve approach described below to RYZE, an early social network, and to Fast Company.com when I was their Technology Coordinator. Now I’m putting out my playbook once again hoping for re-discovery.

The Playbook for Social Media Conversation

At the core of the playbook is a threaded bulletin board structured around a tree system similar to how documents are organized on a computer. The tree display thread lets the reader see who is to talking to whom and when they posted. Topics are organized within a topic folder system.

Compuserve Simplified Tree Structure

Board folders covering all the topics are organized into what Compuserve called forums. All folder categories are hyperlinked lessening the need for scrolling. Under each board folder is listed the total number of messages and the time of the last posting. Click into any part of the conversation and converse with that person. Because the layout is visual and graphical, keeping track of a number of conversations was also doable. Picture a chess master juggling multiple matches at the same time. Remind you of the venerable PHP bulletin boards? With Twitter, answering a question or responding to a tweet without referencing part of the previous tweet guarantees an extremely short conversation.

Strengthening the functionality of the threaded design is a database which is searchable in a number of different ways. Only Linkedin has implemented a minimal “answer” search. Searching by poster name, topic, time of post should also be possible.

Summary of Folder Contents with Hyperlinks to Selected Posts

In the commercial, profit-generating world, product and service brands are filtering and key word searching to gauge sentiment and trending topics related to their product or service, why can’t Facebook users have this same capability related to their interests? Brands are creating their own virtual threads, pulling together the disjointed strands of a conversation.

Threaded Bulletin Boards Only Part One of the Playbook

The pièce de résistance, the part two of the playbook is Compuserve’s forum. The success of the forum is based on their moderators. The moderators are not just policemen to keep it clean, although they occasionally separate combatants when a conversation got too personal. Moderators are integrally involved in directing, promoting and stimulating discussions. A good moderator can drop in an occasional question or casual observation igniting a whole new discussion for a dying thread.

Considering the cost of implementation, this forgotten playbook for engagement could pay for itself if the big social media players believe that time spent on site is equivalent to other high value metrics, unique page views and cost per click. The latest fad, gamification inclusions as leader boards, success badges or influencer of the week are nice, but if content is really king, and user-generated content is the uber king, then providing the right tools for compelling, sustainable conversation via the playbook might be the way for the internet to return to its former talkative glory.

Regarding Comments - I welcome comments, but I reserve the right to delete postings that are verbally offensive to me or anybody else. You can comment without attacking anyone personally. I have no problem with anyone criticizing my ideas or writings, but request you try to substantiate your views if you do. If I misspell a name or get a fact wrong, correct me and I'll revise the copy. My staff of fact-checkers is always on vacation or taking a break.

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