Archive for July, 2008

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 3)

July 22, 2008

Part 3: Not all conversations are created alike

Last time, I gave some tips for effective commenting.  This time, I want to focus on being aware of the purpose of the conversation you’re in.  Conversations have purposes, remember (that’s why it’s one of the keywords in this blog’s subtitle), and the purpose of the conversation makes a big difference in how you should comment.

Here are a few of the major categories of conversation, to start with.

The intellectual discussion is best thought of as a mutual search for Truth, at least at its best.  Everyone is working together to explore a subject, and come to, if not consensus, at least a decent map of the landscape.  (I think of this blog as mainly falling into this category.)

These sorts of discussions are all about calm disagreement and back-and-forth.  It’s okay to debate a bit, but it’s very easy to run things off the tracks.  It’s the beloved conversational form for many geeks, who fancy themselves as being all about matters intellectual.  But it’s very easy to lose sight of the teamwork involved — to decide that you have The One True Answer, and not seriously consider that others may be more correct, or may have information that you don’t.  In particular, as soon as Being Right becomes your goal in the conversation, you’ve stopped helping, and have become the problem instead.

Requests for group opinions are often The More, the Merrier.  These are posts where the original poster is trying to collect lots of information about what people think, on topics as diverse as trying to decide their next hair color, or to figure out where the party should go out to dinner on Thursday.  The difference between these and the search-for-truth category above is that there is usually no “correct” answer here: it’s really *just* about the weight of opinion.

Redundancy can be good in these cases.  Many people dislike writing “me, too” comments, and there’s good reason for this — in most cases, they just add bulk without really helping.  But these kinds of requests are all about the redundancy: they want to know what everybody thinks, not just the first few to respond.  (Although it is sometimes appropriate to respond privately via email, rather than publicly.)

Don’t be afraid to be politely contrarian in these conversations.  They’re prone to a bit of groupthink: if the first few people agree with each other, it often makes everyone else a little abashed about disagreeing.  Puncturing the false consensus early on can avoid mistakes that everyone will regret later.

Personal diary entries are often looking for a bit of sympathy and comfort, especially when someone’s been having a hard time of it.  (Or congratulations if they’re going well.)  Again, redundancy can be good here, and don’t feel you need to say anything terribly deep.

Note the nature of the conversation here.  In these cases of great joy and sadness, the conversation is often mainly emotional in nature.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to offer constructive insights, but often it isn’t.  One of the common online mistakes is to offer helpful advice to someone who really is not in the mood for it.  Listen carefully to what the original speaker is saying, and what they need right now.  Sometimes just two words that let them know that they are heard and cared for is best.

A related matter: in a recent discussion, Monica raised the question of whether it is the original poster’s responsibility to say “Thank you” to the people who offer this emotional support.  I would say that the jury is still out on this — we don’t really have consensus on this, and the true Emily Post of the Web hasn’t come along yet.  But I’ve been gradually leaning towards doing so — if it’s the right thing to do for a physical sympathy card, it’s probably the right thing to do online.

That’s a start, anyway.  What other kinds of conversations are there, and how do their comment threads work?

Next time: I’ll finish off this series with a few thoughts on the future of commenting, and what I see as the likely death of online anonymity.

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 2)

July 18, 2008

Okay, last time I described why you should comment, as part of supporting the community.  Now let’s talk a bit about what goes into a good comment.  This is a “bundle of tips” post; I welcome additions in the comments.

Part 2: How to Comment Well

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that commenting from time to time is helpful.  That said, don’t comment on everything everybody says — that can quickly get boorish.  Just as the person who comments on nothing isn’t really part of the conversation, the one who can’t stop shooting off his mouth comes across as dominating (and let’s get real, annoying).

Moreover, it breaks down badly if too many people do it — if you have a hundred people responding to every post, it can get overwhelming and impossible to follow the community.  It isn’t unusual for an online community to die because a few people are talking so much that the others, feeling like they can’t get a word in edgewise, simply wander off.

So be moderate in your commenting.  But when you have something to say, speak up, and don’t be afraid.  Be part of the conversation.

If you find yourself making many new points, and going on at length, that may be turning into a new post.  Don’t be afraid of that: remember that there’s a larger conversation going on in the community, and sometimes it’s appropriate to bring things back to the top level as a separate discussion.  (Obviously, this is less meaningful in systems like Twitter, where every post is equal, with less distinction between posts and responses.)  Depending on the system you’re using, sometimes it’s appropriate to both post your message as a comment and as a new post, or to write the new post and write a comment pointing to it.

Tangents are generally fine, so long as you recognize them as such.  The right way to manage tangents varies from system to system — for example, in email it’s typically appropriate to change the subject line to signal the tangent.  In a system with strongly-defined conversations like LiveJournal, a wide tangent is more likely to be time for a new post.  Pay attention to the customs of the medium you’re in.

Watch out for “now I will talk about myself” syndrome, where you use the original post or a previous comment to jump onto a story about your own life experience: that’s okay in moderation (and quite human to compare stories), but can become irritating if carried to excess.  If you talk only about yourself, you may find people laughing behind your back at your self-importance.

Questions make fine comments.  If you don’t entirely understand what was said, or don’t see the logic, or don’t know the context, odds are that others don’t either.  Questions are especially useful when you’re getting your feet wet in the community: people are often sympathetic to questions from newcomers, and it’s a way to make yourself known.  That said, be sure to listen to and heed the answers.  There are few quicker ways to wear out your welcome than to fail to read the FAQ when you’re pointed to it.

“Thank you” is often a fine comment, and too rarely said.  Everybody likes to be thanked, but somehow we often forget to say it online.  Similarly, little comments like “Congratulations” or “Good for you!” are often just the right thing to say.  The little social niceties are just as important online as in the real world, and help to bind the community together.

One unusual comment approach, which I believe I picked up from Siderea, is the “Word” convention.  Sometimes, you don’t really have anything specific to add, but you want to say, “That was absolutely, totally right, and I’m glad you said it”.  Perhaps the best way to express that is the street slang “Word“, and I’ve picked up the habit of sometimes leaving just that as a comment — just that one word.  It’s only appropriate occasionally, but sometimes it’s just the right thing to say.  It’s one of those comments that doesn’t mean much literally, but carries a lot of social meaning in a compact package.

I’ll talk about this more in a future article, but I often find it useful, when I’m either the moderator of a community or the founder of a thread, to think of myself as a host to the others who are talking.  Looked at that way, I usually try to gently prod the conversation along until it seems to be hitting a natural end, contributing to it as appropriate.  That said, I try to be moderate in it — it’s easy to respond so much that you wind up being a bit over-bearing, and actually kill the conversation rather than encouraging it.

What else?  What have you found to be particular pitfalls in commenting, or nice tips for commenting effectively?

Next time: I’ll talk about a couple of kinds of conversation, and how they affect commenting.

Comments: The Lifeblood of Community (part 1)

July 16, 2008

A recent post by my friend metahacker reminded me of a basic lesson of online conversation: commenting is not only good, it’s essential.  So I’m going to use it as the jumping-off point for my first series of articles.  This will cover a lot of topics, most of which will get more-detailed discussions later.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about comments: why you should comment regularly, how to comment productively, a little on what kinds of comments suit what kinds of conversations, and some thoughts on the future of comment technology.  None of this is exactly rocket science, but I’m going to pull together a bunch of lessons I’ve learned, both on my own and from friends (especially on LiveJournal, that hotbed of geek-think).

I’m going to talk about “comments” as a concept here, but those work very differently from system to system.  For purposes of this discussion, a “comment” is a message you send that is specifically in response to a message that you’ve received.  That might be anything from a threaded reply in LiveJournal, to an “@”-reply in Twitter.  Keep in mind that I’m not just talking about forums here.

Part 1: Why to Comment

Okay, let’s ask the most basic question first: why comment?  It’s not as obvious as it might appear at first glance.  Sure, you comment because you have something to say.  But there’s another aspect of commenting, that’s at least as important: comments are the social glue that holds online communities together.

Any good online community is always engaged in a large-scale “conversation” that crosses over all the individual little chats.  That conversation is mostly social in nature: who knows each other, how they know each other, how they interact, who likes who and why.  This is simply part of being human: when we talk, we are talking with people, and trying to think of it otherwise is delusion.  The social component of any conversation is essential.

From that point of view, it looks kind of weird to just make top-posts and never comment — it’s like being the person in a face-to-face conversation who just sits there and talks about what he wants, without every really engaging with the other people around him.  It’s not quite as bad online (in person, it’s downright boorish), but it still comes across as kind of disconnected.

Keep in mind that, in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a lot of subtle interaction.  We use body language, facial expressions, and little verbal cues to indicate that we’re listening — that we’re part of the conversation, and interested.  Eye contact helps, as do little “uh-huh”s: they may have no semantic value, but they have social weight: they indicate that you’re still engaged.  Online (at least in text media) you have to be more explicit about it — the only way to let the speaker know that you’re listening is to tell them.

Reciprocity also comes into this.  Put simply: the more you comment, the more comments you’re likely to get.  If you comment, people come to think of you as someone to talk to, not just someone to listen to.  There is a close correlation between who you comment to and who comments to you.

Moreover, commenting is how people find each other, and build online relationships.  Not only is the person you’re responding to more likely to seek you out, the people reading the interaction are as well.  There’s a lot of blather nowadays about social networks, but the most important “network” is people finding others who they think are interesting, regardless of the technology they use.  Many online friendships start from reading each others’ comments.

Most importantly: most people like to receive comments.  There’s a real element of “warm fuzzies” here that shouldn’t be discounted.  We’re social animals, and stroking each other a little is very important to any community.

So as it says at the top, comments are social glue — they are essential to turning a bunch of random people online into a community.

Next time: I’ll talk a bit about How to Comment effectively.

194 friends isn’t really “private”

July 10, 2008

I was rather struck by this story in the Social Web blog, about a poor young soccer player: he intended to just tell his Facebook friends about the fact that he might be transferring teams, but accidentally posted it publicly, so that it became breaking news.

On the one hand, this story is about complex technology, and the way that people have trouble keeping track of “public” vs. “private” settings. That’s a valid point — as the complexity of this technology grows, it becomes tricky to remember what’s going where. (Even on LiveJournal people occasionally screw up, and it has one of the better UIs in this regard.)

That said, I was more taken in by the notion that something posted to 194 Facebook friends is “private”. I mean, I suppose it’s possible he actually vets his friends that carefully, and that they can all keep a secret. But it would surprise me: there’s a lot of truth in the old saw that three people can keep a secret only if two of them are dead.

It’s pretty clear to me that, historically, that’s too big a group to keep a big secret — even if he’d only posted it to the people he expected, it would likely have gotten leaked somewhere along the line. It’s cool, interesting news about someone that people care about. Folks would have talked about it, that talk would spread, and he’d still have gotten a call from a reporter — maybe a few days later, but probably before too long.

This is a mistake that everyone seems to have to make for themselves. Heaven knows I made it myself, back in the Usenet days — suffice it to say, I gossiped rather foolishly about someone whose wife turned out to be in the group. Even in real-world face-to-face communication, secrets tend to spread if you tell just half a dozen people, unless each is individually sworn to secrecy. Somehow, when we get cozy with our friends online, we often forget how many people we’re talking to, and that the permeability of the group rises with the number of readers.

Will this change? In many ways, the “digital native” generation gets the implications of online communication a lot better than most of their parents ever will, and yet they do still seem to be making the same errors. Possibly this is just because social-network tech is a little too new: nobody’s really grown up with Facebook yet. Do you think this lesson, and others like it, will eventually get baked into the conventional wisdom that every kid knows? Or is this going to continue to be one of those universal gaffes, where everyone needs to get burned once? (Perhaps at age six, the way things are going…)

Welcome to The Art of Conversation

July 9, 2008

Welcome to all readers!  This blog is focused on a topic near and dear to my heart, and one that has finally begun to catch the attention of the larger world: online conversation.

More precisely, this blog is going to talk about Purposeful Online Conversation in Communities.  Each of those words is significant, so let me talk for a minute about why:

  • “Conversation” seems pretty self-evident, and everybody’s chattering about it nowadays.  “Conversation” is hot in the blogosphere right now.  But it’s being used pretty carelessly, so let’s be precise: it’s all about interactions between people.  Talking to yourself isn’t a conversation, and it isn’t very interesting, but a remarkable number of tools seem best designed to simply shout into the ether, rather than really getting people talking back and forth.
  • “Online”: we’re specifically going to be interested here in the conversational tools provided by the Internet, and how they affect conversation.  We may well stray from that focus here and there: really understanding online conversation requires looking at the old-fashioned, offline, face-to-face sort as well.  But we’re mostly going to talk about online conversations, because that’s where the most exciting experiments are happening right now.  (I can’t say the offline sort is completely understood, but it does have thousands of years of experimentation already.)
  • “Purposeful”: a lot of the talk about conversation right now is — well, rather unfocused.  Lots of tools and discussion about social interaction, but relatively little about why those interactions happen.  One premise of this blog is that conversation matters.  One of the most important questions is why people are talking and what they get out of it; we’ll touch on that frequently.  There are many possible purposes, from work to co-ordination to diarizing and simple social interaction, but you can’t really understand what’s going on here without spending some time thinking about what folks are trying to accomplish.
  • Finally, “Communities”. People talk airily about Community, in much the same way they do Conversation, but it gets surprisingly little serious analysis.  But conversations simply don’t exist outside of communities — they always have a context of the people engaging in them.  So we’re going to talk a lot about those communities, and how communities and conversations shape each other.

Hence, The Art of Conversation: like any art, it’s a big, fuzzy, delightful topic to feel our way around in.  We’ll inevitably wander in related territories such as Identity, but always with a focus on how it affects Conversation.

I’m looking to create a medium-frequency blog here, posting a couple of times a week.  I strongly encourage you to join into the discussion and comment — I find nothing more depressing than a blog that is simply an author talking to himself, and love to get other viewpoints.  Ideally, I hope to learn as much as I teach.

That’s the What — now a little about the Who.  I’m Mark Waks, better known as “Justin” to most of my friends.  (Long story, but suffice it to say it’s my usual online handle.)  I’m a lifelong programmer, one of those people who dove into the Net when it was still novel, and have been focused mainly on Social Tools since before the term existed.  In my dozen or so years of programming social tools, and my 20-some of using them, I’ve seen a lot of good (and bad) ideas float by; we’ll be discussing many of those here.

I’m also the CEO and Architect of CommYou, a small startup that is trying to put these ideas into practice, by creating a really good place to have conversations. It’s very early days yet, but the system is slowly coming together. For the time being, it’s open to new users, so I’d love to have you come and play as we figure out what the next generation of conversation tools should look like. I’ll probably talk about CommYou a fair amount here — hopefully this won’t sound like an extended advertisement, but it is my passion right now, and closely related to the subject of this blog.

(Oh, and I habitually abuse both parentheses and ellipses.  My apologies about that in advance.)

I’ll be inviting other authors in to post here from time to time; I’ll let them introduce themselves as they come aboard.  If you think you’d like to contribute, drop me a line and I’d be happy to talk about potential posts from you.

So howdy to all, and please spread the word.  I’d love to get anyone who is interested in this subject, in the hopes of collectively doing some deep exploration into the jungles of a complex subject…