The danger of implicit “conversation”

Today’s news headline (well, if you look past Facebook’s reverse-course on its Terms of Service) is that Tumblr has an anonymity problem.  It’s not surprising, but it serves as yet another reminder of how dangerous anonymity can be in fostering abuse.  Moreover, it illustrates the way that the new model of deriving “conversation” automatically may be kind of broken.

(Disclosure: I don’t know Tumblr very well.  I’m only picking on them because the news article is illustrating a general point that I’ve been thinking about lately.)

Tumblr, like so many new-fangled systems, kind of tries to do an end-run around traditional conversation.  It links together things that seem to be related, and treats them as a kind of meta-conversation.  This basically treats conversation as an emergent property of postings.

The problem is that the conversations fostered here lack many of the tools that good conversations require.  In particular, by deriving the conversation implicitly, they are also deriving the community implicitly.

That doesn’t really work, because community is more than a one-way operation.  You aren’t part of my community simply because you want to be: you are part of it if I say you are.  Tumblr, and tools like it, miss the crucial distinction.

Any moderately mature conversation system deals with this, by providing very explicit tools for managing your community — the ability to ban a specific person from commenting is the most elementary and critical feature such a system can have.  (No, CommYou doesn’t have it yet.  This is one of the reasons it’s still only in alpha: I consider the feature necessary before it goes to beta.)

It remains to be seen whether the implicit-conversation systems can get this right.  I suspect that, in order to do so, they’ll have to sacrifice some of their beautiful “it just works” emergent properties, and start providing more explicit community-management capabilities like the rest of us.

What do you think the community capabilities of these implicit tools will wind up looking like?  Do you think that implicit-conversation tools are going to manage to scale up to the ugly real world of the Net, or will they (like so many social systems before them) get toppled by the harsh reality of abuse?

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