March 5th, 2006

Conversation is NOT Enough


So New Media is about conversation — but what is the point of conversation?

If it’s the never-ending blogger conversation about snarking, A-Listers, link baiting, traffic envy, ego bashing, etc. etc. then the point is to act like an algae bloom and block out the sun — witness tech.memeorandum today (it’s a Sunday).

But what about the about the “meaningful” conversations that the blogosphere strives to have on normal working days? I’ve been involved in many thought-provoking conversations, most of which seem to peter out right when they started to get interesting. That’s the way the ever-rushing, every-churning blogosphere works. There’s always new news to read and new posts to write.

Blog conversations remind me a lot of conferences and committee meetings — lot’s of great conversation and discussion, and maybe some promising ideas, but little if any synthesis, summary, or follow-up.

I’m NOT saying that conversational media isn’t an innovation — it’s a HUGE leap forward from uni-directional Old Media. But “conversation” feels like half the process — there needs to be SYNTHESIS (as I’ve tried in the past to articulate).

You can see the problem in this week’s BusinessWeek, which published in its print edition a roundup of the blogosphere’s responses to the previous week’s cover story.

First, let me say this was a hugely innovative step to take, and kudos to BW for trying to bridge to gap. But it also illustrates the problem with conversation as an end in itself.

I think the mistake BusinessWeek made was not to allow the author of the original cover story to respond to the criticism in the print edition’s “conversation roundup” — instead, it comes off as a he said/she said. Worse, some of the comments are examples of the substance-less accusations and personal attacks that you often see in the unedited, unmoderated blogosphere.

For example:

Seeing that Mike Mandel and Chris Farrell are two of the authors goes a long way in understanding what it’s about…. Both of these guys are so far out of touch with Main Street — one of these days some laid-off worker is going to give both of them a wedgie. –Tim Iacono, commenting on

This type of personal attack is par for the course in the blogosphere (see the snarkfest in the memeorandum link above).

The theory is clearly delusional bubble thinking, but it’s so new that economists haven’t had time to assimilate it and show exactly why it’s delusional bubble thinking. –Walt Pohl, commenting on

Thanks, that’s really helpful. I guess if you’re going to throw open the gates to the kingdom, you have to let EVERYONE in, including those whose comments just raise the noise-to-signal ratio.

But it would be worth it if Michael Mandel had the opportunity to take on the substantive responses, like:

The notion of using intangibles to calculate GDP has been around for some time. And most economists believe it is a bad idea because such numbers are inherently unreliable. They are intangibles — unknowns. To allow subjective analysis to seep into our GDP statistics would be, in effect, to Enron-ize the national account. –Gal Beckerman,


I don’t see how it matters who the debt is to, if the money is well spent. If the education spending is worthwhile (which it may not be, of course), then the U.S. should welcome Chinese investments into our education. The fact that the individual getting the education has to pay back some of their future earnings to Chinese creditors, as opposed to American creditors, won’t really matter to them. –Joseph Weisenthal,

Of course, Michael Mandel engages deeply in the conversation on his excellent BW blog, which sits alongside BW’s other excellent blogs. And for the record, I think BW is one of the Old Media brands that has gone most fearlessly in search of Media 2.0.

But in this experiment, BW would be well-served to remember some of its Old Media principles, i.e. synthesis matters. BW enabled a great conversation, but it would have been great to see all the threads tied together. I don’t expect these issues of economic theory to be easily resolved, but after all the back and forth, as a BW reader I want to have a sense of where the debate stands.

Long before the advent of blogging and conversational media, some publications (I won’t name names) were renowned for having a robust Letters to the Editor section, where thoughtful readers responded at length to authors and authors responded thoughtfully to readers. My favorite blogs are those where the blogger responds to comments, rather than just phoning in the post and hurrying on to the next one. The best bloggers will actually write a new post to sum up or reflect on the conversation from a previous post.

Conversation is a process — but the most useful conversations also have a sense of progress and, in rare instances, a destination.

  • Matt Martin

    Good conversation requires community. An *intimate* community is difficult (but not impossible) to create online.

    This post of mine will get lost. I will not be back to check its progress. Why? Because I am not part of this community -- is there even a community here?

    Without a community, without investment in each other, we are all just spouting our opinions into a void.

  • Scott, good point about the 'who' behind the answer, but it looks like we're entering one of those vaunted Star Trek:TNG temporal loops now. I think the response to "is it a quality answer based on who answers it" is "it depends."

    InfoWorld still publishes a Robert X Cringely column, even though the real Cringe isn't writing it. For me, the acceptable version is the real one, not the Dread Pirate Roberts version in the magazine. To a reader who doesn't recall when InfoWorld was a huge publication and Bob Metcalfe and Stewart Alsop wrote the backpage columns, it's probably not a big deal, subjectively.

    There you go, the Blog 2.0 strategy: launch your blog as a brand if you want to keep the aura of the "named blogger" conversing or whatever we need to call it going forward. And hope no one notices the trademark symbol next to the blogger's "name."

  • I thought that this post had a interesting take on the illusion of media conversation, and how it even occurs in the real world when so-called "unequals" are in a context that allows for the illusion of "equalness."

  • What's wrong with the English words which have served us up until now? There's no big push to say "Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper is a conversation" (occasionally that might be heard, but it would be recognized as particularly high-flown and flowery). It's hardly a "conversation" when a favored few have big megaphones, and everyone else is squeaking down at the bottom. Bluntly, what people often mean, if they mean anything, is something more akin to "data-mining".

    But to point out a simple example, the sentence:

    "The best bloggers will actually write a new post to sum up or reflect on the conversation from a previous post."

    Really means, in less marketing-affected standard English:

    "The best bloggers will actually write a new post to sum up or reflect on the reactions to a previous post."

    See? Why use the misleading marketing word? (well, obviously, that's a rhetorical question :-().

  • Mike Mandel


    Thanks for the comments. I thought a lot about how to structure the feedback piece. As the writer of the original cover story, my initial impulse, of course, was to respond to all criticism. As the author of the feedback piece, I wanted to be fair and expose the print readers to a healthy selection of the online conversation, leaning towards the negative since that's the part they hadn't seen in the magazine yet.

    In the end, since I had plenty of opportunity on my blog to address criticisms, I decided to err on the side of presenting opposing views. By the limitations of print, that meant restricting the presentation of my own views to leave as much space as possible for the critics.

    This is all a work in progress. Who knows? The next time we might do it the way you suggest and see how it comes out. Thanks again.

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