March 5th, 2006

Conversation is NOT Enough

by

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 bigpicture.typepad.com

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 delong.typepad.com

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, www.cjrdaily.org

and

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, www.thestalwart.com

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.

Comments (23 Responses so far)

  1. Publishing 2.0Conversation 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

  2. Conversation is NOT Enough (Publishing 2.0)

  3. The Washington Post’s abortive attempt at allowing commenting comes to mind. What media outlets do you think are doing a good job evolving with new communication possibilities? UPDATE 3/5/05: Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 and Atlantic Mediadiscusses Business Week’s interactions with the blogosphere.

  4. blogosphere. Reading the reviews of speeches given this week at eTech I was reminded of the answer. I didn’t master any of those subjects. I learned how to think, and how to have a conversation. Scott Karp has a substantive post this week on theabsence of meaningful conversation in the blogosphere. He compares most blog posts to an array of vapid corporate meetings, and makes the case that more attention needs to be paid to the process of the conversation, not just to the velocity.

  5. de reflectir sobre a adaptação dos modelos de negócio da indústria à era digital. Num post de meados de Janeiro, Karp apresenta-nos uma muito bem conseguida observação dos argumentos esgrimidos no debate ‘velhos media vs. novos media’.[IMG] Ontem, a ideia de partida é retomada para nos dizer que os novos meios podem (e devem) ancorar-se na ideia da ‘conversa’ (por contraponto a uma visão uni-direccional) mas NÃO podem ficar-se por isso.

  6. On the Publishing 2.0 blog is a post,Conversation is not enough, that points out the disconnect in online conversations. Scott Karp says, “[W]hat about the about the “meaningful” conversations that the blogosphere strives to have on normal working days? I’ve been involved in many thought-provoking

  7. On the Publishing 2.0 blog is a post,Conversation is not enough, that points out the disconnect in online conversations. Scott Karp says, “[W]hat about the about the “meaningful” conversations that the blogosphere strives to have on normal working days? I’ve been involved in many thought-provoking

  8. Publishing 2.0, 05.03.2006: Conversation is NOT Enough

  9. Publishing 2.0, 05.03.2006: Conversation is NOT Enough

  10. Hey Scott, I was just blogging yesterday about BW’s interactions with bloggers. And also about The Atlantic Monthly, by way of comparison.

    You make a good point: BW should certainly have allowed Michael a chance to respond to his commenters. I think he has responded well on his blog, but people who only read the print magazine should see his responses as well. And some of the comments they chose made me scratch my head. Not exactly the best of the blogosphere, there.

    I don’t know what Old Media Principles might be at work, but I know BW is drawing me closer at the same time other magazines push me away.

  11. [...] Conversation is NOT Enough. I’m paying a lot of attention to Scott Karp these days because what he’s writing makes so much sense. I think he misses the point about the “permanence” and ability to search, but other than that he’s pretty much spot on. [...]

  12. The problem with maintaining conversation in blogs stems from how an individual blog grows over time.

    If a blogger posts once a day, every weekday for example, that’s 110 new “conversations” started in a year. Should our blogger suddenly find A-listdom thrust upon himself/herself, readership increases and visitors start delving into the archives, maybe offering thoughtful comments that merit responses on year-old posts.

    Going forward, new posts receive all that heavy traffic now. Taking your example, let’s consider a minimum of two comments per post that merit a response from the author. That just tripled the writing the blogger does in a given week.

    Eventually, the overwhelmed blogger may choose one of three options: quit blogging, turn off comments, or limit or stop responding to comments.

    And there goes the conversation.

  13. David, good point, but that’s the problem with the “one person band” approach to independent publishing, i.e. blogging. There’s no one “on staff” to sort through all those comments — maybe the media institution is still good for something.

    Anne, BW is one of the only magazines I still pick up in print, even though I only read a handful of the articles, i.e. it’s as much Old Media inefficient as any other print pub. But I still pick it up to keep an eye out for innovations like this.

    Since you brought up The Atlantic, I’ll say two things. First, you shouldn’t indict the entire magazine just because you dislike Caitlin Flanagan. Second, the Atlantic’s Letters to the Editor section is one of the most popular in the magazine because it embraces a robust dialogue with readers — and it did so decades before anyone imagined blogging or participatory media.

  14. The selfish blog…

    This post is an example of the lack of synthesis that Scott Karp talks about on Publishing 2.0. I originally wrote it in the comments entry box on his blog, but moved it over to here to get advantage for…

  15. Hi Scott,

    you’re very right that conversation is difficult out here–and for many reasons. When a blog is small, it’s easy to see that the commenters are looking not just to comment but also to converse. When the comments begin to sprawl, or turn into anonymous invective, is it really conversation, or just a shouting match? Having experimented with many forms of social software over a seven year period, I have a sense when something is not worth my time. But, if the unbiquitous “they” of big media have never played around with forums, or chat rooms, or internet dating, “they” might have a difficult time understanding which coments are legit and which are simply random snarking.

    And your right about BW being one of the few pubs to honestly delve into the realm of interaction–as is the Washington Post (regardless of the garbage they’ve taken lately.) There is an overwhelming amout of lip-service given to interaction, but few who honestly follow thru.

  16. Scott, once there is a staff for a blog to go through comments and respond to them, is it still an individual’s blog or a media company? :) And wouldn’t the use of staffers to respond to commenters tend to devalue the conversation?

    If I leave a comment for you, and get an answer from say, Caitlin, I’m probably going to be disappointed I didn’t get an answer from you. That’s certainly not a criticism of Caitlin, I promise! It’s hard to have a rewarding conversation at one remove, even if Caitlin answers as close to what you would say as possible.

  17. I keep saying, “conversation” is an *extremely* misleading metaphor. It implies an intimacy and equality that just isn’t present, in mutual pontification. It’s used to market punditry. When critically examined, it just doesn’t work. You can’t “converse” with a huge number of people, except in the most strained and meaningless sense of the word.

  18. David, sounds like the “cult of personality” theory of media — and as many blogging A-Listers know, one individual can only carry so much. Would you be disappointed if you got a response from Publishing 2.0? Or do blog brands not really matter? (And if so, tell that to Wonkette or The Blog Herald.)

    Seth, what metaphor WOULD be constructive to describe to potential to create value through interactivity — or do you not believe there’s value to be created?

  19. Hi

    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.

  20. 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 :-().

  21. 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.”

    http://www.namesatwork.com/blog/2006/03/04/sociability/

  22. 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.”

  23. 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.

  24. [...] Blogging and Content Velocity Scott Karp posted yesterday (a Sunday, mind you) about a number of things around the notion of blogs being conversations. In particular, he writes: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.This is an important point about not only blogs, but how technology influences our notion of news: the frequency of publishing dictates our expectations of novelty. The technology that allowed for the daily publication and delivery of news in paper form changed expectations: you would assume that something worth printing happens at least once every 24 hours. Television, radio and the Internet decrease the time to publish, thereby increasing the expectation of news.Blogs take it to the extreme. With no editorial overhead, the distance between thought, analysis and reporting is shrunk down to near zero. Readers expect a new story with every click of the refresh button. Is it any wonder that the most visited are also the most prolific?The trouble, of course, is that world events don’t necessarily conform to publishing technology needs. The pipe must be filled, however, and so there is an increased need to push more content out, ultimately resulting in a sort of info-overload. Consider the flow of announcements of new technologies and Web2.0 start ups. Can anyone really keep them straight? Or differentiate between them all?I certainly haven’t got the answer. It’s a bit of a “Jane-stop-this-crazy-thing” moment. I will say, however, that this situation is best helped by context: the placing of new info nuggets into an understood environment. The best bloggers are doing this already, either through the continued use of tags or by simply writing in a way that isn’t simply filling the pipe, but helping you to understand.Consider TechCrunch, the blog that has given itself the formidable task of “tracking Web 2.0″. This morning, there’s a post about something called SnapTune. Michael Arrington does a great job describing the service by connecting it not only to another startup (Pandora), but also by associating with a very familiar task: recording radio to cassettes.Immediately, this new piece of content is not only delivered, but delivered in a way that makes sense and tells me how to think about it. If bloggers are going to be new journalists, they are going to have to play by new rules. The notion of openness and transparency has been pretty well covered. The issue of effectively communicating in a torrent of content has not. [...]

Add Your Comment

Subscribe

Receive new posts by email