Internet discussion trends: from Usenet to micro-blogs
I’ve written briefly before about how our lives are digitized at an increasing rate and wondered about the impact this has on our social behavior. One particular arc which interests me is how we engage in discussion.
In the early 1990s, newsgroups were the norm for discussion. They were multiplying daily, and for almost any topic, chances were good that there was already a Usenet newsgroup, whether you were a recovering system administrator or a kibologist. The killer feature of newsgroups was their universality: anyone could get access to a Usenet feed via their ISP, and in one shot be connected to the full spectrum of discussion groups. Their weakness was that, despite the vast namespace, there wasn’t room for everyone. There were already too many groups, and ISPs grumbled about the time and expense of shipping all of this data around. Why should you have your own newsgroup? Newsgroups existed everywhere and nowhere, and authority was questionable at best. To create a new newsgroup, you might be expected to discuss it in a certain place, ask a local administrator, participate in a voting process, or all of these and more. Even if you did it all right, someone who disagreed could delete your group at any time by posting a control message from anywhere in the network.
It took some time for a new message to propagate through Usenet, and most people didn’t read their news all that frequently, so discussions progressed at a moderate pace. A typical discussion lasted for days, and a popular thread might go on for months as it spiralled away from the original topic. News reading programs developed advanced features for filtering out irrelevant discussions.
FAQ editors distilled the accumulated wisdom of newsgroups into documents, and posted them to the group periodically as they were revised. People worried about the signal-to-noise ratio of popular groups, and predicted that Usenet would become worthless when it dropped too low. This was a constant perceived danger as more and more people began to participate, having no idea how to behave appropriately, and were rebuked. Some groups appointed moderators to filter out inappropriate content.
The next dominant pattern was that of email discussion via mailing lists. These were hosted in a definite “place” within an Internet domain, and any system administrator could set up a new one without stepping on anyone else’s toes. They were a bit harder to find, as there was no complete index of mailing lists, but this too was an improvement. If “newbies” couldn’t find your mailing list, they couldn’t post irrelevant content or otherwise misbehave. The barrier to entry provided a useful constraint on growth.
Mailing lists propagated messages more quickly, and people read email more frequently, so the pace of discussion increased. A misstep on a mailing list could get you “flamed” within minutes. Content posted to the list was only sent to individual members, and (unlike Usenet) was not copied to every ISP’s news server. The cost of a message, instead, was measured in terms of the attention of its readers. People worried about the signal-to-noise ratio on their mailing lists, and appointed moderators. The FAQ pattern became decoupled from the discussion group as the web became a more convenient storehouse for this information.
Keeping up with multiple or high-traffic mailing lists required sophisticated software to sort mailing lists into separate folders, set appropriate headers on replies, scan or read many messages quickly, and so on. Joining a mailing list required sending specially formatted control messages to a certain address. People with only basic email capabilities found mailing lists difficult to use, and the people on mailing lists generally considered this to be a good thing, because they would probably just make a nuisance of themselves anyway (not knowing the appropriate etiquette).
Forums filled a vacuum for people who wanted to participate in discussion, but found mailing lists and the associated software too complex and cumbersome. Setting up a new forum was still moderately complex (a task for system administrators or webmasters) but anyone could participate in a forum with very little effort or technical expertise.
Without the underlying standardization of news or mail, forums vary widely in their capabilities, social patterns and content. In general, they seem to be less linear than newsgroups or mailing lists, where the usual pattern is to scan all of the new messages since the last visit. Visitors to forums instead look at “what’s newest”, or “what’s hot”, or search for a specific topic.
Forums have evolved fairly sophisticated mechanisms for managing the signal-to-noise ratio. Very active forums tend to be moderated by visitors, who vote content (or other visitors) up or down according to relevance. Participants maintain a visible and persistent identity within the forum (an avatar), in contrast to the simple email addresses used on Usenet and mailing lists, and forum content can be deleted (an impractical task in mail and news systems).
On the other hand, some types of noise (like “me too” messages) seem to be tolerated well enough in forums, while this is considered disruptive on a mailing list. I suspect that etiquette varies widely depending on the capabilities and culture of the particular forum.
The key advancement of blogs was that anyone could set one up, without any technical expertise, and make it available to everyone. Originally, blogs weren’t discussion-oriented at all, which I think contributed to their slow growth early on. Over time, through comments, trackbacks and web-based aggregators, they have grown some discussion capabilities. Most people seem to read blogs through an RSS reader of some sort, though, and rarely visit the originating site at all. Few blog posts attract more than a small number of comments or responses on other blogs, and these often receive a disproportionately small amount of attention compared to the original post.
The blogosphere moves quickly, but is largely incoherent as a whole. Bloggers read each other’s content, and it influences their opinions and their writing, but there is very little direct response or feedback compared to the earlier examples above. Etiquette is all but inapplicable to individual blogs, as readers can be assumed to be “tuning in” to the author’s intended content. If they don’t like it, they simply don’t return.
It’s even more difficult for third parties to observe blog discussion. It can be challenging to find responses, and inconvenient to display them on-screen at the same time. The present infrastructure still seems much better suited to a singular “speaker” or “listener” role than to multi-directional discussion. It will be interesting to see whether it becomes more discussion-friendly in the future.
I don’t think I fully “get” micro-blogging yet, as I haven’t used in enough myself. It seems much more discussion-oriented than blogging, more like a very fast-paced mailing list than a small blog. Short, unstructured discussions can be held, two-way or around a topic, and broadcast content is acceptable as well. It would be nice to see more of a threading model, to make discussions easier to follow.
The real-time nature of micro-blogging seems to show obvious promise for discussion, but I’m not sure that the current formats support this very well. I’d be interested to hear from more experienced micro-bloggers about this.
I think a “best of all worlds” online discussion system would combine:
- the clear threading of mailing lists
- the universal accessibility of blogging
- the mobile/real-time nature of micro-blogging
- collaborative filtering (something better than what I’ve seen in forums)
- a balance between “pull” (everything since I last checked) and “push” (whatever you want to tell me right now) models
- decentralized infrastructure, which can be hosted by anyone anywhere, and improved upon through open development
Taking things even further, I’d like to have all of the advantages of a face-to-face conversation (time-efficiency, rich expression, personal connection, well-understood etiquette, etc.), and the advantages of online discussion (spanning long distances, interacting with large numbers of people, careful organization of thoughts, flexible starting and stopping, background and context). As long as I’m making a wish list, how about a seamless connection between public and private discourse?
If you know of experiments happening in this area, please post them in comments here.