Looser Threads

This is just going to end up annoying me if I don’t post it. I was trying to go to sleep tonight when I thought up something that I wanted to get down in writing before I talked myself out of it or realized how stupid it was.  I started writing this with one basic idea: ending threaded conversation on the web. After seeing where it took me, I think I realized that my solution was just too close to what’s already been/being created in Twitter and Google Wave. I saved this as a draft and closed my laptop. But I think there are some differences with what I want and those tools and, in any case, I wanted to ask other people what they think about the pros and cons of threaded conversation, so I decided that I’d come back, write this intro paragraph and then post the thing for ridicule.

I’ve been working with the LIS Website Team for a couple weeks now in thinking about how we can improve our organizational communications using the website. We set up a project blog and a project wiki and started trying to use them to communicate. One thing I noticed right away is that we’d have these mini conversations in the comments for a particular blog post that might be connected with other mini conversations from other posts, but there was no real way to tie these together. Eventually we might talk about one of these at a meeting and then, perhaps, transfer the results of the conversation in some other form onto the wiki. Maybe.

This same problem happens all the time in web forums where you’ll have a discussion in one thread that’s related to another, get off on a tangent, but have no way to connect the two threads. Communication tools like content management systems and wikis fail to convey the conversation in an even worse manner by obscuring how the concluding document was created by locking it in a revision history that often only shows what was changed, but not why it was changed.

A lot of it, I think comes back to the basic structure of all content on the web: a body, a title, an author, a timestamp, and possibly some other metadata depending on the type of content. This same structure has been in place since people were posting on BBSes. The trouble is, by locking the discussion into having a title you create silos of information in parallel conversation threads.

What’s needed is a discussion tool that allows open participation without tying the conversation to a topic. Alright, that’s what Twitter does in a sense. But while I appreciate Twitter’s elegant simplicity, I don’t think that format allows for the depth of back-and-forth discussion I want to have on certain topics and I require something more than the workaround of just linking off to a blog post or forum thread.

Here’s what I’m looking for in terms of requirements:

  • Single threaded conversation – You can reply to someone, or to multiple people at the same time.
  • Open conversation – People see what you’re talking about and can jump in and give their point of view.
  • Quote content for reply – when responding, you should be able to reference part or all of a prior post or posts in a way that makes it easy for any person to refer back to the original through (at most) a single click.
  • No other tool(s) required – You should not need to link out of this tool to a blog post, video, chat log, document, web page, or any other external content. Doing this could be an option, but the ability to create any of this content inside the tool should exist.
  • Experientially similar to email – Every time I talk about moving the conversation onto the web it’s really about moving away from email. Clearly there’s something about using email that people enjoy, so why reinvent that? You should be able to nudge people to comment by including them in a “To” line, similar to @’ing someone on Twitter.

What do you think? Are these needs already answered by some combination of existing tech like Twitter, Google Wave, blogs, wikis, desktop collaboration applications, or email? Am I on the right track in that unthreading the conversation will improve communication? Or should I just have gone to sleep an hour ago?

    One thought on “Looser Threads

    1. Jason Pontius

      I need a little time to think about that, and I’m not allowed to spend that much time thinking about work during my paternity leave. But in the massive MiddLab document I’m mentally preparing, there’s going to have to be a way of managing conversations about research and study at Midd— sure we could use some app of the month or RSS integrate-o-matic, but it’d be much more fun to build something neat to order.


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