This post has been languishing in my drafts for a while, but JP’s musings on ‘asymmetric tweeting’ reminded me to get it finished.
Before the Internet came along, there was a fairly clear boundary between publishing and conversation. You could reply to a newspaper article via the letters page if you felt strongly enough, but the publisher decided whether to print your comments, and the relationship was still heavily one-sided. Conversations, in turn, could be largely divided into synchronous (face-to-face, telephone etc) and asynchronous (letters, fax and so on).
The more traditional internet communication tools follow a similar pattern: publish a web site; converse synchronously (instant messaging) or asynchronously (e-mail). A new addition was the many-to-many conversation – again either synchronous (IRC) or asynchronous (newsgroups; mailing lists).
With the advent of what I’ll call ‘Web 2.0’ for want of a better term, things start getting a whole lot stranger.
Let’s start with blogs. At first glance a blog is just published content, but what sets it apart is comments and links. Anyone can reply to a blog post, either by commenting on the post itself, or by writing a response on their own blog, and using trackbacks. If it’s a popular blog, you often end up with conversations between commenters which don’t even involve the original poster. With trackbacks, it’s not always obvious to people reading an article that it’s a response to another, so you can end up with several conversations on the same post: one in the comments, and the others in ‘the blogosphere’, held together loosely by hyperlinks. People will read later contributions without necessarily even realising that they’re part of a conversation of sorts. There’s no guarantee that the original poster will even read everything that links back to his post, and reading links to links is even less likely. Similarly many people comment on a blog and never get round to going back to look for replies to their comment (bloggers: please provide RSS feeds for comments on individual posts!)
Then we have the weird and wonderful world of ‘social networks’. Facebook, for example, provides several ways to converse with your friends. There’s personal messaging, which is basically a walled-garden, non-standard e-mail service and not especially interesting. You can write on people’s walls (not to mention superwalls, funwalls and who-knows-what-else-walls), and have ‘wall-to-wall’ conversations. Even ignoring the fact that they’re hidden from the Web at large, these are only semi-public, in that only people who are friends with both of you can see the whole conversation – non-mutual friends can only see one half. Or people can have more ephemeral conversations just using their statuses, which can look very odd to those who are only privy to part of the conversation, or who come in late when the statuses no longer make sense together.
Twitter, for such a simple service, also leads to a surprising variety of conversations. There’s the original simple broadcast “what are you doing?”, and direct private messages (again, not much different from e-mail or SMS), but things get interesting when people use the @username syntax to reply to other messages. As observed by Phil and discussed by JP, this can get confusing (and annoying) when you aren’t following the person being replied to (although watching who your friends reply to can be a good way of finding new people to follow). On the other side of the coin, if you reply to a tweet from someone who doesn’t follow you, they won’t even see your reply, unless they happen to look in the replies tab on the Twitter website (or subscribe to their replies using RSS).
And as if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens when all these tools meet up? Lots of people automatically post their tweets to their Facebook status, or create Facebook links to their blog posts, or aggregate just about everything to Jaiku, and inevitably some people will reply to the link or the second-hand message rather than going back to the source.
So can we cope with all these semi-visible, partly-asymmetrical, multi-homed conversations? We seem to be managing so far, and at least we have the choice. I was reading something recently that I wrote in my student days (when mobiles were for yuppies, and student houses didn’t generally have phones, let alone internet access). A bunch of us from various places were going camping in Wales for the weekend, and apparently there was confusion because someone had sent a letter saying they didn’t know where the campsite was, but it hadn’t arrived in time to send a reply. Life was simpler then, but sometimes the simplicity made things more complicated.
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