Conversational Geography

“Civility is only a passenger – not a driver – on the information superhighway.”
– Don Rittner

So, this is interesting. Jeff Atwood, one of the chaps who was instrumental in building what has become, without a shadow of a doubt, the most vital tool any developer can ever have – Stack Overflow – is playing around with discussion systems and forums now. He retired from the whole Stack Exchange thing and is tootling around seeing if his forum and discussion system, Discourse, can change the way we discuss things on the Internet.

The comments to Jeff’s blog post making the announcement are the usual mix that one would expect: congratulations, initial complaints, suggestions and the obvious arguments as to whether a flat or threaded model is appropriate. It always baffles me that it is seen as such a black and white issue. Threaded. Non-threaded. Indented. Non-indented. It’s like arguing whether aspirin or paracetamol is most appropriate for a man facing the guillotine: people becoming incredibly animated discussing their favourite way of shoving square pegs into round holes.

When several people hold conversations, they do not do it on a single page in a neat linear sequence. Conversations drift in and out of each other, some merge, some split, others idle and fade away and some just observe and comment on existing conversations (sneakily or publicly). People overhear things happening near to them and ooze or spring from one conversational group to another. It’s a thing that has geography. Yes, you heard me, geography. Conversations are a fundamentally spatial affair: people clump and group together in order to communicate effectively. If they’re bored or wish to start a new conversation, it actually splits off, like a new child conversation seeking independence from its parents as it drifts off. Maybe, a couple of glasses of wine later, it’ll want to move back in with Mummy and Daddy but it started near to an existing conversation and is, in some weird way, related.

Let’s illustrate the awesomeness of how the Internet brings people together from all over the globe into conversational groups with this poorly drawn little diagram:

Snakes apart

Four snakes, so, so far apart. Yet thanks to the Internet, they can argue with each other endlessly about stunningly pointless subjects. Later, snake 2 will make some suggestion about snake 3’s relationship with his mother using a series of grammatically questionable, badly spelt sentences. Fun times!

Snake 1 is talking to Snake 2 about whether GIMP’s user interface is an example of precisely what’s wrong with design by ineffectual committee. It’s going to be an interesting conversation, as you can imagine. Snake 3 and snake 4 are discussing whether EMACS is in fact the world’s greatest editor or whether today’s nice, tidy user interface driven editor applications mean that finally one need not have to remember how to wrap seventeen fingers up like two drunken octopuses making love to perform something that should be trivially easy. Later, they’ll shoot the breeze about whether an editor really needs a built-in, fully functioning text adventure game1. Yes, you guessed it, this is the social occasion from hell. But wait! Snakes 1, 2, 3 and 4 are FUCKING MILES APART! How can they hear each other or have a conversation? Well, this is the Internet, so it doesn’t matter. Instead, they get to choose between two failed models both indexed in a variety of confusing, inconsistent manners:

  1. Flat: Conversations that are related to each other may never know that they are related to each other because they’re held in private, sound-proofed rooms. Additionally, it’s a nightmare to follow what’s going on when several people are talking and that makes it unfriendly for new participants and generally nastier for existing ones unless they are moderated to within an inch of their lives. CosmoQuest’s forums (previously Bad Astronomy and Universe Today’s discussion forums) are one of the few examples of exceptionally well-moderated forums that transcend many of the underlying software’s faults simply by the power of effective people. This shows that making flat discussions functionally work is a matter of human effort of gargantuan proportions, however, it clearly can be done, but few have the time or patience to do it.
  2. Threaded: Oh my. Ok, well, there’s a lot of scrolling going on here, but you’re still suffering from disconnected roots although at least now it is possible to see who’s replying to who… after a fashion, anyway, because if any particular conversation gets long, it gets increasingly hard to follow what’s happening. SlashDot and b3ta’s (PS: b3ta may not be suitable for work, depending on where you work) discussion forums are both excellent examples of getting this as right as one can.

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory at this point. This is a simple formula that says: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Fuckwad. There is an almost unbelievable lack of social grace that is encouraged by the “you can’t see me, you don’t know me” factor. It’s what allows you to be drunken you, inhibition-free, permanently. Without any fear of being personally attributed or punched in the face and with a platform hugely disproportionate to that which you’d achieve in real life you’re free to shout, taunt, poke and disrupt everything around you. It’s the belief that the usual, civilised rules of discussion simply don’t and should apply to the Internet and solving this could transform the way we communicate online.

I’d humbly suggest that it’s not unreasonable to say that part of what’s wrong with Internet discussion forums is that they’re simply not how we talk in Real LifeTM. They’re not how we socialise. So why do these things form the fundamental foundations of how we socialise on the Internet?

Rolling what can’t be polished in glitter

Real conversations do not start with a big signpost saying “this is what this conversation is about and will remain about” and are not indexed and discovered as such in real life. However, the vast majority of Internet discussion forums (b3ta’s uniquely effective keep-it-fresh-by-discarding-the-old approach notwithstanding) rely on discussion titles for discovery by interested users. It is clear that with this system, remaining “on topic” is critical for maintaining integrity of the primary index. The CosmoQuest chaps achieve this with brutal execution of moderation powers, but conversations rarely stay on target in reality.

Modern forum software lacks a concept of what a conversation is now about, what it was about and what it is tending towards unless someone updates the topic title or splits things out into new threads (which, of course, then lose the context of how they appeared). The ebbs and flows of what was and wasn’t interesting fade into a long, endless stream of text. And that gets tiresome quickly. At a party, if you join a conversation one person may give you a heads up without messing up the chat in progress. You’ll get the relevant parts, not the complete potted history. Which is nice. Or, you’ll just slide into the “now” without needing to how everyone arrived there. Which is also nice, as nobody wants a fifty-slide presentation of all the conversational steps that led to the current heated discussion on how Microsoft got so far detached from their customers’ needs, hopes and desires.

What’s that coming over the hill, is it my daughter, my daauuuugghhter! Yes, and she wants a DISCUSSION! About GIRAFFES. And ASTRONAUTS ON THE MOON. And TERRY'S CHOCOLATE CHOCOLATES!

“What’s that ♩ coming over the ♫ hill, is it my daughter, ♬ my daauuuugghhter!” Yes, and she wants a DISCUSSION! About GIRAFFES. And Astronauts. On the MOON. And Terry’s Chocolate Oranges. Brace yourself!

Next time you’re at the pub, a bar or a party, just pause for a minute, lean quietly on a wall and watch. Try not to look too creepy or too much like a stalker, so, gents, don’t focus your attention on boobs and bottoms. Watch conversation groups form and disband. Watch the chit chat, watch the listeners, the partakers. Watch those that lead the conversation and see how it all varies wonderfully over time. This works because each participant has a position. A real one. A physical presence. This, coupled with the strength and type of personality they project gives them their own unique soap-box upon which to stand on or next to. Participants move around, gesticulate or background themselves and somehow this all works. Noise reduction is automatic. The filters are both implicit and effective. Trolls are managed by default, without the need for bans, naughty steps and other such top-down tools. Detail is where it needs to be, not where it’s forced to be.

The leap forwards

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting a Second Life approach to forums and socialising here. I don’t expect avatars to be walking around and striking up conversations as the user interface devices and software design philosophies for something like that are miles off. However, even though the participants are not walking around doesn’t mean that the conversations cannot have positions. As they split up, new circles of chat bubble off. The further they detach from their parent, the further they go. It is clear how many people are active and ghostly conversations of times gone by gradually drift into the basement where they are archived for the curious to stroll around and dust off some time in the future. The presence of geography means that it is beautifully self managing: the undesirables get pushed away from the centre and leave no trace of their conversational invasion. When trolling leaves no mark and where uncivilised behaviour has its volume turned down trivially by those engaged in the conversation, it rapidly becomes less attractive. No trophy, no point. A well-implemented, spatial discussion forum could well encourage a more civilised behaviour at its foundations. For free. Well, as civilised as real-life conversations get.

These are exciting times with exciting possibilities but it remains both odd and mildly unsatisfying that such key and critical aspects of the Internet as conversations and discussions are still executed largely as interactive magazines. It’s like having the most incredible toolset known to mankind, putting a rug over it and using it as a chair. The Web is quite possibly the most solitary social experience created by mankind2. I feel that it is sad that two decades on it’s still the best that we’ve got.

There’s clearly a leap to be made here.

One day, the internet will be a place that you go, not something you observe. Kiss goodbye to the Web and its clunky books-you-can-poke paradigms: it’s all going the way of the dinosaurs, it’s just that nobody has figured out how or with what yet. But they will. HTML 5, WebGL (now that Microsoft have finally joined the fun) will guide us through the dark towards technologies that will bring the global network to life. We’re fundamentally spatial organisms. We put things in places, we organise things in places and we interact socially in that way too. Organising discussion forums geographically and allowing different conversations to feed and nourish each other may well be the killer Internet discussion application. It could transform every nook and cranny of the global network in ways that we cannot yet imagine. With this in mind (and more specifically, with a particular solution in mind), despite my massive respect for a man who has contributed so much to transforming almost every aspect of my daily development life, I can’t see Discourse changing the world. It’s an iterative evolution, a rounder wheel if you wish, but it’s no flying car, teleporter or space elevator.

However, I admire the attempt and the underlying reasoning for doing so: Internet discussions suck.

1I’m not kidding. If you have a Unix box or EMACS configured on a PC, open a command prompt and launch it like this:
emacs -batch -l dunnet.

2Actually, there is one other: peak-time commuter train carriages. They’re full of miserable people, each of whom act as though they are in an impenetrable, sealed metal box. If it wasn’t for my various train friends, that soul destroying experience would have been even worse.

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