rethinking the structure of discussions online

So, here’s a developing conversation by several heavyweights on the social media and technology spheres: Anil Dash argues that the new generation of social discussion tools like Branch, Svbtle and Medium are exclusive, Fred Wilson chimes in with a paean to inclusivity, and Josh Miller says openness is a spectrum. Dave Winer then says the real problem is a lack of innovation in creating systems for Discussion, a problem that Branch, Medium etc are trying to solve but they are constrained by the problem of access and signal to noise that Dash and Miller are taking issue with.

Maybe what we need to do is to throw out the old paradigm of discussion as “post-comment” and instead try to merge those categories. The entire conversation should be more folksonomic (disclosure, folksonomy is one of my Pet Issues, see my manifesto/rant on folksonomy here)

One great example is the P2 theme from WordPress. It upends the blog format by putting a post-entry box at the top of the theme (no more Dashboard, that talismanic secret niche from which only the Initiated may create content). Comments appear on the front page indented to the main post in real time, instead of being hidden under a link and requiring a page refresh. As is usual with WordPress, only registered users may post, but now the comment field is more transparent and included on the main page at the same stature as the parent post itself. This serves to demote a post and promote the comments. We used this format for amazing discussions at Talk Islam for years (until the site waned due to lack of participation and other priorities).

I’ve also argued that structurally, posts-comments on blogs represent a single “node” in exactly the same way that a forum thread represents a single node. In fact, forums map precisely onto blogs; no one has yet created a WordPress theme that represents posts as threads, but it could easily be done (I was disappointed with BBpress for its failure to recognize this duality).

P2 is a great start but it needs to go further. Blog systems allow the public to comment on a post, but they don’t fully embrace folksonomy (allowing the public to tag a post or add meta data), and they certainly don’t allow the public to make posts. Of course, spam is always a concern, but here is an area ripe for innovation rather than relying on captchas and user roles. For example, what about using social media to weed out spammers from real users? I am user azizhp on almost all social media profiles, for example; a smart spam detection system could cross-ref my email address and username across those systems to establish my bona fides transparently. Also note that existing anti-spam services like Akismet inherently assume the post-comment model exists; Akismet doesn’t scan your posts to see if they are spam. Imagine if it could! With that capability, WordPress could immediately take the concept of P2 even further by allowing unregistered users to post to a blog.

Ultimately, Discussions online aren’t as complicated as Branch, Medium, etc make it out to be. Someone says something; others respond. The only question is, Who? Who speaks first? Who speaks next? Who gets to categorize/tag the debate? Who can add value? Right now, there’s no way to answer all of these questions with, “anyone, that’s who”. Instead of reiterating the old post-comment model we need to turn to folksonomy as an alternative and then start trying to craft technological solutions to the inevitable new set of problems that will involve. I think those problems can be solved, and we have most of those tools already, though there’s lots of room for innovation. And the result will be something both open and inclusive, far more so than anything we have right now.