Are We Having Real Conversations Using New Media?

WmChamberlain posted some thoughts this week over in the “At the teachers desk” blog about the value of online conversations. I started a response which ended up being a post of its own, which I present for your edutainment

The online conversation attention problem worries me more than the asynchronous nature of the conversations that do establish themselves. The very fact that they are not synchronous makes for more opportunities for others to engage don’t you think? We don’t have to all be in the same place at the same time.

Twitter and many other social media tools tend to create loosely coupled conversations. Our contributions via tweets and posts are fighting for attention in a sea of messages flooding our followers in-boxes. And now that many of us are aggregating these IMs, blog posts, Flickr feeds, YouTube subscriptions and the like via browser plug-ins or FriendFeed or GoogleBuzz the whole attention problem is compounded. It’s a miracle that useful conversations can develop in this environment at all.

As Jason touches on, the public nature of many conversations and platforms is discouraging for some potential participants who then limit their contribution, others give it no consideration and quickly pollute, dilute or devalue the conversation.

As a technologist I’ve typically shied away from the monolithic community sites (e.g. Facebook) that provide social media features, preferring to use best of breed tools (e.g. Twitter, Flickr). As an early adopter, like many of the posters on the blog post I’m picking, I enjoy interacting with the niche communities that spring up around these new tools. But as we know they are often isolated silos of activity and although the conversations are focused and seem valuable, they are limited by their accessibility, discover-ability and number of eyeballs. You cant have a conversation on your own… or can you?

I have to acknowledge though, and it saddens me a little, that these days most of my conversations tend to gravitate towards Facebook. I still use my best of breed favorites to publish content out at the edge of the network, and though I may foster conversations there my content is inevitably sucked into the FB pool via syndication feeds and snazzy social APIs.

No social media platform is the perfect place for a conversation though right?. Blogs, Twitter streams, forums, email or IM for that matter all eventually decay a conversation until its essentially impossible to follow. And though platforms like FaceBook support making connections and fostering conversations, partly due to the sheer volume of participants, but also the magic sauce behind the scenes, there still seems to be a lot of room for improvement.

I believe the “magic” that happens on or between platforms is the only way to substantially improve the quality of the conversations. We may think we are the masters of our own contributions but augmenting them mechanically is the only way to sort, filter, discover and improve them in my opinion. GoogleWave may have been a step in the right direction, but we’re still waiting for the silver bullet don’t you think?