Blog Pile

Hey “No Cat”- Just What is Conversation?

The notion of “distributed conversations” in blog space seems to rear its head on some cycle. It always seems to boil down to a polarization of those who find some level of comfort in the chaotic widely distributed notion and those that seem to covet the notion that it needs to be nicely organized in one location.

Hey folks, it can be both.

But first some serendipity. Finding interesting/curious/odd treasures on the web just by happy accident or curiosu link clicking is a little pleasure no search engine will match. I was reading a post at Burning Bird which was of weak interest, when the URL of a commenter grabbed my attention- “ralph” leads to

Given my overly canine motif here, and previous gentle stabs of blogs as “cat diaries”, I could not resist a click.

Okay, There Is No Cat has a feline flavor, but its not about cat devotion (well a little on the sidebar) but refers to what I find a witty Einstein quote:

“You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.”

Nice. Metaphors. Yum.

Also interesting, if you relaad the pages, you get either different style sheet / color schemes and a random sub title for the blog.

But here it comes again, someone who dislikes the notion of “distributed conversations” under The Bars of Usenet and Blogistan:

I believe that Usenet fostered a sense of community and conversation much better than Blogistan does, and for one reason: for any given topic, there was generally one “location” where discussion of that topic was appropriate, or at most, a few. You wanted to talk about shortwave radio, you posted in You wanted to talk about the travails of being single in the late 1980s, you posted to Blogistan, on the other hand, is far more fragmented.

I agree with the difference, but am less clear even what people mean by “conversation”. Ralph’s preference seems to be the kind that may go on in a white table cloth restaurant, with back and forth banter, beginning and end, all self contained. There is also conversation like at a big house party or someone’s pool party, where things conversations are going in in many places, not always connected.

So does a meaningful “web conversation” need to take place in a neat and orderly box? Perhaps in the pre-web days, when the ways of organization were much more tree-like or specified director structures. Enter hyperlink, search engines, Technorati, coComment, PubSub, and there is not really a technical requirement to have the structure of a “conversation” so neatly defined so it can be systematically picked through in order.

The chaos and dis-order that Ralph has trouble with seems to me a mire realistic mirror of the world beyond the web, where conversations are not neatly stacked with indentations and threads. It makes the following of conversations an active process not a passive one, and rewards us with serendipity. There was not a whole lot of serendipity in listservs and UseNet.

But Ralph goes on to conclude later in A Story that blogs are good only for storytelling:

Storytelling is as primal for humans as conversation. It’s something we’ve done for millenia. The two things are related, but they’re different. Conversations are about the give and take of two or more people. Storytelling is more about performance and reaction…

I wrote before about the reasons the web is poorly suited for conversation. But the characteristics that make it so, the fragmentation, the asynchronicity, the sense of place relating to person instead of topic, make it well suited for storytelling, or at least don’t harm storytelling the way they harm conversation. The farther from real time a conversation gets, the more difficult it becomes to sustain. But a story can survive that; centuries and millenia of books testify to that.

While I agree that the web can be a medium for storytelling, I constantly get my fur up when people try to paint such broad brush stroke conclusions about “the web is this” and “blogs are best for that”. It just does not wash. There is no way that anyone can accurately draw conclusions given recent Technorati data citing 75,000 new blogs created daily, that the blogospohere doubles in size every 5.5. months (take that Moore’s Law!). How can anyone say that blogs are only good for storytelling since humanly we can only analyze a mere fraction, a thin tiny layer, of the entire blogosphere?

It really comes down to preferences of how people access information. I am all in favor os using structured discussion tools (even listservs), discussion boards, that organize topics when there is a reason to contain all of the topics in one place. We use them for committees doing work on creating new policies, some fellowship groups that are doing reading discussions, etc.

But there is something just as valuable when the discussion is spread across many places, when it is happenstance, that would never have happened in UseNet land (e.g. Social Software in Action).

There is No Cat and there is no thing such as one medium being “better” for conversations since this thing we call “conversations” varies widely. I have a full 3 years of blogging experience that has created more valuable connections, and brought me resources and ideas in my fields at a greater pace than I ever was able to fish out of UseNet or listservs.

It’s a strange new world Ralph, yes, but rich with opportunity that was not there in the cubbyhole structure.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Two thoughts:

    Distributed conversations are built for– even invite– serendipity through methods technological and not.

    Distributed conversations are more conducive to the kinds of thoughts and ideas that don’t fit as well in the tennis-court-volleying of Usenet and centralized discussion… the kinds of thoughts that can be characterized positively and negatively– the less thought out, the “riffs,” the meandering, the contemplative, the linker, the connector– all those things which aren’t *really* “just” responses.

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  3. Preparing for serendipity: is that a contradiction in terms? I think not. In some respects, all these tools are metaphors for education, or can be … and I sure want to prepare my students for serendipity.

    Great post.

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