So, what’s more social than having a conversation? Two or more participants in an exchange of words or acts that relate to a common subject. It’s called communication and as human beings we have a natural born talent for maintaining several subjects in our mind at once.
The conversation is very important for humans and our social life. We not only want to interact with others – we want to understand the context of a conversation we’re not immediatly being a part of. Be it a political debate, people on the street passing by or when reading posts on an internet forum. Quotations are a great example of how maintaining the intended context is important, as many phrases have multiple interpretations. With the age of books, physically printed literature, keeping the context has been a hard task – but with computers, the internet and hypertext on the world wide web it is no longer difficult.
So one may wonder why websites that are portrayed as “social” are so bad at presenting communication. Lately we have started seeing one-level threads that contain comments and mentions in the “social media”. Not much more than bulletin board systems did during the ’70s and ’80s. The visual representations, event the metadata, of these digitally stored conversations are limited to relatively short bursts of chaotic chatter in the realtime-adapted webservices. Not a very socially sustainable style of communication.
The two major players in the area of asocial media services in Europe and the US are Facebook and Twitter. Both fail to respect human conversation in their own particular way:
- Facebook has a single-thread style conversation. A user initiates this with a post or link. This notation may be quite long and occasionally sparks an intense debate. However, any replies that are made are only linked to the original post.
Should a thread get multiple conversation participants that reply on several invisible subthreads it doesn’t take long before it is too chaotic to follow. Even for a trained robot or human being.
- Twitter conversations are built on reply-to notifications. An original tweet, limited to 140 characters, can often gain attention and be subject to discussions. Any replies to this post will be required to contain a multi-character mention (@username) of the user replying to, while still being subject to a character limit.
Assuming, contrary to experience, that a 140 char-limit is enough the available characters are quickly reduced with conversation participant, effectively disorienting any third-party that tries to follow up.
To make matters worse there’s not even a method of linking tweet follow-ups in metadata, which has caused some clients to add any “>>”-like signature to indicate humans to continue reading in the next tweet.
Compare it to mailing lists. Any mailing list or e-mail client can handle threads, replies, carbon-copies and even blind carbon copies since decades ago. That’s like space-age technology compared to the asocial media services’ scrapbooking kit which even lacks a proper glue.
Google+ also uses the single-thread style. There are of course also many other services out there, even some of which have learned from (or even incorporate) mailing lists. Usenet for example should reasonably be an early example of an open social media, lacking only a flashy front-end, a marketing department and better anti-spam measures to be successful.
WordPress is probably the best example of a social web media and sports appealing multi-threaded comments with proper computer-readable markup. However, WordPress currently lacks integrated federation. It’s more of a social oasis, where you park your camel and talk for a while before you head off to the next water hole. Besides, that structure is better used for the topic of a discussion rather than the place of a discussion.
So welcome OStatus, the federated social web protocol. Its main implementation, the software StatusNet (see it in action on identi.ca or freesocial.org), already does threading and proper in-context metadata. It has the backbone for cross-domain notifications and replying without clogging the post with the @-mentions. As opposed to WordPress, the social bit is integrated both up- and downstream so feeds you subscribe to get pushed into your timeline and from there you can post comments upstream and interact with replies.
The OStatus protocol is open and free for anyone to use, works across domain-names and gives you control over what you share, how your data flows and especially where it is stored. You’d never give up control of your “real” social life to someone else – so why give up the digital representation of it? OStatus is an easy solution to maintaining this control.
So if one wants a true social media service, I think it is important to choose one that is not only open and free as in speech but also compatible with how humans really interact with each others. A system that not only respects the user by keeping the user in control, but also something that understands our social interactions – where conversations are a very important part.
The social web is nothing but communication anyway, so why not make sense out of it and keep its context open, transparent and clear?