goldkin: i has book (goldkin bookly)
Lately, I've been mulling over the idea of making Internet discussion topic-oriented again.

My interest in this is primarily self-serving: my quality of writing, abilities to articulate myself, and interests in participating in online discussion have noticeably dipped since the rise of social media. Like any trained skill, this dwindling is the product of atrophy: most of my current time is spent on more immediate and people-focused forms of social media. Twitter in particular discourages long-form, longly-thought prose, and I've been feeling the strain of constraining my thoughts into 140 characters more and more as I try desperately to be less terse post-personal-depression.

The trouble is we now have a blogosphere that is, for the most part, very diffuse, disorganized, and disconnected. Writing posts on a personal blog, like I am doing here, simultaneously feels like I'm yelling into the void hoping desperately to be noticed and, when I am noticed, distracting people from other, more meaningful pursuits of their time. It's lossy, precisely because until you read the words that I'm typing here, it's difficult to determine what I'm about to go on about.

This is the inherent problem with people-oriented social media. While it connects us with a wider and richer audience of people, it also carries the expectation that everything those people say, or at least a reasonable subset chosen at random, will be read by all participants that follow them. This puts the burden of topic discovery with the reader, as they try to determine, for each post in their social stream, whether the content is meaningful for them.

This is a bad paradigm. People are very bad at being spontaneously consistent, or failing that, spontaneously supportive of the expectations of their audience. Indeed, it is a rare blogger on social media who focuses solely on the content of their work or interests of their audience, instead of cathartic spontaneity or the topical profusion and profundity of a Twitter shitter. And when you do find a focused author, chances are they'd really like to sell you something.*

This seems wrong to me. While it gives us a wide array of topics, discussion, voices, and interests, each conversation is sorely lacking for organization, structure, and any form of coherency. The purveying social expectation is also that these discussions are immediate, transitory, and prone to loss if they aren't picked up on near the time of posting. This leads to sort of an echo chamber effect, as people constantly rehash and rearticulate the same basic concepts and immediate structure for a relatively small number of interested participants, instead of moving forward and relying on the support of a topic, idea, or other nexus of research to support their ideas and opinions.**

In short, these posts don't tell an especially good story. They tell an immediate, transient one, indistinguishable from a sound bite in quality and effective longevity. On the posting side, it feels pithy, immediate, and meaningful to capture these ideas close to their original inception point. But, the structure to make these bites form part of a broader social tapestry just isn't there, leaving the burden on the reader to figure out what the hell is going on.

So, as an exercise in intellectual curiosity, I've decided to explore this a bit to see if I could do better. My thoughts soon settled on topic-orientation, precisely because it provides a focus and an implied, shared context for each piece of media. This provides a good story: it elevates the visibility of topics within their space, provides room for them to grow, and ceases to shackle them to each individual storyteller. This allows for a broader, pre-existing, shared context in discussion that is once again larger than a single individual.

The closest technical area of research I can find to re-topicizing discussion is tag search and term extraction. In which I ask an open question: are there any good, multi-social-platform clients that perform tag search and, as a bonus, a simplified form of term extraction? If not, I have half a mind to write one myself using existing APIs and tools, if only to have access to such a tool myself.***

In the meantime, I am experimenting with this using Tumblr. They already support tag search and content extraction (but not summarization) using their API, which is as good a start as any.



* Not that I discourage prospective authors, creatives, and other interests from attempting to sell their wares on social media! It just seems wrong to me that these interests form the majority of what I consider to be focused voices on social media, given the original intentions of the medium.

** One of my roommates wrote a fairly good post that articulates this better than I do here. You can read it at http://kistaro.dreamwidth.org/487228.html.

*** The idea of a company like Google supporting topic-oriented social search, a Google Meta if you will, pleases me. This is more or less the current public direction of their company, so I suspect there are many similar things cooking under the hood that I've simply not heard of.
goldkin: i has book (goldkin bookly)
Lately, the loud nature of social networks has made me pine for forums again. It's not that social networks are necessarily problematic. But, when compared to the better organizational hygiene of other media, they're sort of this loud, obnoxious younger cousin more prone to kicking his metaphorical feet in the air and throwing a temper tantrum than having a nice, quiet conversation at the dinner table.

I believe this behavior is a side effect of the lower impedance to posting on networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. These networks try their best to stand out of the way of the content, and while that's greatly appreciated, it comes at the expense of organization and durability.

Before I continue, a definition. In the context of this post, a social network is defined as any multi-user conversation engine where the primary organizational model is people. You follow someone, you don't follow someone, and other than reshares from your extended network and a few other knobs (ie, the "volume" slider in Google+), that defines what you see in your stream. By this definition, both LJ and DW are social networks.

This model works surprisingly well. Because specific people are more prone to certain subjects, ideas, tact, and insightfulness than others, being able to eke out a social circle instead of injecting yourself into an existing one is greatly beneficial. Instead of having to appease the prima donnas, trolls, and obnoxiously popular people that often overrun existing fora, you can instead choose to follow or not follow whomever you'd like, to your preferences. Conversation continues, but with the advantage of including only whom you'd like to, reducing noise and faction-driven-politics significantly.

The trouble is, the model still isn't quite right. When this jump was made to people instead of hierarchical organization by community or topic, a lot of useful metadata, contextual information, and definition was lost. There's now this implicit assumption that people read every post, that topic or title definition is unnecessary, and that fewer posts are skimmed or presented overall. To this end, networks like Twitter only reliably provide maybe a day or two worth of scrollback, Google+ organizes its content in a manner that ages posts off extremely quickly, and all three of the above-named primary social networks (Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) expect people to slog through the document summary or full text every time to figure out what the heck is being discussed.

This leads to a lack of idiomaticity -- messages are snapped off so quickly that the mind isn't given a convenient package for recall as in an idiom -- and this causes it to be more expensive for each reader than earlier models. Without expending a large amount of resources generating (and then reconciling) a summary for oneself and others, the information is simply and frustratingly lost, leaving one with a sense of not having done anything productive, despite the time invested having potentially been both useful and insightful for the reader.

But, perhaps most egregiously, context is explicitly discouraged. Because of the low-impedance model for posting and high costs of searching for topics of interest, any attempts to share more than a short summary of a topic or a single link seems unnecessary and wasteful. Because of this rapid-fire expectation, ideas are less enmeshed, content is less durable, and high levels of duplication make discussion feel fractured and disjoint when it should feel smooth, natural, and interconnected.


There are a few good ways to fix this situation. They are:

  1. Where applicable, bring back and encourage idiomatic topic or subject lines.

    Not only will it make posts easier to read, it'll provide a useful data pointer for people trying to discuss or find posts outside of the system (ie, when searching in Google). "Did you read X's latest post" or "did you read that post on Y" is insufficient, because these descriptions aren't uniquely identifiable in time. Likewise, "did you see post 5ab3rf9xbky on Google+" doesn't exactly work.

    As a bonus, put these topics in the URL, like WordPress does it, so people know what they're looking at before the jump through the link. I cannot voice my frustration enough at Twitter's use of t.co, or of link shorteners that fail to let people use a description as a link.


  2. Encourage inclusion of context, by adding a sidebar to similar discussions and related topics.

    StackOverflow does this by providing collated links and potentially related articles to the right of every question, and it significantly improves conversation durability and reduces repetition. It also makes posters feel better about the uniqueness of what they're about to send to all of their peers, because the search for similar topics or entries to reshare has already been done for them.


  3. Promote terseness in reading.

    Don't make me read my entire stream to pick out that one dinner date a friend of mine is running on Friday. Instead, let me collapse everything by subject line or by the type of post and go from there.

    Google+ has the closest to what I want here, with its included calendaring feature. Honing this down to sorting or flagging topics of interest, similar to Google Reader's "Sort by Magic" and Gmail's importance flagging, is where I'd like things to go, here.


I know all of this sounds snobbish, but with the increased expectation that people pay attention to social media, a better organizational model would do well to make these systems less lossy and more durable for all involved. These suggestions are by no means the complete picture of how social networks should look one, five, or ten years out, but they're features that would significantly improve the current experience.

Administrative note: I had this post in the queue for about a day before a discussion on Twitter and a new feature to Google+ forced me to rethink things a bit. These were fortuitous -- both jived well with my thoughts on this topic -- but this may reflect some slightly outdated information.

October 2015

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