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A thought about evolving social environments

I’ve been a member of the seminal online community, the WELL, for around two decades. I’ve been active on Facebook since it opened to non-students. Originally Facebook wasn’t conversational. Other former WELL members and I discussed how Facebook Groups didn’t seem to take off as conversational environments in quite the same way as the WELL’s conferences, many of which are still vibrant after 25 years. Facebook has changed since we had those discussions – now Wall posts and comments on Facebook are like topics and responses on the WELL. (We saw the same pattern in blogs with comments: someone posts a lead item, what we called the “zero post” on the WELL – a conversation starter. In blogs the emphasis was originally on publishing, then some blogs became more conversational, and posts followed by comments on those blogs were very much like topics within conferences on the WELL.)

One difference is that the WELL had a taxonomy: it was called a conferencing system, and was organized as conferences on subjects like Health, Media, Grateful Dead, Virtual Communities, Art, History, Design, etc. Topics were pretty free-ranging within the major subjects, but you knew where you would go to discuss a particular subject. On Facebook, there’s no organizing my subject. All kinds of conversations appear in Facebook’s news feed or activity stream – right now I see conversations about climate change and volcanoes, events, Texas politics, design, business, etc. – not organized in any particular way. A stream of comments some of which become conversations, many casual, some more active and compelling. This really seems to work, and the converations lately are not dissimilar from those I see on the WELL, despite structural differences between the WELL and Facebook.

I find myself drifting more and more into Facebook because there are real, sustained conversations there, unlike Twitter’s more drive-by posting – and because I don’t have to fiddle with a 140 character limit. Twitter feels very broadcast, compared to Facebook (or Wave, or other conversational systems). Not to diminish its importance – Twitter is a great place to share short bursts of information and links. But it’s less “social.”

This is me thinking aloud. Is there a business conclusion from all this?

I’ll close with this thought: I spoke to a group of Realtors last week, and told them not to expect miracles from social media. You’re not using social media because it’s somehow going to bring you more business than traditional media. You’re using it because it’s taking mindshare from traditional media. The audience is there – on the plus side, you can target more specifically the people who might be your customers or clients; on the minus side, they’re scattered over multiple platforms, you have to connect more directly than before, and they don’t often answer the door when salesmen come.

Comments

  1. As a 15-year WELL member (hi, Jon!) and busy social-technology strategist, I’d have to agree.

    Twitter and Facebook are the firehose from which we all like to drink, and while subscription and sorting provide a modicum of filtration, you have to be a *very* active user to begin sifting meaningful subject threads out of the flow.

    Conversation-aggregators like Quora and Gravity are attempting to folksonomize their way towards that ideal, and this is a good thing.

    When we’re all trying to multitask our way to better understanding, conversation without taxonomy has a pretty horrible signal-to-noise ratio.

    I think we’ve been putting up with it for so long with Facebook and Twitter because a) they are the first real mass-market attempts at mass-market conversation and b) nothing better has any traction yet.

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