Richer Online Discussions

January 14th, 2008

I almost called this “Rich Internet Discussions” or RID to match the craze for Rich Internet Applications. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it, and that’s probably better 🙂

I mentioned in my last post a few of the things I want to concentrate on in the near future: the standards, hybrid organizations, the relationship of people to the content we create online. Each of these requires a discussion, or many discussions. I’m looking for a format for encouraging such discussions. I don’t think blog posts are the right format; I’m wondering what other things people are using that are effective.

Blogs are great for getting a sense of the web. But a discussion among many people that extends over time and over many blogs is really hard to follow or even to find if one isn’t in the middle of it. I’d also like to use a format that is less identified with any one person that a blog, and is easier to find, follow and mutually develop ideas. Newsgroups are a traditional method. But I’d like to use a system that assumes only a Web browser. Today we often use forums, as Mozilla Labs is doing.

Do you think forums are a good approach? Do you have other ideas? Do you know of sites that you think promote good, thoughtful discussions? If so, I’d love to know.

10 comments for “Richer Online Discussions”

  1. 1

    mikeal said on January 14th, 2008 at 12:39 pm:

    The web application the django guys built in order to draft their latest book is very thought provoking.

    The comment system is outlined a little here;

    I think this approach could be used well when talking about standards, particularly if you could turn a single inline comment in to a threaded discussion, and hopefully push that thread out to the email list for those who aren’t keeping up on the web interface.

  2. 2

    Myk Melez said on January 14th, 2008 at 2:38 pm:

    I’m not a huge fan of forums, but they’re the best all-web solution I know of. Some are better than others, though. In particular, some of them make it easier to “subscribe” to discussions and then follow them by email or through feeds, which can be useful, especially as a way to incorporate those folks who prefer the email/newsgroup-like interface.

    The best forums in this regard are VMware’s, which not only allow you to subscribe to a discussion and receive emails every time someone posts to it, they also include the full content of the post in the email, and they allow you to respond to posts by replying to those emails.

    Some other forums let you receive email notifications for discussions but don’t include the content of the posts in the notifications and only send one notification per site visit, so if you get a notification, then you won’t receive another until you visit the site again. That makes it impossible to use the email notifications to passively read discussions until you see something you want to respond to.

    And other forums let you subscribe to feeds, which works ok for passive reading as long as they syndicate not only new topics but also all posts on those topics (the labs forum does this).

  3. 3

    skierpage said on January 14th, 2008 at 4:45 pm:

    I don’t like forums (can’t reorganize, no primary document, no nesting etc.), but seems to be the most accessible.

    If there’s a primary owner who posts, then blog posts with comments are great. All blog comments lack nesting (like your blog), I dunno why. Some blogs `make it easier to “subscribe” to discussions and then follow them by email or through feeds.’ You can have a planet site to make it easier to follow all the issues.

    If several people are refining a document and there’s some trust, a MediaWiki article page with associated talk page is pretty excellent. MediaWiki’s subpages and categories (and the Semantic MediaWiki extension) bring a lot of easy organizational power. If you don’t trust people there are many features and extensions to MediaWiki to restrict editing. adds a forum to the mix.

    If there’s a topic that needs to drive towards a solution, consider Bugzilla! A Bugzilla with nested comments and wiki-like editing of each comment would be awesome ( has some integration). And Bugzilla’s dependencies and master tracking issues are pretty unique.

    Whatever you choose, please let people use their OpenID instead of registering for yet another forum/bulletin board/whatever.

  4. 4

    JoeS said on January 14th, 2008 at 5:55 pm:

    Why not use an existing resource. is currently propagated to Google groups , and uses a list-server. If you create a rich newsgroup that allows html IMO you get the best of both worlds, a newsgroup that looks like a blog, with access via a browser and viewable in plaintext via the list. Moderation is also possible.

  5. 5

    dan said on January 15th, 2008 at 6:56 am:

    I think the important realization is that conversations occur organically across multiple platforms, so any attempt to “get a sense of the web” from one type of site misses too much data. It can’t be blogs OR forums OR tweets OR groups OR usenets OR listserves OR videos OR podcasts OR database mashups OR… well, you get my point. To really get a sense of the web, tt has to be ALL of these things.

    Tagging, obviously, is one way to address this challenge, and social tagging distributes the function. But social tagging appears to be too imprecise to connect multiple conversational threads in anything close to real time, and a top-down category/keyword directory is just too cumbersome to consider.

    But I think it might be possible to create a pattern-seeking, informatics robot that could identify likely topic threads within hours of their creation and then draw human attention to them. The bot crawls huge distances and sorts things out by possible relationships; the humans involved in creating, reading or commenting on that content could then review those possible relationships and approve/reject/fine-tune those possible connections. Possible result: a rapidly developing “map” of conversations that connects sources and responses but ALSO “sees” how things run in parallel (we can have nearly identical blog conversations that never intersect).

    One low-tech example of this machine/human pattern creation process: takes the family tree research of every one of its members and compares it to its existing database. When it finds possible connections, it stores them. When it gets multiple “confirmations,” it rates them more highly. Result: If I log on and list a name and address and time period that other researchers have confirmed, I immediately “get” the results of all their work.

    If you count on humans to do the connecting (tags) you’ll get imprecise, inconsistent results. If you count on machines to do the connecting you’ll get lots of false positives. But if you give the heavy lifting to the machines and let human intelligence confirm/deny to results, you’ll be looking at a tool that could rapidly identify and connect huge swaths of web conversation into a near-real time, mappable snapshot. Not only would such a system identify conversations moving forward, it could also develop a higher-resolution picture of the conversation’s origins — essentially moving backward as well.

    Now: What if you provided some structured data inputs to go with that conversation map? Conversations usually imply choices, questions and attitudes. If my Firefox plugin lets me click to quantify my “analog” position (as expressed in prose in my comment, for instance), then the resulting dataset (timeline, history, map, quantification of opinion) starts to look like a holographic picture of something very new.

    Just a thought.

  6. 6

    Zoe said on January 15th, 2008 at 1:41 pm:

    I like forums, if they are set up in a user-friendly way. I find that a lot of forums are annoying to navigate, and that people who are fairly new to computers would have a difficult time knowing what to do.

  7. 7

    Brian King said on January 15th, 2008 at 2:19 pm:

    A discussion related to this took place recently on the Thunderbird dev newsgroup.

    It was more related to how to discuss features and get things done, but you might be able to peel off some useful information from it.

    FWIW, newsgroups are still the best for me, for the reasons already mentioned by other commenters. And they can be accessed via the browser.

  8. 8

    Iang said on January 16th, 2008 at 6:34 am:

    > But I’d like to use a system that assumes only a web browser.

    This is like chasing the holy grail; it’s always so perfect in vision, but we never get there. I’ve seen so many web-based application tools, and not one has ever even shown a glint of two-way promise.

    Primary dialogue tools for me are these: email for important stuff. Chat program for uncertain stuff (skype). Voice for complicated stuff (skype). Personal meetings (flights) for the real hard stuff.

    Blogs & wikis are IMHO as far as the browser has got in a serious communication tool, but they fall short of actually contributing where it matters: dialogue. On the whole, when they succeed, they mostly succeed in creating a podium for one person/group (blog), or in recording a dialogue happening elsewhere (forums), and not in supporting the actual dialogue over a complex issue, as it happens. Email is far superior for that.

    One reason is amply shown here: lack of reliability. When I click on the Preview of this blog comment, I lose the text of my comment, and have to juggle with the back-button. These sorts of glitches happen with pretty much all web-based tools that I’ve ever seen. OTOH, email is reliable, once the send button is clicked. People panic when an email doesn’t get delivered, but they just walk away from web tools when the click goes wrong and loses their half-hour essay.

  9. 9

    sean bean said on January 18th, 2008 at 1:50 pm:

    oh for god’s sake… its called newsgroups… nothing works better for what you are talking about…

    but mozilla seems intent on destroying the community that predates them…

  10. 10

    Luis said on January 19th, 2008 at 4:23 pm:

    Mitchell: you might want to look at the Berkman center’s h2o system. While far from perfect, it does away with the fundamental assumption of newsgroups and email- that everyone gets to talk as much as they want, whenever they want. This really radically changes things. All the other web options mostly just recapitulate the existing mess of mail/newsgroup screaming, albeit sometimes in forms that are easier to use. If you actually want something different/better, you’ll have to have it done for you- but it’ll have to start with h2o or something constrained like it, rather than the traditional unconstrained screaming matches (email, newsgroups, etc.)- which do sometimes produce good results, but usually in spite of themselves. 🙂

Skip past the sidebar