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Blogs and Conversation (or Lack Therof)

I recently received an email from RSA inviting me to read their blog (after having requested an evaluation copy of one of their products). They invited me to “join the conversation“. Often blogs are described as a “conversation” and I’ve been considering whether that analogy is appropriate.

The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 has the following definition: Usage: {Conversation}, {Talk}. There is a looser sense of these words, in which they are synonymous; there is a stricter sense, in which they differ. Talk is usually broken, familiar, and versatile. Conversation is more continuous and sustained, and turns ordinarily upon topics or higher interest. Children talk to their parents or to their companions; men converse together in mixed assemblies.

There are instances of blogging that can approximate conversation when bloggers cite each other’s articles in turn and leave comments on each other’s blogs. But it’s usually not that continuous and sustained. An occasional patterin is that blogger A writes a post, blogger B writes a post disagreeing with it, blogger A comments on blogger B’s post, and that’s usually the end of it. Usually it’s just a case of multiple bloggers writing posts representing their own opinions with occasional references to other blogs and no sustained interaction. The blogging interaction seems to more closely resemble academics presenting papers with alternate solutions to a problem than a conversation.

One factor that I believe defines conversation but which isn’t mentioned in the dictionary is that the parties involved have an equal standing. The comments section of a blog is not such a forum, the blogger has a significantly more powerful voice (at least in connection with their own blog) than the people who comment. Someone who posts a comment may have it deleted, and it if is left then a rebuttal in another post will be seen by a significantly larger number of people (the number of people who read comments on a post is a tiny minority of the people who read the post). This doesn’t preclude conversation between bloggers who are of equal popularity in a community, for example most readers of my blog come from Planet Linux Australia and Planet Debian so any blogger who is also syndicated on those sites has an equal voice to me.

Another factor in conversation is whether responses are even read. Many blogs don’t accept comments and it’s never certain that a blogger will see a track-back from a blog that references one of their posts. When one party ignores the other (or appears to do so) then there is no conversation.

I’m not aware of whether a conversation with RSA people would be possible. While their blog refuses to send content to my Planet installation I guess I’m not going to find out…

Is the lack of conversation a bad thing? One problem with conversation is that it often degenerates into what GCIDE defines as talk, while that is good for a friendly mailing list (EG your local LUG) it isn’t so good for the exchange of technical information. A compounding problem for mailing lists is the number of posts that can not be interpreted without the context of a thread of discussion. This often makes mailing lists unreasonably difficult to use in the search for answers to technical problems. When reading google search results I will usually read blog URLs before mailing list posts as a blog post will usually stand alone and either give me an answer or be obviously not related to my problem – sometimes I have to read a dozen messages in a list discussion to determine that it’s not going to help me!

To improve things in this regard I plan to increase the number of posts I write with solutions to random technical problems that I encounter with the aim of providing a resource for google searches and to randomly inform people who read my blog. I find such posts by other people quite useful, I often get inspired to implement a technology after reading a blog post about it – there are many things that have a low priority in my todo list because they seem difficult, a blog post that reveals them to be easier than expected and advises how to avoid common problems can really make a difference!

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