A Proposal to Make Blogs More Conversational

The Idea:
A proposal to have hosted ‘conversations’ on blogs to allow more cross-pollination of ideas and more interactivity between bloggers, in order to bring good ideas to fruition.

Ottawa economist Jeremy Heigh has been exchanging thoughts with me about how to make blogs more conversational. There seems to be a growing consensus in all eight communities that I’m part of — natural philosophers/environmentalists, business advisers/theorists/entrepreneurs, technophiles/social networkers, progressives, artists/storytellers, Salon bloggers, Canadian bloggers, and physical neighbours — that context-rich conversations are the key to learning, to understanding, to persuading, to knowledge transfer, and to achieving grassroots change, but that weblogs are not, currently, very conversational.

Jeremy’s idea, which he originally conceived as a mechanism to get bloggers some income for writing, was to ask a specific group of bloggers to post their articles or thoughts on a specific series of topics or questions, to a hosted site. I think it’s a great idea, but I’d be tempted to push it in a particular direction, and abandon the idea of using it to generate revenue (at least directly — if the conversation generated enough ‘wow’ it might lead to revenue opportunities for the participants).

I’m not a big fan of debates, which seem more focused on scoring points than surfacing insights, and which are inherently adversarial and non-collaborative. They may be entertaining, but they’re too competitive to be really productive. I also think James Surowiecki has staked out quite clearly the things that crowds, not small groups of ‘experts’ can do best — making decisions from a discrete set of alternatives, making predictions, and solving coordination problems. So I would want the thrust of the ‘conversations’ to be highly creative and collaborative activities — brainstorming, model-building, teaching, designing, organizing — the types of activities that small, informed, diverse groups do well.

Here’s a first cut at how I would envision it working:

  1. The host would come up with either (a) a question (one better suited to small-group exploration than ‘putting to the crowd’), or (b) a vision to be achieved. Example: How could we overcome the huge disconnect that exists today between the people who have great ideas and the people who have the money and other resources to realize those ideas? The host would write a 1-3 paragraph context-setting explanation of the question or vision.
  2. The host would research who might be the best 3-10 people to address this question or vision. These invited participants would each think independently about the question or vision and each produce an Initial Thoughts document (200-500 words) which the host would publish on the host blog. Then, at and for a prescribed time, there would be a ‘live’ conversation via Skype, moderated by the host, between the selected participants.
  3. The Initial Thoughts and the edited Conversation would then be podcast and the mp3 of the podcast would be posted on the host blog. The conversation would be transcribed and posted to the host blog. The participants would post either a link to the transcript and podcast, or, if they wanted, they could post the entire transcript and/or podcast on their own site, with a request that all comments be posted to the host blog version (so that all the comments are in one place).
  4. The facility for additional individual posts (participants would get short-term author access on the host blog), and additional Skype conversations as agreed upon by the participants (also transcribed) would be made available on the host blog for a set period (3 days, or a week perhaps).
  5. An archive of all conversations, posts and comments could be produced and sent to movers and shakers who might be inclined to act on the ideas that emerged, for those movers and shakers who do not normally go online.

And here are the inevitable questions:

  • If you were asked to participate in one of these, would you, and why — WIIFY?
  • Is the blog format robust enough to carry the weight of one of these Conversations?
  • Do you see this as a way to get more buzz for important ideas, or is it just a big echo chamber replacing a lot of smaller ones?
  • Would you spend the time listening or reading to these Conversations (if you liked or knew the participants)?
  • Is there some commercial opportunity here, or is this just a good way to get bloggers working together, or is it not even that?
  • Is the model (participation by invitation) too elitist? Would self-subscription on a first-come basis be better? What’s the ‘right’ number of participants?

Painting “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

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18 Responses to A Proposal to Make Blogs More Conversational

  1. David Parkinson says:

    This discussion format reminds me of a wonderful journal, Behavioural and Brain Sciences (http://www.bbsonline.org/Instructions/aboutbbs.html), which comes out quarterly, I think. There is always a focus article by one or more authors, then a wide-ranging discussion section, which is needless to say very often much more interesting than the focus article itself. Then the authors of the focus article reply to the objections/elaborations/digressions raised by the commentators. I can imagine that the editorial overhead in coordinating all of that muct be the reason why it is an uncommon format for a journal; but some of the discussions that have happened there have been wonderful ones.Will absorb and try to comment more directly on your questions at leisure.

  2. James Farmer says:

    Hi Dave,Sounds like an interesting idea, kinda Many2Many meets elearning design challenge.Personally I reckon that you need a fixed group of people writing in an area though to make this work (Many 2 Many, Crooked Timber etc. again). People aren’t going to pack up and start posting on a blog that they don’t have a stake in (in many ways that’s what blogging is based on) so you’d be looking at a panel or group.The format would be fine, something like the RSS / subscribe to comments features available in WordPress. See here to get a look, try out: http://incsub.org/blog/?p=329I’d keep it asynchronous with perhaps a podcasted conference though.If it’s just a lot of one offs then it’s echo / buzz … brings me back to the panel idea thingy.I think you’d get an audience, pretty quickly too with the right ‘panelists’… it should really be invitation, you know who you would prefer to have writing there.You an’t make money ourt of blogs, can you :O) The best kind of model is a Corante, Weblogs Inc / Salon one I reckon.On that note if you’d like to prototype and set up one I’ll happily have a run at it with http://incsub.org if you like!Cheers, James

  3. David Parkinson says:

    WIIFY == What’s in it for you, right?

  4. smm@videotron.ca says:

    It seems to me that what you’re all searching for is a good Forum to get this discussion going. I can thoroughly recommend the Cre8asite Forums – http://www.cre8asiteforums.com/index.php – for a place for relaxed and mutually respectful discussions. If that one doesn’t fit, then it’s relatively easy to set up a new Forum. The software is very available and fairly easy to manipulate.

  5. James Farmer says:

    Don’t think a forum would have much motivating or sticking power…

  6. It’s a good idea…I don’t think those are the “inevitable” questions though…for one thing they are all closed!So how about:* What would it take for you to become involved in a project like this?* How could we ensure that the ideas generated by this project really are innovative and are useful and creative contributions? (I assume that we are doing this because we are looking for emergent ideas, which pop out of conversation, and therefore, none of us should come to these conversations with the answers, but rather with the questions and with suspended assumptions…see Bohmian dialogue)* What applications can you see for this in a variety of sectors.I’m already using this model to co-create a design for a conference and to think about ways in which conference experiences can be improved process-wise.I think there’s a good nugget here…what if we had a Skype conference with some folks on this to flesh it out further ;-)

  7. James Farmer says:

    Sounds good (he said inviting himself along :O)Skype ID: jamesnfarmer

  8. Meryn says:

    Maybe you could compare different technological approaches to holding conversations at physical distance just like you done in your ‘Virtual Collaboration’ post.Personally, I think email is a very good technology for holding conversations, but not for publicising them. Mailing list software can make web archives, but all of them that I know are focussed on group conversations.I have a feeling this could be an unfilled niche. One approach could be to mark an email exchange with one person as a conversation (gmail does this automatically), which then could be exported to a semantic ‘conversation’ format.Nowadays, most people only copy-paste some bits of a conversation into their weblogs. Maybe this is because there’s no easy way to present the whole conversation in an comprehensible format.This would also be ideal software for online interviews.

  9. lugon says:

    irc/im instead of skype might work for fast-typist-but-no-skyperschris – do count me in (lucas from oslist + copensar)lgs0a at yahoo [.] es is one of my IMs – yes, that’s LGSzeroA, sorry it’s so awkward

  10. Jeremy Heigh says:

    I want to jump in too. I was excited (and surprised) to see this rolling and hope I don’t get left behind.I think Dave’s right that this idea needs more direction, but I still think “debate” is the right context. The deliberate consideration this involves is important. But I think Chris Corrigan has much to say on framing the environment for such conversations.I agree with James Farmer, people need to have a stake in it. That’s why I started out with cash in mind. But again, I agree with Dave who said (in email, not here) that on topics sufficiently engaging and with writers carefully chosen, the reputation aspect might be sufficient.See, the fulcrum is this: You invite (that’s key) bloggers to write on issues they are passionate about (this is key too). In this way you engage both the writer and the writer’s audience on issues they’ve already self-identified with. All the drivers of passion, pretige, open-conversation — they still live in this setting. I like the questions Chris and Dave are asking. They’re key. A few more to add include: Who cares? How do we use the information or ideas generated from this conversation? Who translates the ideas into applications? I think these are the kickers and this is the underlying reason I was thinking along these lines. We face two challenges: First, getting people to pay attention and focus on something. Second, using the products of their focus. I think that’s where we’re falling down hardest as bloggers. We pump out great things all the time, but who’s using it to make a difference? The threat of the echo chamber that Dave mentioned is significant.Dave’s biggest concern on debates seems to be the exclusive nature of that format and the competitive context. He leans toward James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds instead. I haven’t read Surowiecki’s book but Kathy Sierra (http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/03/one_of_us_iisi_.html) just summarised a talk she heard him give. She says she had (and Dave has) his perspective (mostly) wrong.Surowiecki says more interactions among humans equals dumber behavior. When we come together and interact as a group seeking consensus, we lose sophistication and intelligence. His book’s premise (wisdom of crowds) comes with qualifiers. The wisdom of crowds comes not from the consensus decision of the group, but from the aggregation of the ideas/thoughts/decisions of each individual in the group (key here: aggregation — challenge #2 above). At its simplest form, it means that if you take a bunch of people and ask them (as individuals) to answer a question, the average of each of those individual answers will likely be better than if the group works together to come up with a single answer. Kathy’s favorite Surowiecki line: “Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.”This is why I support the debate format. Debate asks us to think as individuals — group hugs don’t. But if we’re Skyping this, I want to play too.

  11. Chris OByrne says:

    In answer to the last six questions:1. Yes, I would participate. What’s in it for us is that we like our voices to be heard and we like to participate in engaging conversations. 2. I am not sure if the blog format is responsive enough for one of these conversations. Chat rooms, yes… blogs, perhaps. The comments section could save the day. Look at how much more engaging slashdot is because of the comments (although often sophomoric). 3. This could definitely generate important ideas, but again, much depends on the immediacy and responsiveness of the format.4. I would certainly spend the time reading these conversations, especially if I was allowed to participate with a comment here and there. Just knowing I could participate would make the conversation more engaging.5. I am sure that there is some form of commercial opportunity here, but that is not the primary benefit. The collaboration of people through the exploration of a developing format is much more important. The generation of ideas is the wealth of our society.6. If the conversation was limited to only those invited with no chance of participating through comments, then much of the appeal and interest would be lost. The right number of people depends on the how engaged the people are. Two could be enough if they were “into” the conversation and the process. Perhaps that would be an interesting way to start. Have two invited conversationalists and then allow all readers to contribute with comments.

  12. Jeremy Heigh says:

    Oh yeah, everybody participates.The idea is to invite the key bloggers and, therefore, their audience. But everybody gets to play. Their audience is the biggest piece of the pie.

  13. please include me. sonuds very interestin.g

  14. David Parkinson says:

    Maybe the best way to find the ideal set of commentators is some combination of invitation and self-selection (like a call for papers in the academic world, or a call for bids in the commercial world). Enlisting the aid and long reach of sites/blogs/listservs from the get-go would also be useful in certain cases. Whoever is/are the catalyzing force(s) of the discussion should select some people they hope to involve, and also cast the net more widely in hopes of finding voices that they might not otherwise have found, especially if they are stepping outside of their usual circles of expertise. Maybe a staged approach, in which a first round of thinking is generated by the catalyzers, then farmed out to a selected small group for commentary and elaboration; then the synthesized results of rounds 1 and 2 is thrown open to the “public” (however defined and constrained) for further commentary and elaboration (although this last stage can become unruly, and some strong editorial oversight will be needed to avoid swamping the important in a sea of trivia and endless threads upon threads). [/PARA] The trick will be to involve as many people as possible and to create a strong centripetal force to the discussion; creating new stakeholders is as important as letting the pre-existing ones wander on well-trodden paths.

  15. Jon Husband says:

    You know me .. I like to offer comments and questions .. every once in a while they (may) help the conversation. I’m in.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    What a great comment thread! Thanks everyone, this is very useful. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to be too busy to do anything on this, but after that I’m going to try out the concept here on HtStW, using the model I outlined in my article initially. I’m going to have to find a place to host the mp3, which can be a big file, first. I would encourage anyone interested (especially Jeremy, whose initial idea this is based on) to experiment doing whatever variations on Blog-Hosted Conversations (I propose we use that umbrella name for the concept) you want to try out — debates, brainstorming sessions, 2-person vs 10-person conversations, and using whatever methods of attracting good speakers and audience you have at your disposal. Then e-mail me with your results — what worked and what didn’t — and I’ll blog about them and see if we can’t ’emerge’ some principles for effective BHCs.

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    Jeremy: Surowiecki argues that there are some things that large groups of independent individuals can do better than small groups of experts. Prediction, and selection among a discrete set of decision alternatives for example. There are other things (brainstorming, consensus building, and other creative & collaborative activities) that are better done by small diverse groups. I’m just proposing that we focus BHCs on those latter things. Collaboration is not ‘group hug’ activity — it’s doing something iteratively together that the individuals working separately wouldn’t be able to do. I’m not averse to using BHCs for debates; I just don’t think it’s the highest and best use of the medium.

  18. lugon says:

    http://www.kolabora.com by Robin Goodhttp://www.openspace-online.comAll this is sooooooo exciting – thanks for your great articles and responses!

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