Accepting Serendipity

I’ve been reading some interesting stuff over the last few days about the conversations that ensue from blogging and how we interact with those conversations.

First, let’s start over at There is No Cat, where Ralph Brandi recently posted about the difference between the kind of conversations that result from Usenet activity versus blogs. In the Usenet world, Brandi points out that there was usually a single “location” where conversations about a particular topic should live–the appropraite Usenet group. When you wanted to have a convesation about that topic, you knew you could go to that location. In the blogosphere, or “Blogistan” as Brandi refers to it, the locations are multiple and constanstly increasing in number. Trackback and rss monitoring services like Technorati attempt to reign those conversations in, allowing users to more easily keep track of information that’s relevant to them. But, ultimately, the nature of Blogistan may inherently prevent control:

with Blogistan’s tendency to expand like the universe in the wake of the Big Bang resulting in ever increasing fragmentation, [tools like Technorati and trackback] may never work as well as the simple classification scheme of Usenet.

Ultimately, Brandi believes this fragmentation of location prevents the blogosphere from being a world that can effectively foster conversation. (He thinks blogs are actually better for storytelling, but that’s another. . .story.)

Alan Levine responds to Brandi’s post with an interesting analysis:

The notion of “distributed conversations” in blog space seems to rear its head on some cycle. It always seems to boil down to a polarization of those who find some level of comfort in the chaotic widely distributed notion and those that seem to covet the notion that it needs to be nicely organized in one location.

Levine believes that what is really at issue here is what a “conversation” is. He argues that conversations don’t have to be neatly organized and presented in order to be meaningful.

The chaos and dis-order that Ralph has trouble with seems to me a mire realistic mirror of the world beyond the web, where conversations are not neatly stacked with indentations and threads. It makes the following of conversations an active process not a passive one, and rewards us with serendipity. There was not a whole lot of serendipity in listservs and UseNet.

It seems to be that part of the challenge is that we’ve never really had computer/online tools before that fostered distributed conversations the way that blogs (and the associated tools for monitoring blogs) do.

We can understand distributed conversations as a concept in the terms Alan uses–these are the conversations we have in “real life” all the time. Jerry has lunch with Andy and they talk about how we could achieve better follow-through on projects within our department; later that day, I run into Jerry on campus walk and he fills me in on the conversation. He and I extend that conversation and push it in new directions. I haven’t talked to Andy about project management, but through Jerry I have some understanding of where Andy sits on the subject. Perhaps I pass Jerry and Andy’s thoughts along to Jim or Lisa the next time I see them. We’ve all experienced the conversation in some way–but not all together, and not all in one location. We also didn’t set out to have the conversation about this particular topic–rather something came up over lunch between Andy and Jerry and the serendipity that Alan refers to took hold.

Distributed conversations seem to be standard operating procedure in our everyday life. We’re involved in them all the time, and we think nothing of it. Sometimes these conversations provide incredibly fuitful synthesis of ideas; other times they result in miscommunication and disaster.

The conversations we manage to have via blogs, are a lot like these real-life conversations. They are fascinatingly, provokingly serendipitous; they are also prone to mis-communication and dropped threads.

Online, I think we’re less comfortable with distributed conversations. Perhaps that’s because we experience a type of “order” in our online activities that doesn’t translate to our offline world. On computers, information is by necessity organized into parcels (And, I should say, that just because information is organized in parcels on computers, doesn’t necessarily mean it is well-organized. My PowerBook desktop is a constant reminder of this) . Computers can’t rely on informal connections to get things done–the result would be chaos (Because, really, the connections humans make offline, while often informal are informed. Computers can’t replicate that balance of informal and informed–yet.) Perhaps, that necessity of organization that we recognize as an aspect of computing infiltrates our online activities. We don’t expect conversations online to be serendipitous because computers (and the systems we’ve built with them) don’t rely on serendipity to get work done.

So, enter blogging. Blogging is in some ways antithetical to this notion of localized, organized, parcelized information and conversations. When I create a blog post, it’s not like when I create a Word document. There is no “standard” to the parcel I’m creating, so there is no standard way to monitor or track it. We use tools like Technorati and trackback to jury-rig the connections we seek. Because, after all, if we weren’t looking for connections we’d just write in a leather-bound journal. But blogs defy that need for connections. They may provide us with RSS as an avenue to generate the connections; they may allow for commenting to generate a certain degree of connectedness at the blog location.

But there are still challenges.

Blogs speak different versions of RSS. Different tools that are out there to allow us to monitor blogs read different versions of RSS. Sometimes those dialects get in the way of making the connections.

RSS is temporal–a river of information, not a dammed lake that collects information. If I miss a post via RSS, eventually it dissapears from my view entirely.

Commenting is difficult to monitor. coComment, a tool I’m just beginning to use, offers some ability to track comments, but it has it’s own limitations. Ultimately, it’s another jury-rigged solution.

I guess the question is, can we acheive the same level of comfort (or at least acceptance) with distributed conversations online that we have achived in our offline worlds?