New Conversations

I have been making the argument lately in my talks that what is beginning to happen (in a more general sense) is that the web is finally starting to fulfill its promise as a platform to support and extend conversations. I know this isn’t news to all of us, but its emergence recently to a larger audience is very interesting in several ways. As an example, I’ve been using a handful of youtube videos that at first glance seem insignificant, but upon further investigation leads you down a path towards the discovery of rich online conversations. I’ve been showing “Charlie bit my finger – again” as an illustration of how something as simple as a home video can generate not only millions of views (53 million of them), but more interestingly, thousands of comments and video responses.

My claim is that this activity is at the heart of the ever expanding understanding of the web as a platform for extending conversations. I am asserting that these are real conversations that happen in real time on a global scale. If you’ve been paying attention to the merging of technology and politics the last few weeks you may have noticed things like Current TV’s Hack the Debate mash-up, the explosion of media supported embedded video across the web of candidate interviews, and the Election Twitter mash-up site. This to me is an indication that what was recently seen as a waste of time is being viewed with new lenses.

I have an Op/Ed piece for the Christian Science Monitor appearing today that attempts to make the following as the central point:

It’s easy to criticize the rise of participatory social media as a giant waste of time. And it’s true that a fair amount of what’s being created is adolescent. But that criticism misses the point: This trend is setting the stage for greater long-term engagement. It’s an indicator that people are working to find new ways to collaborate and to be part of something larger than they are individually. The sheer immensity of the participation is the story.

No matter if you agree that the social web is a place that supports open conversation, open learning, and open connections you should see the fact that popular media is getting it. Once the mainstream embraces what we’ve been watching for a half a dozen years (or more) it will become the norm to connect with, until recently, unconnected friends and family in places like Facebook and Twitter. I think the entire space is set to explode and I think it is a good thing. Thoughts?

19 thoughts on “New Conversations

  1. It’s serendipitous that your post came so soon after my class of multimedia journalists at Virginia Commonwealth University began talking about this very issue.

    In a recent assignment on incremental reporting, my students had 3 hours to post as much content as possible on a surge in gas prices. They used video, audio, text and graphics to tell the story, but many of them reported the story in first person, sharing the reporting journey as well as the information.

    Some of my “old media” colleagues were a little taken aback by this approach – citing concerns about objectivity, etc. But it made me wonder – is this the future of journalism? Will well trained, truth-seeking reporters begin to share, not only the information they gather, but also the process and perhaps its effect on them?

    Let’s keep the conversation going….

  2. Deb, these are the questions I hear over and over from traditional journalists as well. I know a few and there are a handful who understand that this new approach needs to be addressed because it is not going away. I think one of the fundamental issues is a feeling of a loss of control — control of the message, the story, and the exclusivity of sharing it (perhaps). What are the things we should thinking about as we teach the next wave of journalists (and citizens in general) about how they can take advantage of the hyper-motivated individuals online who are willing and able to produce content? That to me is an exciting question to be working toward answering.

    It is funny how much time I have spent around newspaper people in the last few weeks … it has given me new insight into the complexity of the news business and has shown me how much the economics of the environment drives activity. Shouldn’t be a surprise, but there is a feeling that blogs and other open/social media spaces are taking business from the “big guys.” My advice has been to seriously examine what makes these new environments successful and work towards new models. Other thoughts?

  3. An excellent observation on your part; but being a digital immigrant and seemingly one who doesn’t participate widely in this Web 2.0; there is an extremely callous and sinister side to it.

    Web 2.0 has done more than bring people together. The lack of supervision coupled with the irresponsible desire for fame somehow seeming to be satisfied by the simple pressing of the “SUBMIT” button has turned the Web 2.0, as you put it, into a vast playground – the kind of playground you find at an elementary school where no teacher is looking, and bullying, rumors, social cliques, and a variety of other cruelty happens.

    Sometimes this is limited to certain social groups, like “furries” for example (yes, I’m 40 years old and have participated in some of that nonsense…) But a quick glance at the Craigslist “rants and raves” section, or any of millions of forums for various interests reveals the same underlying theme.

    And this isn’t just the innocent games kids played on the playground. There is viral marketing (though the social groups which perpetrate it aren’t aware that it’s called viral marketing. There is the lesser form, simple libel. Harassment is rampant. Threats are rampant. Immature behavior is the status quo. Grammar and spelling are concepts better understood by actual elementary students.

    It’s social destruction. It’s as much an online “community” as a playground was in elementary school: no one really cares for each other. Narcissism abounds. Sociopathy, a dangerous form of narcissism, is of epidemic scale.

    It could be an online community, rather than a mere collection of immature and sometimes cruel narcissists. But the lack of responsibility and vigilance of participants in Web 2.0; not limited to teens; has created a formula for disaster, for bringing out the worst in people who hide behind anonymity and have no accountability for their actions.

    The “furry” fandom, once characterized as more of a community, has fallen into absolute chaos. Rumors spread. Narcissism reigns supreme. Sociopathy runs rampant and unchecked. Harassment and libel are considered “part of the game.” Laws are flaunted. Market forces in online sales of related items are tainted beyond a true market; with quality of goods being considered far less important than who sells them, or their standing according to most often false rumors. The misery of others is considered entertainment. Individuals are encouraged to be narcissistic – to pretend their lives aren’t full of the ups and downs that life is normally defined by. “Emo” isn’t a character, but a description of someone who expresses real emotion – a characterization that is highly discouraged.

    I could go on. These same problems infect many other would-be online communities. The Web 2.0 has the potential to be a vast global social network. But while that potential may not be realized; what I have seen is that the Web 2.0 is more a reflection on the changing human nature.

    As a footnote, my blog (linked above) changed just under a year ago from a personal blog dedicated to social participation in what was left of the “furry” community in which I participated with others by allowing conversations; to a simple blog where I vent stress, and do what I can to try to convince furries, and anyone else who will listen, that things aren’t as they seem. I no longer allow comments because online, people seem to have forgotten the concept of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” and other aspects of respect. Their desire to find truth in anything anyone else says leads to rampant lies and rumors. People see a negative comment and rather than countering it, or questioning it; they jump on board, especially if there is any momentum.

    While this is mostly negative in my case, due to my violating the “social norms” of the furry fandom by bringing to light the awful truth, that a popular one of their own is a violent and dangerous sociopath; it can also be positive for some…see narcissism for how that works. In other words, as I have characterized it, furries, as I’m sure applies to almost every member of the Web 2.0, would rather hear pleasing lies, than listen to the awful truth.

  4. One of the notes that struck me in the CS Monitor piece is the idea that some of us “experienced” online users are somehow “immigrants” to the web experience that you describe very well. But I didn’t come to my current status after my students did; rather, it’s been an evolution for me, and I’ve got experience in both worlds–the pre-web and the current one. My concern is that many of my students don’t have as strong a sense of the conversation going on outside that of the web as I think they should. Do those journalism students understand what an old-school journalist values, seeks to accomplish?

  5. John, my intent was not to label “experienced” users as digital immigrants … just the idea that as Alan Kay once said, “Technology is only technology to those born before technology.” I think there is a built in tendency among online teens to just dive in and engage and not really look at the bigger issues — perhaps because they don’t see a difference. We have grown up with it (I’ve been using a computer since the Apple II) and have a very different appreciation for the power, complexity, and overarching context that computing affords. I agree with you that many of us have a greater depth of understanding and experience than our students do with regard to technology in the big picture … I think they have a greater agility and are more open in general to engaging in online conversations (and again I am using my definition of conversation from the piece) than we are.

    My students continue to rate themselves low on self assessments with their overall technology competency, but are insanely adept at navigating online. They do not yet have a sense of appropriateness (in general) and I think that comes with age/experience. I think they do have a sense of the conversation going on outside the web, but again, to them it may just look the same. I’m not sure. Interesting thought and an interesting question to look at.

  6. Youtube is like the web itself. There are some gems out there – surrounded by immense mountains of garbage. With huge amounts of media being thrown at people, I worry most about their ability to detect finely crafted bullsh*t. I’m finding that, in general, at least half of all email that gets forwarded to me is either partially or completely bogus. I can usually tell right away by how they are written – lot’s of EXCLAMATIONS and upper case letters!!!!! Many things that go by are based in a lack of understanding of math, science or history. All are enabled by a clear lack of critical thinking. Some are outright lies that were generated for no apparent reason.
    What gets scary is when you take the same mentality and add canned video effects software. Now anyone can create video or multimedia lies just for the heck of it. Video footage is no more trustworthy than anything else.
    A good example on Youtube is where Star Wars objects are seamlessly integrated with video footage from San Francisco. It is a great video – and it shows what can be done with lots of CPU power.
    Combine the technology with the idea of “if I say it often enough, people will believe it” and out of the chaos comes control. Just like George Orwell said.

    I remember how some people were saying that the internet was going to be a huge learning tool that would allow people to access the world’s knowledge. I guess that they weren’t taking into account how much of the world’s knowledge isn’t actually true.

  7. Markus, I don’t think anyone would argue with you over the fact that there are mountains of garbage on the web. But I would point out that Internet is an incredible resource and platform for learning. In higher education, for example, there are dozens of open courseware initiatives designed to give people from all over the World access to leaders in their respective disciplines. MIT, Utah State, Yale, and dozens of other highly regarded institutions are providing free access to classes … in some cases people are following along in developing nations where access to real learning is very limited. Additionally our World Campus has over 20,000 enrollments … that’s a lot of people who don’t have to come to campus.

    But again, the idea of trusted sources online is a very complex issue. Its something that is at the root of many of the debates I hear around campus. From “can we trust wikipedia” to “how do I cite a blog,” these are real issues with the web. Educating a new generation of students to how to discern between a trusted and non-trusted source online is a complex task — especially with so many mountains of trash!

  8. I disagree with the proposition that a string of thematically related videos equals a “conversation.” A conversation is an exchange, not a series of speeches.

    The internet seemingly reduces stage fright and emboldens the creative performer. But I don’t confuse performance with conversation.

    I’m curious whether or not the internet will change the fundamentals of human interaction. I remain skeptical that it will. And I wonder whether or not the next decade will see, not more exposure of self to the masses, but instead a retrenchment and a renewed appreciation for privacy?

  9. Sid, I agree with the idea of the conversation as an exchange of ideas. I agree on many levels, but would counter that these new forms of expression are exchanges — probably not in a traditional sense, but they are pushing ideas, concepts, or expression forward. Many times these sequential revisions end up being dropped into thousands of blogs across the web via a simple embed tag all with new perspectives being written around them. Typically this leads to authors and visitors engaging in a threaded conversation in the comments of the post (much like this).

    I am going to think about your last point a bit more and will revisit that after I have a chance to discuss it some more with others. I do indeed see a trend on my own campus where students are heavily involved in social networks, but do enable strict privacy controls on who can see their content. You may be right — but being right in this world may look differently than in a traditional sense. It may lead to more personal publishing, but within a closer (and closed) network of “friends.” Just a thought. Thanks for the comment!

  10. Pandora’s Box: Do we really want to hear what everyone has to say, if everyone is a total idiot? Sure we can try to extend conversations, but what if we find out that the only thing that gets extended is totally useless crap?

    Simple numbers: people who use the internet vs. people who can’t because their country or geographic location is totally screwed. (think of the economic, educational, and health issues here)

    Even further, do we want to disadvantage and silence those who maybe older, more experienced, yet e-tarded and e-illiterate? What about those in “developing” nations. Sure literacy and primary sourced stories have been major tools to expose oppressive conditions and crazy war-time incidents in the past, but it seems as though the deluge of crap on the internet threatens to rust this away.

    More simple numbers: People who can afford to spend money on a computer and internet access (let’s get real, the libraries and free access do not internet fluency make) vs. People who can’t afford a home or place to live?

    I’m very much dismayed by the fact that your op-ed seems to merely pat the internet on its back and gawk at the sheer volume of ideas being trafficked. Sure it’s a step forward technologically, but those have happened since time immemorial, and may yet keep happening. The big idea with this technology is accessibility, or lack of.

    What also dismays me is the legitimacy immediately granted to conversations via the web; okay so we can moan about “Well this TYPE of conversation and that TYPE of conversation,” but the fact of the matter is that any phonology of, on, or around the internet is totally, utterly, and quite comprehensively UNTRUSTWORTHY. It is impossible to tell one’s tone of voice, regardless of punctuation or emoticons or semioticons or whatever other typographic or topological improvisations are made: it is consistently unclear which claims are made in earnest, and which are made completely maliciously on a person to person (lets not even talk about organizations that use the internet to detract from communcation) basis.

    Case in point: This comment. Is my tone educational? Scathing? What adjectives could be used to describe my project in writing this response? How might others imagine the sounds of the words I write here (this question with no answer underlies THE ENTIRE INTERNET)?

    While the sheer volume of the internet is boggling (or googling) at times, I’m just not willing to give up the rats ass that travels places personally and experiences them with my own two fingers. When the internet gets any sort of code of conduct (especially businesswise and crimewise), then we’ll start talking.

    But let’s get real, it’s just one more “frontier” that “the west” is going to crush and hegemonize the piss out of, and then turn its usage into a mark of strong cultural identity: same as tobacco, the cowboy hat, and outer space (remember: Star Trek was only successfully pitched after Gene Roddenberry referred to it as “A Western…but in space”)

    Final thought: How often/popular is it for someone to say to an acquaintance in person “Hey did you see that X trivial thing on the internet?”
    How often/popular is it for a person to say to an acquaintance: “Wow, I really spent my time on the internet quite efficiently and in a valuable manner today?”

    Populism and media can be great, but lets face it: no one is taught internet responsibility these days in school, so thusly no one is, plain and simple.

  11. JDR, I’m not entirely sure how to respond to the comment. I guess I would say that the initial content of the conversations could be considered irrelevant in these early days. What is happening now is driving new business models that will make these kinds of behaviors seem the norm. For example, these types of things are also going on behind corporate firewalls on Intranets where global organizations are making real decisions that are being mediated by technology. These technologies are built on the underlying premise of web 2.0 type tools. Old school views on corporate knowledge bases looked like a warehouse — a place where documents were stored. The new view is that an Intranet should also act as a social network for getting things done. No one would argue with you that the content of much of what is on youtube is inane, but I would argue that the patterns of behavior will lead to new ways of engaging in the coming years. These same individuals will be a percentage of our workforce in 10 years.

    The digital divide is real and is a concept that is discussed quite a bit on our campus. The notion that the “haves” are getting a leg up over the “have nots” is an age old issue. Obviously in this era it is focused on technology, but that is a relatively new context. You did hit it that the world of the web is a new frontier and it will continue to be so while we explore it and learn to understand the interactions that take place on it. For better or for worse it is driving change.

    My closing statement is that I think you are mistaken when saying that “no one is taught Internet responsibility these days in school.” That just isn’t true. It is part of curricular attention across my institution and I know that as the students who are planning to be teachers graduate that it will become a focal point in the K-12 environment as well. It has to — while it is a slow process (in relative terms), it is happening.

    Keep in mind, these are just my two cents!

  12. Thanks for the response! I’ve got a couple questions, however…

    “What is happening now is driving new business models that will make these kinds of behaviors seem the norm.”

    Not to seem too prescriptive, but this is the point with which I take issue: SHOULD these behaviors be normalized by the new business models, or instead SHOULD the “inane” content be educated about and addressed in a more formal manner?

    I won’t argue that technoethics classes are the hot new topic at upper-level academia, but therein lies the problem! It’s ONLY at upper-level academia, which has the effect of being viewed as privileged often times. Again, as we both agree: haves v. have-nots.

    The problem with this new vector for haves v. have-nots is exactly the virtues I believe you extoll above: it’s richness, it’s biodiversity and effective simulation and expansion upon our experiences outside and inside of it. IF this is such a changing and important environment, then how and why isn’t it being taught earlier in the school systems?
    We have bike shops (another artifact once viewed as privileged, later seen as a toy, and now has completing one hertz in its movement back towards the utilitarian; another artifact with both discrete concepts of functional v. formal) springing up with self-sustaining educational programs with curricula from safety to mechanic training, to planning and advocacy, to athletic, and those places are running off practically no capital!
    There’s so much money in the internet, why aren’t major businesses realizing that for them to keep making that money, more people (have-nots) need access to the internet and technology? And if the people/groups making money can provide the access to the internet, doesn’t it kind of follow that after one’s the first taste of the internet (gratis, of course) they might introduce ideas, or at the very least, more money and volume into the market?

    I’m happy to see that someone is addressing responsibility and the internet in schools, but what really bothers me is the lack of lay-usage understanding. Sure students may know about safeassign, how not to plagiarize, where to go to enter their papers in and have a plug-in spit out MLA or APA formatting, but where are the real life issues with productivity addressed? Responsible usage is not just positive reinforcement, but negative as well. Where are the classes on “How Not to Get Distracted on the Internet?” Or “Strategies to Maximize Screen Usage and Time?” Or even “Organizational File-Naming Conventions: An Appendix?”
    I’m willing to grant that it’s a slow process, and everyone will undoubtedly learn differently, but these things aren’t even on the radar hardly anywhere in the classroom and are absolutely teeming in the fingers of students. Interesting to note, folks old enough to deal with typewriters frequently (or who do so anyway) may seem to be more efficient in their usage of the computer, perhaps echoing some of these sentiments. All this visual pointy clicky mumbo-jumbo! Who needs it? =0)

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  14. First, I really enjoyed the article. It was a nice summary of some things I have heard you talk about before. And, I agree.

    Second, to JDR, I want to repeat something a smart man said about the issue you are addressing – do you think time runs forward or backward? Basically your response is a conservative one (not in a political sense, but a social one). New business models developed as a result of the new kinds of behavior. The business models change because business that did not recognize the changes in behavior went out of business, not because the ones that succeeded thought it was cool to follow the new trend. The same is true about the adoption of technology itself. I imagine there were many folks saying what you said about the printing press – back in the old days when books were hand written by monks locked in a tower we did not have to worry about all this garbage being published. However, that control over what was “good” was given to the powerful few who had the resources to affording publishing. The printing press was a first step in technology beginning to support democracy. What we have now is just the next step in the journey. Who knows where it is headed, but we know it is going forward. Pining for the days when only a few were able to participate seems both morally wrong and unrealistically conservative. Time moves forward.

  15. Cole, I read your Op/Ed because a friend of mine sent me a link to Yahoo! where it is now published. (

    After reading also all the comments here, with all respect, I will try to add my two cents.

    1. There is a lot of garbage on the Internet. That is very true. But that is not the point, the point is that a new conversation is taking shape online. The difference is that it is being *recorded*. ¿Does this post and the comments look like garbage? I think not, and am sure that the persons behind these words also carry on intelligent conversations offline. If we have a lot of garbage on the Internet is because the people participating perhaps are so used to hearing, seeing, consuming and talking garbage.

    2. Participation and opportunity are enabled by technology. I am writing this from Monterrey, Mexico and participating on a conversation with people I may never get to meet in person. However, I have a peek into their minds on a matter that is of interest to me. I would say that is quite powerful. I don’t have the privilege of attending Cole’s lectures, but right now I am engaging in a conversation started by him. I am participating and an opportunity to build upon this conversation has been made possible.

    3. “Web 2.0” is new as “Industrial” was new to the agricultural economy. Change happens, innovators push it, laggards resist it and those who adapt thrive on it while those that don’t make sense of it simply fade away.

    4. A couple of thoughts from Howard Rheingold taken from his book “Smart Mobs” published on 2002 ( a)”A new kind of digitial divide ten years from now will separate those who know how to use new media to band together from those who don’t.” b) “The ‘killer app’ of tomorrow’s mobile infocom industry won’t be hardware or software but social practices.”

    It has been a pleasure “meeting” you online Cole and I am now following you on twitter (I am @katalink there) and look forward to continue the conversation.

  16. Scott,
    I think I understand your comparison to the printing presses new technology, but I don’t quite think the way you insert my comments into it is accurate: I’ve never “pined” for days of yore where only the “haves” could use the internet.
    In fact, I’m lamenting that very fact of limited accessibility, and the new business models that arrive out of it.
    Thinking of it this way: We still have the same model of “control” that the monks did back in the locked-in-the-tower days. The folks who in charge, however, are us: the internet literate, or at least participant. Those who are the objects of that sentence are those who have no say or voice in the process, much the same as your printing press analogy (did the lay person with no literacy really have a say in what was published? of course not).
    Finally, where you say “Time moves forward” you’re absolutely correct, Scott. But while we’re engaging in all this historicism with our examples, let’s take a lesson out of classical thought.
    Classically it was believed that we moved through time facing backwards: able to gauge it’s passage, and observe its effects upon us and our creations, but never able to see where we are going. While time does move forward, and the internet might speed up the rate at which we process history since its inception, it would be foolish merely to accept that which we see happening (or has happened) as writ and law.

    As for notions of garbage and waste on the internet, isn’t that one of the things that all the high-academic anthropologists point to as something of cultural significance, a culture’s waste? Items of which the use-value is zero, and the exchange value of which is greater in its absence than its presence? What makes money on the internet? What is cast aside?
    Certainly there are different rules governing behavior on the internet that don’t govern those who cannot use it. I’m interested in those. Not to degrade these conversations, which I thoroughly enjoy and value, but it’s a sad fact of the internet that viciousness sells more than virtue. How, if at all, do we, the so-called-visionaries, respond to that? How CAN we respond to that?

    And, no, the answer isn’t “just make money off of it.” =0p (see, I’m not socially conservative, I just used an emoticon!)

  17. I think the comparison of the internet to the printing press is apt. Both “democratize” information sharing. The printing press freed “the people” from the educated elite. And the internet is freeing “the people” from the owners of printing presses and broadcast outlets.

    No-one questions the literally revolutionary consequences of the printing press. It seems clear that the internet is creating a revolution of its own. Not everyone will welcome that change. I doubt the clergy welcomed their loss of informational supremacy. And it’s obvious that both government and traditional media are struggling to adapt to the challenge the internet represents to their traditionally cozy relationship.

    I’m not sure a wave of YouTube videos signifies much. I’m not convinced that fundamental human behaviors are changing.

    But I think it must be obvious to everyone that there’s been a revolution in ease of access to the masses. And that the unprecedented sharing of information and opinion is likely to have large, long-term social ramifications. In a crude way, Orson Scott Card captured it in his book Ender’s Game. Blogs can, in theory, change governments and the course of human affairs.

  18. David, thanks much for the comments and thoughts. I too find it amazing that we can find ways to connect on a meaningful level via a platform like this. The ability to share ideas and actually take the time to thoughtfully discuss them is what makes the web as a platform so appealing to me. I agree with you that the coming divide will be less about poverty and more about ability/desire to participate. I am afraid for people who look the other way and don’t get engaged. This is our new voice — the web cannot be viewed as the great divide, it has to be seen and promoted as the bridge to the other side. Thanks again for the comments!

    BTW, I am now following you on Twitter and saw that several of your updates are en espanol! That’ll keep my mind working!

  19. Great article. I too used to think that social media is a waste of time but for journalists like me it has become important to participate and observe new media technology. And that makes me a Digital immigrant. Although videos like “Charlie bit my finger” are driving traffic there is also some professional work that got a platform on Youtube without going through marketing expenses. An example would be this public service video made by two guys in India which won awards –

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