Sunday, November 23, 2008

People Like To Talk. Especially To Each Other.

Again: Twitter is a microblogging service in which a user writes short entries, 140 characters at most. You can send your updates, called 'Tweets', over mobile text message, over IM (when it works), and over their web interface. Twitter users subscribe to each-others streams. To direct a Tweet to a specific person, you put '@person' in front of it; think of the @ as a symbol for the word 'at' here. So to write a Tweet you mean to direct me you would send an update like '@fj My comment is directed at you'. It would still show up publicly in your twitter stream in between your general Tweets, but it would be sent to me too, even if I do not follow you.

I have been noticing something interesting in the tweets of my blogging friends as they create Twitter accounts: first they start off with a Tweet or so a day. Then five a day, maybe one '@someone' Tweet per day in between the rest. Then, suddenly, their daily output is a lot of '@someone' Tweets and a few general ones. You can just see their progression of starting out, slowly, and then suddenly getting caught in the society of Twitter. More interesting to me is that the @someone format exists at all. Twitter was created for people who felt stifled by the conventions and format of standard blogging, where you had to think about entries and have a narrative and worked out thoughts. twitter was just supposed to be random quick thoughtbytes. No comments, no follow-ups, no threading, none of the standard blogging stuff.

Except that people are social. They see stuff, they want to react to it. They want to answer, they want to question. We have these massively complicated brains to manage being social animals who think in symbols and communicate through and about them. People whose brains don't do that like 90% of the rest of the pack do are considered defective and get labels like Aspergers and Autistic, because indeed they will have a hard time being part of the world. We want to talk, and we will work it into every system we can, even if the system does not explicitly allow it. Graffiti gets made as an answer to being in the urban landscape, but then gets re-tagged and over-written. Books get their margins written in and put back in the library. People yell at TVs, often in utter frustration because we know the TV can't hear us. People talk back to movies, less frustrated this time, but are actually talking to other movie go-ers. Billboards get 'defaced'. Wherever we can, we go into dialog. (Incidentally, I do not condone most of the forms of dialog I listed here, I am just stating them for illustration.)

Computers make this two way very easy, and the web sites that are built with it are most successful: the blogging revolution, forums, social networks. Facebook now allows commenting on status updates, which are short statements of the user's state of mind, much like Tweets. But by making explicit commentary fields for status updates, the dialog there is controlled, directed, and far less disjointed than '@someone" Tweets where you miss most of the conversation unless you follow everyone involved. There's no threading, but because of the ephemeral nature of the Facebook news stream so far the amounts comments-on-status seems to still be in the single digits, so they stay manageable.

Making a web system that is about expression but does not include a way to react is not just a lost opportunity, but it is inviting frustration (we want to talk), and then reaction (because we will talk): competing websites, defamatory websites pointing at your service, websites discussing your service. And that means a loss of eyeballs, and also control. Right now, adding a comment system to any webpage has become even easier: in response to the fact that their comment system was looking outdated compared to Disqus and LiveJournal and other commenting systems in blogs or that can be added to blogs, TypePad announced the beta of their own new commenting systems of avatars, profiles, threading, and connections called TypePad Connect. With just a click any TypePad site can migrate to this new system, but, more interesting, Six Apart claims that you can add this system to any web-page with a little JavaScript, not just TypePad blogs.

This is really quite useful. I am right now working as a favor on a little website for the book of a friend, and an important part is the Errata page. There are many (it has cost the book some stars on Amazon) but we know we haven't found them all, and other people will. Do we need to add a form to the page to submit more? We can't add an email address, it would be spammed in seconds after going live. What kind of form? What kind of scripting? Hey, the writer already has a TypePad-based blog. And the migration to TypePad Connect went well. So if the writer just makes a TypePad Connect forum for the Errata page, he will get emails when people leave errors, and we can incorporate them easily. No extra server-side systems for feedback need to be installed, no new passwords, avatars, nothing heavy, just something light that extends previous systems. Will it work? We do not know yet, we haven't tried. And comments are a double-edged sword, they have to be maintained and come with their own spam -- just check the comments on the web-page where I first saw TypePad Connect announced

People like to talk. They will do it where they can. The talking, when managed, is incredibly useful. Harnessing it makes wonderful things happen.