The Value of Online Conversations

No, blogs are not dying. No, blogs are not going away. Blogs will continue to serve as one of the driving forces for the democratization of how content is created, shared, and also internalized.
All forms of user-generated content will continue to excel…maybe to a fault.

In conjunction with how blogs are continuing to influence the evolution of online conversations, micromedia is also inspiring new forms content creation and in turn, contributing to the spike of mostly irrelevant conversations.

Steve Rubel recently accused bloggers of contributing to the “lazysphere” by simply glomming on to other “me too” conversations rather than creating new ideas or penning thoughtful, “deep” essays. In a side discussion with Steve, he also added that it’s not about length either, it’s simply about good content. He’s right.

Indeed, the barrier to entry has been lowered to a point where new user-generated content is only going to increase in volume and frequency and not necessarily in value along the way. But, for those who pay close attention to the shift in the behavior of adoption, creation, and consumption of media in all forms, it is also blinding with insight.

Creating content is just one part of the conversation.

Regardless of format or distribution channel, it’s still only a one-way street until someone responds, trackback, bookmark, comment, etc. And this is the part where I think we need to focus in order to positively impact and nurture the future of online conversations.

It’s not just about the source, it’s about the dialog that ensues and the ideas and discoveries that emerge along the way.

This goes beyond the original premise that anyone with an important idea or thought will simply blog it. In my experience, the most enlightening part of any topic is always the conversation…and in the world of Social Media, that conversation is in the form of the very actions that are triggered by the original topic.

If you took the time, whether as a reader or a writer, to read the comments of a favorite blog post for example, you’d find brilliance, perspective, and new opinions that allow a topic to genuinely flourish. At the same time, you can also find a series of comments that are completely pointless and distracting that can take away from the value of the conversation.

Again, content is increasing in production to the point where it’s almost impossible to navigate through the static. Instead of honing on and strengthening relevant signals, we jump from place to place and from conversation to conversation, contributing most of our time to sharing less important content than the very ideas that can help empower the value of each online community where we engage.

We move too quickly.

Concurrently, we’re groomed to think that older posts are also aging in context and relevance. Unfortunately, rather than continuing to live, breath, and evolve, these discussions are often buried by new content often to be recreated from scratch elsewhere. How quickly we move away from what could become timeless masterpieces.

We’re also not conditioned to contribute productively, therefore, most posts wither away into the history books (aka deeper and deeper into search results). Commenting has so far is mostly representative of either applause, reaffirmation, trackbacks, and dart throwing mixed in with new ideas, thoughts, and content. Most of the time, the value is buried and eventually lost, but it should be elevated as a way of inspiring and re-energizing the conversation.

What if we spent less time cranking out posts and more time joining, spotlighting and promoting the conversations that take place in the comments section, forums, and across social networks?

It’s an interesting thought…but at the moment, the architecture of many social platforms are designed to spotlight the stage of the initial thought/article and not necessarily the ensuing conversation. Depending on the outlet, you may have to sift through 95% garbage in order to find valuable insight and perspective.

There isn’t a filter for expertise other than your time and effort.

In order for conversations to flourish online, the architecture of social platforms needs to evolve. It is also the key to inspiring more meaningful dialog.

It all comes back to the notion that “participation is marketing.” And, participation doesn’t require the consistent spark of new articles or posts, only the interjection of new ideas, aspects, angles, and thoughts – especially into ongoing threads.

The hierarchy of Social Media isn’t spotlighting the conversation, only the original thought. In order for an individual to spotlight their ideas they have to take the discussion elsewhere.

In 2008, I’d like to see people consciously contribute to their online reputation and brand by assuming everything they write, whether posts, comments or updates, is searchable.

What if we spent less time throwing our hat into the rings of every relevant or peripheral discussion and spent more time contributing to and grooming our knowledge pedigree?

And, what if those contributions were aggregated, ranked and showcased in a more prevalent way?

Channeling all of the Easter Eggs that we strategically place in comments, updates and forums across the Web into one discoverable basket could change everything.

I’m talking about tracking, contributing to and measuring an online reputation based on how and what we contribute. The focus should be on encapsulating and representing expertise, contribution, and insight as a way of promoting a new, active, and more invested form of meaningful conversations, giving way to a new dimension of conversational marketing.

Really, what are the incentives, and most importantly, the metrics for engagement today other than referring traffic?

This is about empowering conversations where conversations take place and showcasing them in a more balanced format. It’s a shift from simply “showing up” to the party and contributing to the festivities. It boosts the value of the content, extends the lifespan of great ideas, and also contributes to the Social Capital of all those who engage.

It’s people rank versus page rank evolving the democratization of content by giving people a shared voice and platform exactly where the conversations are taking place.

I’d like to extend this conversation throughout 2008 to all of those who wish to contribute. Blogger doesn’t offer the best comments section out there. In fact, you have to click to a different page in order to leave and read comments here. It’s a removed process, so, if you’d like to include your thoughts in this post, I will feature them as updates organized by topics. You can either email me or leave your thoughts in the existing comments section and I’ll add the highlights.

I would also love to hear from and spotlight the thoughts and statements of the very “social architects” who are also laying the foundation for and defining the infrastructure of online conversations.

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  • Marcel LeBrun

    Hello Brian. Great observations. Because of the “static”, as you say, and the fact that we are all too busy we certainly miss many opportunities to have a meaningful conversation; we buzz right past them.

    It is kind of like asking someone, “how are you?” and they reply “well, um, ok I guess” and you say, “that’s great” and keep moving. The opportunity and invitation for meaningful engagement was there but you zipped right by because you are too busy. I do it all the time.

    Quick question: You mentioned both trackbacks and comments. Do you consider one “more of a conversation” than the other? Do you feel as though there is greater value in seeing engagement in the comments on your own blog versus others continuing the conversation via a link from their own blog? Just curious.

    I also like your idea about, “tracking, contributing to and measuring an online reputation based on how and what we contribute”. In my day job, we build software for PR professionals that measures/tracks conversational dynamics related to topics or brands which can be used to reveal influencer (for purposes of listening & engagement). However, most of the emphasis is on the engagement of others around the influencer’s topic rather than the other way around… measuring the engagement of the influencer based on their participation with other people’s content. I like this & will have to think about it some more.

  • Tim Walker

    Good thoughts, Brian. Here are a couple of initial reactions while I mull over deeper implications:

    1. Sturgeon’s Law (“90 percent of everything is crud”) certainly applies to online conversations as much as it did when Sturgeon said it about sci-fi publishing. It might even be a higher number — maybe 95%, as you suggested — because self-publishing removes a further barrier. Anything we can do to improve signal-to-noise ratio, while still leaving the door to the party open, is a good thing in my book.

    2. Real expertise is reflected in the way that experts can make connections between phenomena, whether that means Yo-Yo Ma playing different movements of a Bach piece or a surgeon being able to react to unexpected bleeding during an operation. So that’s one more argument in favor of connections, depth, and searching for “classics” as we go about our business online.

    Another argument in favor of pursuing these connections comes from the arts, where we see many examples of artists, writers, and other creatives reacting — sometimes at a distance of centuries — with the creations that have come before. There’s no reason we can’t be writing our own versions of Faust, so to speak, with the work we do building communities online.

  • Jitendra

    Great Piece Brian…Intersting that you mention the incentives issue. I think incentives are indeed at the root of the 90-9-1 rule (see here http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html)
    and fixing the perverse incentives is the most important thing we can do with the democratic media.

  • Reza

    Dear Friend,
    A group of researchers at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are investigating effects of Weblogs on “Social Capital”. Therefore, they have designed an online survey. By participating in this survey you will help researches in “Management Information Systems” and “Sociology”. You must be at least 18 years old to participate in this survey. It will take 5 to 12 minutes of your time.
    Your participation is greatly appreciated. You will find the survey at the following link. http://faculty.unlv.edu/rtorkzadeh/survey
    This group has already done another study on Weblogs effects on “Social Interactions” and “Trust”. To obtain a copy of the previous study brief report of findings you can email Reza Vaezi at reza.vaezi@yahoo.com.

  • Adam Metz

    A lot of this post reminds me of alternative music in the ’80s and ’90s (think The Clash, The Cure, Bauhaus, Nirvana, Radiohead) and how a lot of the music was a back and forth conversation between bands (and albums). These bands were literally echoing the little bombs that the band before them dropped.

    Blogging and social media are a lot like that: just because a post is written at a single point in time doesn’t preclude it (1) from being a touchstone (a la The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (2) from being a pertinent voice in the conversation, 11 years later (a la Radiohead’s “OK Computer”). Think about it.

  • Lani

    >What if we spent less time cranking out posts and more time joining, spotlighting and promoting the conversations that take place in the comments section, forums, and across social networks?

    This is a struggle for me and I take your article as a challenge. Wonderful work!

  • deirdre

    Hi Brian,

    You make some really good points. There’s a lot of clutter in online coversations. It just reminds me of how we have to sort through all of the noise with marketing in general, whether it’s online or offline (the web is no different). Regarding the point about asking someone how they are and then answering great no matter what they say…what a shame that people are like this by nature. Conversations online are the best opportunity to really listen, focus and act appropriately. I think what you are saying is really valuable and I will point many of my colleagues to read this blog post. Thanks for always offering honest and candid views.

  • Philip Sheldrake

    You’re impatient, and quite right too! The spread of good ideas, the construction of wisdom, has always taken time. Years, decades, centuries; and rarely in a manner one could call efficient or optimal.

    In previous times, one could attribute the slowness with which great ideas formed and then disseminated to the media available to them at the time. Now we have instant media, we want instant identification, acclamation and propagation. Yet this media is too effective – too fast and too free – so good stuff is lost in the noise. Yesterday’s gold nuggets are buried in today’s sediment.

    Your frustrations are well articulated, and I can see now that I share them. In particular, the relentless emphasis on the “now” versus the “five minutes ago” implicit to the blogging platform needs analysis.

    There are several interesting aspects of this MarCom Professional network that are relevant to this topic, and I’ll finish this comment by listing them…

    1. The network is populated by real people, not displaynames. That means real people have to live with their posts and comments, and so are therefore more likely to think a bit more before putting fingers to keys.

    2. The network is actually a bliki; a hybrid of a blog and a wiki. This enables collaboration on posts / content / points of view, with a sub-community of your choice if you like, and therefore does what you intend to “fudge” on Blogger.

    3. As the network continues to grow, I don’t see why MarCom Professional shouldn’t be able to use other non-time metrics for presenting content to members based on things like the degree of collaboration, the number of referring links and pageviews (either originating from within the network and from search engine results), the topic and the authority of the author… although don’t ask me for an algorithm for this one!

  • Jen, writer Membership Millionaire

    Blogs are not going to go away. Didn’t they say the same thing about newspapers and books? And look at the world today. And I also agree that taking the time to check out other posts’ comments can spark another topic of conversation. Issues have many different sides and it’s always interesting to see what other people have to say.

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  • a.k.

    “Concurrently, we’re groomed to think that older posts are also aging in context and relevance.”

    very interesting. but sadly you're proving your point with this blog. i just read two older articles on here and both have broken pictures.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      It's not the blog, but the shift from blogger to wordpress :) In fact, I have to fix posts going back years.

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  • http://carlospacheco.tumblr.com/ Carlos Pacheco

    Great post Brian (actually the first I’ve ever read of yours). I’ve definitely seen a shift in the way websites/blogs are evolving their basic structure in terms of building tools that encourage readers to interact & write comments that are smarter, meaningful and worth reading. I speculate this is one of the reasons why many or the early adopters and loudest voices or the web have embraced the Google+ platform. 

ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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