This is a metapost, Part 1, about Ello and how I'm thinking about the comments here. (Part Two is here.)
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At ITP, when we're thinking about social spaces, we often place them on a spectrum from 'conversation' to 'annotation'. However the users may feel about talking to one another, the site designers have a huge effect on where a social space falls between those two poles.
A purely conversational space will have posts which the first user replies to. The second user will reply not to the original post but to the first reply, the third user replying to the second reply, and so on. This is the dinner party dynamic -- every statement reads as a reaction to the preceding one. (This is why live conversation has such elaborate rules for changing the subject -- “Oh, I had a knitting accident too…”, “That reminds me of last Ayathrem Gahambar…”, “Speaking of fox smegma…”, and so on.)
There are few purely conversational spaces on the contemporary net. (Ray Ozzie’s recently launched Talko is a feint in that direction.) In the historical record, Caucus, the platform for both the WELL and ECHO, came closest. Usenet was also conversational, especially if you regard the thread and not the newsgroup as the central unit.
Conversational systems tend to develop a core of insiders, put a high premium on identity (even pseudonyms generate source-context), and tend towards trolling (both for sport and as population control), flame wars, and topic drift.
A purely annotative space, by contrast, will have a post which every user replies to, with no users replying to each other. Think of this as Letters to the Editor; each person has their own reaction, but subsequent users don’t react to those reactions, only to the original post. (This is why Letters to the Editor never took on the net -- people want to react to what they read, and don’t make as big a distinction as publishers would like between material written by the professionals and the amateurs.)
There are few purely annotative spaces on the net -- GDocs with comments on is one of the few clean examples -- but there are lots of places that want the comment section to be annotative, principally 20C media companies, whose culture comes from an era where Letters to the Editor, call-in radio and the vox pop were the only participatory opportunities and they were OK with that.
Annotative systems develop regulars but not insiders, as there’s not much to get inside of. Most of the context is put there by the author or the site. There are flames but not flame wars, and the flames are almost universally directed at the author. There are non sequitors, but not topic drift. Identity may or not be enforced by the platform, but is not terribly important to the users. There are users, but not many think of themselves as members.
Every site will have some design elements that pull in the direction of conversation, others in the direction of annotation. Some of these pressures are a result of real constraints -- a site that has threading will be more conversational, ceteris paribus, than one that doesn’t.
Some of these pressures are a result of design cues: A site with the comment box at the top of the thread is signaling that you don’t have to read what other people have written before replying (annotative). A comment box at the very bottom at least makes you scroll past the previous history before composing your own answer (conversational). You could of course type whatever you want in either box, but the before/after choice sends a clear signal, one that users adapt to. Similarly, chronological order favors conversation while the reverse favors annotation, and on and on this list goes.
(Continue to Part Two.)