Friday, January 20, 2006

Amy Gahran attacks blog conversation concept

Amy Gahran has, in a rather unusual timing manner, coming close to the bookstore availability of Naked Conversations, stated her opposition to the concept of blog as conversation tool.

Her article "10 Reasons Why Blogs Are An Awkward Conversation Tool" contains the following list, but is prefaced by her confession that she is "bugged" by all the attention blogs are receiving as the premier marketing conversation platform. She seems to favor some other venue.

[QUOTE--with Vaspers running commentary]


(Note: I pulled some of these from the comment thread to my earlier posting, "Missing the Conversation for the Blog.")

1. THEY'RE NOT INTUITIVE: Well, not to everyone, especially to non-geeks (and that's most of the world, folks.) Face it: blogs have serious usability issues.

Show a novice net user his first blog and he'll probably scroll around, looking bewildered, not sure what to do. Usually, an experienced blogger (or blog reader) needs to explain what's going on before the newcomer will relax and start to get into the flow.

[VASPERS: On the contrary, blogs are extremely easy to read, search, explore, post comments at, and interact with...and much easier to create, maintain, edit, re-design, and transplant than conventional web sites and wikis. "Serious usability issues" are completely non-existent, and have not been specified here.]

2. THEY'RE TOO BUSY. Even the best-designed blog (for example, the new PBS blog MediaShift looks very nice indeed) tends to be visually busier than a decently designed weblog or forum. If you're accustomed to blogs, this probably doesn't bother you. But if you're not used to blogs, this probably bugs the heck out of you and discourages you from exploring and conversing.

[VASPERS: Again, not a single specific design error, other than "visually busy", which is bizarre accusation. What neighborhood of the blogosphere is populated by "visually busy" blogs? Most blogs I've seen are bleak, bland, text-dominant, hard to distinguish from other blogs with similar design or identical non-tweaked templates. I advocate more digitial art and photos and graphic enhancements, to provide variety and visual interest, aesthetic pleasure.]

3. WHO'S RESPONDING TO WHOM? Few blogging tools allow for threaded comments, like what you would see on a discussion forum. Threaded comments provide visual clues about who's responding to whom. (For instance, LiveJournal offers threaded comments. Here's an example from a LiveJournal community.)

In contrast, in most blogs you just see a flat list of comment after comment, which can hinder interaction among the commenters. This is why conversational media tools like JournURL or Drupal, which combine features of blogs and forums, are interesting to watch -- although they can get confusing, too.

[VASPERS: Another spurious complaint. I and other comment posters will use "Zafu: I agree..." or "Carrie: Why do you say that the..." to identify a specific person. Why is everything so confusing to this critic of the blog, who also blogs, and I consider a blogging ally?

Topic thread continuity is a minor problem at email discussion lists, online forums, bulletin boards, wikis, etc. It depends largely on the quality of commenters, and how the blogger guides or influences the conversation, and how commenters interact with each other.]

4. COMMENTS DON'T NECESSARILY = CONVERSATION: Blogger Chris Edwards noted in a comment here, "How many blog posts do you see actual conversations on? You see people making points in public but they are not conversations in the conventional sense, they are public debates." He's got a point.

First of all, most blog postings don't attract any comments at all.

[VASPERS: Then those postings are not relevant to the current audience, and are best suited for an audience that must be created, attracted by the blogger via blog promotions and posting comments at related blogs.

I've seen personal trivia blogs pull 30 or 40 comments on average per post, and rock stars like Pete Townsend get upwards of 600 comments per post.

If a marketing blogger is getting no comments on a blog, maybe the marketing person is not so good at marketing after all, at least not so hot at online marketing and community building.]

Second, there's a big difference between "talking at" and "conversing with." In blog comments, you'll find an awful lot of mutual "talking at." For the record, this happens in a lot of face-to-face group meetings, too. (IMHO, I think that has more to do with the personality and writing style of the people involved, rather than the inherent nature of blogs.)

[VASPERS: If this specific criticism is not blog-specific, then why mention it in this list? Now, I'm the one who's confused.]

But finally, some of the most interesting conversations involving weblogs happen between weblogs, when bloggers post back in forth and engage each other.

It doesn't all have to happen in one place. But until you're used to blogs, it can be hard to recognize that kind of interaction as conversation. Mostly, it's a matter of tone and using linguistic cues for mutual engagement -- a subtle art.

[VASPERS: Huh? What is this "when bloggers post back in (sic) forth and engage each other"? Sounds like clinking, clique linking to me. Where a group of bloggers post about each other, interview each other, and smile with brown noses held high.]

5. COMMENTS DON'T ALWAYS GET A REPLY: Well, actually, this is true even in face-to-face conversation, and it's definitely a conversation killer. I've been guilty of that sin myself, right here on this blog. (Sorry about that, I'm trying to catch up.)

Here's what I mean: Were you ever talking to someone who said something that interested you, but they weren't really listening to you in return, and they got distracted and turned away without replying or even acknowledging that you spoke? Yeah, it happens -- and it's easier to get away with online than face-to-face.

In blogs, usually this problem happens because replying to blog comments takes time and effort.

[VASPERS: Posting a comment depends on not how "hard and time consuming" it is, but on how much passion you have, and how much the post inspires you to respond.]

When bloggers hit a time crunch, often replying to comments gets pushed down on the list. Fortunately, it doesn't just have to be the blogger who responds to comments. Anyone can do it. But yeah, it's polite to continue a conversation once you start it. Everyone should just allow for the occasional time lag with blog conversations.

[VASPERS: A well written blog post may be so profound and complete, no comments, no articulated response is possible. I'm vain enough to think this may happen even on my little blog. Sometimes what you write is so perfect and full, it needs no embellishments or praise from an audience. Comment-lust is a terrible addiction and causes much suffering.]

6. (USUALLY) NO NOTIFICATION FOR FOLLOW-UP COMMENTS: Some blogs offer a really cool option that lets you subscribe to a feed or e-mail alerts for further comments in a thread to which you've contributed. That makes it easier to stay engaged in conversation. However, most of the time if you comment in a blog, it's up to you to check back to see if there was any further discussion -- a major hassle. Even I don't bother with it most of the time.

[VASPERS: If it's such a pain in the butt, quit posting comments. I think it's fun to try to remember where you posted comments, then visiting those blogs to see if there is any response to your comment.

Those automatic subscription alerts to comment replies are very nice, and I agree that all blogs should have them.]

So it helps if, when you comment back to someone who left a comment in your blog, to shoot them a quick e-mail with a link letting them know you responded. Also a hassle, I know. But it helps build a community around your blog.

7. YOU CAN TURN OFF COMMENTS AND TRACKBACKS: Blogging tools offer a lot of useful features to support conversation, and all of them are optional.

It's entirely possible -- and on rare occasions even a good idea -- to turn off comments.

[VASPERS: You fail to explain when it's appropriate or advantageous to turn off comments, which is never, unless you have no other way to combat comment spammers.]

Granted, by doing this you severely limit your blog's ability to be part of the public conversation. However, for some people that's an acceptable tradeoff, and that's fine.

More and more bloggers are turning off trackbacks because (a) that system never worked very reliably, and (b) trackback spam is a heinous problem with few good solutions besides manual moderation. Turning off trackbacks does make your contributions to the public conversation harder to find. It's another tradeoff, but that's acceptable for some bloggers.

I guess, generally (with a tip of the hat to George Orwell): All blogs are potentially conversational -- but some blogs are more conversational than others.

8. PERCEIVED INEQUALITY: In this comment, Lawrence Coburn wrote: "There is an inherent inequality in the conversation that goes on in [blog] comments. One insider, everyone else is an outsider." Yeah, I agree, that's a problem. Personally, I think that in most cases that's the audience's perception, rather than the blogger's. (Although it's true that some bloggers can be rather pompous, myself occasionally included.)

[VASPERS: Same thing happens with a livingroom conversation. Some people are in your livingroom, and some are not. Big deal. If it's my livingroom, or blog, I may dominate it in some manner, but that will depend on the blogger's personality and blog purpose.]

If you're over the age of 15, you grew up with a mostly passive experience of mass media: the publisher or broadcaster spewed content, and you sat there and soaked it up. You could talk it over with other people later, or reply privately via a letter to the editor, but generally audiences were expected to be sponges. That experience shaped the expectations and behaviors most of us continue to exhibit toward media, and it's hard to shake.

But Lawrence is right: This is where forums, online communities, and some types of social software have a major advantage over blogs. So far...

[VASPERS: Such as....?]

9. LOTS OF PEOPLE DON'T LIKE BLOGS, AND THEY NEVER WILL: This is why it's a good thing that there are other conversational media choices, such as e-mail lists, online forums, and even call-in radio.

Probably sooner than we think, some other hot new tool will become the darling of conversational media, and blogs will become not just clunky but outdated.

So if you like blogs, don't get too attached to them -- focus on the public conversation.

[VASPERS: What the hell does that mean?]

And if you don't like blogs, don't worry -- you can live without them, and there are other options to join the conversation. Deal with what suits you. Or avoid conversational media entirely, if you like. It's not mandatory.

[VASPERS: I need someone's permission and approval to choose what "conversational media" I prefer and use? I'm lost.]

10. IT'S MUCH FASTER JUST TO TALK: See how much effort I put into creating this posting to reply to a bunch of comments? I could have talked my way through it in 1/20 of the time. The effort currently required to converse via blogs can be daunting. There's no way anyone can keep up with all of it.

[VASPERS: Well, Jacques Derrida and I, and many bloggers, don't like "talk". We hate podcasts and telephones and bar busybodies. We like email, letters, paper trails for historic, legal, and archive purposes.]

...So that's my list. What about yours? Any additions, clarifictions, questions, corrections, or disputes? Comment below!

January 18, 2006 in Challenges



Amy said...

Um, Steven, if you think I don't think blogs are useful as a conversational tool, then you've missed the entire point of my new blog, "the Right Conversation."

The intent of that posting of mine, which you quoted extensively, demonstrates that while blogs are a key part of conversational media, with many advantages, they also have significant drawbacks. They're not a perfect tool, which is why it's more important to focus on the public conversation than get tunnel-vision on any particular tool or channel.

You might want to read more carefully before you critize. You've strongly mischaracterized my message in this case. I most definitely was not "attacking" blogs.

- Amy Gahran

steven edward streight said...


I like you and you are far more experienced than I am when it comes to blogs, podcasting, and social media.

I have posted a number of comments on your blog, and you have paid me an extreme compliment on my Comment Spammers: Internet Pigs article.

Now, I can't understand how you got the notion that anyone has been proclaiming blogs as *perfect* conversation marketing tools.

I quoted the list from your post, bypassing the introductory remarks, while retaining the "it bugs me" remark, which puzzled me.

You are a blogger, a well known and highly respected blogger. A highly sought after conference speaker. An innovator and a blog pioneer.

So what's with this "blogs are awkward"? And new blog readers have a difficult time navigating and interacting with a simple little blog?

I know there is some problem with computer illiterates going to visit blogs, so I added a Reader Orientation to my sidebar.

I would never wish to distort anything you say or do.

I am an aggressive defender of the blog and blogosphere and blogger rights, so I do react to posts like yours, which seem, in your case to be an anomoly.

Many "drawbacks" of blogs are being fixed by such devices as captchas, RSS, subscription to comment replies, etc.

How focus on a vague "public conversation"?

You mean be plugged into multiple communication channels?

Examples? I think your essay, as confrontational and controversial as it is, needs more examples and specifics.

I will ponder this more.

Roger Benningfield said...

Steven: "On the contrary, blogs are extremely easy to read, search, explore, post comments at, and interact with..."

Relative to 1998, you're absolutely right. But we're a long way from them being commonly understood by the population at large.

For comparison's sake, consider TiVo. It has the sweetest interface available... no other TV recording appliance even comes close. It's bliss... for me, and for my wife the network engineer. And for kids who grow up with it. But I know dozens of otherwise bright adults who stare blankly at it and can't even comprehend what it does, let alone *how*.

Same thing with blogs.

"What neighborhood of the blogosphere is populated by 'visually busy' blogs?"

Heh. The two biggest neighborhoods of all... LiveJournal and And any neighborhood dominated by probloggers, who generally have tons of AdSense scattered all over the place.

"Another spurious complaint. I and other comment posters will use 'Zafu: I agree...' or 'Carrie: Why do you say that the...' to identify a specific person."

Prefacing replies with a name is good... quoting is even better. Best is to combine both with threading, which allows readers to see an overview of the flow of conversation. Threading == flexibility. (It also helps on the admin side, for many reasons.)

"Sounds like clinking, clique linking to me."

To others, it sounds like a way to keep their online identities centralized. I'm not fond of inter-blog conversation myself, but I recognize that some folks find value in it.

"I think it's fun to try to remember where you posted comments..."

That sentence alone should tell you that your tastes are a bit out of the norm here. Most people are unlikely to enjoy making a memory game out of interaction.

"You fail to explain when it's appropriate or advantageous to turn off comments, which is never..."

I'm a pretty hard-line, "comments are vital" person, but I would never say never. There are more use-cases in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

RE: advantages of other social media tools... "Such as....?"

A forum isn't dominated by a single voice. Or if it is, it's only because the local denizens have allowed it. Same thing for wikis and other environments.

One way around that is group blogging, or Slashdot-style story submission. Another is the merging of blogging with other types of tools to create new strengths from old weaknesses.

steven edward streight said...


If people like to talk, they may not like blogging.

If they like long, complex, prolix, meandering multi-phonic conversations, the blog may not suit them.

"Blogs are dominated by a single voice, the readers are outsiders" is a direct contradiction of the fact that bloggers and readers interact in a multiplicity of ways that make it difficult to say who is mentor and who is mentored.

Blogs are about the ending of all domination systems, the Powers That Pretend To Be.

Blogs are the universalization of web content, the first global publishing platform for the non-tech masses.

Blogging seems, now, to be the Lead Revolutionist in the Social Media Slaughter of Conventional MSM hegemony.

I know of now other radicalization of information dissemination that is so grass roots oriented, democratic, equalized, inexpensive, easy to learn, fast to implement...

...except texting and IMing.

You are right about mashup web app hybrids and contexting message systems.

I signed up for Linkedin, then had no idea what to do with it.

Sign up was easy, proceeding further dense and complex, unless you were desperately seeking work, I suppose.

I will, since you troubled yourself to come here and post an enlightening comment to enrich my blog, go visit your system JournURL dot com.

Thanks for your remarks. Very good information and perspectives.

Oh, BTW, I don't consider LiveJournal, Xanga, or MySpace to be real blogs.

They are ugly monstrosities of no value whatsoever. Yet, teenagers use them to connect with each other.

This makes them networking tools, not blog platforms.

Go ahead, we can, making new crap out of old "weaknesses", but first let's be sure we really understand what the weaknesses of blogs are.

Some "weaknesses" may lie in the blogger, and not in the blog as it exists in itself.