Monday, August 31, 2009

Keeping the conversation going

A movie nerd discussion group in which I've lurked for many, many years has started a conversation about changing formats. The intermittently active community interacts through the venerable medium of the listserv, also known as an e-mail list, a Yahoo! Group, and so forth. You're all familiar with them, I'm sure. To post a message, you send an e-mail to the group address, and the listserv program e-mails it to everyone in the group individually.

Way back in the early part of this decade, I gave a conference presentation about the relative merits of listservs ("push" technologies, so-called because the information is pushed into the e-mail inboxes of each user) and courseware sites ("pull" technologies, which rely on the inherent attractiveness or value of the information contained therein to draw users onto the site).

The advantages of listservs primarily lie in their convenience. The conversations come directly to you via e-mail, and you don't have to make any special effort to follow along. If you want to participate, it's as simple as replying to the e-mail.

But there are some hidden pitfalls. Members may post messages that others consider uninteresting or annoying -- and without leaving the group, there's no way to stop them from cluttering the inbox. Active conversations often get "out of sync," with members posting replies meant specifically for one or a few users, while cross-talk goes on under the same subject heading unrelated to that exchange. Although posting is easy, posting etiquette -- discouraging top-posts, judicious quoting, what counts as appropriate listserv fodder -- is correspondingly difficult to enforce.

Enter the forum, or bulletin board -- an online destination where discussions are threaded, recorded, and most importantly, ordered. Unlike the afterthought archives page of a listserv -- how could you expect anything else from a push technology? -- the pull technology of a forum means that the unit of conversation is the thread, not the post (or the e-mail). They're searchable, they're flexible, they're constructive at their best and contained at their worst, and several conversations can go on at once with people checking in only on those that interest them.

But they're inconvenient, because people have to change their behavior to use them. They have to go to the forum; they have to seek out the conversation. Now there are ways to get activity pushed to you -- most forums allow you to subscribe to an area or a thread to get notified of new posts; even better is a daily digest of new and most active threads, e-mailed to all users. But it's not the same as every message from every member of the group just dropping onto your desktop.

I happen to think that the benefits of the latter outweigh the convenience of the former. Yet I'm under no illusions about the drawbacks. I'm in favor of the move, especially since the group has been pretty dead for a long time. On a forum, the group will change. For better, for worse, who can say -- but it will be different because the communication medium will be different, just as a telephone conversation has different rhythms and nuances than a meeting in a diner.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Maybe at one time I used the e-mail feature and changed to the web interface because so many messages were hitting my inbox, but I've gone to the site for as long as I can remember. So I don't see a potential move as a big change. (Plus, half the time on the web the thing craps out and loses the message.)