You're Talking a Lot, But You're Not Saying Anything

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How does commentary affect the world around us?

Nobody Wants to Dial Telephones: Does Anyone Want to Read Comments?

Yesterday, I lamented the marginalia of commentary, the lack of impact that most comments tend to have. It seems possible that commentary could do so much for us: instigate debate, give rise to new ideas, realize the full potential of the internet. But it doesn’t, at least not in most cases.

To determine why that is, maybe we can investigate the purpose of comments. I referred yesterday to the definition of “comment,” which involves explaining or criticizing an idea. Online comments can certainly do this. But due to their location online, in a space where everyone can see and respond, they seem to take on another dimension: of participating in a conversation.

But what if not every commenter wants to do this? Well, would-be commenters certainly have options: they can email the author instead. They can bring up the subject with a friend in person. They can make a phone call. They can write about it on their own blogs. Nobody has to comment.

In Being Digital, a book from the days before Google and Twitter (hard to remember those, huh?) Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab posits that nobody wants to dial a telephone; people just want to reach people. So do people really want to comment? Perhaps not–they just want to reach people.

So what are some alternatives to traditional online commentary? Twitter replies have become a popular one, enabling folks to show that they read and appreciated (or didn’t appreciate) something without investing the time to craft a lengthy comment. Twitter also offers the opportunity to reply directly to a person/article/idea, or to send your response only to your followers (or anyone else who happens to find your words, perhaps due to a search or a retweet). As with Negroponte’s telephone analogy, no one necessarily wants to Tweet, exactly–but people do want to connect. Twitter has become another, often effective, way for people to do this.

The telephone analogy could be taken further. The telephone reaches out, directly, to someone specific. (In so doing, it’s often annoying: it’s kind of nice that you can instant message with multiple folks at once, while we still haven’t really figured out how to multi-task with phone conversations, except for perhaps in conference calls.) The thing about Twitter–the thing that comments in general really lack–is its directness. But, like instant messaging, you can essentially be “direct” with a lot of people at once. You’re not stuck Tweeting at only one person for a while. You can Tweet in multiple directions, on multiple topics, in the space of just 140, 280, 420, or more characters.

It seems, then, that the directionality–the intended recipient–of commentary might matter just as much as the content of it. What is the best way to target comments? Should all comments be shared? People complain about oversharing on Twitter, but there’s an easy way to combat that: don’t follow such folks. In this sense, Twitter’s other revolutionary capability is that its directionality is multidirectional. Not only can you send a message to somebody, that person can choose whether to receive it and how to respond to it. Additionally, other people can see that message, and respond, but with the knowledge that the message/comment was directed in a specific way. And, most importantly, and unlike phone conversations or even instant messages, people can ignore you. A bummer if they do, but that in itself sends a message.

Thus Twitter appears simple, but it really contains a number of important capabilities that were missing from online communication, or present in different and unintegrated ways. By putting together public, targeted conversations with the ability to choose modes of responding, Twitter has opened up a whole new form of commentary online. And it’s not that we want to Twitter: it’s that we want to reach people AND let others know who we are reaching. That’s really something important, and something that it was harder to do before this tool.

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Filed under: Blogs, Commentary, Retweeting, Twitter

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