Nov 10 2009

Better Blogging

Something that bums me out about blogging (and makes it easy to blow off) is the lack of real conversations.  On Usenet, you can pick a group like rec.games.bridge and find a bunch of conversations (threads) going on.  Any decent newsreader will show each thread in a tree form, so you can see who’s responding to whom, and follow the conversation logically.  You can jump in and respond at any point, and when you come back later, your own posts and any responses to them will be threaded right along with the rest.  If you’re using a good newsreader, you can even have it display direct responses to you at the top, and then other responses in threads you’ve posted in below that, and so on, so you can see the stuff you’re interested in first.  Web forums have some of these features, though I haven’t seen one yet that has all of them.
Blogging has none of that.  If a blog is popular enough, conversations may take place in the comments area, but they have a very short lifespan.  In most cases there’s no threading, so it’s all one jumbled conversation, even if people take off on a dozen tangents.  In some cases, you can subscribe to the comments of a post via RSS or email, but then you get all the comments, whether they have anything to do with your own comment or not.  Most of the time, the only way to know whether anyone replied to what you had to say is to come back later and reload the page and read through all the comments.  That’s just not practical when you follow a bunch of different blogs and leave several comments a day.  So conversations start up as soon as the post is made, and then die out quickly after people have their first say and move on.  It’s like someone gives a speech, everyone in the audience gets a minute to come up and speak, and then everyone leaves.  There’s very little of the back and forth that makes up a real conversation.

It seems like there ought to be a solution to this, but if there is, I haven’t come up with it yet.  Using Google Reader and RSS, I’m able to have all the blogs I read aggregated into what’s called a “river of news,” where new articles from all my blogs show up in once place as soon as they’re posted, and I don’t have to jump from site to site.  It seems like there ought to be some way to do something similar with comments, so that all blog comment threads you’ve posted to could be aggregated into one place where you could continue to read and contribute to them.  The hitch is that there’s no single protocol for handling blog comments, as far as I know.  You can fetch them from many blogs with RSS, but I’m not sure there’s much of a standard for it, and I’m fairly sure that doesn’t support any threading, since most blogs don’t do threading.

I think if someone comes up with a way to make it convenient to track your comments and continue the conversation on blogs, it could be the Next Big Thing in blogging.  Whether it’s practically possible is another question.  The folks at backtype.com may be headed in the right direction: their system will show you all the comments you’ve made on blogs they track (assuming you identify yourself in a unique way, like with a URL).  But it doesn’t track every blog out there, and it doesn’t tell you when someone comments on your comment.  What I envision is something more like a cross between a Usenet newsreader and an RSS feed reader, that would subscribe via RSS to the comments of any post you comment on (preferably it would do this automatically, which could be the hardest part), and then give you a feed of any comments that reply to yours.  It might not be possible to tell real replies from posts that just happen to follow yours, but there might be ways to help that along.

If I have a Eureka moment that tells me how to make it all work, I’ll be sure to give it a try.  It’d be great if blogging had more of that give-and-take that Usenet has, so most comments weren’t like speaking in an empty room.  Just writing it all down like this has kicked up a couple inklings, so I’ll have to follow those up and see where they lead.

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