Howells.

The problem and the fragmentation of content and communication

I’m fascinated by the recent startup activity that seems to addressing the “problem” of communications and discourse on the web. Within a relatively short time, we have seen the launch of Svbtle, Medium, App.net, and Branch. I’m not going to spend any time discussing the pros and cons of each since I’m not a member of any of them yet (I think my invitations are in the post, or something) [Update: I just got my Branch invite and it is very, very nice indeed.] but just say that it’s interesting that each have started to address a nuanced aspect of the “problem” communications on the internet.

That’s the second time I put “problem” in quotes because I’m not actually sure what it is, but here’s my attempt to characterise what it might be:

  • Discussion is hard
  • Expression is hard
  • Discovery is hard

The frustration of trying to have a discussion with n+1 people on Twitter is widely felt, so I’m excited that Branch is a well thought-out, nicely designed product that aims to address this problem. You can take a conversation to Branch, and then publish said branch as a publicly viewable, carefully moderated conversation on a given theme. The use cases for individuals, groups, and even enterprise are obvious.

The second problem is one of expression, but can be sub-divided into two further issues: the medium itself, and on being expressive.

As with texts, the stilted terseness of Tweets mean they can be misconstrued and ineffective, whereas the wide-open limitless spaces of individual blogs can over-egg simple points of view, rendering them unheard and unappreciated. Platforms like Posterous sprouted up to cater for this half-way solution between the tweet and the blog post, but with Posterous having been acquired by Twitter we will have to wait to see what fills the space left in the middle.

The problem with expressiveness is that few platforms can really achieve the wet, spit-laden sort of conversation that is ultimately most effective. Forums are usually bloated and prevent flow; commenting systems feel inadequate, and hyper-threaded community platforms like Reddit and Hacker News feel overwhelming, especially to uninitiated. Branch seems to want to emulate real-time human conversation both in terms of turn-taking and small-group chatter and I’m excited to see how this feels in practice.

The third aspect of the communications problem is discovery of content. I am an extremely voracious reader of posts and articles that I find via Twitter, a small handful of bloggers (I’ll list them in a future post), and directly through subscriptions to my favourite magazines. All these are squirrelled away into my Instapaper account for some late-night reading or sweaty Underground ride, but because there’s usually some time between finding a link and reading it, Instapaper for me feels like discovery through quasi-serendipity. It works nicely for me but a great deal of trash ends up in the pile, and I forget why I saved them: often with context and comment having been stripped from a post, a quarter of its meaning is lost.

Despite having plenty to read I do fall into the trap of feeling I’m missing out. This is now compounded by the rise of Svbtle and Medium. I like them both but already feel overwhelmed by the wealth of material on them both. I need help sifting to find the gems. I’m not sure what mechanic needs to exist to help here. Medium rates articles by “goodness”, and Svbtle’s equivalent is “kudos” (but Dustin Curtis already has a “featured members and posts” section, which helps navigate the network). I’m unconvinced either are good measures of quality. They both fall into the trigger-happy like mentality of the Facebook Like; a mechanic laden with as much meaning as an ironic double-thumbs up. A share, a comment, a curated pick, or re-post by people whose opinion I respect are superior measures.

As a side note, the rise of the “curated link list” is a nice development. Readlists and lists in Kippt are both sources of reading goodness, but both have already exploded with content and the number of lists to work through are too numerable to handle.

Where does this leave us? I’m excited by the prospect of new channels of quality content, but nervous that the sheer volume and disperate fragmentation of platforms will diminish their true value, especially when they start to compete with each other. I’m hoping for competition on quality; not of users and pageviews. This is at odds with the economics of networks so it remains to be seen how the endgame might look.

In my next post I’m going to talk about the barriers people feel they have to writing content.

Comments — 1

Adam on August 17 — 5:26 am #

Just a thought, but perhaps if we solve the “problems” we’ll end up loosing some of the joy of discovery? Perhaps it’s exciting because it’s chaotic and fragmented.

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