Have you ever had a truly stimulating or enriching conversation on Facebook? What about on Twitter? When was the last time you carefully read a blog posting by a person with whom you tend to disagree? If you’re like me, the answer is “not often.” Isn’t it ironic that the technologies that connect us to everyone we’ve ever known have done very little to actually improve our online conversations?
Rather than deepening our connections to the wider world or empowering like-minded people with meaningful modes of interaction, the innovations of the last decade have emphasized self-expression and networking with people you already know. We read blogs that jive with our worldview, visit news portals with a predictable editorial bent, and we Tweet our opinions with little incentive to fully flesh them out. To my mind meaningful conversations are those where all parties walk away with a slightly different perspective or attitude. For this to happen there must be some friction (ideological, emotional, or experiential) as well as a conducive context for actual discussion.
The dominant activities on Facebook are by nature frictionless: sharing photos, status updates, and grooming one’s personal timeline. Furthermore, the nature of the Facebook social graph precludes much more than a superficial exchange. Our Facebook network now includes acquaintances, colleagues, close friends, immediate family, and extended family. We are connected to so many different groups of people it often feels like an awkward dinner party where one doesn’t want to spoil the mood by getting real. It would be impolite in this context to talk about serious topics such as politics or religion, because they tend to divide as much as bring people together. You have to have a safe context for such discussions.
As a response to this generic audience problem, Google+’s introduced “circles,” whereby a user can sort their contacts into groups. This innovation, Google+ argues, allows users to share what’s really on their minds, because the audience for their statements can be hand-picked. While one could argue this addresses an obvious shortcoming of Facebook, it still does not address the larger issue that people don’t operate this way in real life. Social context is often completely unconscious to the person, yet they adapt their language and behavior instinctually. Asking a person to deliberately choose the appropriate audience every time they say anything is stifling and unnatural.
Twitter also lacks for meaningful conversation much of the time due to a lack of friction and the wrong context — namely, “here is where I share my every thought.” In this way it does little to facilitate a real back and forth of ideas. The 140 character limit on all Tweets, for example, does not afford enough space for thoughtful exchange. Second, there are few social cues on Twitter that would allow one to assess the impact of their statement on others. We take these cues for granted in normal conversation (a nod of the head, a distracted look, gesturing, etc.), but they are extremely important in the exchange of ideas, especially in preserving the tone and attention necessary for a substantive discussion.
This irony is central to contemporary social media: we spend more time networking and grooming our social identities than we do in actual meaningful discussion. In this way, our contemporary discourse via “social” media is not unlike an institutionalized Aspberger’s syndrome, characterized by “difficulties in social interactions and often accompanied by restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior and interests”
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Once upon a time when the Web was new, we had things like AOL and IRC chat rooms. In these places one could encounter the world, interact with strangers over shared interests, and develop ties to others half a world away. These old-school chat rooms shared a lot in common with great sporting events; people from all walks of life would come together to enjoy and celebrate what they have in common, whether it’s a sports team or an interest in the Presidential election.
There are elements of this initial experiment that can and should be revisited online. With the rise of mobile devices and the readily-available confirmation of real-identity via platforms like Facebook, we can once again imagine a network where people meet to discuss their shared interests in a high-fidelity and immediate way. And given the increasingly divisive political, social, and economic environment we live in, we need more than tools for self-expression and the cataloguing of friends, we need tools that bring people together for real and substantive discussion.
A network that can balance the right amount of conversational friction inside a positive and focussed social context can fundamentally reshape online discourse, and thereby contribute something that the world desperately needs at this moment.
Sean Zehnder is the Co-Founder of Meeps, a new topic-based mobile social network, currently available in the iPhone AppStore. Sean grew up in Lexington and Versailles, graduated with Honors and as a Gaines Fellow in the Humanities at UK. Sean later earned his Master’s at Georgetown University and has been building and studying social media ever since.