Here Comes Trouble: Conversation Threading

A single commodity hard disk is fast on its way to being able to store every song ever recorded;* a close examination of how the rapid improvement of storage technology might apply to communication, therefore, is long overdue. Consider email, where the retention of messages enables the threading of conversations by recipient, subject and date. For while recording telephone calls usually means government wiretaps, the merits of a communication archive from an end user’s perspective deserves some consideration.

Few over the age of 25 will like the idea of creating a permanent record of telephone calls and other forms of communication, but the discomfort of mature adults can represent a counter-indicator. Plus, it seems safe to assume that people can distinguish between government (bad) and personal (good) uses of recording technology. Communication archives will require strong privacy tools and a reliable delete function, but an argument against a permanent record is an argument against communication. After all, people avoid email in some contexts, but no one proposes eliminating email archives.


The retention of telephone numbers for calls dialed and answered represents an important feature of cell phones. A record of the content of a call could provide a similarly rich resource. The ability to play back a conversation could improve understanding or resolve disputes the same way as re-reading an email can. Voice conversations might get forwarded or included with a reply. Search technology could be applied directly to the audio or after a speech-to-text conversion. An accumulated body of communication would represent an important source of information and a treasured asset in the same manner as email and traditional letter writing.

Unified communication and messaging efforts seek to converge diverse modes of communication into a single stream, but the ability to link all forms of communication by subject, time and recipient may prove to be more useful. Conversation threading might work something like CRM for personal relationships. Tristan Louis offers a detailed wish list in his blog post describing a Personal Relationship Manager. Importantly, trust and the inflexible nature of the telephone network make AT&T et al. poor candidates for implementing conversation threading. The challenge is far better suited to the Internet-enabled communication tools of the emerging infocom industry.

How recording might alter communication behavior remains to be seen. The fact of a permanent record may improve the prospect for civil behavior or it may not — that certainly hasn’t proven to be the case for email. There exist laws regarding the recording of telephone calls, but the extension of off-line laws to an Internet context can prove hazardous. Efforts to implement conversation threading might give rise to an entirely new category of communication, as different from traditional telephone calls as email differs from writing a letter. And the utility of conversation threading may prove greater than the discomfort associated with recording telephone calls. Regardless, there is ample room for improving the communication status quo.

* 4 terabytes holds 1 million, 4-megabyte song files — the equivalent of 20,000 recorded songs each year since the arrival of record labels in the 1950s.

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