Blog Post

Are conversations better when they are open or closed?

If there’s one aspect of the web that never seems to stand still for very long, it’s the conversational side: first, blogs were the way people shared things and discussions took place in a blog’s comment section, and then Facebook and Twitter and Google+ came along, and a lot of bloggers decided they didn’t need comments any more. Facebook has tried to fix comments by offering up its own platform, and Google is reportedly planning to do the same — and there are also some startups trying to tackle the problem as well, including a newcomer called Branch. Backed by two of Twitter’s co-founders, there are some high hopes for the service as a way of filtering out some of the social-media noise. But not everyone agrees that an invitation-only discussion forum is really what the web needs.

Branch, which is still in alpha, was formerly known as Roundtable, and was initially thought of as a group-blogging platform, but over the past six months it has morphed into a kind of platform for hosted conversations. As I understand it, based on comments from co-founder and CEO Josh Miller — and a blog post by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, whose Obvious Corp. has invested in the company — the idea is that experts and others with some status around a certain topic don’t always want to take part in discussions on wide-open forums such as blog posts or Facebook pages or on Twitter. With Branch, they can theoretically have a more restricted dialogue with others they invite to participate. As Stone puts it, the service:

[E]nables a smart new brand of high quality public discourse. Curated groups of people are invited to engage around issues in which they are knowledgeable.

So, for example, Anil Dash — founder of Expert Labs and Activate Media, and a former executive with blog platform Six Apart — started a recent discussion thread about how blogs need to evolve, and invited Meg Hourihan, Evan Williams and Paul Bausch (who co-founded Blogger and later sold it to Google) as well as Matt Haughey, founder of the pioneering web community Metafilter. In his introduction, Dash said that some of the elements of traditional blogging such as comments “have been stuck in a model that doesn’t work very well to encourage quality responses, and also doesn’t fit the way people do things socially online these days.” This is why some people such as MG Siegler and Daring Fireball writer John Gruber have chosen not to have comments at all.

Is restricting the number of participants good or bad?

The discussion was informative and interesting, but at the same time it was restricted to just five people. They are all undoubtedly knowledgeable, but there was none of the back-and-forth that we take for granted in many other forums, including open ones such as Twitter or a blog. It’s true that there was also a distinct lack of flame wars and trolling, which many see as the downsides of an open platform, but is the tradeoff worth it? Quora, a question-and-answer platform co-founded by former Facebook staffers Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, has faced many of the same issues as it has tried to grow: how much does being closed (or heavily moderated) impede valuable discussion?

A discussion about that issue started earlier this week on Twitter, and included my GigaOM colleague Om Malik, as well as former TechCrunch editor Erick Schonfeld, longtime open-web advocate Kevin Marks, Twitter’s director of platform Ryan Sarver and Anil Dash, among others (an archived view of some of the conversations is available using a tool that Marks developed was developed by former Reddit staffer Aaron Swartz). As with many discussions on Twitter, it was open to anyone who chose to comment — and those involved were free to respond or not to the comments as they came.

Josh Miller later started a thread at Branch about the same topic, but it was interesting to see how much less discussion there was on that forum. Marks made the point that the service seemed a little like Google+ Circles, but that he prefers the more open model of “semi-overlapping publics” that Twitter offers, and would rather respond at length on his own blog (a point Om made as well). For his part, Miller said that he doesn’t see the service as competing with more open forums such as blogs or Twitter, but as something supplementary that offers a more curated experience:

[T]he open community that Fred Wilson has cultivated is incredible. But there’s also a place for structured, curated conversations. It’s not elitist, it’s practical. Think about how many people can sit around a dinner table. A conversation – a true direct, dialogue – can only have so many voices speaking at once.

Part of the issue could be the invitation process, since users of Branch have to either enter the Twitter handle of a user they want to invite (who must be following them so a direct message can be sent) or an email address. This adds a whole layer of authentication and potential missed communication, and that could lead to fewer participants. But the discussion also seems oddly sterile for anyone who has gotten used to the somewhat chaotic nature of a Twitter debate — or even in blog comments. And because it is less open, there is less of an opportunity for flames or irrelevant comments, but there is also less opportunity for a smart comment from a stranger.

There is no question that as Facebook and Twitter have grown larger, there has been a corresponding increase in the amount of noise that we are subjected to, and that probably helps explain the popularity of more narrow or restricted networks such as Path, where users can only have 150 connections, and activity-centric services like Instagram. Could Branch become that kind of network for more curated conversations, or will it suffer from being too closed?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Gary Knight and Jeremy King

13 Responses to “Are conversations better when they are open or closed?”

  1. I really enjoyed your post, Mathew. You definitely highlighted issues that we need to address. But I think your post was also demonstrative of the need for Branch. Don’t you think Charlie Cheever, Kevin Marks, and myself should have been invited to have a follow-up conversation about the issues you raised? Why should I be relegated to being a second class citizen in the dungeon that is your comments section?

    • From WikiPedia: Dungeon — A dungeon is a room or cell in which prisoners are held, especially underground. Dungeons are generally associated with medieval castles, though their association with torture probably belongs more to the Renaissance period. An oubliette is a form of dungeon which was accessible only from a hatch in a high ceiling.

      There are no second class citizens in a dungeon. Just prisoners. As far as I can see, one is more likely to be trapped in the BRanch dungeon than any other place since you need to be invited and then locked in through your comments. Thanks, but no thanks. As far as our comment section, pretty arrogant on your part to think that our readers and those who are commenting here are second class citizens. They are vital and very important part of our community. Hopefully when running your community, you are going to find that out soon enough.

      • Om– you are right, “dungeon” is excessive, sorry (though to be fair, I’m not sure devoting a paragraph to that was necessary).

        That being said, I do feel like a second class citizen down here. Mathew was given the grand stage up top, then you put a bold add for GigaOM PRO, then you put links to other stories, then you put social media CTAs, then you put a huge banner ad and more links. Then, finally, you let your community chime in down here. I have so, so much respect for you but, with all due respect, I do feel like a second class citizen down here. Hey, I don’t even know if you’ll approve or read this thing I took the time to write. Or if any of your other visitors will make their way down here…

        • Actually if you click on comments up top, it takes you right down to the comments skipping all those links you talk about and go straight to the comments. Of course, you didn’t spend time using the site. And just as you initially dismissed it as a “dungeon.” We have an engaged community and the reason is because we actually spend time engaging with them as writers. This is more like our living room.

          With all due respect, when one day you will have to worry about things like revenues and profits and paying salaries from money that doesn’t come as a check from your VC, I will see what kind of interactions/solutions/advertising you develop. Good luck in running your community.

      • Om– you are right, “dungeon” is excessive, sorry (though I’m not sure devoting a paragraph to that was constructive).

        That being said, I do feel like a second class citizen down here. Mathew was given the grand stage up top. Below that was a bold advertisement for GigaOM PRO. Below that were links to other stories. Below that were social media CTAs. Below that was a huge banner advertisement and more links. Then, finally, you let your community chime in down here. I have a lot of respect for you – A LOT – but if that’s not “second class” I’m not sure what is.

      • “With all due respect, when one day you will have to worry about things like revenues and profits and paying salaries from money that doesn’t come as a check from your VC, I will see what kind of interactions/solutions/advertising you develop. Good luck in running your community.”

        What does this have to do with the merits of comments sections, or online conversations? Where do salaries enter this discussion?

        I said I’m sorry, “dungeons” was a poor choice of words and I should have been more clear that I was talking about comments, in general – not GigaOM specifically. But I’m disappointed that this comments thread is turning into this. Mathew wrote an awesome post with great points about online conversation (including potential shortcomings of Branch), and I was hoping to participate in a conversation about that.

        I will leave your “living room” now. I see that I am not wanted.

      • Q3 technologies

        Not quite sure how this conversation turned into a debate. But josh, I still can’t understand how you feel like a second class citizen here. I’m sure I visit this site less than you but I have always come across healthy & Interactive discussions on here not to mention the great posts.
        Its us the users who have to make a great audience for any site while the writers can only “complement” us.
        P.S – the fact that none of your comments were disapproved must have made you feel a little more special.