Are conversations better when they are open or closed?

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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

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