When I do a talk, I introduce myself as “Rands. That guy who sounds like a fortune cookie on Twitter.” I relay this introduction with a mixture of joy and sadness.
For me, the joy arrives when I successfully distill a complex thought down to fit the 140-character restraint of Twitter. These blurbs can easily come off as platitudes, but my hope is that there is wisdom packed among the words. The sadness comes from the words that are missing and the fact that tweets aren’t really designed to become conversations.
When I observe how I consume information, I’ve become increasingly aware of how little actual deep information I’m consuming. Each morning, I launch a series of tab groups (News, Nerds, Apple, Games, Hockey) in my browser, and as I read each of the front pages in these groups, I’m basically reading tweets — the short headlines that describe what occurred. Sometimes I’ll drill down on an article, but again, if I carefully consider my reading of them, my eyes dart from headline to headline without truly consuming and digesting the words.
I am learning something. The article I’m lightly consuming has become bookmarked in my head, and if it comes up in casual conversation later in the day, I can vigorously nod and say, “Yes, yes, I read that”. But I haven’t really. I noted the shortest version of it; I can quote the simplest version of it. I have a facade of the story and the illusion of knowledge.
I miss long thoughts.
When my friend Jeff Atwood contacted me last year after he departed StackOverflow, and told me he was going to reinvent forum software, my reaction was likely similar to yours. Forum software… what a fucking mess. Thing is, I remember what forum software was supposed to be because I am willing to date myself and declare that I remember when forum software was high signal. I remember BBSes.
A bajillion years ago, pre-mainstream Internet, forum software was the primary means of communication on BBS systems. You dialed up on a modem, logged into a BBS, and you read message boards, which were the primitive precursor to forum software. Initially, there were no likes, avatars, conversation threads, or reputation. In fact, we believed we were innovating when we got the cursor to spin.
The discourse on these message boards was not complex. I vaguely remember writing a three-paragraph review of the most recent Journey album and my hazy assumption is that there were more exclamation points than words. We hid behind fake names, but were defining the simple rules of communication among a digital population. Add something to the conversation. Stay on topic. Don’t be a jerk.
More importantly, we were having a discussion. You logged in each time to see what someone else had said about what you said. Yes, there were early versions of griefers and trolls, but there were also healthy discussions about that particular message board’s subject, accompanied by a distinct sense of smallness.
And then everyone showed up.
It was a good thing — the everyone — but message boards, which were now becoming known as forums, were not built for Everyone.
Everyone is a lot. It’s the people who care about what they say and those who don’t give a shit. It’s the ones who carefully choose every word and people who find joy only in finding flaws. There are those who can’t punctuate and those who don’t care to spell. ALL CAPS showed up then and we learned how to abuse signatures, typefaces, and color.
Forums didn’t keep up. Forums didn’t evolve. They were built on the concept that a handful of system operators maintained the peace and kept the discussion focused, but there were just too many people with too many conflicting agendas. No one was interested in moving to the state of the art of forum software because the signal had degraded to noise. No one wants a platform to deliver more noise.
Forum software receded to the dark edges of the Internet where, mostly hidden, the conversation could continue… quietly. Dedicated users would carefully police these dark corners where a conversation could occur. Meanwhile, the core ideas of forum software evolved as the construct of comment systems, but the software that represented groups of conversational threads languished.
Rebuilding the Fabric of the Internet
Our current communication constructs make us intellectually lazy. It’s too easy to blurt out what you’re thinking on Twitter and Facebook and then forget you said anything at all. It serves a specific purpose — sharing status or fortune cookie wisdom — but what if your thought is bigger than that? What if your thought is half-baked and in need of additional eyeballs? Where do you go to have an actual productive debate on the Internet? Start a blog… great… add some friends, write some content, and have it out in the comments.
The problem with comments is that they’ve evolved alongside the social constructs of Twitter and Facebook where a comment is little more than a sometimes lengthy status update. See, I have an idea and it’s long and it’s half-done. I need you to comment on paragraphs 3, 4, and 8. I’m also curious what everyone else has to say so I’ll keep coming back for days as new conversations arrive and I continue to evolve my core idea. Maybe I’ll branch a juicy part of it and that’ll be a whole new thread.
A discussion is a living, breathing thing, like code, and we need a sophisticated set of tools that both manage the conversation and also stay the hell out of the way. Simple works if your thought is short. What we need is a tool that works with the long thought.
The Long Thought
The lesson I learned building product at Borland, Netscape, Apple, and Palantir is that ideas improve with eyeballs. I understand that what makes a team strong is its ability to communicate, share, and iterate on its ideas. Inside of companies, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on software that enables us to share and iterate on ideas. Outside of that firewall, it’s a chaotic fucking mess where it often appears that the state of the art for discussion is… wait for it… email lists.
Elsewhere, social software has evolved. We’ve learned about the powerful feedback mechanisms of a Like, a +1, and a new follower. We understand that a well-defined digital reputation is a task an individual will work hard to build and maintain. We know the complexity of the interface will greatly affect the likelihood of whether a human will choose to participate in that community. All of these lessons need to be considered relative to forum software, which is my favorite part of Discourse’s mission: “We’re on a five-year mission to improve the Internet…”
I think the current state of Discourse is quite good, but it’s going to take years — years of discourse — to make the software world-class. Discourse will use Discourse and discourse to improve Discourse. Say that five times fast.
Discourse (and now is a good time to say that I happily serve on the board at the company) is a total reboot of forum software, which I believe is an essential unit of communication on the Internet, and, I hope, a worthy home for long thoughts.