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The Long Thought

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.

Everyone

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.

I shit you not.

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.

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12 Responses

  1. Google plus has almost all these features as well, with the recent addition of communities. It’s still a little half baked but is improving.

    I’d really like the “link count” feature concept..

  2. Duncan 4 years ago

    The tools in the market seem so poorly designed, so out of touch with real humans. Watching the noise level fluctuate on our newly-hatched collaboration system, and wondering if unintended consequences will emerge, and what they’ll be.

  3. Bevan 4 years ago

    This is (kind of) what Google Wave advertised itself as being a solution for. Comments on the document appear inline in the document itself…

    Shared with a small, trusted community, you can get by with a Google Doc or wiki page, but neither are really properly suited to this task.

    I think, if Google Docs would add a feature where people can tag comments to different page elements but not actually change the page itself, we’d be there. The curator/author would then be responsible for integrating comments and suggestions.

  4. Long thoughts need long time

    Deep Discourse is not luxury

    But whither the rest?

  5. Actually, the start of the article would have been a good time to mention you serve on the board.

  6. Sure, better forum software. I won’t dismiss the appeal of that. It seems, though, that the underlying problem isn’t related at all to technology, but rather in the use of it; and before you put forth, with a strained kind of hopefulness, that we can *change* the tech to get people to use it (better), there’s this: it isn’t about forum software, or any of that. Because the technology we’re *really* talking about isn’t the forum or the social network, it’s the technology of language and text.

    It’s about how much text there is out there, and people’s reasons for treating it dismissively. It’s about people’s ambivalence, if not outright boredom or frustration, towards expressing themselves through text, in particular long-form text. It’s hard to articulate what you mean, especially when what you’re trying to say requires a lot of words. It’s also hard to read what someone else is trying to say unless they’re good at articulating themselves with lots of words (though hopefully no more than they need).

    Writing is an art: and not everyone feels compelled (whether for reasons of time or relevance is beside the point) to become an artist. And we haven’t even gotten to critical thinking yet. Suffice it to say, I think the problem runs far deeper than forum software, or even software at all.

  7. Hmm. This post triggers one of my buttons. For as it is my impression that forum software desperately tries to get where NNTP (and its most visible incarnation, Usenet) has arrived decades ago.

    Yes, I guess that qualifies me as an old-timer.

    But think of it: one client keeping track of multiple sources of discussions, presenting to you just the newly posted messages, but allowing you to track back in a thread if something piqued your interested. That’s what good NNTP clients did.

    And all you needed to do in order to participate in a truly global conversation was to fire up your NNTP reader in the morning, and press the spacebar.

    Now, NNTP (and its most visible incarnation, Usenet), is far from perfect. All the social stuff of avatars, inline pictures, up- and downvoting – yeah, it’s not really there.

    But it solved the problem of how to get people involved into a discussion (assuming they want to get involved in the first place) and how to let them concentrate on what they want to say — by lowering the bar of entry.

    Start up the client. Press spacebar. Occasionally press ‘r’ and start typing words.

    At least that’s what I want from forum software.

  8. Lars: No. Usenet wasn’t sidelined due to lacking avatars and a like button, the conversation moved elsewhere because, while the technology might scale to 1 billion users, the sociology didn’t.

  9. this is a bunch of big talker horseshit.

    i doubt you even used bbses much.

  10. Rands – Excellent summary as always. I really like the UI and functionality that Discourse is offering to date. I’ve been following it’s development for a couple of months. I, like yourself, spent time on BBS’s well before WinSock was readily available and ISPs were the next frontier. My recollection is that the conversations were, as you suggest, more in-depth. To get the Internet to a place where these in-depth conversations happen again, I believe there is a social re-grouping that needs to happen that isn’t likely to work with current means of promoting new start-ups and new software ideas. Specifically, a re-grouping of thoughtful people who legitimately want to participate in meaningful discussions. I’m at a bit of a loss as to how that would play out. My thinking is that most folks today are so addicted to the Twitter, Facebook and other formats of micro-communicating that I don’t think it has mass appeal to all of a sudden go back to the days of being more in depth. Kind of like weaning a drug addict off of their addiction and back onto the sober life. As such, the fact that discourse isn’t selling it’s wares just yet and is looking for partners is probably wise. My sense is that the feedback they would be innundated with would be a lot of “Y wud i wnt this? Lol.”

  11. Amanda 4 years ago

    I liked this piece a lot. I also miss long thought, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with feverishly following a story until the very end.

    Great writing talent encourages deeper reading. New York Magazine is fantastic for these kind of journalistic hooks, so I can’t recommend it enough to other writers. Storytelling certainly helps in writing compelling pieces that keep eyes on the page.

    In the case of Reddit, I think there’s a great format that hearkens back to message boards and forums. Original poster links to a story, discussion broils, an inbox tells us that there’s been direct activity with other human beings. It’s the one outstanding example I can think of that inspires semi-intelligent forum-like discussion.

    The other place for more realtime conversation seems to be IRC chat. Again, conversation comes in short bursts, but I do think it follows the natural progression of human interaction in the closest way possible without defaulting to a video format like a Skype session or G+ hangout.

    But the most critical piece of all of this is social/media overload…

    When is it our own responsibility to have a bit of self control in blocking out the noise so we can focus on the deeper story?

    I don’t believe it’s the industry or software’s fault. We just need to exercise a bit more focus in what we choose to dig into.

  12. It’s interesting you would write this the same week as Google Reader was choked to death.

    Conversation briefly moved from forums to blogs for a while in the early 2000s with the idea of linkbacks. A conversation would start on one blog then someone would comment on it on their own blog and commenters would attach onto each of the blog entries that followed. The net-net was that we had a widely distributed, content-creator controlled (as in you own your own words) system leveraging the internet. RSS served as the glue that tied it all together.

    But long thought, long discussions, is hard. And most people can’t sustain it for a long period (witness the rate of abandonment on blogs) so the lure of shorter, pithier systems (Twitter, Facebook) pushed the “conversation” to that state of fortune cookie thinking.

    Thanks for highlighting this as an issue but I’m afraid those of us who enjoy real discourse are on the losing side of a trend that seems to value short form over long.