People don’t Converse: they Comment. Big Difference

Conversation_Bubble You have a conversation problem.

And social networks have exacerbated it.

People think they are conversing. Instead, they are commenting — big difference.

Here's why conversation and comments are not the same thing.

By definition

(Merriam Webster online)

A comment is: a note explaining, illustrating, or criticizing the meaning of a writing; an observation or remark expressing an opinion or attitude; a judgment expressed indirectly.

Conversation is: oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas; an informal discussion of an issue by representatives of governments, institutions, or groups; or simply an exchange.

Yet the two terms are used interchangeably.

Here's why it matters.

Media, networks, and marketing

These are the three components businesses have used to traffic messages, find channel and partnership opportunities as well as extend their reach to their buyers' families and friends, and create commerce.

To attract people to messages, organizations used information and content packaged as news on one side, and offers, discounts, promotions on the other. In the two-dimensional world of print, the only 3D add-on where the people in the room. 

What you shared was a physical thing — a paper — and then an audio-visual implementation of the same concept. Information and news coming to you through airwaves and images. People in front of the radio or the TV.

Everyone listening to or watching a few channels, then processing the information by way of discussion.

Sharing among people was a very different concept.

Put "social" in front of those words

Technology enabled and evolved what was already happening. It also did something else. It put the screen in the middle (or in our hands), instead of in front of people.

Now people can be both consumers and creators of media, networks, and marketing.

Online, concepts like identity and privacy are tied to a different system. One that is made of clicks, links, search, lists, circles, and visual cues; that is based on every more dynamic content — the umbrella term that includes writing, visuals, sounds, and video — consumed together, individually.

Feedback loops are an essential part of this new system.

Which is why content needs to be front and center for people to have something to react to, for marketers to indentify and enroll or build and engage connections with buyers, and for participants to have an indication of how they are doing.

Cut loose from any one specific platform, and reimagined for each one, content is the new media for trafficking messages, where story, combined with interaction, drives to engagement.

True engagement is built on permission, and attention.

Access is the new attention cue

This past week, Google launched its new social network. If you were able to get in and take a first look at Google+, you are already trying to figure out how useful that may be for your business and work, and what they did to address useful network features

One week out, and the network has enjoyed a lot of attention. It's Google. They need to get this right after Buzz and Wave, the company's two previous social products that didn't take off. And it's Google. The company that ranks your business Website in search.

The network had your attention also if you were unable to get in. Maybe your friends didn't send an invitation fast enough before Google closed them down to stabilize the platform.

The reason why you'd most want to get in is probably also to figure out for yourself how it stacks against Facebook for reach and discovery.

The New York Times just made a good move in that direction. It communicated to subscribers that they can now share their access with a designated family member.

Access is the new attention cue.

Feedback loops and identity

Feedback Loop From this excellent Wired article, a feedback loop involves four stages:

  1. the data, a behavior or evidence
  2. relaying the information to the person in a context that makes it emotionally resonant or relevance
  3. the paths ahead the information illuminates, or consequence
  4. and the moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, and take action

Then the action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once again. As AJ Kohn points out, Google+ feedback loop is the red button, which has been integrated in all Google products (except Analytics) for members of G+.

The true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control. They are great for solving problems, even better for creating opportunities.

Google is using the button in a Pavlovian kind of way, to keep us glued to the interaction, to teach us to keep coming back to the network. Why does it work? Because our posts and actions in there are tied to our identity — the Google Profile.

Comments are not the same as conversation

Many of the forms of media, networks, and marketing that have "social" in front of them today, have embedded feedback loop mechanisms in them to get people to learn desired behaviors. They are using access to attract attention so they get content.

Content drives comments, which should add value until the network has taught enough people how to have real time conversations, which are those that drive engagement.

Before FriendFeed, a social network that enjoyed high adoption by a comparatively small group of people and that I still use, all networks and communities were asynchronous. You write a post, publish, and someone else reads it and comments at their leisure.

Just like email. You think it's a conversation, like a phone call. It's not. Facebook implemented real-time commenting and streams after it bought FriendFeed. And now Google+ is using the same concept and similar technology to support its stream.

Are real time updates and threaded comments conversation?

Conversation needs to be invited and facilitated. It needs negotiating, and interpreting, and teasing out.

Conversation is the white space, the place where people turn together to deliberate, and weigh out, to suspend judgment (listening without resistance), explore the underlying causes, rules, and assumptions to get to deeper questions and framing of problems, and to generative dialogue that invents unprecedented possibilities and new insights, producing collective flow.*

Conversation as dialogue is shared inquiry

Its purpose is not to move toward discussion, which reflects the tendency to think alone. In a discussion, people see themselves as separate from each other.

Conversation with the right intent, or influence, is about turning together, connecting. Conversation is the opportunity. You don't get that from commenting alone.

We got the science part down. Time to learn again about the art… of thinking together.


[* channeling the work of William Isaacs in Dialogue, the Art of Thinking Together]

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0 responses to “People don’t Converse: they Comment. Big Difference”

  1. Comments are not the same as Conversation…this post rang true, and thank you for pointing out this essential distinction Valeria.
    Often when folks ‘comment,’ I believe they think they are “adding to the conversation.” I wonder if looking at it from that perspective might be considered the case? Albeit a one-sided addition tossed in, if it’s a drive-by comment while headed on down the road…

  2. I knew there was something missing in social media – just didn’t know what it was – thanks for clarity! You are absolutely right – great article. By the way, I feel like a child left in the garden while everyone else has gone in to eat the birthday cake (cos I’m waiting to get into google+)!!!!! Also pissed off about all the changes Facebook has made over the years over our heads and the feeling that we are just a commodity to the owners waiting for the right time to just sell us on – would be happy to move on from it to something better.

  3. Valeria:
    I struggle with this concept. I will have to think about it for a while.
    IMO, both commenting and conversations are about communicating. Perhaps commenting is similar to monologues, conversations are similar to dialogues and online synchronous chats are polylogues (having multiple conversations with multiple people at the same time). Education researchers have shown that there is great benefit to learning and discussion with both synchronous and asynchronous communication online.
    The challenge with many conversations, especially if there are multiple people involved, is that you have to wait your turn to state your thoughts. Turn taking can become more important than the messages or the comments. Words follow words, paragraphs follow paragraphs, people’s thought patterns follow a single, one-way linear medium—the talker’s speech–, which discourages flexible, open-ended, multidirectional and multidimensional thought. Sometimes the medium can become stronger than the content as the listener has to follow an authoritarian, straight-line, fixed point of view.
    Online conversations allow participants to share at the same time, stop a discussion and go back and read something again and participate. You don’t have to wait for your turn.
    For me, asynchronous comments could be delayed conversations over time, if I choose to engage in the discussion.
    Regardless, online video chats will definitely encourage more conversations. Ultimately, it’s about conversations for change.
    PS…Perhaps the definition of conversation has changed in a Web 2.0 world? I don’t see a conversation as having to take place orally…just sayin’

  4. Excellent. The conversation on comments is truly evergreen and, as you did back in December 08 with your piece, “You’ve Got Comments,” you’ve pointed out a simple, yet fundamental piece of the engagement puzzle, Valeria.
    I still like to think comments mean conversation, but that’s not the same as comments are conversation. Clearly, this is not the case. Comments are often attention fragments. They are the fleeting thoughts of passers-by, as we make our way through the digital space each day.
    I think your individual responses both drive the conversational mindset and reflect your readership’s trending in the right direction, Valeria. How many of us are so fortunate to have each comment warrant a thoughtful response versus simple thanks? I’m certainly not there yet! (At least not as often as I would like, anyway.)
    The whitespace beneath a new post is fertile ground for the discovery of new ideas and relationships. I do find most comment venues a bit non-conducive to actual conversation, but that’s what I think you’re getting at here today. 🙂

  5. This must be on everyone’s mind this week. I think the Google+ launch and the posturing following has caused many I know including myself to speak about this.

  6. drive-by comments seem to be easiest to make. There is much more struggle over where to allocate time, what will pay off in the long run, it seems, than there used to be in the early days of blogging. Less listening and engaging, more “browsing”?

  7. there is no such thing as a free lunch… or network. The question really is what are we willing to trade off for it. Is that the best investment of our time/energy/attention we can make? What is our overall plan?

  8. it’s more an attitude and availability to share inquiry than a strict format in my mind. Face to face continues to beat any other kind of medium – because we’re naturally inclined to build observation of non verbals, adapting to context, etc. Being on the other end of a screen makes us a little bit less vested in the outcome somehow. My post was intended as a pause for reflection. There is a false sense of familiarity online, technology makes us rush. It still takes time to get to know people — and oneself, which is by far the most complex conversation of all.

  9. If you and I shared the same space and just talked about stuff, we’d make more progress in exploring than we have done in the years of interaction online. I found that to be true in so many cases. There is a benefit to reading, thinking about something, coming back later to comment, of course. It has less to do with time, than it does with desire to learn and advance our thinking. By commenting you also process the information for yourself.

  10. and I am glad we are thinking together about the topic. Maybe conversation as a technology needs to become boring for us to learn to think together within it… I felt the need to think about the comments/conversation difference, because in my travels I observed how confusing the two leads to misunderstandings.

  11. Excellent point, Valeria. When we share the same space, when we have those conversations live and in-the-moment, we deny those fearful, “rational” areas of our brains time to process information according to learned behaviors. (If that makes any sense.)
    Reading a post, then the comments, then settling in to craft a comment allows us time to put those most polished thoughts forward, where flying by the seat of our pants IRL is likely to reveal raw ideas.
    Shame you’re never out this way (or I that).

  12. Hi Valerie
    Came over from Ari Hertzog’s site where he mentioned this post.
    I answer all comments on my site and I really try and get people involved in the conversation.
    Makes the comments so much more interesting.
    I spice things up with a little humour and I put in snippets that I remember about my commenters.
    In other words… I have a conversation with the people who comment on my site.
    Having nested comments and the “subscribe to comments” plugin also gets the conversation moving along.

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