We have a conversation problem. Social networks have exacerbated it, and the wrong habits keep getting reinforced. People think they are conversing. Instead, they are commenting — big difference.
Here's why conversation and comments are not the same thing.
By definition, a comment is a note that explains, illustrates, or criticizes the meaning of a writing. It's an observation or remark that expresses an opinion or attitude and/or a judgment we express indirectly. We enter a comment in a thread, a discussion group, or a stream any time reacting to what is being said, but mostly putting forward our take.
Rarely we go back to comments to update our take based on new information, sometimes we do it to edit typos.
A conversation involves an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, and/or ideas. For the exchange to take place, listening, and responding are necessary components. Conversation can be an informal dialogue of an issue by representatives of governments, institutions, or groups, or simply an exchange between people.
During a conversation, we have the opportunity to update our views based on new information. We do it in real time, even if we might not do it often.
One is about making a remark and stating an opinion. The other is about a structured or unstructured back and forth where participants are engaged with a topic continuously. Yet the two terms are used interchangeably.
Here's why it matters.
Media, networks, and marketing
Media, networks, and marketing are the three channels businesses have used to traffic messages, find opportunities, and extend their reach to sell their products and services. To attract people to messages, organizations use information packaged as news, offers, discounts, and promotions.
In the two-dimensional world of print, the only 3D component where the people in the room. Brands shared a physical thing — a paper — or an audio-visual implementation of the same concept, which then streamed through airwaves and images. People on the other end were passive radio and TV audiences.
When everyone listened to and watched just a few channels, the dialogue or discussion, depending on intentions, happened with others. Sharing among people still included a form of in person back and forth, body language, eye contact, proximity, and some form of context — neighbors, families, coworkers, and so on.
Put "social" in front of those words
Technology enabled and evolved what was already happening — our desire to talk about what's going on in our world. But it also did something else — it put the screen between people, instead of the people in front of it and next to each other.
With the development of tools that make it easier for anyone to participate, 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. this system is based on ever more dynamic content — an umbrella term that includes text, visuals, sound, and video — consumed alone, together.
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 identify and enroll or build and engage connections with people, and for participants to have an indication of how they are doing.
Business brands and people as bands are in a race for attention, the only scarce and expensive resource we have online. 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.
We develop expertise in a field through skill, experience, and practice. If we focus on developing a body of work online with a blog, it takes 2-3 years to start to see results and inbound inquiries from our efforts. It takes patience and commitment to get there. Social networks then become distribution channels.
As I said in a comment to a thread on LinkedIn recently, the number of comments or likes to an article is not a good indication of the value of its contents or the author. We all know exceptional thinkers, researchers, makers, and scientists who can save lives but receive recognition twenty years later or after they're safely dead (and the current popularity of the stoics demonstrates.)
True engagement is difficult to score because:
Public engagement is a proxy and as such we want to take care to parse between popularity and real results.
Many things that are quite popular and engaging have less meat behind them that makes them sounds like work — inspiration is great, and likeability is an asset people naturally flock to. Both leading to “being seen by others and the poster” vs. “I've tried this and it works as advertised.”
Engagement also costs energy and time, and we have less of both.
Most doers would rather apply effort to trying something instead and may gravitate toward bookmarking, emailing an article to themselves to try things out in private later rather than jumping in to talk — i.e. “walking the talk” vs. “talking all over.”
Engagement is built on permission, time, and attention. But it requires we master media, networks, and marketing skills in addition to expertise and competence in a chosen field — some people are better than others by virtue of their nature.
Access as attention cue
Many social networks have been around long enough to become significant and hard to ignore socially and for business. Because everyone seems to be there. Ben Thompson at Stratechery has introduced the term ‘Aggregation Theory’ to describe the phenomenon.
While in the pre-Internet era, distribution was concentrated in the hands of a few, with social media and networks, creators and makers can go direct. In the past two decades, Google, Facebook, and Amazon have commoditized distributors in product/service/content supply chains across a number of verticals like publishing, transportation, hospitality, commerce, media, and so on.
When Google launched its social network, Google+, everyone was trying to figure out its usefulness for business and work, starting with network features. One week out the network enjoyed a lot of attention. Based on the search business Google developed, of course.
Everyone who didn't get into G+ for the first wave wanted in, another form of attention. Google closed invitations from friends for a while to stabilize the platform. Many were curious to see how G+ stacked against Facebook for reach and discovery.
But Google's Buzz and Wave, the company's two previous social products didn't take off and were scrapped. To balance access with real opportunity for meaningful exchanges, it's good to remember that these media companies and social networks are someone else's business to do what they will. All social media is like sharecropping.
At the time G+ launched, the New York Times communicated to subscribers that they could share their access with a designated family member. Access is a generative, and a potential opportunity. But because of Aggregation Theory, every platform tries to become many things to as many people as possible.
Although access is an attention cue, activation requires work. In other words, with social, we have the opportunity to go direct, but to get what we want out of media, networks, and marketing, we pay — either through ads or through content and activity.
Feedback loops and identity
Some of the feedback based on what the social platform makes available for free or paid, includes things like views, audience make up, and likes. Which are all useful to determine attention levels. These insights provide us with information about behavior in real time.
A feedback loop involves four stages:
- The data, a behavior we must measure, capture, and store. This is the evidence
- Relaying the information to the person in a context that makes it emotionally resonant to have relevance. This is interesting, but not necessarily compelling
- To be compelling, we need to add consequence to relevance. If this, then that
- There must be a moment when the individual has the opportunity to recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and take action
We measure the action, and the feedback loop can run once again. In many social networks, the feedback loop is a red button, for example LinkedIn and Facebook, and/or a number, as in email and Twitter.
This framework has been around for a long time. In the 1960s, psychologist Albert Bandura explored the potential of the feedback loop to affect behavior change and motivation. Bandura found that giving people a clear goal and the means to evaluate their progress increased the achievement levels.
Because media, networks, and marketing are all mixed online, feedback includes all three of the key human triggers — truth, relationships, and identity. If it feels as if all three triggers are getting pulled at once, they probably are.
But 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.
Social networks use 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 and stay active. It works because our posts and actions are tied to our identity.
Comments are not the same as conversation
Many of the “social” forms of media, networks, and marketing have embedded feedback loop mechanisms in them to get people to learn a platform's desired behaviors. These companies are using access to attract attention to get content for their feeds.
Content drives comments, which creates a feedback loop for more people to interact within the platform. Comments appearing in quasi real time on home page feeds drive engagement. These rapid streams are a relatively recent feature.
Before FriendFeed, a social network that enjoyed high adoption by a comparatively small group of people, all networks and communities were asynchronous. People wrote a post, published it, and someone else reads= it and commented at some point in the future. Just like email.
We think it's a conversation, like we'd have during a phone call. But it's not. Facebook implemented real-time commenting and streams after its purchase of FriendFeed. Google+ used the same concept and similar technology to support its stream. LinkedIn followed suit.
Are real time updates and threaded comments conversation? In Dialogue, the Art of Thinking Together William Isaacs says conversation is something we invite and facilitate, that needs negotiating, interpreting, and teasing out.
Conversation is the white space, the place where people turn together to deliberate, and weigh things out, suspend judgment by listening without resistance so they can explore the underlying causes, rules, and assumptions and get to deeper questions and framing of problems.
The generative dialogue invents unprecedented possibilities and new insights, producing collective flow. Is this how you feel after an exchange in social networks?
Conversation as dialogue is shared inquiry
The purpose of shared inquiry 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 behind a screen.
We got the science part down with the algorithms and the prompts. It's time to learn again about the art… of thinking together.
[Note: given the many recent comment threads on LinkedIn about missed opportunity to collaborate and build networks on the platform, I revisited and updated an older article that explains the difference between comments and conversation and the limitations of tools as dictated by market forces.]