Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.
I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.
The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.
E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)
The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.
A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.
Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.
While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.
What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)
The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.
It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.
I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.
Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.