Salmon – re-assembling distributed conversations

Salmon is a brand new protocol proposal that promises to solve a problem that’s gotten worse with social media, and has been around since the early days of blogging – the problem of distributed and disconnected conversation. People engage in conversation across multiple tools, and there’s no good way of assembling a coherent view of that conversation.

The problem has gotten significantly worse with social messaging and social RSS readers. Twitter doesn’t even have evident threading (although the reply target is in the metadata). The brief nature of Twitter and FB posts means that a conversation is even more broken up, and conversations often segue back and forth between shorter Twitter messages and longer posts elsewhere. Services such as Disqus provide a workaround for the fundamental problem with the architecture of web conversation.

When a user makes a comment at an aggregator (such as Friendfeed/Facebook or Google Reader), the comment is fed back to the source, and the comment can be re-assembled at the original blog post. Crosspost sharing (the common situation where a user shares a video or song from Youtube or Last.fm or Blip to Twitter or Facebook) is handled by a crosspost reference to the source. Oauth is used to authenticate users and help prevent spam and flooding.

While the use cases underlying the spec appear to be distributed comments on a single blog post, and distributed comments on a single shared object (a photo, video, song, presentation), I wonder whether the same method could even be used to coalesce distributed conversations in social messaging services themselves, where conversations are scattered and organizing them takes significant effort.

Social network visibility
In backchannel conversation about the need to make streaming conversations visible, Adrian Chan had this insight: “til posts refer to other posts there’s no communication system.” Salmon can potentially add the post references, and create a communication system out of today’s disconnected scattering of posts and comments.

If Salmon is adopted in tools and comes into common use, when posts link to posts, there will be a powerful consequence. Not only will the conversation will be visible. The conversationalists will be visible. The conversation flow will be visible. The social dynamic of conversation, which has been hidden in the bounces between services, suddenly becomes traceable. This has consequences for participants – it gives participants a more coherent sense of who’s talking to whom, and enables our primate-evolved senses of trust and reputation to work. It could also enable a new level of social network analysis across services, potentially facilitating content recommendations, search, and consumer marketing analysis.

Conversational curation
One of the things that we’ll find, when the decentralized conversation is suddenly more visible, that aggregation hasn’t solved the problem of sense-making. When the conversation is pulled back together, the result will often be a hairball of inter-related threads. The art, then, will be a process of curating the artifacts of conversation into something that does make sense for participants at the time and in the future. I suspect we will see the re-creation of some editorial techniques developed in some very old instances conversational discourse represented in text, from talmudic and confucian traditions. Just as conversations need “tummlers” to facilitate civil and congenial experiences, the artifacts of conversations will need curators, and curators’ tools to pull them together.

Here’s an example of a Twitter conversationsummarized and curated for folk to share later. The tools for this are very awkward today – manual gathering of each post, poster, and quote. It would be much easier to gather the thread with a gesture and then prune it. Wave on its own, as it is, won’t address the need yet either – replay is time-consuming for the reader, and Wave does’t yet have the curation affordances.

Looking forward to what’s coming next

One of my favorite quotes is Paul Saffo’s “never mistake a clear view from a short distance” – I wrote this post in 2002 and the problem is still unsolved, and has gotten worse. Salmon appears to be a promising approach. There are open questions, including how the approach will scale, the viability of the authentication process, and the adoption by tool vendors. I look forward to reading architectural analysis about how this might work in practice, and look forward to attempts to prove the model out. This could be another powerful step toward the decentralized social network of the future.

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