Is location social anymore?

When FourSquare first came out, its social design supported a strange mix of invitation and competitive motivations. “Swing by and say hi!” said the standard message when you shared with Twitter or Facebook. At the same time, the service promoted competition for mayorships and badges for frequent checkins. Many people “checked in”, not because they wanted to meet up with their friends or show off their cool choice of hangout, but because they wanted to rack up points. Competitive and invitation dynamics were at odds, and in social practice, the competitive dynamic won. The competitive dynamic may be a factor that kept adoption narrow, within a small segment of mostly male, mostly young users.

In search of broader adoption and a revenue model, FourSquare, Facebook with mobile deals and location services have started to promote themselves to merchants as a tool for discounts and loyalty programs. This may be good for merchants and for consumers seeking bargains. It also seems to further reduce the social value of a checkin. I might be happy to get a shampoo coupon for checking into Walgreens, or a free latte after several Starbucks checkins, but do I want to tell my friends about it? No. Saving money is useful in tough economic times, but social fun it isn’t.

It is possible to design promotions that do take advantage of location-based social commerce? Sure – events and venues where you get discounts if you bring friends who check in, stores that give promotions for shoppers who refer each other. Yelp could do interesting things with it’s new checkin feature – restaurants could give promotions for groups and loyalty points for shoutouts – though it doesn’t look like they’re doing so yet. But if the general social dynamic for checkin is personal, it may become harder to overcome a barrier against sharing. Plus, there are gradations between events where people are enthusiastic about inviting each other (going to a music festival or first-run movie), services where people might be eager to tip others to something cool (which food cart is rolling through the neighborhood), and products where a social announcement may just feel like more unsolicited advertising (yes there are discounts at the Stanford Mall for holiday shopping. I vehemently do not want to hear about it from friends.)

Over time, I suspect that “location” won’t be an app anymore – it will be a feature embedded in different sorts applications that will provide different sorts of experiences. The Walgreens shampoo coupon checkin will be very different from the festival or restaurant promotion that gives you benefits for checking in with friends.

The social layer – who benefits from silos?

Mark Zuckerberg is on record dismissing the idea of a social layer. He makes a good point that good social experiences need to be fostered with design, not simply tacked on. This is true but not but does not contradict the need for a “social layer.”

People want social experiences, and they don’t want those experiences to be tied to specific tools. Robert Scoble told the story very well when he described his needs for location-based services that drew on data and functionality from many different services. Robert wants to be able to discover people he knows in an area where he’s travelling, share recommendations, book restaurants and concert tickets and schedule meetings with his friends and colleagues, and more. The question is, should Facebook have a monopoly on defining friends, identity, and relationships.

There are two ways to integrate services – point to point integration with a market leader, and open standards that allow different services to be connected to each other, and allow custom services to be designed that integrate the data and services they need. Of course Facebook will advocate for the first position. They have the most to gain from being the chokepoint, the sole owner of the social graph. But that doesn’t mean that this position serves customers.

Think about Facebook Groups, for example. Facebook is rolling out an API for its new groups functionality, which lets developers write to a group’s stream, and invite users to groups. But Facebook group invitations, at least in its initial implementation, are opt-out only, and forever-like-death-and-taxes. If I use an application to invite people into the group, they are automatically joined whether they want to join or not, and if they unsubscribe, I can never re-invite them again. If Facebook gets to have a monopoly on defining groups for the rest of the internet, then this unpleasant social dynamic gets to affect a very large amount of human social activity.

Yes, good experiences will need to be enabled with design. It’s not enough to glom a single social feature across a variety of sites. But this doesn’t even work for Facebook. When I go to a news site these days, I see likes and comments from relatives and acquaintances who are Facebook friends, and who have very different takes on the news that I do. “Facebook friends” is not very useful there as a generic social layer. I’d rather have a community in the context of that news site, or that topic, and certainly not with Facebook’s opt-out-only group policy.

A monopoly on the social layer doesn’t serve customers, and it doesn’t serve marketers well either. A couple of weeks ago, there was a Read Write Web article arguing that the social layer may be useful in the enterprise, but it probably won’t serve consumers, or businesses who sell to consumers. This is wrong. A marketer wants to reach customers wherever they are. A marketer wants customers to be able to reach out to them at different times and places. A marketer benefits when they have access to the data about their customers. With a social silo, the marketer can only reach their customer, the customer can only reach the marketer, and the marketer can only get data about their interactions with customer, through a chokepoint intermediary.

Tom Foremski puts the analysis into financial terms – comparing Google and Facebook’s business model and profit, he concludes that “Clearly, there is more to be gained in trying to monetize the entire Internet rather than a subset of the Internet.” A strategy that enables experiences across multiple sites and services will be more powerful and more profitable.

The main beneficiary of a social silo is the owner of the silo. Everyone else benefits from a social layer that can be used to create social experiences across services, across the internet, intranet, or extranets.

Facebook groups are forever

Brian Solis uncovered an interesting feature of Facebook groups – if you unsubscribe from a group, you cannot join it ever again. This is portrayed as a feature to improve the social dynamics of groups, by making people use care about which groups they invite others too, and which they expect.

Update: Actually, you cannot be re-invited to the group ever again. If it is an Open group, it’s possible that you can choose to rejoin it (if someone has tested this, please write in comments). But the inviter definitely can’t invite you again, which is awkward. And if it’s a private group, you’re stuck.

I find this policy much too draconian. As in other aspects of life, one’s time, availability and interests change. Perhaps you don’t have time to join a book club now, but your schedule changes in six months. Perhaps when your friend invites you to the “Save the Bay” group, you are not interested at first, but then you learn more and decide later that you want to participate. I understand that Facebook is trying make people use care when inviting others, but this seems extreme to me. There are very few decisions in life that are permanent, and choosing not to join a Facebook group should not be one of them!

Some people are speculating that Facebook groups will help Facebook compete with Twitter by providing more focused ways of sharing and discussing information. But this will certainly not happen if a user has only one chance to explore an interest before giving up on it forever.

Years ago, David Weinberger wrote beautifully about the importance of ambiguity in our real-life social networks. When someone asks you to lunch and you say that you are busy, it could mean that you would like to get together later, or that you don’t actually want to get together with this person very much. The ambiguity is expected, and the outcomes play out in repeated interactions over time. If somebody asks a few times with no response, they stop asking. There are many fewer situations in life where one wants or needs to say “don’t ask me ever again.” Facebook is eliminating the good ambiguity, skipping from “yes immediately” to “never again” with nothing in between.

One of the problems Facebook is seeking to minimize spam invitations – so an over-aggressive inviter can’t invite the same person over and over again. But there is a much simpler solution to this problem – allow a user to block the inviter or the group. Twitter has an excellent “block” and report for “spam” features – if you don’t want someone following you you can block them, and if someone sends you spam messages or their stream is clearly inappropriate you can report them. These features gives the control to users, without restricting their future choices.

Facebook has a difficult design challenge: make the system easy to use, encourage people to use the system responsibly, and support a wide enough array of social life well enough that it becomes a utility. Hopefully Facebook will see the light and make leaving a group more flexible, and provide better ways of severing ties when that’s needed.

Facebook groups – design flaws in social scaling

I am very glad to see Facebook launch better groups. But the implementation has some serious social design flaws.

Groups are very valuable in signifying the social context in which people feel comfortable sharing. Even when information is not private or secret, people use social group context to choose what and how to share. It is not a secret that I went to services on Yom Kippur, but I have no interest in boring and annoying friends or family who are indifferent, or triggering debate with beloved friends or family consider it brain-damaged and harmful, or radical and heretical, as the case may be. (This is why Stowe Boyd, who has insightful things to say about privacy, publicy, and the social construction of identity, is wrong about his hypothesis that defined groups are obsolete. And for Stowe, I’ll be happy to discuss religion over beer).

But Facebook’s implementation has a few serious social design flaws. The first is the invitation model. In default “closed” group, anyone can invite anyone else. In familiar groups tools like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups, there is a configurable, delegatable administration model. An administrator can be in charge of inviting new people, can delegate the ability to invite to others, or open up for anyone to invite, or open for anyone to join.

Facebook’s only choice is for members to be able to invite other members. Facebook’s theory is that social pressure will cause the right thing to happen without any additional controls. This is going to be a… very interesting social experiment to run in real time, as Oliver Chiang observes at Forbes. I suspect there are many situations where this is going to work out just fine, and many other situations where this will lead to problems. The best result is that groups will negotiate ways of setting their own norms, regardless of the features of the product. The least harmful result is that groups will evolve in ways that some members don’t like and they will quietly leave. A more harmful result would be frequent dissension leading to splintering, due to the lack of basic capabilities for member moderation. With inviting, I don’t think Facebook offers enough feature affordances to handle basic group needs. Facebook, of course, doesn’t cause group boundary setting problems. Those issues exist with human groups, regardless of the tools they use. But tools can make things easier or harder, and Facebook’s making it harder.

The invitation model also has visibility and consent problems. When you are invited to a group, you are immediately added, and that addition is visible to your friends, if the group is public or closed. This opens the door for mischief and awkwardness. A “friend” can add me to the “buddies of Sarah Palin” group, and that’s visible to all of my friends immediately. I need to go back in and unjoin the group, but the damage is done. There’s another problem with invitations. When someone is invited to a closed group, that invitation is visible to the invitee’s friends who haven’t been invited, and have no way to join. Socially awkward.

The next big flaw is in Facebook’s handling of the inevitable problems of social scale. When groups get above 150 or so people, larger than the level where people know and recognize each other personally, there are new risks. Discussions can be become chaotic, and civility can break down. Facebook’s solution is that when groups start getting over a certain size, they automatically disable chat and unspecified other features. While it’s harder to keep a group civil as it grows, it’s not impossible. The most important differences are facilitation, moderation, “tummeling” – the practices that foster humane conversation and avoid the tragedy of the commons. And culture – small groups can be nasty and fractious, and larger groups can be warm and friendly – a culture needs to be established and passed on by its members. There are some features that become more important at a large scale too – tools to help members moderate each other and help tummlers facilitate. Facebook shouldn’t be peremptorily making these decisions for a group when they get above N+1 members.

One of the important aspects in the design of group software is how to handle aspects of social scaling. Facebook makes mistakes in the tools they give users to manage the process of growth, and they make more mistakes in managing the results of growth. This is a new feature set, and Facebook has plenty of opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

The trouble with Facebook for organizing

As the dominant online social network, Facebook is place where activists and organizers head to help their movements and ideas spread. People are already on Facebook, and can share discussions, events, actions, with their networks of friends. This is great. But there’s a pretty serious problem, it seems to me, in the use of Facebook for organizing. It’s hard to get to know people on Facebook.

In the Facebook social model, it’s not very socially acceptable to “friend” someone you don’t actually know. The Facebook model is designed for people who are already “friends”. A “friend” relationship is symmetrical – both need to acknowledge the relationship. Facebook does have a separate built-in asymmetrical type of relationship. Institutions or celebrities can create “pages” that fans can “like”. The model sets up a hard dichotomy between people, who have friends, and celebrities who have fans. It doesn’t make social sense for a celebrity or institution to “like” one of its fans. By contrast, in Twitter, it is easy and socially acceptable to follow someone without their following you back. With this affordance and social practice, it is easy to become familiar with someone’s tweets, and use lightweight social gestures including retweets and replies to over time get their attention and make their acquaintance.

On Twitter, there is no hard dichotomy between friend, aquaintance, and fan. There are celebrities on Twitter who have millions of fans, and that relationship is clearly not mutual – you are probably not friends with John Mayer or Ashton Kutscher. But on Twitter, the follow affordance is the same, allowing for nuance and gradual change. On Twitter, and in a blog or forum communities with shared discussion where people use stable handles, individuals can become familiar with others over time.

In Facebook, if you don’t know someone already, you might come across them in conversations in the discussion thread started by a friend, or the page of an institution that you “like”. But you then have no good way of finding more about them, and gradually making their acquaintance, since many public profiles are quite sparse, and stream that really gives you a picture of the person is often locked down for privacy. And (at least I find) that it is awkward to address someone you don’t know, even if you’re a conversation started by the post of a mutual friend.

Facebook does have an interesting feature and social practice that helps someone convene a conversation. When you post to Facebook, you can “tag” a set Facebook friends to notify and call them into the conversation. Oakland Local’s community manager Kwan Booth describes using this technique for jumpstarting conversations with Oakland Local. Even if those friends don’t know each other, by virtue of being invited to the conversation by a host, they have been given implicit permission and encouragement to talk to each other. When you’re tagged, it feels less awkward to directly address a fellow tag invitee whom you didn’t know before. But still, you don’t have a good way to get to know these people over time.

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For organizers, it is valuable to use Facebook to enable information and actions to spread throughout people’s existing networks of friends and family. But for organizers it is also often very important to build a greater sense of community, and cultivate the network of relationships in the community. Helping people get to know each other is important to growing a sense of shared purpose, reducing feelings of isolation and disempowerment, build on people’s social motivations to take action.

Much of traditional marketing has been focused on attracting individuals to a brand; even social media marketing seems to focus on building a relationship between an organization and its customers and constituents. Thus, coaching about how to stimulate conversations on Facebook pages about topics relating to your organization and your brand. But organizing isn’t just about the relationship of people to your organization, but about their relationships to each other.

In Facebook, where conversations remain in existing cliques and friend networks, it seems much harder to grow the network of relationships. Ethan Zuckerman talks about this issue in this CNN article – does the dynamic of Facebook’s social network, based on existing relationships, make it harder to make new connections. In The Networked Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine talk about the role of “network weavers” who combine traditional and online skills to connect people and organizations; in Share This, Deanna Zandt talks about using social media to deliberately get to know people with diverse cultural backgrounds. But how do you do this using a tool that makes it hard for people to get to know each other?

One way to get around Facebook’s limitations – and an important tool for any community that participates online – is to meet up in person. An organization or organizer can convene meetups and conferences. There, people can meet in person, and after meeting each others’ acquaintance, go back and “friend” each other on Facebook. It’s become quite common for in-person meetings to evolve online acquaintances into closer connections; the inperson connection and online reinforce each other. I’ve met up with Twitter acquaintances at conferences and on vacation. The BlogHer conferences brings together women bloggers, and the Netroots Nation conference developed as a meetup for the Daily Kos political blog online community.

But in more socially open networks, the in-person meetup bolsters a process of getting to know each other that also progress gradually online. With Facebook, there’s a much higher hurdle until and unless you’ve met in person. This is particularly challenging for geographically distributed communities – spread out regions like the Bay Area, or interest groups and movements that are spread out around a country or around the world.

A question for organizers and activists reading this post – do you use Facebook for building community, and if so what practices do you use for this? Have you developed practices for integrating Facebook into a broader set of tools and practices for people to meet each other, and if so how?

p.s. I’m using the term “social model” to refer to the affordances and conventions of recognizing, meeting, getting to know, and affiliating with other people. I’ve talked about this concept as it relates to social software design in posts including here and here. There may be better terms for this concept. If you know of better terms and references, please leave a comment.

The real life social network – questions about boundaries

There is no such thing as “friends”. That’s the most powerful conclusion in an excellent presentation about in-depth research by Paul Adams, UX researcher at Google. Most people tend to have 4-6 groups of friends, each of which has 2-10 people, and there is typically very little overlap between them. These friends represent different life stages and interests. A person’s large “friend list” on a service such as Facebook or Twitter actually consists of a handful of close friends and family members, in different groupings, plus a much larger number of casual friends and acquaintances.
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As Mary Walker observed on Twitter, “Each person=many roles (family friends career hobbies) but social networks suck @ helping ppl manage this.” Mary was summarizing this post by Deanne Leblanc. The mismatch between the affordances of social tools and the shape of our social lives has been observed by many – and Adams’ research quantifies that mismatch.

In software design, the common usage patterns need to be very strongly supported – and in Facebook it’s definitely not. Paul Adams reaches powerful conclusions that would result in social software designs very different from Facebook, which has very poor control over what to share with whom, and poor control over how to present oneself within different social contexts.

Follow up questions: social boundaries

The presentation is excellent, and the research looks well-done – and I also have some follow-up questions about the results. The presentation concludes that there is very little overlap between groups of friends. But, I wonder about that overlap. What is the role of the people who span groups, co-workers who share an interest in a sport, fellow parents who are involved in local politics? From the perspective of the spread of information, culture, action, do boundary-spanners have extra influence?

Also, the presentation observes that people’s friends change as their lifestage and interests change – but the presentation focuses on the static picture at any point, rather than the changes. How do these changes happen? How often do social connections play a role in the changes? Focusing on the changes and transitions, rather than on the patterns of stasis, might yield interesting insights on secondary patterns to support.

The example in presentation, about sharing that unintentionally crosses boundaries, is about a young woman who comments on photos of her friends in a gay bar; these risque photos are exposed to 10-year-old kids she teaches. In Twitter, Paul acknowledges that the friends being gay isn’t the problem, sharing pictures of adult sexuality with kids is the problem – and editing the presentation to make that distinction clear would be good to do.

In that case, partitioning is the right thing to do. But there are many other examples of sharing where the problem isn’t sharing stuff that is inappropriate for a social context, but where it’s uninteresting to some . Is it possible to design a system that makes it easier to improve the signal to noise ratio without hiding information that doesn’t need to be hidden.

The presentation talks about the new social web architectural pattern where one takes ones friends with them across the web – for example, on, you see the stories your friends liked and commented on if you are logged into Facebook. But how should this pattern work, given that “friends” are not a single group. For a person long past highschool, is seeing the opinions about a high school acquaintance on a news story a benefit or a drawback? (This example is theoretical, apologies to any HS friends who may be reading this!)

One common theme among this set of questions is about the boundaries between strong and weak ties – how can software do a better job of supporting strong ties, while enabling a semi-permeable membrane for people to people and communication to cross those boundaries. Of course (and the presentation does a good job of reminding) is that the relationships are amongst people, not tools. Boundaries are shaped and reshaped by people in our interactions; tools can help or hinder but they don’t create or destroy.

A different social network

Recently there’s have been rumors that Google is going to come up with a new social network that is a Facebook clone. I really hope that Google doesn’t simply clone Facebook, and instead that they use the insights in Paul Adams’ research to make social network tools that are different from Facebook, and better suited to how people’s social networks function.

Information vs. conversation?

This Edge blog post suggests that Facebook’s problem isn’t that it violated people’s expectation about privacy, but that it’s trying to change the social dynamic on the site from conversation between friends and family to sharing information. I think this distinction is misleading regarding people’s communication, Facebook’s strategy, and Twitter’s strategy too.

The article argues that Facebook was initially set up as a way to talk with friends and family. But the new default-public settings make it more of a tool for sharing information. A lot of what people do on Facebook is to share stuff – photos, links, videos, etc. Thing is, that sharing is social activity – people sharing stuff with family and friends. This sharing on Facebook is increasing rapidly – the stats in the Inside Facebook article don’t say why, but I very strongly suspect it’s because Facebook has made sharing very easy, not because people are suddenly thinking themselves as publishers.

By contrast, Twitter’s leadership has seen Twitter as more of a broadcast platform. Features like follower counts and the retweet feature supported that strategy, and did less to support conversational use. (The retweet feature removed the ability to add a comment, and emphasized the number of times the tweet had been shared). But recent speculation is that they might come out with conversation threading, which would make conversation easier.

I think that the perceived polarity between “sharing information” and “conversation” does everyone making and using social tools a disservice. When there’s two-way communication, people share information and talk to each other. That was the initial insight about social objects from Jyri Engestrom. One of the cultural fundamentals in the modern world is that people socialize around common interests, symbolized by things we share with each other. Sharing bits of content doesn’t mean we’re being less social, it means we can share a clip when we talk about a sports game or a link when we talk about a news story – familiar types of social conversation.

The experience around social objects has several elements – who you think you’re talking to (as danah boyd and Kevin Marks described), the affordances for sharing the object (where Engestrom focused), and the ways the dynamics of listening and interchange work and are visible to participants. (where Adrian Chan focused).

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The problem with Facebook’s changes and clumsy user experience to set levels of sharing are about Facebook trying to influence people’s decisions who they share with, and proliferating confusion about who people share with. They messed up the “who I’m talking with” attribute. Twitter’s focus on the competitive aspects of talk hampers the social dynamic of sharing. Information and conversation go together. There are design and business opportunities in getting the blending right.

Realizing Robert Scoble’s vision of the end of social information silos

Last week, Robert Scoble wrote Location 2012, an excellent blog post where he illustrated a vision of a world where location-based services could work together instead of being information silos.

Services including FourSquare, PlanCast, Tungle, Glympse, and Siri work together to notify Scoble’s friends where he is and where he is going, so they can meet each other instead of missing each other. Services such as Blippy and Expensify share Scoble’s financial data on his behalf.

To make this happen, you need to be able to follow the same person’s activities across a variety of different services. You may want to be able to share updates with sets of friends with common interests across platforms. Updates need to encode location, so the application can present what’s geographically relevant. Apps need to share data, without a user’s needing to keep and enter many different passwords.

The cool thing is, the technical standards and protocols to make this vision a reality are starting to fall into place. ActivityStreams are an important part of the mix. ActivityStreams are a standard way of representing common social actions, like posts, follows, likes, and checkins. PubSubHubBub/Webhooks allow applications to subscribe to updates from other applications in realtime. WebFingeris intended to let you find the same person across social sites. Portable Contacts is intended to represent a set of people – a contact list or subset of contacts. Oauth is used so that applications can gain authenticated access to other applications on the user’s behalf.

I’ve illustrated Scoble’s scenario below – the amazing thing is that it could all be real today! The only piece that hasn’t been worked out in the standards stack is the ability to create that upcoming Facebook event. Everything else could be implemented now.

The central concept in making this vision is real that “social” is not a set of silo’d services with social features – it’s a layer that crosses multiple services. The best way to bring this world about isn’t to wait for Facebook to implement every possible social feature, but to build in the standards support and interoperability to make many services more useful for all.


This Prezi by Kevin Marks has more on the emerging standards stack – thanks to Kevin for review.

Conversation curation

In a couple of good posts, JP Rangaswami reflects on the need and opportunity for democratized curation. He cites Google CEO Eric Schmidt quantifying the incredible amount of information being generated on the internet – these days, 5 exabytes of information is created every two days, as much as all the information created between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. JP writes about the need for curation of text, music, image, and video. I’d like to focus on a new opportunity – curating conversation.

The last few years has seen the rise of the realtime web, so-called status updates in Facebook, Twitter and other services, much of which is really conversation. The stream flies by quickly. If you missed it, it’s gone. Search of stream content is getting better, but even so, if you find a single message, you don’t really get the gist of a conversation. This is where curation comes in. This is different but closely related to “tummeling”, which is the art of facilitating a live conversation in process. Conversation curation is the art of representing and summarizing a conversation, so others can see it later, and the conversation can pick up again from a new starting point.

Conversational curation isn’t needed or wanted for many conversations – sometimes the conversation is truly transient – for example, nobody needs an edited record of people cheering their team through a hockey championship. But sometimes conversation does have longer-lasting value. For example, there was a fascinating Twitter conversation between Howard Rheingold and his Twitter followers about attention and distraction. This discussion contained information and arguments that seemed worth preserving, so I wrote it up as a post, which has continued to get references well after the original discussion. People have been using the practice of summarizing conversations in mailing lists and forums for years. The realtime web makes this practice more important because conversations can be even more transient and hard to piece together without a curated record.

There are some very old, pre-modern examples of the form of curated conversation – found in the Talmud and, I’m told, ancient Chinese traditions also. In the Jewish tradition, the form of curated conversation comes from attempting to preserve some of the texture of an oral tradition of dialog and debate, as that tradition was being represented in written form.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve been interested recently in modern takes on the representation of multi-voiced discourse in ancient works – because I think that this old form has lessons for a new need in quite a different cultural context. An edited conversation, with multiple voices assembled by an editor, is not identical as a live conversation in which participants speak for themselves. Scholars looking at the old forms debate how much the edited conversation is actually conversational. Daniel Boyarin argues, building on Bakhtin, that the editor’s hand smooths out differences in the represented voices and turns the dialog into a monolog. But David Frank contrasts the dialog in Plato, where the conversational partner is represented merely as a foil to reach a foregone conclusion, with dialog in the Talmud, where the different voices carry different ideas, and the whole picture includes multiple voices.

Another distinction – and something that may be important for the future genre – is how readers are brought into the picture. With the Talmud, says Marc-Alain Ouaknin, the dialog is represented – and culturally presented – in a way such that readers are drawn in to converse together in realtime to carry on the conversation, in debate with each other, adding their own contributions. By contrast, in Socratic dialog, the reader is expected to understand, assimilate, and agree with the presented conclusions.

In a new book that looks at these ancient forms of represented dialog (that comes to different conclusions than David Frank, and than I do agreeing with Frank), Daniel Boyarin makes an important point. Representing a conversation doesn’t freeze it, it just pauses it. The transition between speech and writing is a repeated cycle – “written culture becomes transmuted into oral culture and then back… over and over and over again.” Part of the form of curating conversation will be representing it in a way that people will find it welcoming and interesting to continue the conversation in realtime, and continue the cycle again.

Another important difference from the pre-modern forms is the boundary of the conversation. Daniel Boyarin notes astutely that the conversation represented in the Talmud is open with respect to ideas seen as within the community of the Talmud’s rabbis, but closed with respect to ideas seen as outside that framework. In modern settings, people create boundaries for conversations in very different ways – but those boundaries still exist, often as informal social norms. In communities of fan fiction, participants decide what works fit into the canon they will remix. In political communities, participants decide which opinions are legitimate for debate in a given community, and which positions are out of bounds. The editors / curators will play key and controversial roles in maintaining these norms.

There are some emerging technical components that will make the practice of curating conversation easier – to conduct conversation across services, and Salmon to pull together the comments. Plus, perhaps, there is a need for visual editing tools to pull the pieces of a conversation together.

In the world JP Rangaswami envisions, where curation is an important part of improving the ratio of signal to noise, conversational curation will be an important art, and the cycle between live conversation and the edited representation of dialog will become important once again.

Facebook and mobile publics

“Facebook is the new landline”, according to the provocative argument in Valdis Krebs’ recent post. Before the rise of the mobile phone, phone-users needed to be at a given location in order to take a phone call. Answering machines and answering services helped blunt the pain, but phone calls were fundamentally tied to a landline at a given location. The rise of the mobile phone, broke the dependency on a location. Phone calls now come to a person, wherever she is.

Facebook, argues Krebs, is analogous to a landline. It requires people to go to a single website in order to see their messages and updates. “Facebook does not allow for natural flexibility of human interaction, you and your relationships are ossified in their computer code. In a truly networked world we do not have to go anywhere to connect to others — we just ping from where we are at and wait for the response from where they are at.” A new generation of standards-based distributed social networks will emerge that allows users to bring their identity and stream wherever they are on the web.

But Krebs’ argument raises an important question without an obvious answer. Conference calls aside, telephones are mostly for 1:1 communication. Facebook and other social networks are mostly for many to many communication. And to make things more complicated, the “many” that one intends to address on Facebook or Twitter or other network is often actually a set of semi-overlapping publics, following Kevin Marks’ post. The set of people who follow a Twitter link to the blog post you are reading on social software design will be significantly different from the people who follow a Twitter link to this post on Jewish ideas in post-modern thought. Valdis is right that in the offline world, “This is how we naturally network — we decide on the fly, who to talk to, in what voice, and how much to share.” But how does this concept of “mobile publics” – the idea that we choose what to say to whom, in what context – apply to the web? What will come to represent these social contexts by which we choose what voice to use? In the realtime web, the concept of “place” is being substituted by the concept of a stream. Will the concept of “place” reemerge, and recreate the notion of a public – but with the added benefit that recipients have the ability to remix the messages they receive in their own contexts? Will interfaces emerge that make it easier to choose who to address on the fly? Today, it is pretty confusing to think about who you’re talking to, when you address the mass of people on Facebook who constitute your highschool buddies, local political contacts, professional acquaintances, family members, and close personal friends. But what sort of set of services and interfaces might enable the notion of “mobile publics”.