The end of information, the return of conversation

Dave Weinberger is writing and speaking about the end of information. Information has been the dominant metaphor for understanding the world and people, but this is changing.

The evidence of change is before us with the rise of stream interactions in Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. In and among the bots and the bot-like self-promotional behavior there are people talking to each other.

One problem with the current form of stream conversation is that it can be hard to see in a distributed environment – we need standards and tools to be able to re-assemble distributed conversations. Another problem is that conversation gets lost in time, as the stream scrolls back into history. Even though you can search to find information, the content is lost without context. There’s a need for search engine to evolve to be able to not only find out-of-context snippets, but to search the conversation.

Another need is to create curated conversations out of the raw material of the discussion. One for how to do this uses a wiki. In Wikipedia, encyclopedia entries have “talk pages” where editors can debate the content. The result of the debate is what appears on the page. In the wiki genre, the norm is to have the output be a single-voiced, smooth face. Maintaining multiple voices using “thread mode” is considered bad form in some communities. Sometimes you want to present a single face to the world – when you are writing an encyclopedia, a how to guide, software documentation, a pattern guide – you want to edit it down to a single voice; and if there are multiple voices, to present them as cleanly counterposed alternatives.

But at other times you don’t want a single voice, but to preserve a sense of the conversation, with the different voices and perspectives. To preserve some fascinating Twitter conversations and enable the conversation to continue after the moment, I put together this post, summarizing Howard Rheingold’s conversation about multi-tasking and this one on the thoughtful use of points in social systems based on a conversation with Kevin Marks, Tom Coates, Jane McGonigal, Tara Hunt, Josh Porter and others.

Clearly these summaries met a need – they were among the most popular posts in my (rather low-trafficed) blog and fostered ongoing conversation on the topics. But it’s difficult and painful to do – we need better tools for it. And we need words for it – a genre, a rhetoric, a recognized social practice.

Interestingly, there are pre-modern genres that have well-established genres of representing conversation-in-time with a conversation-in-text, itself intended to be the basis of of ongoing conversations. The Talmudic and Confucian forms both came out of oral traditions, and created genres to represent curated conversation based on earlier conversational layers (I don’t know much about the Confucian tradition but hope Audrey Tang or others who know can chime in).

Of course, the social structure of the conversation is different in these modern forms than in the tradition-oriented Rabbinic or Confucian society. Curated summaries and curators will be accepted by popular acclaim, as measured by references, traffic, list-hood, and other markers of community recognition, rather than a role in a traditional hierarchy. Conversations take place – vocabularies and norms are worked out – within communities. In our modern conversations, the communities will be shaped by self-organization and local governance, rather than by traditional boundaries. Tools to instantiate and reveal these self-organized community boudnaries include socially filtered lists and moderated groups.

There are other differences between the modern and premodern forms. We surely will not maintain the value, in the pre-modern genres, that older sources are presumed to be more authoritative and wiser than newer sources. Our references will be contemporary references and disciplines, not a canon of traditional texts.

Even with these differences, I suspect this is an example of convergent evolution. Curated conversation is a form that that arises when there is an ongoing an conversational discourse and a community of participants who wish to remember the conversation for the purposes of reference in ongoing conversation.

To build on David Weinberger’s points, we tend to think of words as either talk or text – but intermediate genre of a text that represents a conversation, and is itself an artifact in ongoing live conversation.

19 thoughts on “The end of information, the return of conversation”

  1. I buy the concept of conversation as content, but have to admit it’s a challenge to wrap my mind around it. Closest thing I can think of is email threads. I save those for years so I can recreate the context for how a decision was reached. But the new forms will require a new literacy. I’ll have to re-read your post in a day or two.

    Love your blog. Thought-provoking.

    Greg

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