One of the interesting side notes to the recent controversy over Shyftr was that Shyftr, as a service, not only scraped and displayed the full RSS feed, but that it also encouraged users to comment on the blog post at Shyftr itself, rather than visiting the original site.
But while it is clear that bloggers are interested in reading what others have to say about their content and many work to actively encourage comments on their site, it is unclear where that conversation is going to take place in the next few years.
As more RSS readers, including those that do not republish content publicly, offer users the ability to comment to feeds, the dialog is spreading out.
However, this may not be a bad thing entirely, but rather, an opportunity for someone to help solve a very complicated problem.
How Fractured Conversations Hurt
The problem with fractured comments is that, most likely, there is only a finite number of people interested in a specific post.
If a post does well, it draw a dozen commenters. However, while a dozen people talking about a post in one place makes for a robust conversation, if they comment at twelve different places, then they are just twelve people shouting into deep space.
Though more commenting opportunities may actually draw more people to the dialog, since people typically do not like repeating themselves, it is unlikely that the number will offset how fragmented the conversation has become.
For example, even if the conversation with a dozen people draws in three times as many commenters, that will only leave an average of three people per location, hardly a robust dialog.
Worse, a fragmented conversation is much harder for the blog author to follow and participate in. If a conversation takes place on six different sites, the blog author has to check all of them and then, if interested, respond to each of them.
While certainly a possibility, it assumes that the blogger is even aware of all the conversations, something that is unlikely given how large the Web is. The result is that these conversations almost always exclude the actual author of the entry, just because they are unaware of the existence of the exchange.
For bloggers hungry for feedback, this is very frustrating and very worrisome. In many cases, the conversation is the reward for the post and having it taken away, understandably, very upsetting.
The problem, however, is not new and has been battled, quite literally, for centuries.
An Ongoing Issue
The problem of fragmented conversations, however, is almost as old as marketing itself.
If you’ve ever talked about a product with a friend, had a water cooler conversation about a TV show or called someone to talk about a movie, you’ve helped fragment a conversation.
The companies involved, almost certainly, would rather be able to hear what you had to say, both good and bad, but instead have to deal with millions of conversations taking place beyond their ears. This was a problem before the Web and it continues to be one afterward.
Likewise, with blogs, if you’ve written about a site on a message board, told a friend in person about something you read or email someone an interesting link, you’ve fragmented the conversation there as well. The owner of the site would love to know that you think their content is good enough to recommend or bad enough to hate, but they have little to no way of knowing what you said.
Conversations about your site have always been fragmented and this includes both public and private dialogs. Message boards, chat rooms, newsgroups and even Twitter have long offered a means for people to talk about content away from eye of the author.
What is new about these services is not that they are fragmenting the conversation, but that they are codifying the process. Rather than encouraging people to talk about a certain topic or general area of interest, they are encouraging people to talk specifically about your post and to do it away from your site.
To date, this process has not had a major impact on bloggers as the networks involved have not obtained enough traction. For example, even Shyftr, despite all of the attention, only has a few viable conversations taking place.
However, there are at least a few places that both fragment a conversation and have a strong community behind them. However, they are sites that people actively encourage their sites to appear on and many dream about getting attention from.
The Digg and Reddit Problem
Having been the survivor of two Diggs, I can say safely that, in both cases, more comments appeared on Digg than did my own site. The same is true for Slashdot and any other major social news “bumps” I’ve had here.
This is understandable as these sites all have strong communities within them that like to talk among themselves, but they are still the classic example of a fragmented conversation. After all, the people who commented to Digg did not, for the most part, comment here and if I had not followed the conversations there, I never would have been able to read their thoughts.
Yet, even Webmasters that dislike Shyftr for fragmenting the dialog encourage the use of Digg and Reddit on their site. The reason is that these sites provide a great deal of traffic to bloggers. Digg and Reddit both use content from the sites they link responsibly and encourage their readers to visit the site before commenting, often leading to the dreaded Digg Effect.
The problem with sites such as Shyftr is not that they fragment the conversation, but that they fragment the conversation and the audience. By displaying the full feed publicly and offering a means to comment they encourage their members to both read and comment on the feed in one place.
However, it is easy to imagine a situation where a feed reader, such as Google Reader, allows users to comment on a story from within their site and have it displayed only to other subscribers. This would be less of an audience fragmentation, since all of the readers would be tracked and still getting the content from the original source, but would be fragmenting the conversation.
This creates a problem for bloggers. Where Digg and Reddit fragment a conversation in exchange for increased exposure, this would not increase the audience but would still divide the conversation in two. The would hurt both the conversation itself and the original author.
That could, in the long run, hurt the site itself as many blogs thrive in large part to their conversations.
However, for readers, the convenience of commenting where they land is far too tempting. We can and should expect that RSS readers, as well as other kinds of sites, will attempt to fragment the conversation in order to provide a feature to their users and that many of those sites will not raise copyright red flags, like Shyftr did.
Solving the Problem
What we’re left with is a disjunct. Readers, the few who do regularly comment, want to do so in the easiest way possible while bloggers want to be sure that the conversation leads back to their site.
There have been many attempts to fix this problem, services such as Disqus have attempted to take local conversations and make them global. However, the solutions have focused primarily on the commenter, not the blogger, and solving the issue of unifying the many sites the visitor has participated in.
But while that is important, it does little to help the conversations themselves.
This is an area ripe for a technological solution, a means to take a conversation that is happening in multiple places and unify it, preferably on the original site itself.
However, the barriers to this are obvious. Spam would likely be one of the first problems, along with obtaining a broad enough user-base to be viable. But the more long-term threat would be copyright issues involved in porting over one’s comments from one site to another. After all, a commenter owns the rights in his or her comments and, though an implied license is granted to use the work on the site it was posted, it does not cover moving it to another page.
A real solution to this problem would require a very high level of cooperation both technologically and legally. Ensuring that comment licenses allow cross-posting and that different interfaces work together, including with spam protection systems, is a big challenge.
Still, if such a system could be developed and bloggers could retain control over comments posted to their site, including both editorial control over what appears on their site and export control (in the event that a different system came along), it would likely be something that bloggers would jump upon.
After all, it would theoretically mean more comments and a chance to participate in conversations that never would have been available before.
The bitter truth is that, despite how fragmented conversations are on the Web, they are still more unified here than they ever have been in history.
Though we may think we’re sharing our thoughts with just a few readers on an obscure forum, they are almost instantly searchable and a blogger who is looking at their referrers or doing vanity searches has a good chance at finding these conversations.
Furthermore, though hundreds of sites attempt to fragment the conversation, only a few have enough of an audience to do so in a meaningful way. This means that, currently, dialog fragmentation is very predictable for the most part.
The bottom line is that while our conversations may be fragmented, bloggers have far less of a problem than television networks, newspapers and other businesses do. There is a reason why millions are spent every year on market research, it’s because companies want to know what people are thinking and what they are saying.
As bad as we have it, we are the lucky ones in this area. Furthermore, the problem of fragmented conversations is still nowhere near as severe as the problem of audience fragmentation, the problem created by plagiarism and widespread scraping.
Despite that, one does have to hope that a solution can be found. Just imagine the conversations that we can have if we can actually talk across our self-imposed borders and outside of our communities.
On second thought, given what I’ve seen on Usenet, that may not be such a great idea after all…