Communicating Online, or, Re-inventing a Useful Medium

OK, I know I’m behind the times and a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the newest tools and techniques for communicating online, but it’s not all me grumping. There’s good reasons for some of it.

What triggered this post was little better than a wiki walk. My [non-gamer] coworker was asking about Gen Con, and then about RPGs, and then about LARPs. He expressed some interest, so I thought I’d point him at Madison By Night—which either doesn’t exist anymore, or doesn’t have a webpage anymore. [The most-recent page I found appears to have been last updated before the start of the 2003-2004 school year.] However, one of the links for it went to an old friend’s website, because he was one of the original founders of Madison By Night. I hadn’t realized he had a website, beyond the listings for Gen Con events. So I started poking around. And found a couple of essays that mesh well with thoughts I’ve had over the years—not-so-little things that drive me batty online.

First of all, web forums suck. As Alan correctly points out, web forums are inferior to Usenet in just about every way. The only advantages they have are (1) easy-access archives, (2) multi-media, and (3) exclusivity. For some things, exclusivity (i.e., controlling who can read and/or who can post) is a real concern. And for those things Usenet is not very useful—a web forum might, possibly, be a good choice. Though a mailing list might still be superior to either.

For some sorts of discussions, the ease of including non-text content—whether a diagram or something more—is a real boon of web forums. Except for the fact that they’re a burden on both the server and the user’s computer (or, these days, probably not their computer, but perhaps their network connection). And Usenet has had ways of including images and other content since at least the early 90s, and clients that could display much of that content inline [certainly as much as any webbrowser can] since at least the late 90s (probably much earlier, but I’m guesstimating conservatively here, just to be on the safe side). Moreover, the Usenet client handles it a heck of a lot better, because I can easily choose whether or not to show the images, and then load them individually if i need them. [Some web forums give you this power, today. IME, most do not. And I’m pretty sure none did when Alan wrote his essay in 2003.]

Given the speed of development of so much of the tech industry—both hardware, and software (including interfaces), it is sad to see that after more than 6 years, most of Alan’s complaints still stand. Web forums still haven’t caught up with where Usenet was when the web forums started killing it off around 2000. And that’s despite an almost complete stagnation on Usenet’s part in that time frame, precisely because of the shifting of attention.

Much of the loss is due to centralization, making the mistake that it is better to put everything on a centralized server, which simply can’t provide the same functionality. It’s why I’m using an offline editor right now to write this, rather than the web interface to my blog. The most obvious, of course, is that I need an internet connection for a web forum. Well, of course, you’ll say, you need an internet connection for Usenet, too — but that’s less true. Specifically, I can meaningfully write offline with an offline client. More on that in a bit.

There are other concerns, which tie in with the issue of displaying inline images, and so on, relating to the fact that with a web forum you are relying on the bandwidth and processing power of the server–and not just your local server, but specifically the one server hosting the forum. With Usenet, the load is distributed across multiple servers, so you only are dependent on whichever server you’re connecting to, and not everyone is hitting the same server.

And there’s the organizational problem. Generally speaking, web forums have very limited user configurability. In my experience, very few provide for any sort of limited threading, so discussions are displayed as a linear progression, based purely on posting date, irrespective of the semantic relationship between messages. [The very few forums i’ve run into that allow the user to use a threaded view are otherwise horrible interfaces, usually using javascript and some sort of automagic threshold hiding, so that messages more than N steps above/below what you’re reading disappear. And generally displaying the thread as a separate list below the message itself, which seems more awkward, IME (despite this being functionally what ends up happening with most Usenet clients, where it works quite well).] Not to mention the far more sophisticated flagging/blocking of Usenet clients, making it easy to both block out discussions or posters you don’t want to deal with, but also to flag discussions that interest you. Most importantly, you can use general pattern matching to do this — the best I’ve seen in a web forum was the ability to flag a thread as of interest. But if another thread on a similar topic crops up later, it won’t be flagged.

But, on to the biggest problem, which is out-of-sequence writing. Every Usenet client I’ve ever used behaves much like an email client when it comes to both reading and writing responses. Which is to say that each post you write is its own document, separately maintained and — and this is the important part — separately saved, without tying up the interface. This means that with a web forum, you need to finish and post a response before you can continue on to read the next message.

I think this has contributed to a decline in the quality of communication in online discussions. The interface incentive is to make short responses, and to respond to each post individually, as you come to it. And you often can’t see any other messages in a thread, except the one you’re responding to, which further discourages making holistic responses to an entire discussion, instead focusing on one post at a time. I think this has a lot to do with the decline in depth of discussion — I very rarely see a detailed, thoughtful, post in a web forum that addresses multiple people in a thread, quoting from them to attack or build up a thesis.

I see a lot more random vitriol and posts that have no real content. This stems, in part at least, from another difference in the medium: the inability to save a message before posting it. My standard procedure for any heated discussion, back in the day, was to write the post, and then sit on it for a day, and see if I still thought it was a good idea. Sometimes I’d still post it; sometimes I’d edit it some; sometimes I’d just delete it. This was easy to do with Usenet; it is, at best, difficult with web forums.

I think depth of discussion is also hindered by the standard practice of presenting multiple messages on one page, and having to render the whole thing in HTML. It makes a long post seem even longer — and all the tables, and headers, and other visual clutter that can’t usually be controlled by the viewer, exacerbates the problem. I now routinely see apologies for a “long” post that is half a dozen paragraphs; discussions on similar topics in my Usenet days would’ve considered that a “short, hurried” message, and typical responses ran to a couple page-equivalents of text. And while some of it is efficiency, I rarely see a thought-provoking message under a half page or so — discussion hasn’t gotten more efficient; the content-laden messages have been scared off, and most of the posts left have much less content (as opposed to noise) in them, and there has been a rise in content-free messages. [The only web forum I’ve seen that has consistently high signal-to-noise ratio also has typical posts that would be considered “too long’ on most other web forums–and has disabled editing of posts, which I talk about below.]

Longer posts are legitimately more ungainly to read on a web forum — you actually have to wait for even a modern webbrowser running on a high-end computer to render a page with a score of lengthy messages on it. And if your computer is a bit older, or your Firefox loaded down with extensions… Whereas the plain text of Usenet, and having only one message in a window at once, means that even a multi-screen message loads and displays essentially instantly. So long posts feel even longer, because you have to actually wait for them. In addition to any changes in culture, I think this makes longer, deeper posts less likely.

On top of this, all but one web forum I’m aware of allows editing of posts. The obvious problem with this is that it jumbles the conversation, and clashes with the medium’s expectations: we have a strictly-chronological communication medium, now, where people can go back in time and change the content. This undermines one of the few advantages that web forums have over Usenet–the permanent record. And in addition to the obvious confusion this can cause–there might be a response to something that no longer exists–I think it discourages careful consideration of what one posts, because you can always go back and improve it later.

And I think those who’ve grown up with web forums as the default two-way mass-communication medium have had their expectations molded by this medium, as well as molding the medium by their expectations. People expect fire-and-forget insta-responses, rather than longer, thought-out essays. In fact, I’ve gotten yelled at for posting a single message that tied together my response to several other posts, rather than multiple shorter messages (which would’ve had redundant content, and wouldn’t’ve made as strong of an argument, due to the lack of connection between them). And, when it comes to synthesizing an argument, or contrasting multiple posts, the ease with which multiple messages can be displayed in a multi-window Usenet client interface really shines — while the difficulty of viewing multiple posts that aren’t chronologically close on a web forum is significant.

Oh, there are ways to get around a lot of this. Some web forums have added in the capability to respond to multiple messages, though rarely as cleanly as my decade-old Usenet client — and it still all disappears if you (c)lose the page. You can spawn multiple windows (or tabs) to handle each of your responses. But you still can’t save them, except by copying and pasting into another program. You can use a text editor to do all your posting, and just bookmark messages you want to respond to. But these are workarounds, requiring not only effort, but for it to occur to a person to go looking for them. And that’s the biggest barrier.

I’m sure some of it is commonality of age: Alan and I are about the same age, so we grew up with about the same online tools. But I still think that some of it is not just a matter of preference based on familiarity. Some of it really seems to be preference based on lack of familiarity. That is, younger people have grown up with different “default” methods, so they don’t know any different, so they can’t really meaningfully choose. It’s only those of us who’ve used both methods who have a meaningful opinion.

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