The conversational dynamics of the blogosphere

Writing on the coComment team blog, Stephanie Booth addresses the thorny question of comment ownership:

Do we consider it a problem that the commenter doesn't retain control over the comments he leaves on other people's blogs? For example, it has always bothered me that value-added comments of mine, scattered all over the blogosphere, could disappear any day at a whim of the blog owner. [coComment blog: Who owns your comments?]
It is indeed a problem. But while coComment could be used to archive the commentary I scatter elsewhere, and I might in fact decide to use it that way, that isn't its raison d'etre. coComment doesn't help you control certain kinds of conversations, it helps you hear them more clearly. And that's a great thing.

Stephanie's item came to my attention because it's part of a blog-to-blog conversation that touches on items I've written before. Although she responded briefly to this item in a comment, which is trackable thanks to coComment, she used the coComment team blog to present the larger idea that it inspired. In that context she wasn't reacting to a single blog, but to a conversational cluster involving, among others, Paul Sergeant, Jerry Slezak, Ben Metcalfe, and me.

From my perspective as a blog author evaluating the reactions to my work, there are three ways to receive feedback. All are comparable in terms of the immediacy and completeness of that feedback.

First, shows me who's bookmarked my items, when, and with what tags and commentary.

Second, crawlers like Technorati and Google blog search round up the blog-to-blog conversations that touch my blog.

Third, my comment system offers another mode of feedback. If we grant that all three modes are forms of conversation, then it may be helpful to try to visualize things from the perspective of speakers and listeners.

As a speaker, I see this kind of step function:

ownership and
control of speech   -----------+                     +----------------------    (high)
                               |                     | +--------------------         
                               |                     | |        
                               | +-------------------|-+                           ^
                               | |                   |                             |
                               | |                   |          
effort and                     +---------------------+                               
potential impact   --------------+                                               (low)
                   bookmarking -> in-blog commenting -> blog-to-blog conversation

When choosing where I want to be on the X axis, I think about ownership/control as well as effort/impact. When both matter, I choose the heavyweight option and write on my own blog. Bookmarking optimizes for low effort, which also means low impact, but sacrifices no control. The really interesting tradeoff is in the middle zone of in-blog commenting. Usually but not always, speech in that zone requires an intermediate amount of effort and can have an intermediate impact. That's useful in some circumstances, but there's no getting around the extreme sacrifice of ownership and control.

Now as a listener, without the help of something like coComment, I see this:

ability to hear     -----------+                     +----------------------    (high)
                               |                     | 
                               |                     |                             ^
                               |                     |                             |
                   bookmarking -> in-blog commenting -> blog-to-blog conversation

On either end of the spectrum I can hear pretty well. In the middle I often can't. It's true that some comment systems (including the one I'm using here, WordPress) offer per-conversation RSS feeds, but it's a lot of overhead to actually use them.

When I listen with the help of coComment, that dip flattens out and I can hear the middle zone much better. But, while it's true that I might want to use the coComment RSS feeds to archive what's said in that middle zone, I don't own and can't control the speech that I choose to utter there.

How much do ownership and control matter? It depends. Maybe not much if an in-blog comment thread is a Wiki-like exercise in collaborative sense-making. Maybe a lot if the commentary is more debate-like, or if contributions tend toward the high end of the effort/impact continuum. In either case, you want to be able to hear as well as you possibly can.

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