The Productivity of Online Discussion

As I mentioned in my reader survey results post – I’ve been planning to write something about the viability and worth of online discussion. I’ve been through the “why I removed the comments” thing a few times. I’ve also experimented with things like Branch to see if that worked better.

People generally bemoan the state of online discussion, and often the blame seems to fall on twitter. We all spend our time microblogging (this is a stupid word) and our conversations on there are fast paced, global but ultimately shallow and often somewhat smug.

I’ve thought a lot about how online discussion could work better, and I’ve come to a conclusion that many people won’t really like: It isn’t possible.

Useful, interesting, engaging discussion simply doesn’t suit the form and fit of the internet. It suits small groups of people being in the same room at the same time. In my limited experience of life I would say the smaller the number the better. Discussions that have shaped my thinking, inspired me, astonished me or left me in awe have usually been with a 1 to 3 other people. This is the nature of genuine conversation.

The internet doesn’t work well for that. It is full of voices, and its democracy both helps and hinders. On the one hand, all voices are equal so having a certain level of reputation or kudos is not required to get your voice heard. On the other hand, all voices are equal and intelligent, experienced opinion can be drowned out by noise and nonsense. This happens all too often.

“Ah,” you interject, “but what about those really great discussions you had in your comments section in the past? What about the Naturals Debate blog post?”

I would argue that that wasn’t really a great discussion. Some very smart people wrote short essays on a subject, and kindly allowed me to host them. (Those in favour of moderation as a solution to comments should remember that I could easily have prevented any of those from being shared based on my own whims and beliefs. I don’t think that possibility really belongs in an environment for great discussion).

While the part of me that enjoys the bickering aspect of debates, I generally thought the whole thing got more confusing and less helpful as it tried to turn into a actual conversational discussion. Reading through them again it feels quite fragmented outside of the main back and forth between Peter Giuliano and Geoff Watts. There are people trying to pull the debate in all sorts of directions, those how just want to chime in with their own opinions (sometimes of dubious relevance). Questions are asked that are inevitably lost, because they are not asked to anyone in particular. When you ask that semi-rhetorical question in a conversation you generally will end up working towards an actual answer. Yes – great information was shared, but I would argue that Geoff should have written a blog post on a site he or his company owned, to have full control over his own words and opinions. Finding and read it would not have been much more difficult than scrolling through dozens of comments to find it.

Does this all mean that I see this blog as a place to broadcast my ideas from, to have them go unchallenged? I don’t think so. I think the internet is incredibly good for sharing ideas, and when an idea is good the internet will do an incredibly good job at spreading it to an enormous number of people.

I would say the back and forth on the subject of the EK43 was great when it turned into long form essays from various participants. Points could be communicated clearly, and there was none of the fuzzy confusion of the discussion on the same subject happening on twitter.

I believe you’ll learn more from discussing or arguing about one of Colin Harmon’s blog posts with a friend or colleague in the real world, than you would from reading comments about it online. (Note: Colin is used as a hypothetical example here, but you get the idea…)

Importantly, I don’t think this is particularly unique to coffee. I see the same issues in the other industries that I’m interested in. The internet is a vast archive of ideas and information, categorised and impressively searchable. It isn’t a great vehicle to drive discussion about those ideas. I believe this is an opportunity for trade associations like the SCAA, BGA or SCAE to step in. I go to SCAA each year for a lot of reasons, but top of the list is the half dozen truly great conversations I will have when I am there. That is worth the price of admission and travel to me. After all – a trade association should probably help those of us in the trade associate…

I don’t think this is going to be a terribly popular blog post, and by my own logic it is going to difficult to communicate why you think I’m wrong back to me. Perhaps you’ll write a blog post about it (which I’d happily link to on our here and on twitter). I do hope, however, that there will be an opportunity in the future where we might be able to sit down over a cup of coffee, or a glass of something inebriating, to actually talk about it in person. I think it would be a worthwhile discussion.