Last week I wrote a piece on anorexia, and my feelings that we as a society get very mixed up when we talk about “eating disorders.” I’ve belabored my points in the comments therein, so I won’t rehash them here. Many received it well and seemed to agree. There are a couple of things, if I had it to do over again, that I might phrase a little differently. But the piece caused a huge stir, my points were taken out of context, there was a great deal of shouting and gnashing of teeth and discomfort from a dozen or so blogs, several thousand people read it, I was personally attacked by feminazis, and now I have a strange rash. All – to me – signs I was doing something right.
It all brought two unrelated issues to the surface for me. First, people often see what they want to see in an article whether it is there or not. For example, I was accused of confusing anorexia with restraint when I was trying to do the opposite. In my piece, in fact, I delineated them – accusing women of mixing up restraint behaviors with anorexia and emphatically asserting that they are not the same thing.
The second issue is that all the attention and conversation generated by the piece has refreshed my frustration with the medium of blogging.
On one hand, it’s a beautiful way to quickly and efficiently make news or opinion available to millions. On the other, the conversation it creates is fragmented and discontinuous and dies quickly.
The article generated a lot of discussion on a couple of feminist blogs, a fair amount of conversation here, and there is really no elegant way to weave the conversations together. Most comments are “drive-by” comments. Someone leaves a remark – often a great point that deserves response and catalyzes further conversation – but that person often either does not return to the blog or they do not return to that particular article. Considerably fewer than 1% of readers engage in any subsequent conversation. For this, I don’t blame the readers – I blame the tools available to them.
I know there’s been a lot of discussion about this stuff – but it’s mostly griping and little has been put forth in the way of solutions. There are some hack jobs out there – but they require a lot of effort, time and sophistication on the part of the user. Most users just want to read an article and move on. Many would engage in conversations if there were an easy way to do so. Thus far, no elegant solution has emerged to enable this.
At this stage, the tools seem to be as fragmented as the medium. Online forum systems such as phpBB and vBulletin are wonderful conversation tools, but they too require the participants to return to the point of origin. I’ve spent time playing around with content management systems like GeekLog and Drupal and Expression Engine. I am somewhat intrigued by them, but I think such tools need a desktop-level persistence in order to really fuel this as a new medium. Geeklog seems to combine the forum model with the blog model best, and I’ll probably continue to play with it.
I think a system that combined the publishing power of blogging, the conversational power of a phpBB or VBulletin, and a desktop widget would be very powerful. Users could engage in real-time conversations on topics from whatever sources they please without being required to “show up”. Their participation would be visible to them inside their daily computing world and conversations could be ongoing.
Is there a solution like this, and I’ve just missed it?