Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Ruminations on Message Boards

I'm surprised that nobody has done anything "Web 2.0"-ish with the humble discussion forum. The basic structure of the discussion forum hasn't changed significantly since the mid nineties. And, as I showed in The Conversation Garden yesterday, it's really not the best way to organise things.

It would be so cool to have a system with a self-organising taxonomy. How would this work? Well, all threads would have tags. Anybody who posts to the thread could add tags. The aggregate of those tags would form the thread tags.

Subforums would simply be a list of tags. So if you wanted to have a politics subforum, you'd go in to the admin panel, and ask it to have a subforum for everyone who uses the tags: politics, politician, parliament, democracy, congress, government, law etc.

You could democratise that process. Imagine if everyone could build their own hierarchical structures in a very simple markup language (I'm not talking OPML here - this is a different type of thing). So you write out your version of the forum, and when you visit the forum, it'll be laid out how you like it.

You could aggregate those. Ask people to vote on them, and then somehow synthesise the layout based on the best design.

This would destroy the need for arguments over which forums to have where. If you're bored because there's not a forum for your taste, you simply define it into existence and if that organisation makes better sense than other competing organisations, it'll stay.

The most important page of forums, and the one which is paid so little attention to, is the "View New Posts" page. It's really the 'blog' view of the forum. People building new forums should really pay attention to how people stay up-to-date with forums. On small forums, it's the View New Posts page. On larger forums, it's "Any responses to my posts?" followed by browsing a few topics of interest.

We need to rigourously redefine discussions. If someone starts a thread, it often will take a few pages until the real questions come out for discussion. So, "what's your opinion on abortion?" is really a meta-question for "when does human life begin?". Forums should react to this, automatically refactoring threads based on what's new.

We do this in USENET through thread retitling. Retitling a thread is really refactoring it because it changes the discussion. Imagine you were discussing an ongoing event - the thread would automatically be refactored based on the changing nature of the event.

Once a news article comes out, or a verdict arrives, the opinion of people changes, so the thread should change with it.

All of this works only if you use the model of the post as the most important item in the message board. Not the thread, not the subforum. The post. Only on threaded (rather than flat) discussion boards does this actually work out in practice, since you can't properly respond to unthreaded discussion.

Of course, every user should have an RSS feed. As should every forum, every thread and every post. There should also be a way of subscribing to threads in a complex manner and getting the results delivered through RSS.

If the above sounds complicated, it is. Human discussion is complicated, and our software should reflect that rather than naïvely trying to change our discussions to fit in to what Matt Wright and his followers say it should be.

I must say, it's very amusing that Lord Goldsmith is complaining about Ian Blair taping him. The government want to tape us, and yet they complain so much when they do it themselves. Isn't there something of a hint of hypocrisy in all of this...

Creationism is great. It's keeping so many satirists and cartoonists in business. Keep up the whole fundamentalism thing, America. Ignore the fact that in the process you'll alienate huge swathes of your population. It's so beautiful a target for satire. Americans: please keep going apeshit over Janet Jackson's nipples and other moral non-events while ignoring the way that your president has locked people up without charge in Guantanamo. Compared to the thousands of Iraqi men, women and children who've died, Janet Jackson and creationism aren't issues, you mindless dimwits.

The Conversation Garden

Imagine for a moment a walled garden. It has a small gate at one end, and it has a rather temperamental disciplinarian looming over it. There are a fair few people inside, talking about all sorts of different things.

You have to knock on the door and wait for Mrs Discipline to open up the gate. You finally enter, having chosen a silly name for yourself that has little or nothing to do with your real name.

Now what do you do? You engage in conversation, of course. It is the Conversation Garden.

There are many ground rules. First of all, you have to talk in flat structures. You cannot branch off and have a heated debate with someone. If someone wants to but in and say something ridiculous, that's got as much right to be there as anything else.

And there are narrow subdivisions. It's all little boxes. If you want to talk about sports, you've got to go to one end of the garden, and if you want to talk about politics, the other. Anime and anarchism never shall meet.

If you break this rule, Mrs Discipline comes over to you, picks you and anybody else who's discussing the topic up, and moves you to the appropriate place.

You can't point outside. Within the Conversation Garden, any mention of the outside world is forbidden. You can't say "Last week, I had a great discussion with so-and-so about this and he said such interesting things about it".

There is to be no challenging of Mrs Discipline. If Mrs Discipline says it, it's true and you should abide by it. Mrs Discipline can set up any number of carrot and stick schemes. Rewards, Warning Levels, Time-Outs, Sin Bins, Having to Ask Permission to Speak, Approval by Other Members.

The rules which Mrs Discipline sets can be as churlish and ridiculous as you like, but they are her rules, and so they must be obeyed.

You have no guarantee in the Conversation Garden that what you say will not be changed. If you say something, it's always a possibility that Mrs Discipline will actually take the words from your mouth and change them. Don't ask me how, but it happens.

What's it like in the Conversation Garden? Well, not that pleasant. Bored with the enterprise, most people stop talking about the topic they started on and start talking about something else. Conversations go around and around in circles.

People are pretty much immune to having to take account for their remarks. Nobody holds them to task. If someone says "this is my opinion", nobody says "why?". Rigourous thought is best kept to oneself.

The bounds of the conversation are set by Mrs Discipline. She determines who says what, who goes where, what conversations go in each category.

But just because Mrs Discipline is deified by the process doesn't mean there isn't a need for control. Anarchy is not the best solution. Hobbes said we need a Soveriegn to stay out of a State of Nature, and we must give that Soveriegn absolute power. Mrs Discipline exercises that power and usually does it badly.

In the Conversation Garden, people carry around a little badge they wear around their neck. It contains an LCD screen showing a number. Every time someone speaks, the number increases.

People leave the Conversation Garden too. When they return, it's often a nightmare to find out what's going on. Mrs Discipline frowns upon the idea that one should be able to know what's going on at the Conversation Garden without actually being there. You've got to be there in order to see what's going on.

Conversation Gardens aren't monopolies. There are many thousands, if not millions, of these Gardens, including Gardens where they speak different languages, or talk about specific topics. Some of them actually work reasonably well, but they are in a very small minority. Most though are like oppressive Communist regimes or maths classes with bad teachers - they're not particularly attractive.

But not everybody likes Conversation Gardens. And so, over the last few years, a Conversation Market has slowly evolved. It has some similar features to the Conversation Garden, but it has some important features.

People can come in and leave at any time. Conversations can scale - it is as easy for two people to discuss something as twenty thousand (although, because of the newness of the enterprise, a twenty thousand person conversation has not been tried out in the Market). There is no Mrs Discipline, though if you do something really wrong, then the Police can come and charge you with a criminal offence. Mrs Discipline has lost all it's use here.

We have some robotic tools provided by the Market which enable things to happen smoothly. Sometimes they don't work, but it's no big deal when they don't, because the Market can compensate in other ways. These tools inform you when someone has said something in response to, or just regarding, what you have said. This is done automatically. You respond if you think it deserves a response.

There's no reported instances of it going off-track. You don't get people starting with Marxist idealism, then switching to baseball, then to alcohol. If you start a conversation on a topic, it'll continue until it ends. And there's no need to shift things around - we haven't sliced and diced the Garden up in to segments and demanded that people stand by the daisies when they're talking about television.

Some people are building Gardens in the Marketplace, which is rather silly. To do that is to miss the point of the Market.

The Market also has another real advantage - it lets you reach out to people you don't know far more often than the Garden. Gardens tend to invite in people who already know one another.

The Market builds quality by stating that nobody will take you seriously if you produce something lousy. Of course, everyone produces the lousy as well as the good, but it's not a problem like it is in the Garden.

When you start lousy conversations in the Garden, Mrs Discipline steps in and tells you off. She says "this isn't worthy" and "locks" the conversation, perhaps carting you off to some punishment - a few percentage points on the Warning Level, or perhaps some time in the Sin Bin.

In the Market, you simply get ignored. You start speaking, and nobody listens. Your "redemption" comes through thinking of something better to say, and saying it.

The Market encourages people to discuss current events, personal events and anything they want. If it's interesting, people will respond, and it'll bubble up in to consciousness. Mrs Discipline doesn't allow this, as you can imagine. To her, there'd be no reason why someone's individual story would be interesting.

In the Market, what you say can never be tampered with. You can be misquoted, maligned and made a fool of. But nobody can change your words. You can try to do, but it's frowned upon. And if you do it too often, people start ignoring you. Of course, if it's just to fix a mistake or mispronunciation, that's fine, but anything beyond that is frowned upon.

Quantity doesn't meet with instant approval in the Market. It's useful, but it doesn't guarantee that what you are going to say is worthwhile or meaningful.

The Conversation Market is an exciting, if volatile, place to be. One can get good results in a Conversation Garden. It takes a lot of time and quite draining personal politics. I've done it. It's taken numerous bitter attacks from Mrs Discipline's friends (including having your words changed, getting given lots of 'points'), and playing lots of legalistic and moralistic games to prove that what I said didn't contravene rules, or that Mrs Discipline's friends were acting unfairly or in contravention of their own rules. Eventually, you reach a plateau where people don't bother harrassing you or playing games. But it's such a waste of time compared to the Market.

If you've read this far and haven't seen what analogy I'm trying to draw, here it is in simple terms. Blogs are the Conversation Marketplaces. Blog comments are the "Gardens in the Marketplace". Message boards are the "Gardens". And moderators are the dreaded "Mrs Discipline".

Richard Bluestein has put up the Mommy Kills Best video on YouTube. I saw this the other day on Insane Films (now that the video on my Mac works, I'm watching more video podcasts). It's testament to how the Internet's fucked my mind that I can watch what is essentially a scat video and not feel too disgusted by it. That said, I was kind of out-of-it.

Goddamnit, why do people bang on about Wikipedia entries being inaccurate in the media? Yes, they're sometimes inaccurate. If that's the case, FIX THEM, YOU USELESS FUCKS!

Taken today off as well: feeling really bad, my food poisioning hasn't cleared up yet. Two hours in lecture and two hours on the train wouldn't have helped.

Someone needs to set up an anti-eBay. Base it somewhere offshore and use it to sell all the stuff that eBay disallows or starts getting harrassed about.

Just listened to Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins on Start the Week, a weekly Radio 4 arts/cultural review programme. Download or Subscribe to the podcast. It looks like the BBC are putting some more podcasts out there. At last.

Oh, yes. Let's split up the science curriculum based on what the different genders find "exciting". Smart move. Better that than, you know, determining academic standards by asking the experts in the subject.

Dave is going to quit blogging. I agree with the technological stuff in his post. It's not finished, but it's mostly done. I think that he's not right on the political front. We're not going to see bloggers in the House of Representatives. We're going to see Congressmen with blogs. That's a different thing altogether. It's hardly going to be an unedited voice of a person. It's going to be an edited voice of a composite - a political shell of a person combined with his marketing department. Politics is still tied to Reagan, but not in the way that small government people want. It's tied to Reagan because Reagan was an actor, a man who impersonates other men. That's what politics is going to be for a long time.

If you are annoyed that you can't sign up for isolatr, there's an easy way of getting the results. When we sell this house I'm in, buy it. It has neither mobile phone coverage or TV coverage.

Steve Rubel points to a study stating that most bloggers are not reporters. Indeed. Then again, thanks to Reuters, the Associated Press and other wire services, most of the mainstream media aren't reporters either. We're just helping to free reporters from the tyranny of overpaid hacks and press release copyists, as well as digesting the news. Digesting (and I say that as someone who hasn't been able to do it for the last two days) means amplifying the important bits and cutting away the irrelevancies.