Friday, October 1, 2010

what's a conversation?

This posting I read on Mashable the day before yesterday has gotten me thinking about what conversation means in the social media space: Most Tweets Produce Zero Replies or Retweets. If somebody tweets and nobody replies or retweets, does that really mean it "fell on deaf ears" as the article claims? Many Twitter users are not looking for replies.

Twitter seems to me more like a broadcast medium with the ability to talk back in real time -- kinda like talk radio but without the screening and filtering. If I listen to On Point and don't call in, that does not mean I didn't hear what Tom Ashbrook and his guests said. Same thing with Twitter. I may want to know what the soup of the day is at Life Alive so I can plan my lunch hour. Therefore, I follow Life Alive on Twitter. If I then go to Life Alive for lunch instead of say, Athenian Corner, because of their tweet that's neither a retweet nor a reply on Twitter but it's surely part of a conversation in the real world.

What's a conversation? Since we're discussing social media here, let's consider the definition in Wikipedia:
"A conversation is communication between multiple people. It is a social skill that is not difficult for most individuals. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from each other. ..."
Leaving aside the grammatical question of between vs. among, does communication happen if one person broadcasts to many, but none of the many respond? Is some degree of reciprocal communication necessary in order to call something a conversation? Maybe. Maybe not. I put information, opinions, and observations out into the Twitter stream and I take in the same types of things from the Twitter stream, but most of what I take in is not necessarily responsive to what I put out except for an occasional reply. There's some exchange taking place. I'm just not sure if that's a conversation.

One of the themes that pops up more and more often in technical communication circles is how we need to be in on the social media conversation. What is this "conversation" we're going to be left out of if we don't get on the social media bandwagon? The secret to great technical writing/documentation has always been and still is knowing who the audience is and how they use the content to do their jobs/tasks/whatever. Interactive media is certainly better for getting at that kind of audience knowledge than old fashioned tear-out reader comment forms at the back of a paper manual. Nobody can argue with that. Is it better than meeting face to face with your users at a user group meeting or a visit to their business? Maybe it is. We can certainly connect with a broader part of the user base using Twitter and Facebook and corporate blogs and wikis than we could face to face. We can't personally meet every user, but we can find out what they're thinking via social media.

So, back to the Mashable post that triggered these thoughts. Why do so few people reply to tweets and/or retweet them? Maybe bursts of 140 characters just aren't enough for the thoughts and reactions readers may have to tweets. Maybe it's hard to keep track of the context. Maybe the tweets just aren't interesting or discussion-provoking.

As I was checking out the Twitter stream from #lavacon today, I was struck by how little context there is for a given tweet from an event even when there's a hash tag and multiple tweets. The lack of context can create confusion. For example, one tweet read
“It doesn’t matter what I think or say. It matters what everyone else thinks and says.”
What's that about? To whom do his thoughts and words not matter? His audience? Himself? Is he saying that there are no experts anymore and all that matters is crowdsourcing? Or is he only saying that he's not an expert? Or something else entirely? Because I'm not at #lavacon and only following it via tweets, I have no idea what the context of that quotation is. Were I present at #lavacon I might have been able to have a conversation about that thought with the speaker or with other attendees, but it makes no sense to do that on Twitter.

Whatever the social media conversation is, it is just beginning and we all need to fumble around trying to get the hang of it for awhile longer.

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