Another way to look at atomization

Josh Kopelman wrote about "The Atomization of Conversation" the other day:

Conversations are indeed becoming atomized and asynchronous. No need for the "Hey, how are you doing?" discussion. Personal dialog is being replaced by a Mini-feed.

Josh is right. Even this blog post doesn't necessarily need to be a blog post. I could have starred or shared Josh's post in Google Reader and added a note to it and it would just become one of many things that are consumed, streamed or duly noted by my friends and readers. I find what Josh points out fascinating because it's a new problem and one we didn't have a few years ago.

When some of the founding members of the Google Reader team and I were putting together the original product plan we spent a lot of time talking about the death of the shared experience. I remember recounting that time and place shifting had wreaked havoc with the normal water-cooler conversation at work. No longer were there conversations that started with, 'Did you see Johnny Carson last night?' because aside from the fact that Johnny was long gone, there was no single shared event to center around with 180 channels, TiVo, DVD's and the internet. How could we bring back shared experiences in a world where everything seemed so fragmented? Like any good problem I ever spend brain cycles on I came to the conclusion that surely there was a web-app that could solve this problem! Hence some of the features that slowly made their way into our little social-enabled Reader.

FriendFeed, Facebook and Reader each have ways to tell what your friends have liked, read or voted for explicitly but I would love to see more advancement in this area. It's close but not fully fixed yet. One of my inspirations over the years has been the clustering used by the link blog aggregation at HotLinks. Check out one of the levels, like level 3 to see the clustering in action. Simple, but effective in rolling together shared likes.

Back to Josh's atomization question, it feels like there is a new problem. Now that we have good ways of keeping up with people and maybe even having some sort of shared experience filter/aggregation, what next? The insight posed by Mr. Kopelman isn't all bad, I definitely feel more informed about my friends from across the country by using services like Twitter and perhaps that can deepen relationships but there is a larger question. Where do we focus as technologists? Do we improve the quality of conversation? Do we pull together like minded folks around their likes and dislikes? Will FriendConnect, Facebook Connect, and the like mean we will further annoy our friends with the persistent connectedness or will we begin to use them as exclusion lists so we can begin to discover what people think outside of our explicitly named networks?

It turns out it's not just one question but maybe a whole slew of them. For the technologists in the crowd, what problem do you want to solve? What's driving your interest in this brave new world of socially aware applications?


  1. A peculiar coincidence (Forgive me, I'm an ethologist by predisposition): no comments on your post here, about "atomization", and likewise no comments on either of VCMike's, "Comments" and "More on Comments".

    I've been following this for a long, long, long, long time; In the late 80s I cobbled together a hypertext app that allowed engineers to comment on the MIL-SPEC tech_docs I was shepherding (Makes change management so much easier!) and, years later, watched with delight as Dan laLiberte rolled out his HyperNews.

    Fact is, I've been boosting what I call "participatory deliberation" since the mid-70s ... only way to stop ourselves from tumbling governments that we didn't like, I figured. (Alas, early in the new millenium no such force interdicted our trashing Iraq.)

    I'm afraid most tools today facilitate nothing but partial attention ... chattering, in short.

    Me? I've developed a "discourse-based document portal". Not much interest in that sort of thing, it seems ... like me, it's entirely too earnest.


    p.s. earlier this week I peek "Online Deliberation" on WikiPedia ... that it's such a pathetic entry speaks volumes.


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