Loosely Coupled Conversations

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in July 2003.

I heard science fiction author Greg Bear say recently that sci-fi authors are having a conversation in slow motion. One author writes something and then gets a response in the book of another author and in this way a conversation develops over a period of years. Weblog authors are doing the same thing with two interesting differences:

  • The cycle times for weblogs are much shorter because weblogs are easier to publish.
  • The technology used in weblogs allows you to discover who's responding more easily than in print.

People often ask me how a weblog differs from a normal web page. On the surface, the differences are few. Weblogs are written in HTML and read using a browser, just like web pages. There's nothing special about the servers that make them available on the web. Frankly there's not even anything special about the software that creates weblogs. You can use a text editor if you like, although that would be inconvenient.

What really sets weblogs apart is the way that they are connected to each other. Seeing a two-way conversation in a weblog can be difficult, but conversations do happen. The problem is that other than an occasional link, there is no explcit conversational threading like there is in other two-way communications on the Internet such as email, chat, mailing lists, and newsgroups. In these forms, the conversation happens sequentially and can be easily viewed as a dialogue. Not so with weblogs.

So how does the person writing weblog A know that weblog B has said something about what A wrote? By watching the traffic on their weblog. In particular by paying attention to something called "referrers." Referrers are the back links that are automatically stored in a Web server's logs whenever someone retrieves a page on the server. By doing simple traffic analysis, the owner of weblog A can see that there's a jump in traffic from weblog B. Following the link back, A can determine what B said and then, if appropriate, A can respond to B's writing on A's weblog. B will see the jump in traffic from A in their referrer logs and do likewise. Tools like Dave Sifry's Technorati.com help make this task easy by showing all the referrers to a particular site in context so there's no need to jump back and forth between web sites.

This may seem like an especially backhanded way to carry on a conversation. If you were setting out to design a communication system, you'd never design it like this. Even so, it is surprisingly effective. Conversations, important ones, happen all the time on weblogs. People feel remarkably empowered by their ability to control the editorial policy and speak in their own voice. This is an excellent example of one of the words that I think describes an exciting trend in computing: decentralization.

Another term that has been used in conjunction with decentralization is "loosely coupled." What sets weblogs apart from other ways of having a conversation is this loose coupling. Other conversational forms are tightly coupled by the explicit threading that is part and parcel of their very design. As we've discovered, weblogs lack this explicit threading. This makes them better for some things, and not as good at others. Weblogs would be a poor tool for quickly reaching a consensus on a meeting time for a large group, for example. On the other hand, they're a great way to share institutional knowledge.

Weblogs are a effective method for members of an organization to narrate their work, keep track of things they think are important, annotate links to important information, informally describe project plans, and understand what others in their group are working on. I'm particularly excited about how weblogs could be used in education as a way for teachers to share primary sources of information with their students, model good writing, and provide deeper commentary on issues being studied. Likewise, weblogs in student hands provide students with a place to practice their writing skills, try on new ideas for size before committing to them, and get a sense of what their peers are thinking on an issue.

Some people take naturally to weblogs. Others have a more difficult time getting used to the style. In the first place, weblogs are about writing. If you don't like to write, a weblog can seem like drudgery, but its an excellent place to hone your writing skills. Writing workshops typically encourage people to write for 30-45 minutes per day as a way of improving their writing and a weblog is an excellent place to do that. I often tell people that starting a weblog feels like you're having a conversation with yourself for the first few months. Eventually, however, you start to see the feedback on other weblogs and get email from folks who read what you write.

The loosely coupled nature of weblogs makes them a unique conversational space, but one with real rewards. Knowing that you have an outlet can be personally enriching. Producing content that even a small audience finds useful can be deeply satisfying and provide surprising reach for your ideas. Add your voice to the thousands out there and find your audience.

Phillip J. Windley is a technology consultant and writer. Windley writes a weblog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com. Contact him at phil@windley.com.

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 14:32:34 MST