The conversation isn’t happening in one place, on a single service and if you expect to be part of that conversation you should be looking at services that are better suited for these distributed conversations. So what is a distributed conversation? Well, it is a conversation that takes place across multiple platforms and services about the same topic. Take my recent blog post titled “Why you’re wrong about FriendFeed” as an example.
There were a couple comments posted to the blog itself (about 4 – there was an issue with my Disqus integration and one or two comments were misdirected) but the majority of the discussion about the blog post was on Twitter and FriendFeed. If I only paid attention to my blog I probably wouldn’t see those other discussions and I would miss out on an opportunity to engage in a conversation with those commentators.
There is a considerable amount of emphasis on specific services like Twitter and some commentators go so far as to say that Twitter has such a lead on any comparable service that none of those services really have a hope of catching up to it perhaps even surpassing it. This is a little ironic considering Facebook’s overwhelming dominance in the social space, at least as a single service. It dwarf’s Twitter and yet Twitter is held up as the social Web’s Second Coming. One of the challenges facing Twitter is that it does not contain the sum total of the conversations on the Web about any given topic. It is a single input, not the whole shebang. It’s simplicity makes it a fantastic tool for disseminating ideas, messages and information but it remains one content stream in the greater ocean of content.
There are a number of other content streams which collectively comprise the broader conversation about a given topic and these vary from conversation to conversation. Returning to my example of my blog post, there are four content streams which comprise the conversation. The first is the blog post itself; the second are the comments posted beneath the blog post; the third are the Twitter mentions and responses and the fourth are the comments on FriendFeed. Focussing on any one of these content streams means missing out on the rest of the conversation.
The challenge is how to keep track of these conversations across these multiple platforms. An obvious way to do this is by taking advantage of a number of services that are focussed on comments. I wrote about this a little while ago in my post titled “Time to get serious about comments“. I specifically mentioned CoComment, Disqus and Backtype as three services which are unlocking the value in comments. I have been using Disqus on a couple of my sites and it is a terrific service. Its latest iteration gives you the option of pulling in mentions of your content elsewhere on the Web and representing those mentions in you comment stream. It calls these mentions “social reactions” and the result is a broader view of the distributed conversation.
I had a few technical glitches on this blog which led to comments being disassociated with the blog posts they were intended for so I disabled Disqus on this blog until the cause could be identified and resolved and began exploring Backtype a little more. Backtype is basically a search engine for comments. It uses information you give it when you create an account to find your comments which you have posted and to find comments other people have posted on a wide variety of social services. The result is an aggregated representation of the distributed conversation.
I chatted briefly to Christopher Golda, Backtype’s founder, over email about Backtype and he gave me a great summary of what Backtype does:
BackType lets you follow conversations in a few different ways:
1) By Author — you can follow comments by author using the Dashboard
2) By Keywords — you can follow specific keywords with Search, and sign up for BackType Alerts so you receive e-mails whenever terms are mentioned
3) By Page — you can follow the conversation happening on and around a specific page
2) and 3) let you track conversations that involve people that you’re not following. The third is broken down into two separate features:
a) BackType Subscriptions — receive e-mails whenever someone comments on a particular URL
b) BackType Connect — surfaces the conversations related to a particular URL
Users can also set their preferences to automatically subscribe to comments on pages or posts they comment on so you can keep track on an ongoing conversation. This is a little like subscribing to a comment feed although you can customise how you want to receive the updates (email on different schedules, RSS or on your Backtype subscriptions page). This subscription tool is called “Connect” and it is a pretty effective way to track conversations connected with your posts and content elsewhere. Returning to my example of my blog post, here is the Backtype Connect page focussed on that post:
To take this all a little further, you can stream your Backtype comments into FriendFeed and add them to the ocean of content available there. I won’t rehash my views about FriendFeed and why I believe it is a superior platform for conversation but I will say that when you combine Backtype and FriendFeed you have a particularly powerful set of tools to help you track and participate in the distributed conversation. Using FriendFeed you can track a far greater content array. Backtype helps you find track and participate in conversations that you are either involved in as an initiator or participant. It can also help you find conversations about topics that interest you and jump in using its various search options.
Twitter fans have another tool available to them from the Backtype team that enables them to track mentions of a specific url on Twitter. It is called BackTweets and what distinguishes this tool from Twitter’s own search engine is that BackTweets isn’t fooled by url shorteners. This is what a BackTweet search looks like:
By the way, the ff.im url is a FriendFeed url link back to a FriendFeed post that has been reposted to Twitter.
Bottom line here is that tracking the distributed conversation is becoming easier with tools like Backtype and, dare I say it, FriendFeed. It should be obvious by now that limiting yourself to a single content stream is cutting yourself out of the broader conversation that is taking place around you. If you want to take a narrow view of that conversation then that is your choice but if you want to know what people are really saying, you should take a close look at these services.