Adina Levin of Socialtext posted recently about Tags for ActivityStrea.ms. I’ve been enjoying online conversations with Adina quite a lot of late; there’s a constructive Venn overlap between our approaches to design for social media and social interactions.
Given the amount of time we all spend skimming through Facebook status updates, twitter, and blog posts and comments, the idea of tagged activity streams has a strong appeal for me. But without going into detail into the proposed architecture for activity tagging (which I would like to do separately), I want to just conjecture for a moment on the question this idea begs. To wit, structured conversation.
A while back, Stowe Boyd and Chris Messina launched a related effort around microsyntax. I don’t know where it currently stands, but the idea — to codify and back inline (in the tweet) syntax that would permit tweet parsing for some common types of tweets made a lot of sense to me. Besides location, consistent syntax could be used to identify any number of things, from reviews and recommendations to requests, offers, invitations, and so on.
Where microsyntax uses structure embedded in the tweet, activity tagging would place rely on structure outside the message (as I understand it). External structure has some advantages, not the least of which is a certain robustness (microsyntax depends on the user’s written compliance with syntax).
However, and this is what I wanted to conjecture about, both are signs of a need for structure. Or if not need, then at least a nascent interest in structure. Years back, the structured blogging effort made a go at wrapping classification around the blog post format. It was abandoned for several reasons. Its taxonomies were probably excessively detailed. Its success would have required participation by search engines and blog indexing services. But most of all, it required a lot of extra work on the part of the user. The structured blog post was not a replacement for the standard post (subject, body, datestamp, tags) but a set of supplemental formats that could capture review, music, product, and other types of posts. (Fields were added for product name, manufacturer, rating, etc).
One can easily imagine the potential benefits of structured activity updates, as well as tweets, and other status updates. In fact one can imagine structure scaffolded around individual posts rich and connected enough to provide a back door into social networking and profile-based groups and communities. Theoretically, there’s a slippery slope from structured conversation to the navigation and page-based organization we enjoy on the web today. In other words, messages could form the basis of browsing and finding just as pages do today. In theory.
But in theory, the idea is quite compelling. If “information overload” stands today as the single-most unwanted byproduct of the conversational turn in social media, then structure could help to solve some of its problems. One might imagine a set of codified values and attributes that authors and readers might use on messages. Messages could be classified by linguistic expression (or linguistic action), such as request, question, answer, comment, invitation, offer, forward, and so on. Twitter’s codification of replies is one such example. Structured updates might then also be sucked into sites that organize them by their attributes, thus enabling group and community-like activity. Updates and tweets might ultimately form the basis of a kind of “message board” system (sound familiar?) built around dynamic aggregation of individual messages. Pages would not be content containers, but would be “written’ by aggregation of distributed content.
None of this seems likely, however, for several reasons. Search engines and readers would have to participate around shared standards. And users would have to make the effort to classify their updates. Neither seem very realistic. But it’s a compelling idea!