Where does a person have online discussions anymore?

Back in the day, way back in the day perhaps, there were interesting places to hang out online. FidoNet provided some discussion groups — some local, some more national or international. Then there was Usenet, with the same but on a more grand scale.

There were things I liked about both of them.

They fostered long-form, and long-term, discussion. Replies could be thoughtful, and a person could think about it for a day before replying.

Socially, you would actually get to know the people in the communities you participated in. There would be regulars, and on FidoNet at least, you might bump into them in different groups or even in real life. There was a sense of community. Moreover, there was a slight barrier to entry and that was, perhaps, a good thing; there were quite a lot of really interesting people and not so many people that just wanted answers to homework questions.

Technologically, you got to bring your own client. They were also decentralized, without any one single point of failure, and could be downloaded and used offline. You needed very little in terms of Internet connection.

They both had some downsides; Usenet, in particular, often lacked effective moderation. Not everyone wrote thoughtful posts.

Is there anything like it these days? I’ve sometimes heard people suggest Reddit. It shares some of those aspects, and even has some clients capable of offline operation. However, what it doesn’t really have is long-form discussion. I often find that if I am 6 hours late to a thread, nobody will bother to read my reply because it’s off their radar already. This happens so often that I rarely bother to participate anymore; I am not going to sit at reddit hitting refresh all day long.

There are a few web forums, but they suffer from all sorts of myriad problems; no cohesive community, the “hot topic” vanishing issue of Reddit, the single point of failure, etc.

For awhile, Google+ looked like it might head this way. But I don’t think it really has. I still feel as if there is a vacuum out there.

Any thoughts?

23 thoughts on “Where does a person have online discussions anymore?

  1. Depending on the topic, I’d say either mailing lists or forums. For technical topics, almost exclusively mailing lists. For non-technical or peripherally-technical topics (books, games, movies/entertainment, etc), various forums, including both topic-centric forums and general forum sites. Both of those mostly avoid the recency problem; mailing lists always send out new mails even on old threads, and most forums deal with responses several days later and “bump” a thread. (And if forum conventions say not to engage in “thread necromancy”, you can always start a new thread and reference the old.)

    As with the USENET of old, you have to filter through a fair bit of garbage to get the awesomeness; the quantity of garbage depends on the quality of the forum, its users, and its moderators.


  2. One thing I remember (or misremember?) about usenet — my client would sort threads by most recent post instead of oldest post. And I think others had similar clients. The result is that if you do post on a day-old thread, or a week-old one, people would see it.


  3. It’s hit or miss, but there is Hacker News.

    Blogging is another way to look at it, though blog posts as replies are more difficult than they need to be.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yep, blogging has some problems, in particular building audience. A person can’t just make a blog post and expect somebody interested to read it.

    HN has its moments indeed, but it has a fairly specific focus and even then is focused on news rather than general discussion.


  4. I still generally prefer mailing lists, for appropriate topics.

    Reddit is basically the closest thing we’ve got to usenet today. It’s not too bad. The really hugely popular subredits (e.g. those listed on the default front page) definitely suffer from the problems you called out. But smaller, more focused, sub reddits do not. People there will post long, well thought out text, and the subsequent discussions will be insightful and respectful.

    The single point of failure/censor/security/etc is the big issue with reddit for me. I’ve often wondered if someone could find some success resurrecting usenet if they built a sufficiently usable reddit-like UI on top of it.


    Hendrik Boom Reply:

    Well, usenet still exists, and topics are still discussed. The main problem is there is a moderate amount of spam. But there’s less spam on more specialized groups. Except for the pornography groups — there the spam is the content.

    And to find mailing lists on a topic, you should have a look at gmane.org. It archives a lot of mailing lists, and also acts as a bidirectional mailing list to usenet gateway. I point my usenet client, Pan, to gmane.org, and it is a very convenient way to browse mailing lists.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Yes, Usenet is still out there, but many, many discussion (text) groups are a wasteland.

    Yep, Gmane is quite nice. I’ve been using it for awhile.


    Yuval Hager Reply:

    How do you guys find your news? Most NNTP servers I tried are defunct, or non-free..

    Hendrik Boom Reply:

    I use two nntp servers — the one my ISP provides, and gmane. They serve different usenet groups. When I post, I have to tell my usenet reader which server to post to. It can’t figure this out on its own, though it *can* figure out which server to read from.
    If you ISP doesn’t provide a usenet server, I’m afraid you will have to pay for one. I’m told there are some that serve for as little as five dollars a month.

  5. You might enjoy hubski. It’s a bit like reddit but you do get to know people on a more intimate level. There’s an emphasis on quality discussion rather than getting the move upvotes.

    I, too, lament the federated networks and fear what will come from all the centralization of services.


    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hadn’t heard of Hubski. I’ll check it out. Looks interesting — thanks.


  6. I get a lot of good technical discussion on the Boston Linux and UNIX User’s discussion mailing list. You don’t have to be in the Boston area to join. http://www.blu.org.

    I also use Usenet, but mostly for rec.arts.sf.written and rec.audio.high-end.

    In my experience, Usenet offers the best affordances for long-form discussion, but email lists have better use rates.


  7. Nowhere. People are not interested in valuable discussion any more.

    Moreover, if you for example are trying to discuss anything, at once you are being named “a troll”. Facebook rule: you must like something or ignore it.


  8. The technology doesn’t matter as much as we make it out to. It all comes down to a small semi-cohesive group of people who happen to be interesting in some way. For me, this includes Metafilter, the Haskell reddit (and mostly the same people on haskell mailing lists and blogs), a private IRC channel with 30-odd friends and friends-of-friends, the pump.io network, various loosely connected blog networks, etc.

    I don’t see a significant decrease in the quantity of discussions in those groups compared with old usenet posts from the 80’s (which I read periodically). There are different technological affordances between mediums, but whether there are thoughtful discusssions or knee-jerk nonsense, fellowship or alienation comes down to the size of the group and its composition.


    mirabilos Reply:

    “a small semi-cohesive group of people who happen to be interesting in some way”

    Interesting thought. I had not considered that view, yet this is exactly what defines those IRC places I hang out around… (and, indeed, sometimes we have discussions in other places, even including IRL meetings).


  9. Sometime back I created a google group called ask-anything [https://groups.google.com/group/ask-anything] for this very purpose and invited couple of friends who thought it was a good idea.

    It does not see much discussion but would love to have more like minded persons be a part of it.


  10. I share much the same frustration, and have been hunting intelligent conversation online for much of this millennium. Enough to poke at some of the numbers and context.

    Usenet in the early/mid 1990s was _small_. Perhaps 50k – 500k users, based on general feel, and an email discussion with Gene “Spaff” Spafford. I’ve pinged danah boyd but she’s been busy being a mom the past year or so, I guess. There was some Microsoft research across the entire Usenet corpus (Big-Eight, and possibly more) in the early 2000s, which I’ve referenced on … G+, Ello, or Reddit.

    I had hopes for G+, but it utterly failed to gell, with much active frustration of that by Google / G+ management itself. Truly frustrating. I still use it, and it’s somewhat useful, but exceptionally limited.

    Reddit has a great deal of conversation, but the net engagement’s limited — it lacks a crucial feature of G+ which is the notion of _subscribing to all discussions on a given post_. Granted, for major/default subs, you wouldn’t want to (thousands of comments). But if you find a _small_ thread of interest, that’s desirable. Reddit also is suffering from conversation splintering. To an extent, that’s necessary as you grow a community, but without strong content promotion and discovery tools (Reddit lacks _comment_ search), it’s fatal. I make use of it as a blog.

    I’ve attempted a cut at finding signs of intelligent life online, “Tracking the Conversation”, by using _Foreign Policy’s_ list of Top 100 Global Thinkers as search terms across selected domains, sites, and TLDs, scored against a proxy for total content, and of _unintelligent_ content.

    Among findings:
    Facebook dominates overall results, but has only modest representation in the FP 100 list. Google+ is 1/10 the total volume, and is, if anything, _less_ intelligent.

    Reddit does quite well on overall signal and references.

    Metafilter is a standout high-signal site, though quite small overall. Given the options, I think I’d pick signal over size.

    Twitter’s awful for conversation, unsurprisingly.

    Blogs utterly dominate on quantity of signal (particularly WordPress), though the discussion level’s low. This was surprising.

    Various news media largely live up to stereotypes. Alternative media do better.

    I’d like to do a follow-up on other terms and/or other sites. Limitations on Google search (used to get hit counts) makes this process slow. Finding a methodology to actually detect and rank _conversation_ would also be interesting.

    I’m thinking that a _glue system_ to better facilitate discussion across blogs might be best. Also that _high-speed, high-capacity_ commenting platforms (e.g., Reddit) are often highly _counterproductive_.


  11. Talking about coming late to a conversation.

    I actually love G+, but it’s really vital, and possibly very hard to follow, *and be followed* in a lot of cases, the right people.

    By accident or intent there are a huge number of posts that are “circles only”, but for many people the bar for doing put in some type of circle is fairly low (not a bot, not a jackass).

    So you probably need to invest in your profile enough to sound a little bit interesting.

    Then find the right people. As a Xoogler I had a pretty good seed group, and it still takes time. But in terms of feeling a personal connection with people I’ve never met, it’s the best I’ve had since fidonet in the early 90s.

    Importantly, compared to a lot of mailing lists, my G+ feed is low volume enough, exposed in an easy to skim format (that still allows long posts) that I can keep up without spending all my time on it. I guess it’s a bit like if you spent the time to make filters for a mailing list so you only saw posts from a subset of members in that regard.

    I don’t find many pages or communities great, but that’s just me.


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