What Is Online Conversation?

HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Davinci20 People who spend a lot of time on the Internet, particularly on social media sites, often refer to the entire phenomenon of user-generated content as “The Conversation.”

What they're referring to, in most cases, is the ability for people to post content they like on numerous forums, such as blogs, Facebook or YouTube, and for other people to respond to it without filters or editors.

That conversational quality, a by-product of the democratization of the Internet, is one of social media’s greatest contributions to mass media.

But lately, there's been a great deal of, well . . . conversation online about whether there really is any conversation taking place at these forums.

Social media marketer Mitch Joel, a leading advocate for social media as a space for direct, person-to-person communication, recently wrote a highly provocative blog post titled The End of Conversation in Social Media, arguing that what most people do online – post Facebook status updates, tweets, comments – doesn't amount to personal engagement.

Looking at the various social media platforms, Joel concludes:

. . . the majority of "conversation" I have come across is nothing more than the posting of a thought with very little engagement beyond that.

Joel's right that there is little direct back-and-forth between individuals on the Internet. But he's wrong that there's little engagement.

In fact, there's almost nothing else. The engagement takes place over the giant scope of social media. It's not only between people but also between people and ideas, with many people contributing thoughts on similar topics. People read blogs and, instead of leaving a comment, respond with their own blog post on the subject. People create and share a massive amount of content each day in response to what others created one day earlier.

Their response isn't directed solely at an individual, but at everyone else interested in the idea.

It's wrong to expect the Internet to function as a telephone line between individuals. Social media is something new in the annals of media – instead of one-to-one, social media is one-to-many communication. How the many respond will vary from individual to individual.

That’s why the entire phenomenon is called “The Conversation.” It's all around us. Ideas are debated, reconstructed, and ultimately, advanced. Some are rejected. But everyone can add their voice to the conversation.

Or, as Lisa Hickey said in a comment to Joel’s post,

It's not just "back and forth" that defines conversation these days, it's "here, there, everywhere."

Previously in Alex's series: Google: Gaming on Gaza