Still holding onto my childhood change-the-world spirit, I am fascinated by the role of conversation in developing innovation. A separate yet complimentary practice from invention, Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define innovation in The Innovator’s Way as “the art of getting people to adopt change”. This change can be social and personal (values, practices or the adoption of a new technology), organisational or institutional.
Successful innovators have the ability to sense opportunities for innovation, create a vision, offer that vision to a community, then refine the offer, and suggest paths to adoption. By offering possibilities in conversations and listening to responses, an innovator can navigate their vision to a sustained practice (that is, the change the world bit!)
We’re all aware of the basic construct of conversation as a two way street based on talking and listening. Everyone has their own path to finding a balance between these two main dimensions of conversation. For me it was learning the art of listening. I was one of those smart-arse kids who always had something to say, so much so that in my early twenties I developed chronic Laringitis. I was sent to a throat specialist and diagnosed with polyps on my vocal chords. Instead of surgery I was assigned a speech therapist.
It’s quite a weird sensation to concentrate on the minutiae of your speech, which most people take for granted as an automatic function. Consciously breaking sentences up and breathing – without losing your train of thought – turned out to be quite a challenge.
In amongst a bunch of other practical advice, like not singing along at concerts :(, it was suggested that I spend more time listening. It sounds so deceivingly simple and common sense. Maybe this is just part of growing up, but it was now being forced upon me by the threat of surgery. As I started practising listening I began to realise how few people really do it. It’s not just about physically being there when someone else is talking, and responding to a break in the conversation with your opinion. It’s about actually engaging with another person.
By actively seeking out and encouraging other people to talk, and by listening on my part, I discovered, learnt and found incredible insights and opportunities. This form of real dialogue and exchange of ideas profoundly affected the way I collaborated in creative projects, the opportunities I sought out, and how I perceived myself as an Artist. (see: What being an Artist has taught me)
This revolution was also being played out in parallel in Internet-land. I’ve had the privilege of growing up on the crest of technological change, participating in the developing stages of communication innovations. Chat rooms, blogs, mobile phones, social media and the development of web2.0 platforms, have all created far more possibilities for two-way conversations. I have embraced the opportunities these have presented but always with a critical eye on real conversation and the genuine development of dialogue.
It struck me the other day, with all the amazing innovation that the internet has gone through (ie. YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter), that blog comments are pretty much the same as they were from day one of “web logging”. Has this format stayed the same because it’s pretty much the best it can be? … or have we just limited our imagination to other possibilities?
Disqus is one of my favourite apps that gets the most out of this format. By linking heavily into social networks, this dynamic comment system bridges content from the social layer and collects feedback from across the web. Disqus compiles all of these conversations in real time so you see what everyone is talking about world-wide, and your own home panel keeps track of the conversations you’re personally following.
For all its bells and whistles, Disqus still rolls the same format – text and comments are in mostly chronological order, occasionally breaking into sub-conversations.
On soundcloud the commenting system works a little differently. Soundcloud-users have the ability to add comments at any time point in an audio recording. When the track is played there’s an option to display the pop-up comments directly on the interface, directly relating them to a time stamp.
Currently there’s no technology, in usage outside a lab, to observe where your eyes are focusing on a page of text. That, and the inability to read two things simultaneously are just two limitations to applying the soundcloud comment system to a written blog – but you see where I’m heading. It would be great if you could somehow comment by hyperlinking directly to a passage.
I was looking at Readmill today – which has some of these functions. The app gives you tools to highlight, socially share and comment on ebook texts… which, by the way, I am getting way too excited about (someone please give me an ipad!).
Imagine applying this to communities like jovoto where the discussion is around visual material. How cool would it be to anchor comments to particular elements of the proposal? Creating a navigable and visual overview of the collaborative conversation.
Incorporating features from that other ancient internet technology, wikis, Echo (beta) is developing a collaborative document authoring tool. The open source platform aims to create direct democratic action, connecting people with issues, enabling discussion, developing proposals, counter proposals, finding support and refining solutions. I’ve recently started advising them on community matters and can’t wait to see where this conversation leads me.
What I would love to see are other formats of blogging being developed where two (or more people) can conduct a form of written conversation in a similar way that seminar panels are presented. With the opportunity for readers to add questions and comments simultaneously, which can be incorporated into the dialogue– rather than waiting for an end Q&A session. There are some elements of this in Twitter already and the format of Tumblr actually has a lot of potential for more integrated written dialogue. I love webinars and skype conversations to connect in real time – when you can overcome the tyranny of time zones! But I am fascinated by the potential of distributed time lines text based commenting systems – I guess this is leading me back to one of my favourite topics non-linear narrative… and that is a whole other blog post!
Technological innovation has fundamentally changed the way we communicate, the ripples felt well beyond the tech industry echo-chamber. Meaningful innovation in core communication tools have the opportunity to change the constructs of language and dialogue (… and maybe the world).
What other ways can better conversations and collaboration be developed online? Are there already other innovations out there?