Building a conversation platform — Part 1

Symmetry and synchrony of online conversations

First of all, what kind of conversation platform? An online conversation can be characterized in many different ways, but let’s focus on two aspects for now: how synchronous and how symmetric it is.

A synchronous conversation happens in real time, where the conversing parties are all present at the same time, waiting idle and blocked for each others’ messages. While an asynchronous conversation does not happen in real time, and the parties are not waiting for each other, but doing whatever else they’ve got to do, and replying whenever they please to reply, after a message arrives. A good example of a synchronous conversation is instant messaging, while email is the typical asynchronous platform.

An asymmetric conversation is such that not all its parties are equal, but there‘s one that is dominant or privileged in any way. Or, in other words, the quantity and quality of messages is not the same in all directions. Again, any chat is a good example of a symmetric conversation platform, as in most aspects, chatting parties are equal, and exchange similar messages. While a blog post and its comments represent the typical asymmetric setup, where the blog post is the central, dominant element, and its comments surround it, like moons orbiting a planet. The arrow clearly points from the post to its commenters, the communication is not bidirectional — the author proclaims, and the readers reflect, in comments. Also, the blog post is edited and long, while comments tend to be terse.

We may think about these two aspects as if these were independent and orthogonal. As dimensions:

Figure 1

But in this discussion, we will rather see this space as a one-dimensional spectrum, where on one end there is symmetric and synchronous instant messaging, and on the other end asymmetric and asynchronous blog commenting. And forums somewhere in between.

We will do so, because our focus is going to be on one particular characteristic of these three conversation platforms, namely that the blog commenting kind of conversation is a shallow but highly branching tree (one of the extremes of the spectrum), while the chat kind of conversation is deep, but doesn’t branch at all (the other extreme). And forums are in the middle, branching and deeper:

Figure 2: blog commenting, forums, and instant messaging conversation trees

Comments and chats are both quite limited forms of conversation: commenting on a blog post usually serves as a means for readers to provide feedback to the author, and comments, in most cases, are just merely a flat list of such feedback. While chats, on the other end, are meandering brooks, where every message reflects only on the previous one, and the conversation exists in a kind of eternal present, without any past or future (origin or destination). It is hardly the suitable format for any meaningful discourse.

So where is our conversation platform on this spectrum, ranging from blogs to chats? Actually, we are going to describe one that scales along the full spectrum, and unifies all these concepts in one single model. That is suited for both public discourse, like blogs, and intimate conversations, like chats, and everything else in between (e.g. forums). And hopefully, now that we saw how a chat, a forum or a blog with comments are fundamentally the same thing, only with varying settings, it is pretty easy to imagine how we will go about this in the next part.