The Ecosystem of Asychronicity

Every educated person should learn some basic skills for getting information out of online environments, but I would be the first to admit that reading asynchronous, threaded conversations for information is a much more challenging and low-value activity most of the time. I’ve been doing it for so long that I’m accustomed to it: it is a skill that old-time participants in the Internet acquired long before they learned HTML or tagging or search. Reading and writing to bulletin boards or Usenet is pretty much the ur-Internet, along with email.

When I stop to think about how I scan through an ongoing asynchronous discussion, I can break down some of what I’m seeing and how I’m seeing it. Let me take as an example a thread at Boing Boing from yesterday, concerning a YouTube video of a raccoon stealing food from a cat.

There’s 52 comments as I write this posting, which is the first piece of information I get about the thread. The post count is higher than most Boing Boing discussions. So there’s something going on in that discussion. But high post-counts appear for three different reasons. 1) Because the original post attracts reader attention more acutely and responsively, and many enter the thread with the intention of replying directly to the original post; or 2) because some single respondent has said something exceptionally provocative which is driving many later posters to reply; or 3) because two or more very distinct and persistent factions or divisions of opinion have chosen the post as a site to play out a long-running disagreement which is widely distributed across a range of conversations and websites.

What’s nice about this particular thread in terms of that list is that all three of those forces are present in the responses. Even near the end of the thread, you can see some posters commenting on the original post without any acknowledgement of or interest in the conversation that has developed, where they’ve clearly watched the video and want to comment on it directly and so enter the thread. Long-running threads in asynchronous forums often draw this kind of delayed response, but this kind of reply can also be a real irritant to people who have been participating in the conversation all along. To them, it is just a repetition of something already said, and may even reset some evolving consensus back to its “original” state of disagreement. But this also points to the laborious character of asynchronous discussion: someone excited by an initial claim or provocation may not want to have to read days and days of back-and-forth posting. Asynchronous discussions can be somewhat like the collision between someone who only has a long-term memory and someone who only has a short-term memory.

You also see individual posters who enter the thread with unusually provocative statements that become an occasion for further comments, such as the person who suggests that he’d rather see an eight-month old baby have to fight for its food against a raccoon than see a helpless pet do so. Finally, you see some fairly stable, long-term positions on animals, pets, wilderness, guns, YouTube videos and so on entering into the conversation.

Here’s the interesting question: when do participants in such a thread either change their own views because of the discussion, form a kind of consensus, or learn some new empirical information that “sticks”? (And thus: when might a reader of such a thread have the same experiences?) For example, quite a few participants observe that a raccoon active during the day is likely to have rabies. Other participants either contrast their own personal experience against this assertion to challenge it, or make more authoritative knowledge-based claims that raccoons active during the daytime, particularly in suburban areas, are not necessarily or even probably rabid. Some threads move towards consensus on factual claims, with people who originally asserted one fact eventually conceding that some other information is more accurate. Some don’t.

Another example from the thread concerns the question of whether this is anthropogenically-caused behavior in a raccoon, or whether the raccoon’s adaptation to suburban or human environments is in fact “natural” to the species. Here we’ve got something messier going on, because this is only partially a factual claim. It’s also a philosophical framework, in ways that the various respondents may not be fully conscious about. So it’s less likely that either view is going to be persuasive, or provoke respondents to simply concede a statement of fact. But this is informationally interesting to a reader: you’ve learned something about some common frames of reference that different people bring to bear on the original video, some deep assumptions in the wider culture.

You can also see a movement towards consensus and community-building in the discussion. By the end of the conversation, I would say that almost every respondent seems to think that the person who created the video is irresponsible on some level, even if the video is amusing, that some sort of social contract between the cat-owner and the cat has been broken. (Which the cat’s frequent entreating looks back at the camera hammer home.) That’s interesting both rhetorically and sociologically.

I would completely agree that many asychronous conversations are frustrating to participants and difficult to parse for any reader who wasn’t there at the time. With practice and familiarity, however, I think there are a lot of things you can learn from reading such conversations, even with a very long time lapse between the creation of such discussions and the interpretation of them.

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6 Responses to The Ecosystem of Asychronicity

  1. Bob Rehak says:

    There’s a metaphor to be drawn out here about how the various thread contributors compete for control of the thread’s meaning — or at least the priorities and direction of its conversational flow — in much the same manner as the cat and raccoon struggle over the kibble supply. But maybe I’m reaching.

    More seriously, do you see the same dynamics of asychrony, consensus, and frustration operating in the threaded discussions of something like LiveJournal? Put more open-endedly, how is the “ecosystem” reconfigured (if at all) by alternative ways of laying out, and enforcing certain patterns upon, online conversation?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    LJ threads are a really interesting contrast. I think it’s only partly about how the thread is laid out. It’s also about the community that livejournals and some blogs have historically nurtured: much more focused on the personal lives and experiences of individuals, generally more social and more long-term. Every once in a while, a livejournal or highly personal blog will suddenly draw general attention to a particular thread, and it’s always interesting to see how shell-shocked and disturbed that usually leaves the more habitual community of posters and respondents.

    The most interesting asynchronous discussions I can think of anywhere are at Unfogged. I usually find myself coming into those late, and often typecast in the role of wet blanket, scold or humorless prat when I do, but damn if they aren’t always fun to read and lurk in. More importantly, watching how they move within a given discussion, about the twists and turns, about the in-jokes, and so on, is just a really great demonstration both of what asynchronous discussions can be and about how daunting they can be if you’re trying to make sense of them without having the experience of participating in them on an ongoing basis.

  3. Doug says:

    There’s also the degree of conscious performance involved, which sometimes at Unfogged is considerable. It’s aided there both by the pseudonymity and the history of the place. That doesn’t make it any less fun to read, but when you post there, you also know that you’re playing in front of a tough crowd.

  4. Narya says:

    I’d take the asynchronous discussions at I Blame the Patriarchy. Though, admittedly, I often skip the comments entirely if I see there are many, and it certainly inhibits me from joining in. I find the posts themselves to be less interesting at Unfogged, which brings up another aspect of this: At some sites–like IBTP–the author’s commentary can stand alone, i.e., I can read the post, and skim or skip or read or add to the comments, as I see fit. My experience at Unfogged was that the posts themselves tended to be less meaty, and the conversation was almost all in the comments. And, there, I found that the in-jokes were much harder to grok for the casual reader. That combo–shorter, less-meaty posts, and relatively insular commentary–tends to keep me away. But YMMV, of course.

  5. Narya says:

    Incidentally, I did like your analysis, which I neglected to mention.

  6. jpool says:

    Not that they’re exactly parallel, but, for those of us interested in sources for popular consciousness in mid-twentieth century Africa, I think that there’s an interesting analogous dynamic in newspaper discussions. I’m thinking in particular of Jonathan Glassman’s awe-inspiring work, but also Jonathan Reynolds, Kenda Mutongi and Lynn Thomas (as well as, of course, some of my own modest research). There are some obvious difference in these fora, particularly in terms of the ease and speed of response, but I think also some real parallels in terms of a tacking back and forth between a semi-public discussion and numerous preexisting private ones, different forms of authority being asserted, etc.

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