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.