Essays on Technology and Culture

Conversational Startups

I’ve been checking out a couple of new-ish services that focus around connecting people and fostering conversation online. Of these services, my favorite is Climbing Fish which focuses on connecting “social actualizers” [1] face-to-face in meatspace. Through them, I had a nice conversation with Christopher Smothers, the creator of a similar service Positive Space. Positive Space lacks the offline component, but aims to foster conversation. Of the services I’ve tried, not all of them are great, but they do have me thinking about the role technology can play in fostering conversation.

What unites services like Positive Space and Branch is that they seek to overcome the limits of services like Twitter for sustained one-on-one conversation. Branch piggybacks on Twitter, and seems to only work well if you have a large number of active Twitter followers. I posted a Branch months ago, and got no response, despite asking my follower base. Meanwhile Positive Space relies a little more on serendipity it seems. It was over a month before I got a reply to my first post, but finding posts to reply to is easy(-ish). Climbing Fish, on the other hand, is an email intermediary, connecting its users and putting the onus of the offline step on them.

I suppose the advantage of the online-based services is that they offer sustained one-on-one conversation that goes beyond the limitations of Twitter. Your comments aren’t going to get lost in a popular user’s stream of @-replies, and you don’t have to worry about jump-ons from people you don’t know. The problem for me is that I get my engaged conversation fix on App.Net using @-replies. The 256 character limit on ADN makes conversation easier [2] and I don’t find conversational jump-ons to be a problem. In fact, jump-ons are a feature of ADN, as the community is both small and active enough that jump-ons are a great way to discover new people to follow, and jumping on to a conversation is a great way to get involved.

One shouldn’t just dismiss a service or app as useless. There’s a use case for almost anything out there. I’m just struggling to see the value of online conversation services with the obvious competition of ADN. Positive Space has a decent discovery mechanism, but after poking through a few “Spaces” I found precious little worth talking about. Climbing Fish attempts to play algorithmic matchmaker, and I already mentioned the problem with Branch. For someone who doesn’t want to take the plunge of joining another social stream, or wants to leverage an existing follower base, Branch and Positive Space may work. For me? They’re just services I signed up for and forget about. Which is disappointing, as there’s clearly potential to be tapped.

  1. I don’t exactly know what that means, but it’s a very douchebaggy term.  ↩

  2. Positive Space limits posts to 250 characters. Branch allows up to 750. Both are way more than Twitter’s 140 characters, though Twitter and ADN count the @name of every person you’re replying to towards that limit.  ↩