Engaging the power of (online) conversationWhy online conversation matters

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Conversation is a little miraculous

Conversation is a little miraculous. Through conversation we learn about the world around us, about each other, and about ourselves. We discover what we have in common and how we look at things differently. We arrive at common solutions and build lasting agreement about how to do a better job, together.

You can find evidence of the transformative power of conversation in just about any field. When you read stories about people who are trapped in life-endangering situations (like a building collapse), they often say that what let them survive was another person engaging them in extended conversation. Atul Gawande’s Better, which looks at innovation in medicine, recounts how the one really proven technique for getting healthcare workers to wash their hands (the single most powerful healthcare innovation!!) is to get those workers into a focused conversation about handwashing. Our entire political system is built around conversation: the belief that even in a society of diverse and competing interests, there are opportunities for reconciliation and agreement if you can get a representative group of people talking.

The wonder of the Internet is in its ability to extend that miracle of conversation into all aspects of our lives, from the fun of choosing a restaurant for dinner to the work of planning your next company meeting. Our real-world conversations are limited by geography and time: we converse with the people who cross our paths, and we have access only to as much experience, knowledge and insight as those people carry with them. Go online and you can find a conversation about literally any topic, in almost any language, with just about any kind of person you can imagine.

Those online conversations can take many forms. It might be a structured exchange of knowledge on a company intranet or wiki. It could be a wide open free-for-all on a public blog or forum.  It could be a review site, with comments and ratings. It can be a conglomeration of related videos on YouTube. It can be as simple as a one-to-one private e-mail exchange.

While social media commentators describe more and more of the web as conversational, Internet users experience very little of their time online as conversation per se. When you look up a restaurant review or add your agenda items to the virtual meeting room, on your company Intranet,  do you think of that as conversation? Probably not. That’s because technology tends to disguise two important kinds of conversation cues: time and faces.

We’re used to thinking of conversation as the back-and-forth that happens when two or more people sit down face-to-face.  And that kind of conversation is important! In fact it’s the backbone of what we are able to do online: people who are good at face-to-face conversation can bring their skills and sensitivity into the Internet with them, strengthening pre-existing relationships and forging new ones.

All too often we leave our knowledge about real-world conversations behind once we get online, however. Unlike offline conversation, which is synchronous – people talking together in real time – online conversation is often asynchronous: I say something, and you respond to it hours, days or even months later. Even more challenging, online conversation is often faceless: I read your e-mail or blog post  but I’m seeing the words on the screen, not the person behind them.

For online conversation to have the power of real conversation, we have to create our own face-time continuum. As an Internet user, that means picturing the person who you are hearing from (or talking to) as if they were sitting across from you at this very moment. As a community animator, that means imagining the members of your online community as a group of friends gathered around your dinner table, right now. As a person or organization looking to launch a new conversation, that means visualizing not your would-be site, but your would-be visitors: live human beings who will or won’t choose to stop by your desk in the course of their busy day, or drop by your party in the course of a lively night.

After all, It’s the person at the other end of the machine that differentiates the power of the Internet --- the power of connection – from the raw computing power that sits in your laptop or desktop. And it’s in enabling interaction with that other person – the capacity to engage in conversation – that social media realizes the potential of online connection.

For the past dozen years, and especially the past three, Rob and I have been digging into that potential.  Through online campaigning and online research (respectively), we tried to understand what motivates people to reach out and connect online, and what can happen when they do. And through our work as Social Signal, we’ve seized on the latest generation of social web tools to make that connection easier, more fun, and more fruitful for our clients.

While we’ve spent the past few years deep in the trenches of planning and launching online conversations, we’ve never stopped thinking about the larger implications of these latest conversational technologies. We’ve built our understanding of what it takes to get people engaged in an online conversation, and we’ve longed to connect those on-the-ground tactics with an aerial view of how people, organizations and societies make strategic change. We’ve been exhilarated by the turn towards a conversational Internet, and desperate to relate that online conversation to what we know about conversation as an engine of change.

And we’ve never seen a greater need for powerful conversation – the kind of conversation from which change can emerge. Our economy faces unprecedented volatility: businesses need to find better ways to work, new sources of innovation, ways of tapping the fullest potential of their employees and customers. Our society embodies vast disparities of wealth and opportunity that call more and more of us to the service of our struggling communities. Our planet is in the deepest possible distress, and we are the greatest obstacle to – and prospect for -- its recovery.

On- and offline, conversations unfold that address these profound challenges. People who separately hold pieces of each solution come together to share knowledge, build coalitions, and create change. The conversations are intense, and difficult, and transformative. The moments when we can talk together are precious. And there are so few of them, and so much to do: it takes the Internet to cast the wide net, provide the broad platform, to enable the breadth and depth of conversations we need.

We’re not the only ones to see that need. Management gurus and social theorists, policymakers and citizen activists: so many people point to the Internet as the crucial channel for birthing organizational innovation or large-scale social change.  The Internet is the medium for achieving the transformations we need: the only question is how.

Like any big question, it can’t be answered by one person (or even two). It can only be answered in conversation. We invite you to join us in that conversation, today.

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