An Online Communication Primer

by Stubborn Mule on 1 September 2008 · 4 comments

In a recent post on his Sprechblase (“Speech Bubble”) blog, Cem Basman examines a number of different forms of communication that have evolved on the web: chat, forums, wikis, blogs and microblogs. Although the boundaries can be blurred, Cem’s summary of the key features of each of these forms is a useful one.

The original post is in German and, with the help of Google translate and my own rusty German, I have adapted it to produce an English version. I am publishing it here with Cem’s blessing. Cem couches his discussion in terms of his notion of “die Sphäre” (the “Sphere”), by which he means the totality of communication in all its forms on the web.

  1. Chats are “private” discussions between two or more invited participants. Discussions are initiated on an ad hoc basis and take place in real time. Chats are private in the sense that there is no public site where others can follow the discussion. The chat is only open to those who are invited. In some cases, chat histories may be saved by the users.
  2. Forums provide a mechanism for discussion across a wider group. Forum members post comments to discussion topics which are themselves organized into categories. Forum membership may be public, but may also be restricted by the forum administrator. All forums members can express their opinion on any given topic. Contributions to the discussion appear on the forum in chronological order. Forums facilitate discourse on complex subjects over an extended period of time. Generally, all forum participants can see all contributions, which helps discussions to build and deepen. Forums are organized into rigid hierarchies: category, topic, discussion contribution. Forums are run by third parties, users are participants.
  3. Wikis provide a means to “collectively” aggregate knowledge on a single website and make it readily accessible to the public (or to a more limited group of users, such as students or employees). They are a very productive and efficient mechansm for authors to share knowledge with one another. They are structured, but effectively self-organizing by contributors.  Wikis not for conversations or discussion, but for the systematic presentation of information. There may be special pages for discussion about potentially controversial content (although this discussion may also take place on other communication media), but a wiki is first and foremost a tool for documentation.
  4. Blogs are currently the richest mode of communication for an “individual” person on the Web. Every blog belongs to the owner of the blog and is solely their responsibility. A blog can be published by a group or community rather than an individual. A blog allows its owner complete freedom of expression and blogs span a full range of styles from formal and journalistic to deeply personal. A blog is essentially a “Netizen’s” online home. Comments on a blog allow others to contribute to the discussion. By means of web links and back and forth between blogs, as well as other forms of communication, blogs can result in extremely complex interactions. I consider blogs to be the heavy-weights of communication on the web. The patchwork of blogs forms the backbone of the “Sphere” and without them it would probably be a far more chaotic place.
  5. Microblogging is a fast-flowing form of “public” communication. Microblogs involve users posting very short messages to all of their “subscribers”. When microblogging, you typically only see messages from other people you have subscribed to. This approach is in contrast to a forum, where you see all the messages of all on all issues. Through mutual subscriptions to a circle of “friends”, users can remain in constant contact, always able to keep track of each other’s status. Microblog messages are, ideally, short and concise. A microblog’s steady stream of personal messages is presented chronological order. However, some thematic order can be achieved by means of “#hashtags”. Microblogs do share some characteristics with chat. However they are more public as there is generally a “public” stream which provides a glimpse of all conversations simultaneously and allows users to find new “friends”. Some microblogs do allow users to block their posts from this public view. The term “microblogging” is somewhat misleading: it is really a messaging medium, with only a rudimentary blog-like interface.  “Micromessaging” may be more appropriate, but for now the term “microblogging” has stuck.

As readers of my recent post on the future of microblogging will know, this is a subject near and dear to my heart and one I am sure I will return to in the future.

Note that this text has a slightly more restrictive Creative Commons licence than the rest of the material on this blog. It is also subject to the No Derivative Works requirement.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tatjana - tatjanap September 3, 2008 at 9:27 am

Well, this article is very interesting, but you forgot that chats can be publicly viewed because you forgot to mention public chat rooms where you do not need to be invited to view or participate in one. As author of this article is (I presume) German, he should maybe see GermanCorner and its chat rooms for example. And there are many more all around the web of course.

Happy chatting!
TP.

2 stubbornmule September 3, 2008 at 9:33 am

@Tatjana: You are absolutely right that there are examples of public chats. While I believe that Cem’s characterization of these different forms of communication is a useful ones, there is no doubt that the boundaries are blurred. For example, while microblogs are, generally, a public form of communication, a service like twitter also offers direct messages, which operate more like chat, and allow users to block there messages (“tweets”) from public view. It’s useful to describe black and white, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no grey!

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