Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

Forums are broken: Introducing LibraryThing’s new Talk feature

Talk showing what the conversation is about, and whether it overlaps with my library.

This post introduces the Talk feature.

Although still developing, we think Talk is our most significant addition since LibraryThing started mining for book recommendations and similar libraries.

I’m also writing this for a somewhat larger audience than usual, because Talk is (as far as we can tell) a new way of approaching that most common—and most vexed—of website feature, the forum.

Talk is a forum system with a difference. Instead of being essentially separate from the rest of the site and organized by vague preset categories, Talk is deeply integrated into LibraryThing–the stuff and the talking about stuff wriggling around each other like amorous octopi—and organized the same way the content itself is organized, book-by-book and user-by-user.

Forums are broken.

Forums are broken. “Regular forums” are broken. There’s too much to wade through, and most of it isn’t really want you want. Creating subforums for “Romance” or “Current reading” helps, but beg the question of appropriate organization in a fixed, confining way.* Divide the word differently? You’re out of luck! And if a community forms around the preset topic, getting to know the other members of the community is a long, and not necessarily pleasant process. Because they require so much time and energy, traditional forums tend to favor “loudmouths” and worse. And the whole enterprise spoils faster than milk. Nobody digs through a year-old “Mystery” forum looking for posts about a midlist author who could equally well fall under another genre. Most don’t allow you to reply to old posts. What’s the point, when nobody else will end up reading it?

Amazon has a forum for “Historical”—and someone even posted a message!

Product forums. At the other end of the spectrum, companies like Amazon and IMDb have experimented with “product forums.” So, you can, for example, post messages on a board devoted to the hardcover edition of Freakonomics or to another–entirely separate–one for the paperback edition. If you talk about another book, you can be pretty sure nobody will ever know. Amazon tries to escape this by converting BISAC codes (a commercial alternative to LC subjects) to forums. So my wife’s upcoming Every Visible Thing points you toward the “Women’s Fiction” board (which is a little insulting). Her The Mermaids Singing gets a “Family Saga” board—boy does that board sound like fun! Product and BISAC forums get at some of the “aboutness” of forum messages, but in a very narrow way, and at the expense of community. They create a multiplicity of lonely little boxes. Oh, and who wants to talk about important things at a store?

How Talk changes things. Talk attempts to solve “the forum problem” in a simple way, with a simple (and optional) markup system. When you put brackets around “Lolita,” “Huckleberry Finn” or “Borges” you create “touchstones.”** When your message is posted, touchstones become links, making it easier for people to check out the books and authors you’re talking about.

Because they improve the message people seem not to mind adding them. Crucially, the system doesn’t require exactitude; you can type “Twain” or “Jonathan Strange” and still expect it to work. Touchstones appear to the right of your message, so you can easily spot and correct mistakes.

Talk is popping up all over.

Because LibraryThing knows what a message is about, it can provide multiple entry points to the discussion. So, a discussion of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman is referenced on ALL these author’s pages, as well as that of the books in question–Amazon’s lonely boxes get hallways between them!

Best of all, because LibraryThing also knows what books YOU have, it can show you only the forum discussions that touch them. This is what the “Your books” link does. If someone out there starts talking about Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, I’ll know. (Oh, RSS feeds are coming, of course.)

Deep intregration also solves some of the other problems with forums. Because Talk is also tied into the social system, it’s easy to find out who you’re talking to. You can do this by clicking on profile names, of course, and we’re considering adding little “similarity percentages” after names. But you can also check out the shared books in a given group. If a group’s library looks interesting, you’re probably going to like their conversation too.

Lastly, embedding “aboutness” makes old posts still relevant. You can find just the posts you want. If you end up adding to an old conversation, it won’t be “lost in the aether.” So long as people have a book, the conversation stays live. I predict that, for obscure books, conversations will become somewhat asynchronous. It might not be possible to have a lively, multi-person discussion of Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II this week on LibraryThing, but one may well develop over the longue durée. If you’re a fan of an obscure book, you’ll wait.

Groups. The last element is the most conventional. Back in July we added Groups (blog post). Groups have shared, searchable libraries, making them great for lovers, friends and clubs. But they also work for more vague “interests,” and not surprisingly many of these have sprung up. (We’re at over 500 now.)

The original plan was to have groups, and then add forums. But the explosion of groups has made us reconsider this. Instead, we’ve decided to let groups take on much of the community aspect that “preset” forums would otherwise have. We think the wildness of fluid posts appearing wherever they intersect with other site content is nicely counterbalanced by community-based groups.

The Fruit. Talk features have been coming in since we introduced groups. First flat message boards, then multi-topics boards, and so forth. In this time, some 7,200 messages have been posted, and about the same number of touchstones. That’s pretty good for an unannounced feature! Better, usage seems healthy. Of 1,900 users who have looked at more than one topic, 50% also posted. That’s very high. By focusing in on what actually touches people, LibraryThing has brought more people into the conversation. That’s a healthy community.

Get started. To get started with talk, go to the Talk tab above. Or wait for it to come to you. Links to conversations appear in book and author information pages. They’ll be showing up in your catalog soon too.

What’s left? At LibraryThing we don’t release finished features. We release interesting features, and see how things go and people react.

We’d love to see your comments here, on new groups like Recommended Site Improvements or on the Google Group (although we’d like to start moving that over). Feel free to discuss bugs, features or the whole “problem” of forums. A number of us will be watching the chatter and jumping in when it makes sense to us. Talk w another team effort. Abby, Robyn and I worked out the concepts, I did most of the forum-level programming, and Robyn did much of the interaction with groups as well as message flagging, editing and deleting.

A last note of caution. Talk is a new idea. We’re not sure it’s going to work–some users feel it’s too fragmented–but we thought it would be worth the time to find out!

*In the new world of tags and user-created site architecture, where you decide what you want to see and how its organized, forums are a throwback to unnaturally cloven tree-and-leaf structures. Real conversation does fit into non-overlapping buckets. How often have you read something like “A very similar discussion is going on over at …. “?
**No, not in the literary-critical sense.

UPDATE: See David Weinberger’s post, and a developer at Microsoft. There’s been some spirited discussion on the Google Group and the talk forums. Needless to say, this way of doing things is new, and not fully worked out. Your input will help.

Labels: 1


Leave a Reply