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Encouraging Engagement on the Web

by Gavin Bell
03/15/2005

Editor's note: Later this week, at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, Gavin Bell and Mark Simpkins will present a session on Public Documents as Weblogs. They'll discuss how Mark converted a public document released by the U.K. government in PDF into a blog, breaking it down into its component paragraphs, and making each a blog entry, thereby allowing for links and monitoring of conversations about the document. In this article, Gavin Bell looks at what publishers and authors can do to encourage their audiences to engage in the conversations happening on their sites, and how his talkeuro project presents a potential model for effective reader commenting and analysis.

When people comment on a site, they are engaging in a conversation with a range of other people. Comments on weblogs are a great way to interact with the author or join the topic being discussed. The act of commenting is similar to margin notes you might make in a book, but there are several key differences.

When you comment in a book, you own the comment and the book. The comment is usually private and more meaningful to you because you wrote it. The meaning of the comment is based on your knowledge of the book and its placement in the book.

When you comment on the Web, the comment becomes a public statement. Your private annotation in that book is lost. Now, the meaning of the annotation needs to be understood by everyone, not just you. This is harder to do, as you are no longer writing just for yourself. (For some recent research that looks at the behaviour of those making annotations, see Churchill and Marshall.)

When you comment on the web the comment becomes a public statement. Now, your privacy of annotation in that book is lost. The meaning of the annotation needs to be understood by everyone, not just you. This is harder to do, as you are no longer writing just for yourself. O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

So, let's apply this annotation metaphor to the Web. Social software, ranging from message boards to weblogs, has transformed the annotation on written material into a form of conversation that takes place between the weblog's author and its readers. Each post becomes a forum or mini message board, especially for the more popular weblogs.

So, does this move from annotation to conversation lose something of value in the transfer? Message boards and weblogs are very focused on the current moment, or on the last five comments, or on the last two weeks. Everything moves forward at a hectic pace. The advent of weblog spam is only encouraging this focus on the now, as current spam-blocking tools encourage web sites to shut down conversation after two weeks in many cases. Some web sites have started removing comments altogether.

Whether you follow this trend depends on how much you value the information that you as author or publisher have already published. Closing down comments is a shame, as it denies the capability for long-term engagement and focuses your readers even more on the now. Search engines extend the reach of your articles, but not allowing your readers to join in on a conversation is unwelcoming, to say the least.

Admiring the Long View

Stewart Brand and his Long Now Foundation and Chris Anderson's concept of the Long Tail both strongly recommend taking a long-term world view. The Long Now Foundation encourages a view of the world further ahead than the next quarter, while the Long Tail concept shows the strength present in a good archive of content. Less frequently accessed content can be a rich source of income or audience, given the quantity of it, compared with the content published today. Electronic publishers of all media have a good stake in this area but lack the tools needed to address what's happening. Current analysis tools in many cases do little more than throw things into heaps.

So, what are the motivations of people to comment on a document or have a conversation, and how do we currently support those needs on our web sites? We'll offer ideas to help answer these questions in this article, but first, let's look at the three types of common online dialogue:

  1. Weblog comment or annotation. This focuses on a particular, often narrow topic and is in response to the published article or a previous comment.
  2. General message board. Users can define their own topics, but within the confines of the overall topics set up by the site owner.
  3. Collaborative writing tools. Wikis are one example. The lines between author and publisher are blurred, but the topic and structure are usually directly from or influenced by the publisher.

These three can be described as annotation, discussion, and writing, and they need to be supported separately, as they provide for different levels of engagement with a subject. Let's examine how we can provide support for all three types.

Talkeuro Project

In the soon-to-launch talkeuro project, we will be exploring all three types of commenting and analysis. The talkeuro project has taken the European Constitution and turned it into an integrated set of weblogs and wikis, inviting people to comment on or annotate the document. The European Constitution is a static document, but it will have a long life, potentially 15 to 20 years. We are inviting the public to discuss and comment on their potential future; then, after ratification, the document will be a resource for the people of Europe to use as a reference point for their history.

This offers a new model for interaction--the new content for the site will come only from the readers' comments. (The site owner does not publish any new content.) Thus, the focus changes from a curiosity with the new to an ongoing engagement with the whole document. The European Constitution is a final document; readers interact with each article of the document.

The talkeuro project supports the three types of dialogue discussed earlier in this article, using the following techniques, of which the first is the most important:

  1. Annotation via weblog comments. These will build up over time and act as a primary historical record of the public thinking around the document.
  2. General discussion of the themes presented in the document, using a traditional, time-based discussion board that's responsive to current events and searchable, but focused on the now.
  3. Use of a wiki in parallel with the weblog categories, which will provide for detailed analysis as well as a "people's version." Snapshots of the wiki pages will give a sense of how this version changes over time.

The wiki will help attract those people who are deeply involved with the subject and want to write more than a simple annotation. The message boards provide new users with a more gentle introduction to the site, but allow them to cite sections of the document using the permalinks. There is also a sister project, consultationprocess, which allows for a faster-moving engagement of the process.

What does all this mean? In traditional web sites and weblogs, new content comes mainly from the author or publisher. On message boards it comes mainly from the public, but it is heavily focused on an ongoing conversation. When you put a static document online and allow annotation on every page, the activity happens across the document, as there is no driver to the newest content.

The static document as a weblog concept with annotation thus changes the landscape for web sites. The lack of new content from the author means the discussion is between the users of the site, mediated purely by their response to the document.

It may be helpful to delve into the urban planning area for a moment. Consider the levels of a city and how we learn to navigate within it. You learn landmarks and routes and neighbourhoods, all familiar terms from web information architecture. For static document annotation sites, the commenting behaviour is like the activity of a city. It can be best thought of as a marketplace, with the different articles representing stalls and the commenting representing the conversation. Over the course of months and years, different conversations will happen in different areas of the site. Given that talkeuro is planned to be live for 10 to 15 years, this is plenty of time for users to become familiar with the topics and lay down layers of conversation. Being able to see where today's conversation is happening is easy; however, seeing the pattern over weeks and months is a harder task.

Recognizing Patterns Visually

How we recognise and visualise the slower ebb and flow is not easy with current tools, which focus primarily on what's new and/or popular. How do you show that one particular area was busy two or three months ago, or that some section gets consistent traffic but not enough to make the top five in terms of comments or visits on a regular basis?

Being able to visualise this data is useful both for the user of the site and for the site owner, as it allows each to see the possible conversations occurring across the site. There are many data points that can be used to display this behaviour, and the analysis allows interpretation of the behaviour. It is a matter of finding the right axis to spread them across, and using other attributes to stretch the data out, so that people can see the individual articles and comments. It is important that these be placed at the right locations on the site, so as to engage the attentions of the readers at the right time.

Then it is a case of using colour, size, and counts to display this information in a way that gives meaning without adding clutter. Embellishing the navigational text is a useful mechanism for providing additional meaning; brighter colours or larger text emphasise where things are happening. Techniques such as Edward Tufte's sparklines will also work well. Other attributes that are available range from web server logs to visitor locations to people's email addresses to popularity or recency measures of the comments or edits.

Tagging gives a second way into the content, allowing people to see what is being read or written about, then seeing all topics matching this area. Examples such as the Folksonomic Zeitgeist on the Observer Blog or the tag display on Flickr show how it is possible to use a level of indirection, via the tags, to lead your users to new content.

The aim of all of this is to direct people to engage with the document and allow them to understand the layers of conversation that have occurred. For talkeuro this will be over a long period, so we will be looking at mechanisms to allow people to go back in time on the site.

All of this rests on good URL design, which is essential for persistent information resources. This is critical for the weblog and wiki elements of the site, but less so for the message boards, as they are of a more contemporary nature. To determine the best URL structures, the principles of REST are helpful, as is a close analysis of the text you are representing.

Finally, psychology and the social sciences have a lot to teach us in this area. In addition, the hypertext and web literature, such as the ACM Digital Library, have much to offer in terms of analysis of user behaviour. IBM has even published tutorials on how to perform better data analysis using more powerful statistical techniques.

Summary

The talkeuro project will continue to explore this novel area of social software. Post launch, we intend to involve users in iterative design, and appeal to the development community to collaborate with us in exploring the future for engagement with public documents.

Making sense of what people think and have said about important documents is key to being able to help people engage with the decisions that affect their lives.

Gavin Bell designs social web applications for the Nature Publishing Group. He is an interaction designer, community advocate and product manager.


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