The Rise of Conversation Media

While you've probably heard the saying, "Content is King," the sites that reign supreme in today's Web world don't just produce great content, they create a culture of passionate participants and a community of conversation.

Couple talking on tin can phones

Content will only take you so far if you don’t listen to what your users are trying to say.

While you’ve probably heard the saying, “Content is King,” the sites that reign supreme in today’s Web world don’t just produce great content, they create a culture of passionate participants and a community of conversation. It’s like BoingBoing author and editor Cory Doctorow said, “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”

The broadcast and communications media of the twentieth century, the age of radio and television, phone and fax, are giving way to the conversation media of the twenty-first century, the age of Digg and YouTube, Facebook and Google. This is a profound paradigm shift towards the cooperative creation of content by an entire community, a shared endeavor that makes every participant both creator and consumer. No longer is content created and distributed by a small group of professionals, and no longer are conversations held between a single sender and a single recipient.

There are a number of flavors of the new media. For social networking sites like Facebook, content just gives users something to talk about. Sites like Wikipedia use conversation as a means to generate an entire encyclopedia’s worth of collaborative content. Sites like Digg create communities where the quality of content is determined solely by the amount of conversation it generates, where recommendations and discussion – not the whims of the editor – are the difference between forgettable and front page news.

The sites that are best able to harness the power of conversation media will help to shape the next generation of web media. All it takes is to create a community that rewards participation and encourages users not only to consume, but to start contributing as well.

Instant Conversation – Just Add Comments?

While content-driven sites can often benefit from conversation, you can’t just add a comment form at the bottom of each page and call it a day. A community is built around active, eager participants. Your site has to give them a reason to get involved. This means understanding your users and creating an attractive, compelling community. Users participate for a number of reasons. Here are some of the big ones:

  • “Look what I made!” People love to express themselves. It’s very rewarding to share your creations with an audience of appreciative fans. Sites like YouTube give users both the means to share and the social tools to converse with their newfound audience.
  • “Look what I found!” Sharing a particularly exciting or interesting discovery is gratifying. Sites like Digg let users share their discoveries and let other users share their opinions by creating conversations around the content that keep it lively and entertaining.
  • “Look what I know!” Some sites are built around groups of people who want to get better at a shared task by talking about it. There are Google Groups and niche sites for every conceivable subject and they’re used join discussions, answer questions and share skills. Members can get help and also offer their own assistance.

These three examples share a common theme. The YouTubers that post the best videos, the Diggers that share the most interesting stories and the community members that provide the most assistance are all rewarded by the recognition of their peers. Peer recognition is the most powerful incentive to contribute to a community and to engage in conversation, and creating a culture where members are recognized for their participation will help ensure a lively conversation and an active community.

Creating Many-to-Many Conversations

There is one site that best exemplifies the new breed of conversation media. This site does not generate content and provides few features, yet it is one of the fastest growing sites in history and has entered like no other into the everyday language of modern life. I’m speaking, of course, of Twitter. Twitter’s profound effect on online conversation is, at first, hard to explain. Text messaging beat them to the character limit and blogging beat them to personal broadcasting. No, the secret to Twitter’s success is that by lowering the transaction cost and making conversations both ubiquitous and personal, Twitter enables communication on a scale never before seen, and that has been truly groundbreaking.

The broadcast media of the twentieth century, like radio, television and newspaper, offer widespread distribution of content, but give the consumer no creative control. The communications media of the twentieth century, like phones, faxes and text messaging, are all about one-to-one conversation. The conversation media of the twenty-first century, however, are a complex network connecting each member to an entire community, giving everyone the opportunity to contribute.

This kind of complex, many-to-many conversation has the potential to create large, vibrant networks of like-minded members. The size of the community is limited only by the incentives it provides its members to participate in conversation. Sites that create a culture of conversation break down the barriers of traditional broadcast and communications media, turning consumers into contributors and a group of users into a community.

About the Author

Rein Henrichs

Rein Henrichs is a web developer with a background in print and web design. He’s passionate about creating usable interfaces of all kinds and likes to talk to people about the web, usability and writing good software on his blog. He likes it even more when people talk back.

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9 Comments

  • Milo Reply

    Insightful article. What’s you opinion about Facebook’s 2x rate of growth over Twitter last month? Does it matter?

  • Colleen Jones Reply

    Hi Rein,

    Thought-provoking article! I see conversation and UGC as new forms of content in addition to, not in replacement of, editorially or professionally developed content. In other words, I think it takes all kinds. Picking the right kinds depends on your goals. I really like your outline of the purposes and motivations for conversation.

    Not too long ago, I had a chat with the editor-in-chief of HowStuffWorks.com, a very popular website with a unique editorial approach. He compared user generated content with reality TV. While TV went extreme with “reality” programs for a while, the pendulum swung back to professionally produced programs. Now, TV has a mix of both. He predicted that the same would happen with the web. I tend to agree. We’ll see what happens!

  • Danny | dannyhinde.com Reply

    This is something I was thinking about recently, as a blogger it’s disheartening when you spend time writing a article and nobody responds. Knowing what other people think about a subject you have wrote about make the whole article much stronger and interesting than if your view is the only one viewable.

    And on that note, NICE ARTICLE!

  • Rein henrichs Reply

    @Milo: I think the math may be a bit off, but I’m not sure that it matters either way. Twitter is the Coke of conversation. It created a new category, an entirely new market. It needn’t remain the leader for the rest of us to benefit. The category is there, and it’s changing the way that people communicate. If Facebook wants to take up the mantle and move the category forward, Twitter might lose (or not), but everyone else wins.

    @Colleen Jones: @Colleen Jones: @Colleen Jones: I find Reality TV (created, produced and edited by professionals in a traditional broadcast medium using untrained and unscripted actors) to be an unconvincing analogy for user-generated content in a conversation medium, where a community of like-minded participants gather to share their knowledge and create conversations around it.

    Regardless, it’s not the content that makes conversation media powerful. It’s their ability leverage that content by using it to generate conversation and engage a community. Conversation has a multiplying effect on the power of content and this applies to all content, user generated or otherwise. To use your example, I suspect that HowStuffWorks.com would be an even more useful resource if it gave community members the opportunity to ask follow-up questions and to receive feedback from the author and other members. They do an excellent job of creating and distributing content but they don’t have any social tools in place to leverage that content further. The content is there, but no one is talking about it.

  • BebopDesigner Reply

    Brilliant post! I consider myself a preacher of social media (specially twitter). I work for an NGO and there I’ve noticed that many organizations and businesses are trapped in the late 90′s when people created a website, wacked in a bunch of keywords and waited for a miracle to happen. These guys need to understand how things are changing and how quick they do so. Every given chance I have at work or with personal clients, I try hard to explain and encourage people to have a look and have a taste of social networking. We should all spread the word. What do you reckon? am I losing it?

  • Peter Craddock Reply

    @BebopDesigner: I agree, because I’ve recently made a website refresh for an NGO, who wanted a dynamic website, … But they don’t seem to understand that the content has to be updated for a website to be dynamic, and I’m having a hard time making them understand how easy to use the back-end is (a three-step process [login, "create content" link, and write content] seems too much for them?). Though they know how to make content, it seems they haven’t quite understood how necessary it is.

    Given how they tackle their website, I doubt they will turn to other social networking methods…

  • Colleen Jones Reply

    Hi Rein!

    In finding the analogy of reality tv unconvincing, you imply that people always use social media appropriately–in a community of engaged, like-minded people. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. There are lots of “dead” attempts at social media out there. Recently in a webinar for Rosenfeld Media about Content Strategy for Websites, Kristina Halvorson pointed out a failed attempt at a YouTube channel for Swiffer. If you take a hard look around, there are TONS of dead blogs, Twitter accounts, and other conversational channels on out there.

    Also, reality TV often has a participation / conversation / user generated component, such as voting on American Idol. So, I believe the analogy largely applies.

    I like that you emphasize there has to be a clear purpose for the social media. If HowStuffWorks were to add social media components, it would not meet any of the three purposes you outline. HowStuffWorks covers so many topics in so many areas that building a cohesive community would be tough. HowStuffWorks would need to develop a strategy that identifies the types of communities to develop and how to do so, then mesh that with their editorial approach. It would not just be a matter of adding comment functionality.

    My point? Social media and conversational content is an exciting OPTION to consider in a larger content strategy. It will never completely replace editorially and professionally developed content. It also is not a panacea that solves the problem of content in UX or marketing.

  • Rein henrichs Reply

    @Colleen Jones: Hi Colleen,

    I don’t want our discussion of the Reality TV analogy to overshadow the excellent points you raise so I’ll try to address them directly. I believe the analogy was used to demonstrate that user-generated content is not a replacement for professionally created and edited content. I agree. Both types of content have their place. The focus of the original article, however, is not how content is created, but how it can be leveraged through conversation. The key difference is that I don’t use conversation to mean a form of content. I use conversation to indicate the *process* that creates content (i.e. as a verb, not a noun). It is the process — rather than the product — that is the focus of the article. How to identify it, how to encourage it, how to use it to leverage content (by, indeed, creating more content)

    I also agree that conversation requires a holistic strategy to be effective. It can’t just be a “bolt on” or an afterthought. To quote the article, “you can’t just add a comment form at the bottom of each page and call it a day.” The best conversation media are the result of a conscious effort to design a content strategy that incentivizes community participation. Stackoverflow.com comes to mind.

  • clippingimages Reply

    Sure, Heavy growth in conversation Media. Thanks for saaring this post.

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