Conversation Feeds

A couple of weeks back, I was having a chat with Max, one of our new developers. We were discussing improvements that could be made to the “My Conversations” page, and the conversation drifted towards RSS feeds (well, feeds in general). I started thinking about how feeds could be made more useful for conversations (because, frankly, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of trouble following conversations through feeds). I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you, and you can let me know what yours are.

  • When they are blog posts, feed items are reasonably independent from one-another. You can read a single feed item and it makes sense on its own.
  • When the elements of a feed are parts of a conversation, however, that changes. Whether the conversation is a comment stream on a blog post or the replies to a forum topic, the different elements in it are closely linked, and it’s difficult to understand one of them without seeing it really in context. Context here is two things: the initial article, forum topic, or even web page which sparked the conversation; the other comments which led the conversation to that point, or at least a number of the comments immediately preceding it in the conversation.

Now, if you keep that in mind, you’ll understand that feeds are pretty adequate for following:

  • a series of loosely joined articles (blog posts)
  • a single conversation

They are not the ideal solution for following multiple conversations simultaneously.

However, the very reason one would want to subscribe to conversation, usually, is because there is more than one to follow. (If you’re just having one conversation, or read only one blog, subscribing becomes less useful.)

So, how could we organise comment/conversation feeds to make them more usable?

The main problem I have with multiple conversation feeds is that the conversations are all mixed up. Unless I check the feed very frequently and have all the ongoing conversations present in my mind, and they’re not too busy, the main function of the feed will be to let me know which conversations have been updated, and give me a handy link to go and check them out on the original webpage.

I think a conversation feed should do more than that. Here’s how I, as a user, would like to see the conversations I’m following.

  • First, make the conversation the feed element, instead of the comment. I know this sounds bad, because we expect a feed element to be atomic, and a conversation is clearly not atomic — a comment or conversation element is. But from the reader’s point of view, the unit of meaning here is the conversation. As I said above, a comment alone usually has little value.
  • Second, provide context. If there are two new comments in a conversation I’m following, give me those two, plus 2-3 older ones to help me remember where I left off. Give me the title of the blog/forum and the post/topic name. And give me a link to the original publication page if I want to read everything.

Obviously, this can’t be done with a traditional RSS/atom implementation. You need something somewhere to count the new comments, distribute them into their respective conversations, and package it all neatly. This is where I see a service like coComment step in.

Do you think that presenting conversation feeds in this way would make them more useful for you? What other ideas would you have?

I’d like to stress that this is just my personal thinking. We’re not planning to replace the current coComment feeds by this system (and if that were to happen, we’d leave the “traditional” ones in too, I’m certain).

So. How would you like to read your conversation feeds?

Initially posted on the coComment blog.

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