The Online Conversational Onion

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

1. The Closed Space

Closed spaces are where your conversations are as private as you want them to be. Dominated the by the social networks (Facebook, Bebo, MySpace) as well as the network-focused blog platforms (Vox, Livejournal), they are as much communication services as publishing platforms. You choose exactly who you want to publish to – and who you don’t. And much of what you publish won’t be available at all to the internet as a whole. 
They are, in effect, tools masquerading as places. 
*I use these spaces purely for contacting friends who use them as their main space.*
2. The Community Space
This is where conversation on the web began. The [video I posted last week]( highlighted the evolution of these sites from BBSes, to their most recent incarnations as forums. Here, most of what you publish is publicly available, but essentially inwards looking. You may point at other things from a forum post, but the conversation will happen within the forum space. Regulars will go look, but come back to discuss things. The barrier to entry is rather high – you need to register, and that allows you to define yourself within the system, but you don’t get the control benefits that are conveyed by the Closed Space. Equally, you don’t get the ownership of your content you get in the Distributed Space.
However, there’s still a distinct sense of place about them – you go to this place to do this thing. And then you leave. It’s a concept that maps well onto the physical world, and so it’s easy for the less internet-literate to grasp. And, like a well-occupied local pub, that can create a place that is at once inclusionary (for those already “in”) and exclusionary (for those looking to join).
*This is where I lived around 10 years ago. Nowadays, I’m, at best, an occasional, utility visitor to these spaces. *
3. The Distributed Space
This is what we used to call the blogosphere, and which is in the process of evolving into something else. Conversations which used to happen primarily between blogs are now expanding out into a multiplicity of spaces. Rather than going to a place (or places) on the internet to have your conversation, you follow the conversation stream of the people within your interest groups into whatever services they’re using. This is why the effort to open up the social graph – tranferring social network-like relationship data between services – is so important; it facilitates you tracking your community through different conversation streams. Each person tends to “own” multiple places – their blog, their Twitter account, their Flickr stream. There’s now a strong effort to build a meta layer (possibly another onion layer in the making) on top of these distributed places, with efforts like FriendFeed allowing you to aggregate your activity in multiple different places, and watch your friends’ activity streams.
This is an incredibly hard space to get your head around, except by getting our there and doing it. Services like FriendFeed and Twitter make almost no sense at all unless you’re already using them, and are already familiar with the idea of having your conversations in such a non-contained manner.
*This is my natural habitat these days. *
**Conclusion**This is clearly a work in progress, some intial thoughts on how these layers operate. There’s some blurring of the lines. Many big blogs’ comments, for example, function as Community Spaces, even if the blog is part of a Distributed Space. And I need to do significant thinking about what types of people use the different spaces and for what purposes. But at least it’s out of my head and into the blog. 🙂
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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.