How do we make the Web better

The introductory post for The Shift started with this statement about Twitter (emphasis mine):

Twitter has become a dumping ground for ill-thought-out opinions. Removing the barriers to publishing seems like a great way to encourage people to be a part of discussions they might not otherwise. Unfortunately, for all its possibilities, the platform can actually discourage well-thought-out conversation.

Ben is completely right, but I find the complaint framed around having a conversation especially apt. I've been reading Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle and she makes the same assertion regarding social media and how it warps our understanding of the very nature of conversation. She writes that:

As we ramp up the volume and velocity of our online connections, we want immediate answers. In order to get them, we ask simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters.

This is profound and terrifying. We've traded deeper conversations for shallow ones, as a culture we are preferring quantity over quality.

We've got to go deeper

So, how do we make the Web better? Simple, go deeper and have more meaningful conversations. Done. We can all go home, thanks for reading everyone.

Not so fast. The question within the question is how do we (internet workers) have more meaningful conversations in order to make the Web better? I don't have the answer, but I have a few ideas:

  1. Pick better places or platforms for these conversations. Twitter, Reddit, and Hacker News seem to have proven they are not the correct venue.

  2. Come with truckloads of empathy.

  3. Disconnect

Platforms

I don't want to get all hippie-dippie, but writing on a blog (with comments disabled) seems like a promising alternative to social media. This is why I think the Shift is such a great idea. Blogs require work to write and work to read. That work or friction is closer to the work of an actual conversation. It's easier to blast out a snarky tweet, or rip someone apart in a comment thread. So let's start writing on blogs more and reacting to half-thoughts on Twitter less.

Empathy

People always talk about empathy. It comes up everywhere, but in practice empathy is not very sexy. The dictionary definition of empathy from Merriam-Webster is:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

Empathy is making the mental effort to think from another perspective. Empathy is having patience as someone struggles through formulating a thought. Empathy is time. We need this so badly in our conversations around the Web. We can't even begin to make the Web better if we're not going to take the time to consider other opinions or ideas.

Disconnect

Turkle highlights another side of conversation that is fading, solitude. She writes that:

of the rewards of solitude is an increased capacity for self-reflection—the conversations we have with ourselves in the hope of greater insight about who we are and want to be. Professionally, what is our vocation? Personally, what gives us purpose and meaning? Can we forgive our transgressions and those of others? In self-reflection, we come to understand ourselves better and we nurture our capacity for relationship.

To make the Web better we may need to step back and disconnect to better understand the world and how the Web fits in it. Instead of listening to podcast after podcast in our commutes, what if we spent 20 minutes just thinking in silence? Could we even bear it? We won't have those ideas to make the Web better without this "lonely thinking".

The future

The Shift is a great opportunity to start formulating some of these ideas. I'm excited to see the writings and thoughts that emerge from this experiment. At its core the Web is conversations and relationships. To make it better we need to have better conversations which will enrich our relationships which will ultimately improve the Web.