Wacky Ideas from Etech, day three

by chromatic

Related link: http://conferences.oreillynet.com/etech

It's easy to have a dozen interesting conversations every day at a conference. One person wanders up, two wander away, and the topic winds from idea to idea.

That also happens online, although the idea of presence is much more difficult. Besides the non-physical components, which allow for many times more lurkers than participants, many forums have no realtime interaction.

That's a good feature — it allows more participation. It's much easier for me to collaborate with authors in Europe and Asia without one of us having to go to bed very late or wake up very early.

Of course, it's more difficult to capture the idea of ad-hoc conversations with this model. Either you use a real-time chat system such as IRC or an IM system or you use a more permanent system such as e-mail, Usenet, or a web forum.

My wacky idea is to make it easier to hold ad-hoc conversations. That's part of the idea behind Mail::SimpleList. It should be easy to create a conversation between several people. That conversation should have a defined topic and a scope.

Of course, there are thousands of existing conversations already. The trick, then, is identifying these conversations, discovering participants in existing (and, likely, completed) conversations, and putting people in contact with each other.

The real magic may be not requiring existing participants to register with a central server. I'm not convinced that's workable and scalable. Instead, it may be more important to identify, classify, and point out these conversations to people who want to participate. Dale Dougherty pointed out that many SourceForge projects are statements of interest, not code repositories. "I'm interested in the idea of writing games in high-level languages. Who else is? Where are they discussing this?"

There's probably another component. It's likely necessary to help people create their own ad-hoc conversations. That might mean bridging between Usenet, e-mail, and web forums, as Jon Udell suggested several years ago in Practical Internet Groupware.

Remember, though, applications such as Wiki perform similar services very, very simply. The real trick may be emulating self-organizing behavior among conference participants. At least, any software should allow it.

That's the wacky idea. It has lots of handwaving. I'll try to make up for it by providing actual, working code with tomorrow's wacky idea. Don't worry — it's a lot more practical.

How do *you* start and manage ad-hoc conversations? Is it valuable?