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Study General What makes for a good conversation?
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What makes for a good conversation?
I've been reading and participating on this site for a couple weeks now and it's got me thinking about the act of conversation itself. What draws us each other for intellectual stimulation. The answer seems obvious: conversations are ways for us to explore our mind and learn from one-another. We ask questions and we bounce ideas and we challenge our own perceptions. Conversations allow for intellectual progression as well as the opportunity to be social. They can be fun, stimulating, educational, thought-provoking, and sometimes argumentative.

But as you scroll through the hundreds of posts throughout this website you'll find a number of unanswered questions and conversations that have fallen off. Not necessarily because they weren't well thought out or well-written or uninteresting, but maybe for some other reasons. So I wonder if there is any list of rules or guidelines or characteristics we might formulate that could predict a popular conversation.

How can we create meaningful conversation? Well, active and thoughtful participants seem to be required. Luckily this site seems to attract a fine number of those. Which brings us to the topic, why should some topics do well and others not? Certainly a very specific discussion about a particular thing limits the audience. Thus the more a topic is open to be abstracted the more likely it will attract responses. A truly great discussion is one that anyone can take part in no matter background or experience.

Also, in looking over some thinqon discussions, the more popular postings are ones that kind of spiral back and forth between general and specific. The popular ones allow the participants to implant the personal with the abstract and then vice versa. They are the ones that achieve meaning and then seek to apply it.

And ultimately a good conversation comes down to the act of give and go. The participant needs to concede his thought to what came before and then apply it towards a new direction for the next person to take up. So I'm trailing towards the end of this post, I need to find some sort of way to appeal to your mind. I need to give you something that causes the machinery in your brain to start churning. But how do I do that? With a question or with a statement? As I look through the THINQon conversations I can't quite decide which one is more successful. When the question is posed simply and by itself it normally does well, but when the topic has been mused upon as I have mused on this, there seems to be no standard success model.

From here I've no idea where to go, so I'll leave you with a nonsensical question and hope you respond.

Does this question appeal to you?

Postscript (July 17, 2009 at 12:58 PM):
I wonder if there would have been any difference in the responses had I titled this post "What makes for a good conversation?"
First, to answer your question, I personally think that “What makes a good conversation” is a better title, as it makes it immediately clear what the topic is about. You can be vague in your title and succeed, but only if it is provoking. The word formatting is technocratic, not provoking.

So what makes a good conversation? I assume different people would have different lists. Also, live conversations are completely different than written ones. This is my short list of ingredients for the latter:

1) The topic

a) A topic that preoccupies people in daily life would probably provoke more discussion than non personal topics such as the existence of evidence for life in remote planets
b) A topic should have the right amount of substance. There is so much you can say about how it feels when your nose itches, but there is a lot to say about the making of a good relationship. Saying that, it shouldn't be over complex and wide a subject either.

2) The dialogue

a) Posts should present a small number of ideas, so that the conversation doesn’t branch out into too many directions all at the same time
b) The ideas and thoughts should be well formulated so that there isn’t too much ambiguity about what you’re trying to say (unless it is intentional of course)
c) The posts should have a fine balance between keeping on topic, and introducing associations and connections that may drift away a bit, but add additional prospective to the conversation
d) Small personal stories, anecdotes and jokes can be helpful in adding spice to a conversation
e) Posts shouldn't be too long so that the conversation doesn't become a monologue

3) The people

a) Thoughtful, open and sincere people are usually more interesting to converse with than narrow minded, closed and fulsome
b) People you know information about (picture, demographics, etc) are more interesting to converse with than anonymous writers, which for all you know may be an experiment in passing the Turing test
Hey,
so, I'd add two things. First of all, it's not unlike running a dinner party; and here there are many ways the metaphor can develop. You're sitting at the head of the table with ten people looking at you expectantly. What do you do?
Say something short and provocative?
Lean in, tell a personal story with maybe a moral to finish up or start off?
Give a finely balanced general opinion about some state of affairs, with just enough details that it doesn't float off but not too many that it gets bogged down in particulars?
Explain that you have finally understood the meaning of things? (my approach, but I also buy nice bottles of wine to make up for it. In our context this is harder)

Second of all, in direct contradiction to the first, one of the nicest things about this site is, in my opinion, the fact that people don't have to respond immediately. There are a number of nice remarks or conversations which I've read and thought about, and sometimes come back to much later. Just because I don't respond immediately doesn't mean I didn't very much enjoy reading them; responding takes time, and life intervenes. I imagine the same is true for others. Also, speaking for myself, I kind of like the effect of being able to wander among various interesting and articulate thoughts, which haven't necessarily been engineered to be sensational, but are simply evidence of intelligent life.
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Latest Post: July 18, 2009 at 7:12 AM
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