Thread death-cycle

20Oct07

I am sure that I am not alone in finding it in interesting to think about and understand how particular thread’s take form on Internet discussion forums (and related technologies), how they morph and how they die. By a thread I mean a thought that generates a resonance across at least three active posters on a given forum. One person just posting with no response I feel is insufficient to qualify. Adding even just one responder seems to me to be a borderline case. However when a third person enters the fray then the thread can be truly said to have gained its own life. It is initiated…

This is not to trivialise what might be definitive postings by a single poster, and the same with a responder. But these, I would argue are not threads. Instead, a thread is not a thought initiated by one person or two, and subsequently generally agreeable or assented to by all or most other posters on the same forum. A thread has a life. A thread morphs.

And there is the key. A thread starts life, hopefully initiated with a suitable subject line, though interestingly such is probably quite a rare occurrence. Might only 5% of threads bare any resemblance to their import? Perhaps it is only 1%? Perhaps by definition it could be even less.

I say “by definition” because a fundamental truth of the thread is that the subject changes. I use the word “import” rather than “subject” since the latter is a technical term referring to the title of the thread as embodied in an email or similar. As such technically email clients use the subject field (regardless of whether they are desktop or website based systems) to enjoin multiple emails into one “thread”.

That said because a thread morphs then the subject field becomes a poor indicator of thread content. Often the subject field becomes, and even initially is, of total irrelevance. This is such a standing joke that often the subject is initiated as a complete red herring, safe in the knowledge that readers will not rely on the subject field for any value.

When a thought morphs into a thread (that is the thought changes albeit imperceptibly, though always in hindsight considered as a valuable and valued change) then its life truly begins and the value of the contribution to the forum’s value grows and the forum increases its own value proposition as a consequence. No forum has any value until it has had a number of thoughts that have morphed into threads.

It is valuable to understand what this morphing means in terms of its value to the forum. In many ways the morphing of thoughts enables the true identity of the forum to take form. What I mean by this is that when a forum is instantiated the creator has a certain idea in their mind of the forum’s raison d’etre.

However the true value of a forum is the “meeting of minds” of its active participants. Morphing of thoughts into threads is the prime display of that process in action.

So, as posters take original thought and add, modify or replace these with their own they are inherently paying due respect to the thought originator. The respect being shown is that the first thought is somehow worthy of comment, that the original thought deserves more than being ignored, that the original thought deserves more than being decried or assented to, that the original thought deserves development and importantly that such development is not necessarily in any direction that the originator intended.

Sometimes thread development depend on considered responses. Sometimes they depend on chance remarks, even humour adds its own dimensions and possibilities for thread development.

Whichever way the thread goes, at whatever pace it develops it gains life and will die at a time of its own choice. Sometimes some contributor makes a definitive statement (often all contributors feel themselves to be making such), often the thread dies without notice and without reason.

There is one way that threads are often brought to a halt that is noteworthy. It is noteworthy sufficient to gain an entry into Wired’s geekopedia. This halting process is when the insinuation is made that a given person has some characteristics worthy of being associated with Adolph Hitler and/or Nazi Germany. It is truly surprising that this kind of insinuation occurs and whenever it does it certainly brings the given thread to a halt. If the case is really bad it can bring the whole forum to a halt (though hopefully temporary). This is called Godwin’s Law, named after the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s legal counsel – Mike Godwin.

Such insinuations occur quite easily in forums almost by definition of what constitutes a forum. To understand this you have to think back to the forum’s creation. An individual creates a forum to promote or develop a concept. As such the forum, if well promoted will attract people of a like mind.

Interestingly and importantly such a forum will also attract people of a contrary disposition. These people join intentionally to subvert and ensure that the opposite viewpoint has the opportunity to state its case.

How those with opposing views state their position is not simple. Rarely do they make considered replies, most often their contributions initiate flame wars. As such these people are considered as trolls, especially since they often join the forum anonymously, possibly joining under multiple identities.

The result inevitably is for a battle of two opposing sides – the side of reason (aligned in some way to the forum creator’s intentions) and the side of unreason. Thus are many flame wars are enjoined.

Various characters inevitably appear in forums. These include voice of reason, that of the moderating influence, the voice of emotion and contributions of those who are “out of sync” simply because they have been on holiday, or only participate in the forum at certain times of the day or week etc. Add to these interjections such as “what exactly does so and so mean by such and such”, repetitions both similar and dissimilar, sometimes in almost similar words and phrases. All in all this is the life of many discussion groups, email lists, online forums, call them what you will.

This is the Internet at its best and worst. This is the life of exploring thoughts small and large, critical to one or important to many. This is the life of analysing something to death, or more exactly some things, since there is no death, just re-invention in the new context as the world moves on.

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One Response to “Thread death-cycle”

  1. 1 xztheericzx

    i’m eric. joining a couple boards and looking
    forward to participating. hehe unless i get
    too distracted!

    eric


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