"Markets are conversations"

That phrase comes from the Cluetrain Manifesto and appears frequently in blog postings and comments. The implication is that companies need to get involved in "the conversation" happening about them and their products or services.

In the years I've been reading blogs, I've heard sentiments like that over and over. While true, they are often not practical or "actionable" in corporate-speak. I'm starting to think of these notions as "blogger's wisdom" because so many bloggers assume that they're true, the implications are obvious, and the path into the future is a clear one.

I'm here to tell you that despite this blogger's wisdom, we're nowhere close to where we ought to be. Several years into this whole blogging thing, the technology and tools designed to facilitate this global conversation all suck.

Let's see how!

It turns out that "getting involved" (i.e., posting a comment) is the easy part. Finding and subsequent monitoring of the conversations is far from easy. This manifests itself in three phases of the process that I'll look at here in a top down fashion.

Broad Searches

To get a global sense of what people are saying about you, you can subscribe to a search on Technorati, Google Blog Search, Feedster, PubSub, IceRocket, etc. But what keywords do you choose? You're subscribing to specific terms, not concepts. So if you choose the wrong ones, you end up with too much irrelevant info (and overload) or you miss important posts. This is easy for "yahoo" but harder for "windows" or "iraq."

This assumes that the services you're using have comprehensive and fresh indexes. I don't believe that any of them have both. And that means you have to subscribe to all of them, wade thru the duplicates and spam, and identify those that are worth of actually clicking thru to read. That's real work. Try it sometime.

Aggregators do a poor job of making this easy. The blog search "verticals" aren't helpful either. They suffer from any number of real or perceived problems: slow and unstable (Technorati), incomplete (Google), contain lame advertising (Feedster), or are impossible for normal people to understand (PubSub).

Subscribing to Topical Blogs

If you work at Apple Computer, you'd obviously want to subscribe to as many of the Apple related blogs that you can find—the ones that write about Apple on a regular basis. But you need to find them (see previous phase). Once you do, you need to read them regularly. You'll probably start by bookmarking them and trying to remember to read them all on a daily basis. In doing so, you also have to remember what's new and what's not.

Eventually you'll have more than 20 or 30, get yourself an aggregator, and have to figure out that clicking on that stupid orange icon doesn't do anything useful. Luckily RSS auto-discovery seems to be far more common that it was a few years ago. But the subscription model is still fundamentally broken. If the "Add to My Yahoo!" button didn't exist, I'm sure tens of thousands of people wouldn't have a way to track their favorite sites.

Most aggregators make it so easy to subscribe (once you figure out how) that self-inflicted overload soon follows. You find yourself spending far too much time trying to "unbold" the folders of news on your desktop. The aggregator does little to help manage the flow of information, show you what really matters to you, and hide the stuff that's not important.

Comment Tracking

It took me a while to figure this out, but every aggregator I've seen has completely fails to make it easy to stay engaged in a discussion taking place in comments on one or more blog posts. I typically comment on a blog post and never remember to go back to see if anyone else commented on what I said. That's not much of a "conversation," is it?

Blogginng software isn't very helpful in this respect either. Few blogs offers RSS feeds for the comments on a given post. And even if they do, aggregators don't make it easy to manage those subscriptions (like automatically unsubscribing from them when they conversation dies off). Some blogs offer the option of getting an email alert when someone posts a comment on a discussion you're interested in. But they don't handle trackback or pingback "comments" at all, so you're not seeing the whole conversation.

So comment tracking/monitoring ends up as a very manual process full of repeat visits, which means it's very, very hard to scale.


The promise of the blogosphere is a loosely connected global network of conversations with an incredibly low barrier to entry. The reality is that the tools are still far too immature for the current scale of this growing network. Worse yet, most aggregators are designed to mimic e-mail or usenet news clients rather than embracing the highly connected nature of blog posts and comments, not the mention the typically short "decay" periods associated with the discussion around most posts.

What should we do?

Posted by jzawodn at October 05, 2005 04:59 PM

Reader Comments
# Josh Woodward said:

Indeed. I use threaded blog discussion for Entropy, and when posting, you have the option to be notified by email of either all comments or only replies directly to your post. I added that feature out of frustration from the same thing.

on October 5, 2005 08:18 PM
# Chaz said:

With the comment tracking problem, I don't think the problem is that aggregators are too much like email and news clients. Rather, I believe the problem is that they are too much like incomplete email and news clients. In particular, I haven't seen an aggregator that threads comments under posts like how a news client would.

The whole "one comment feed per entry" idea always seemed weird to me. Having one comment feed for the entire blog would be useful since neither the user nor the client would have to worry about unsubscribing to a particular entry. However, without threading those comments by blog entry, the resulting feed would be chaotic and unmanagable for all but the most unpopular blogs.

Does RSS (through some additional namespace) or Atom allow a feed to point to a comment feed? If so, is it possible for comment elements to specify which 'guid' they should be threaded under? I'm guessing not, or else clients would have taken advantage of that by now.

I am hoping that someone replies to this and says I am a complete idiot because Product X does all this already perfectly and once more weblogs employ Technology Y, this problem will magically go away.

on October 5, 2005 08:42 PM
# Manoj Sati said:

Very true, Jeremy. The question is: are any of the RSS aggregators companies reading this post? Or is Dave Winer (or the Atom guys) reading this one?

on October 5, 2005 10:19 PM
# Born Stinger said:

True. Conversations happen when there is an exchange of ideas. With the current 'I-comment-on-your-weblog-and-never-look-back' policy it becomes a one-way information push. People comment and forget and do not look back.

About the short decay you associate with the posts: The decays are only as short as the time for which the post remains on the home page. With a new topic coming up, it is obvious that new comments appear and old ones are forgotten.

It is like bringing up new topics in a conversation, the quicker new topics are introduced, the faster the conversation drifts away. And, the funniest part is: you can't blame people for doing that.

You, for example, will reply to this comment, if and only if, you aren't in the process of writing a new blog post. If that happens, I can abandon all hope of getting a response to this comment. ( I don't think you read these comments anyway :) No offense meant, just an opinion.)

on October 5, 2005 10:56 PM
# Sudar said:

"So comment tracking/monitoring ends up as a very manual process full of repeat visits, which means it's very, very hard to scale." - Very true Jeremy.

In fact I read this blog entry in my Bloglines, then clicked the link to find out whether there are any comments and then entered this comment.

After this I am going to bookmark this page and have to refresh it (may be every hour) to find out if any one else has responded or not and the whole cycle is going to continue....

on October 5, 2005 11:35 PM
# Peter Pentchev said:

Er, Sudar, you *are* aware that Jeremy's weblog actually does have a comments RSS feed, aren't you now? :) Actually, that's where I got the idea of putting one up on my own blog - and that's where I got the basic MT comment feed template, although I've made a couple of changes later.

on October 6, 2005 12:21 AM
# Nicole Simon said:

Some things I find most lacking are:

Timed subscribe
If I comment on your website, I know by experience, that the comments will be done in a special amount of time. So I would much more frequently post to an article or follow it, if it would 'go away' of itself. Also with feeds. "Subscribe for 30 days" and if I don't do anything else, this goes away automatically. If I don't miss it, it was okay.

Responsive Ajax interface
A feedreader is for me something I work with and I need to work with it from different machines. So I need a webbrowser interface, because the software does not work offline with synchro and all. Mark one item as to keep in Bloglines - and it reloads the whole tree. Takes quite some time at my feed count.

Global searches on my own feeds
I want to go through special searches first and have the according items already marked read in my folders. At the moment, there is no proper "crosspost management" in this.
Additional searches might be relevant too, but mainyl one often wants to see what the peers have written.

As for putting the comments to the entry - I am not sure about that, because News are for new items. But Usenet client like response mechanisms could help, including scroring.

on October 6, 2005 01:05 AM
# Sudar said:

But Peter, the problem is that the feed gives me the recent comments for the whole blog and not for this particular blog entry.

The same problem that Jeremy was talking about.:-(

on October 6, 2005 01:41 AM
# Roger Benningfield said:

Jeremy: "The aggregator does little to help manage the flow of information, show you what really matters to you, and hide the stuff that's not important."

You're putting too much pressure on the aggregator, and not enough on the publisher. You can filter the feed from my blog by category, tag, or search term... if every blog provided similar feed options, there would be far less junk in the aggregator.

Jeremy: "It took me a while to figure this out, but every aggregator I've seen has completely fails to make it easy to stay engaged in a discussion taking place in comments on one or more blog posts."

Try Newzcrawler or RSSBandit. If your blog provided (a) per-entry comment feeds and (b) wfw:commentRss links in your main feed, then NC or RSSB would allow me to subscribe to the comments for any post with a single click. For an example, install NC and subscribe to Russel Beattie's blog... click the little "spectacle" icon next to any of his posts, and the comments will flow in.

Jeremy: "But they don't handle trackback or pingback 'comments' at all, so you're not seeing the whole conversation."

If you subscribe to the comment feed for my blog (or any JournURL-powered blog), you get the trackbacks along with the comments.

Jeremy: "What should we do?"

Support the Atom threading module. It'll work in both RSS and Atom feeds, and allows the aggregator to properly thread comments using either a main feed/per-entry comment feed model or a main feed/all-comments feed model. The results would be the same for an aggregator's users.

Unfortunately, no aggregator is currently using the extension for anything (it's new), and few blogs/apps are including the relevant elements.

on October 6, 2005 06:59 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Roger, subscribing to a comments feed is the easy part. Remembering to unsubscribe is not. Does your aggregator automate that too?

on October 6, 2005 07:07 AM
# Mike Woodhouse said:

I think the email-like UIs we've seen to date are a product of (at least) the understandable attempt of the first (and subsequent) movers to present blogs using a familiar metaphor. This may have been reinforced by the perception - again understandable in the dawn of blog time - that blogs are messages, so presenting them in an email-like client, or an actual email client (e.g. Newsgator) made "sense".

But blog posts, links and comments are something else. I'm not sure what, exactly. They're some sort of conversation, I suppose, but it's broader than email in some respects, most likely narrower in others. Goodness knows how or where more recent RSS/Atom/whatever innovations like podcasts fit into that. If they do at all.

How about this: consider blogs to be communities. A network of overlapping communities, perhaps. Or some kind of rabid mutant hierarchy. This is OTTOMH and I'm already concerned it's not moving the viewpoint far enough to generate any useful insight (maybe just because I'm not getting any...).

Unless I'm specifically looking for something, I don't want to have to trawl through the search engines for lists of feeds that I then have to manually review for usefulness. I wonder if it would be good to have a client to be able to identify candidates based on my existing subscriptions, or perhaps to see what's been coming in on those subscriptions and find me related, er, stuff that I may not be aware of. The important difference being that I want it to be proactive.

What other views might we take to get a less contrained viewpoint? I'm wondering what a client might look like.

on October 6, 2005 07:35 AM
# josh said:

One way around it is to create a feed with comments along with the entries (One of my blogs that does it: www.thebirdwatch.com, see the feed http://www.thebirdwatch.com/index-full.xml). That way when theres a new comment the entire entry shows up in the reader along with all of the comments, so you have some background. You also don't have to subscribe to any extra feeds. This has the disadvantage of occasionly popping very old entries into your reader because they happened to get a content, and on heavily commented on sites could get a little irritating.

That's a bit of a hack around, but I've found in practice it works quite well. Wordpress embeds the comment feed URL into it's RSS 2.0 feed. It's a matter of updating feed readers to give you a button to 'watch these comments', then storing it in a particular folder.

on October 6, 2005 08:49 AM
# Nicole Simon said:

Josh, those kind of feeds are highly annoying because they pop up on every new comment - and many times on discussions where it does not interest me.

Those are the feeds which I unsubscribe at once when I see the suspicious brackets.

But what would work would be to say 'please follow comments on this entry' and let it then pop up but ignore everything else with comments plus an overall setting like "always show new comments in this feed, never show any comments"

on October 6, 2005 11:08 AM
# Roger Benningfield said:

Jeremy: "Roger, subscribing to a comments feed is the easy part. Remembering to unsubscribe is not. Does your aggregator automate that too?"

Just to clarify, Newzcrawler isn't my aggregator... I haven't written a desktop app since a half-finished timeclock management thing on my Atari ST in '90.

With that said, comment feed (un)subscription isn't really an issue in NC. You click the spectacle/glasses/watch icon, and when new posts flow in, you'll see them threaded into the main feed. When there are no new comments on a given thread, you won't even know you're "subscribed".

As far as the under-the-hood stuff goes, I'm not sure if the authors keep HEADing the comment feeds for all eternity, stop after a pre-set period of inactivity, or what. But that's kind of the point... none of the mechanics of feed subscription are foisted on to the end-user. You click an icon, and you get threaded comments until there are no more comments or you un-click the icon. That's it.

on October 6, 2005 01:28 PM
# jr said:

While tracking the passing conversation is a problem, and one that is addressable in any manner of ways, it doesn't really address the first point of the post.

"Markets are Conversations" aren't about blog posts, just as they aren't about press releases. Both are fairly mono-directional. Neither conversations nor marketing works correctly if it's only done one way (that includes company to customer or customer to company). Successful companies know this and not only provide products the market needs, but seek to improve them as the market changes.

Now, as for following the various dialects occuring based off of a press-release or blog post, that's a little like trying to be in all the conversations that happen after any speech. Some will be easier to follow, others won't. Some will get the right idea. others will get it wrong. Much like an audience has to pay attention to what's being said.

If I take part in a conversation, it's up to me to follow it.

on October 6, 2005 05:55 PM
# Shrikant Joshi said:

It is interesting to see so many opinions on tracking comments. Off the track, Jeremy, your post started by saying markets are conversations and look where it has led to :)

So the gist of the discussion, until now, is this: What if there was, or is there a comment aggregator, that could aggregate all comments according to the blog post that you had commented on? Right?

I invite you to get a trial space on the Layer.

What is the Layer? No one can explain what the Layer is, You have to see it understand it. (Poor Rip-off, I know, but sounds effective, eh?)

Log on to http://www.colayer.com and click on the
'Get your free trial space' link. The register link will only register you to our system, it doesn't give you a trial space. In that case, post a message on the layer ( in the support community requesting for a trial space. We will arrange one for you.

on October 6, 2005 09:10 PM
# Michael Martine said:

WordPress blogs allow people to subscribe to comment feeds. I keep a folder called "comments" in my Bloglines to monitor threads. It took my a while to remember to actually subscribe after posting a comment, instead of just leaving.

on October 7, 2005 05:12 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

You shouldn't have to remember that.

on October 7, 2005 06:40 PM
# Shrikant Joshi said:

Just checking if anyone is gonna reply to this post?

How about you Jeremy?

on October 11, 2005 03:12 AM
# Pierre said:

Hey, Jeremy, you might want to check Atiki.com - it kind of adresses the issue you've described above.

There is a good review here > http://www.tipmonkies.com/2005/10/10/atiki-a-personalized-rss-search-tool

Hope this helps :)

on October 11, 2005 08:53 AM
# Mo said:

A similar issue exists with forums but the 'finding & monitoring conversations' part has been fairly well addressed by a new speciality search engine http://www.boardtracker.com which can send Jabber and email alerts on threads matching your preset & categorized search terms, eliminate duplicate alerts on spam/cross-posted threads and other handy stuff and also keeps all the threads you were alerted about as well as threads in categories you subscribed to, 'bookmarked' so you can easily find them in future. I wrote a review of it recently on my blog here.. http://www.mojonator.com/2005/09/boardtracker-missing-link-in-search.html

on October 11, 2005 11:14 AM
# i1277 said:

We need an extension or bookmarklet that records every blog "submit", and passes them on to a (currently unexisting) online service that keeps track of follow-ups to comments. It's hard to do as long as comment feeds are still rare, but until a better infrastructure comes along, one can use del.icio.us or such a service for a half-baked manual solution.

on October 12, 2005 06:04 PM
# Tom Norian said:

A Yahoo orientated comment.

I've found that after experiementing with blogging which tends to be subject located discussions, I still like to have "community" orrientated discussions about broad topics.

For instance (sense that wasn't clear) I like to be able to discuss the Miers appointment with Invetor "friends of mine" (and these are people I have communicated with over 5 years and have met in person every other year) from Yahoo finance stock message boards.

"the community" and my knowledge of the individual people(famlies, religion, regional differences, age diferences, hobiies) makes the conversation on an issue meaningful because of both the diversity of the community coupled with our knoledge of each other.

I find though, that Yahoo zoinks out posts that have links to different fedralist clubs, or liberal blogs, or wsj or nyt editorials or ap press snippets.

Now, I do understand how Spammers use of the same message boards undermine the abilty of others to share. But, I've been using the same Yahoo ID for 6 years..you'd think I could post outbound links with much less review?

Putting the yahoo policy asside, the point that a fixed point with mutiple topics sometimes is more followable than a lot of different places on different topics speaks to your point about the difficulty of blogs and conversation.

Sometimes hanging around one water cooler where a finite nubmer of people share their best links to great stuff makes it easier to have a meaningful dialogue than flitting back and forth bettween mutiple sites where you can't follow any well?

Fwiw , your site is great in that most important topics (on greater media and computing and a touch of culture_) filter though and have sufficent links so that following only here and a couple others gets a good ear on that topic dialoge.

Seth goldberg for marketing, Brad Delong for economics, a political blog, and Yahoo sports can keep a guy with a vitural news pulse feeder..(i'm missing the good sports dialogue in blog form..haven't found the college football equilvalent of Jeremy)

on October 13, 2005 09:16 PM
# Zoli Erdos said:

The current crop of tracking / linking services all have a top-down publisher-centric view, where everything revolves around a blog and related posts. They totally miss the other, “bottom-up” half of the conversation. In fact for most of us that's the bigger half: comments left on someone else's post.

We all need something that shows an integrated view of all conversations where we are participating per subject matter (blog title), whether we started it (own blog) or someone else (our comments elsewhere).
More here: http://www.zoliblog.com/blog/_archives/2005/10/31/1333034.html

on November 9, 2005 05:46 AM
# BoardReader said:

Thank you!
It's a great post!

on February 6, 2007 06:52 PM
# Carla said:

I agree with you but on the other way it leads to learning, right?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

on May 26, 2010 02:44 PM
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