Matt Webb’s written a fascinating post on attenuation over at Interconnected which I need to read a couple of times to fully understand, but he did introduce me to a new concept which I think could be vital for online publishers seeking to build communities: the concept of implicature:
Conversational implicature is when you prune (and adapt) what you say, according to what you know your conversational partner already understands about you. They’ll assume you’re following certain maxims, and because of that platform of understanding, you can be much more meaningful. For example, if I say I have a dog, that’s essentially meaningless unless you assume I’m following the maxim of relevance–that is, I’m saying it for a reason. Only by presuming I’m being meaningful – that the statement passed a certain threshold before I uttered it – can you understand it as something important, or surprising, or silly. Only by presuming I’m being meaningful does me giving you an mp3 mean it’s a gift, not a so-called viral plant from a marketing drone. Mutual implicature allows ever greater flow of meaning, and it’s why apparently genuine comments left as marketing, not as gifts are so poisonous.
Brilliant stuff. It’s one thing online publishers with a strong brand need to think carefully about, particularly when moving from one environment (say, the printed page) to another (say, the Web). One of the issues we’ve faced frequently is with our policy of trying to print a wide range of comment on a particular issue, of the right and of the left. This makes sense on a printed page, where the implicature is invested in the brand of the newspaper (which you’ve probably bought, so you probably understand very well) and in the layout of the page (where left-wing comment sits next to right-wing comment in a way obviously designed to reflect a multiplicity of opinion).
But that implicature breaks down completely online. If someone runs a search on Google and comes across a piece of right-wing comment, they make assumptions about our motives for publishing that comment which are entirely at odds with the reaction of someone reading the newspaper. In this case, we usually get an email saying something along the lines of “why is the liberal Guardian publishing this right-wing crap? Are you shifting to the right now?”. It’s like the implicature is far more binary online – you’re either one thing or another. You see this a lot in our message boards, too, particularly around international geopolitical issues – it’s often a shouty environment in which things are quite black and white because the implicature is so clunky.
We have to get better at this: at displaying our motives for publication, recording context, reflecting the browsable complexity that you get from a newspaper within a web page. And we also have to figure out how to do that in a feedthink world, where things are even more lacking in context and, presumably, the implicature is even shallower.