Dangling conversations

Can Third Voice's approach to Web community evolve beyond drive-by scrawls and spam?

Published July 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When the Third Voice home page listed Gay.com as the most popular conversation destination for its community members, I automatically assumed the worst.

Third Voice is the "inline discussion" service that enables users to append notes to Web pages and read the messages others have left behind. The technology, which has been wowing the Silicon Valley press since its debut in May, works on top of a browser, to modify the way you see the Web and interact with others online.

It's a nifty technology -- allowing you to articulate your thoughts on, say, the war in Kosovo on top of CNN's news page -- but my initial experiences with Third Voice had left me unimpressed with the kind of dialogue taking place. Third Voice is touting its eponymous product as the next great thing to happen to the online community. But in its first months, it has attracted primarily flame wars, spam and juvenile graffiti.

So, after spending a few hours trolling the Web with Third Voice, scrolling through endless pages of throw-away posts, I came to the Gay.com community site expecting to witness an outpouring of homophobic epithets. Instead, I came across a thought-provoking discussion about whether there was a need for Gay Pride marches, and what the ramifications of a Hetero-Pride march might be. There were signs of intelligent life after all.

Third Voice and its new competitor, the 3-week-old Gooey, promise to totally change the way we perceive online interaction. Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, whose firm invested in Third Voice, goes so far as to call it "a radical paradigm shift." But, much like Usenet and chat rooms before them, the services are in danger of being buried by inanities.

"The Net is a platform for all kinds of innovation, including social innovations, and they emerge and survive in the Darwinian manner," says "The Virtual Community" author Howard Rheingold. "Like all technologies, there are advantages, and there are shadows" to these new tools, he says. Right now, the shadows are apparent; the question is whether the advantages will eventually be realized, too. As it stands now, conversations like the one I found at Gay.com are still in the minority.

The conversations take place in a kind of "transparency" that sits on top of your browser, where visitors can leave messages on public "sticky notes." You can either pop open the notes individually as you come across them on the Web page, or methodically scroll through threaded discussions using the discreet toolbar that sits on the edge of your browser. Eng-Siong Tan, CEO of Third Voice, calls this a "readers dimension," the ultimate omnipresent community-building tool.

And for advertisers, Third Voice offers yet another banner space. But this one, anticipates Jurvetson, will bring in 100 times greater advertising rates because of the pervasiveness of the medium. The information Third Voice can gather about its users' surfing and purchasing habits is far greater than any one Web site could ever gather.

But what kind of people would advertisers reach with Third Voice? Right now the dialogue between users isn't particularly profound. Hope to visit to the White House home page and find some discourse about American politics? Forget it: All you'll find there are Monica jokes and anti-Clinton epithets. The AOL home page boasts a chorus of notes with the common sentiment that "AOL Sux!" And at Netscape's front door you'll find notes like that of "MrDwight," who feels that Third Voice is the perfect forum to tell you that "Jesus is the only Eternal Life Insurance Policy that gives you true Peace on Earth, Righteousness in your thinking, and Joy in your attitude."

Sound a lot like Usenet? Unfortunately, it is. Spammers and oddballs are always the first to exploit any new medium; they have already discovered that Third Voice is a great way to plaster free ads on every site they visit, and they are duly posting URLs to their home pages, "the best triple-X porn sites on the Web," even a little bed-and-breakfast directory one is starting up. And, just to add to the noise, nearly every highly trafficked page boasts flame wars between the spammers and other Third Voice users who are angry about the mass marketing.

Third Voice offers great potential for abuse and defamation: Any person could come to your Web site and post personal attacks for the world to see. The notes are anonymous, which make it even easier for troublemakers. As Rheingold puts it, "The obvious issue to be raised is the question of accountability for charges they may make against you. How do you know it's not your competitor slamming you? What protection do people have for character assassination behind the guise of anonymity? It raises the question of identity and reputation and authentication."

Interestingly, much of the dialogue you'll find on Third Voice notes is about just this issue -- there's a burgeoning anti-Third Voice movement that believes that Third Voice is a social evil that takes power away from the webmasters and puts it in the hands of their potential enemies, pornographers and spammers. The "pro-TV" and "anti-TV" movements are bickering all across the Web; on some notes, you can even find scripts to add to your HTML to prevent Third Voice from working on your Web site.

Third Voice is working hard to trigger interesting discussions -- its front door links to Web sites that it hopes visitors might find intriguing or thought-provoking -- but even with the encouragement of Third Voice, most of these places lack enough interesting posts to get a real dialogue going. Third Voice is aware of this problem.

"The phenomenon of the discussions tracks very consistently with that of message boards and chat rooms in general -- users have this new capability and they go on and don't truly express their thoughts," Tan, the CEO, readily admits. "In the public notes the quality of discussion is going to be consistent with chat. It's a generic problem for online communities in general, but we aren't seeing effective solutions out there."

Unwilling to consider censoring their users, Third Voice's founders are building collaborative filtering tools, so that users themselves can "vote" on the quality of the notes they see and perhaps sift the spam and stupidity to the bottom of the pile. The hope is that this will discourage bad posts. As Jurvetson optimistically says, "If your comments are drivel, you aren't going to get those millions of viewers, so you'll think, 'Let me say something interesting for a change,' since that's the way to win in this thing." Still, for this to work, it will require a lot of people to spend a lot of time reading and voting on worthless posts.

Meanwhile, Tan waxes rhapsodic about the nobler uses of this technology; there are certainly plenty of intriguing possibilities. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, has talked about using Third Voice to inform Web site visitors about the legitimacy of a company's online privacy policy. Tan also envisions Third Voice as a kind of consumer-driven Consumer Reports, creating a place on e-commerce sites where visitors could leave their thoughts or warnings about products and services.

Perhaps Third Voice's most utilitarian potential is in "group" services, which let members of a specified group create notes that are only visible to each other. You could use this service for a class project that requires students to visit Web pages and comment on them. Or, perhaps for networked note-taking in the office -- a kind of free Lotus Notes service that would let co-workers make comparative notes on their competitor's Web page or on common resource materials.

This is where the more interesting possibilities emerge. Imagine what could happen if Third Voice became a listserv-like tool, where affinity groups could create their own Third Voice "groups"; say, women's-rights activists who surf the Web together and discuss the places they visit in the context of their personal interests. If there were a repository of these groups, you could "subscribe" to several so that your surfing discussions were consistent with your interests or people whom you already knew -- kind of like an online book group. You could use Third Voice and never use the public functions, much like private bulletin boards on AOL, where special-interest groups go to escape from the mundane conversation in the main chat rooms.

But if Third Voice is hoping to inspire intelligent discourse, its closest competitor, Gooey, is serving more as a way to stave off loneliness. Gooey, much like Third Voice, sets a transparent layer of communication over a Web site, except that in this case the technology is live chat. With the Gooey client -- a colorful window that "floats" over your browser -- you can "see" the other Gooey users currently visiting the same site you are and chat with them. The concept, basically, is that if you are at the Siamese home page, you'll be interested in making conversation with the other concurrent feline fans.

The Israeli company behind Gooey, Hypernix, says that it wants to "redefine" the surfing experience -- turning what some might find isolating into a public event. "I don't like to go to a restaurant alone even if the food is fabulous; I don't like to see a movie alone even if it's great. You want to be where other people are, even if you don't talk to them," Shai Adler, co-CEO of Hypernix, explains. "Every Web site says it has a community, but at any one of the big Web sites what I eventually get is just a computer and myself. I don't see this community. But when I am with Gooey, and I enter a Web site, I see who else is on the Web site, and I know we share the same interests at the same site."

But Gooey is still building its community, and while it boasts 30,000 users, only 1,500 have ever used the technology at the same time. This means that you'll see notable numbers of other users only at major portal sites like Yahoo: not exactly specialized sites where you'd find people with "the same interests." And, even then, the medium of real-time chat isn't exactly conducive to thoughtful, deep discussion -- it's best suited for that casual "what's your name/age/sex" chat; fun for some, but ultimately shallow. Though Adler, like Tan, thinks that Gooey has great potential for Consumer Reports-style information, the ephemeral quality of chat makes it difficult to build an actually useful database of that kind of information.

There is also the greater question of how Third Voice and Gooey might affect the communities that already exist. Sure, static pages without their own community areas will benefit from one that sits "on top" of their site, but what about sites that already boast their own active chat rooms and bulletin-board systems? Third Voice and Gooey, by merit of their ease of use and persistence, could essentially poach new users who might otherwise delve into the community areas of the Web sites. Tan insists that "our intent isn't to replace [the community there], we want to make it a constant feature between pages"; still, it could hurt the Web sites that are struggling to build their own boards.

Both of these tools demonstrate that discourse doesn't happen just because you enable it. Or, as Rheingold puts it, "A town square only sets so much context and purpose for what happens there -- a meeting, a riot, a concert. Just because people eat the same brand of cereal does not mean they are a community; they have got to communicate with each other and communicate for a while and valuable relationships have to emerge from that." These technologies will be more useful when they can boast moderators, specialized groups with real intent and purpose, community members who feel a sense of duty and identity within their groups.

Ultimately, one of the most provocative things about surfing with Third Voice and Gooey is the way they transform the way you think about the Net. Suddenly, the Web isn't a series of static pages that you view methodically through a uniform browser window, but rather a dynamic environment that can be altered by the visitors as well as the creators. The whole metaphor for the Web changes when you are viewing the Web page through not just one filter (your browser) but through two or three different, self-defined filters.

It's not practical at the moment to surf with both Gooey and Third Voice turned on -- the combination of chat windows and threaded side discussions and stickies makes it nearly impossible to actually read anything on the Web site itself. We will probably see more technologies like this in the future, twisting the interface that has become so familiar to us -- that pervasive browser window -- into something new and even more personalized. As Jurvetson puts it, "The browser is no longer the static window pane through which you look at this silo of information; it becomes the locus of innovation for many of these companies."

Right now, Third Voice and Gooey are more fascinating as concepts than as products. Each is a technology, not a community -- an enabler rather than an end in itself. But simply thinking about what could be done with them makes you realize how much potential they have. Their ultimate utility is now in the hands of users: Will users meet the challenge?

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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