Discussion is ephemeral

Divide social activity in digital spaces into two categories: discussion and reference.

Most activity is discussion: news or blog updates, shared links, forum discussions, microblogging hot takes, comments, private or group messages, livestreaming, newsletters. They speak to a particular moment in time.

Examples of reference can include: wikis, git repositories, project documentation, question/answer sites or FAQs, indexes. These resources are not directly concerned with specific moments in time — they attempt to be organized according to context and relevance.

Discussion begins to fade the moment it is published. It can be temporarily revived (bumped) by some kind of activity or update, but this itself is a form of discussion that begins to fade on arrival.

The effect of this 'fading' is that whatever was gained through discourse becomes more difficult to find with time, as newer content takes precedence — the reverse-chronological organization of most technology makes things designed to disappear, and digital systems generally do not remind us that there is a cost to keeping things forever. Technology is inconsiderate.

Combat this ephemerality by

  • capturing ideas into reference as often as possible
  • deliberately making older content less accessible
  • warning about any false sense of findability

Something needs to be lost, there must be some cost to keep things around. As an example, an engineer at Stripe talks about how

they automatically delete chat messages older than a few weeks to discourage relying on it for long-term archival. In retrospectives, team members often reflect on whether they chose the right medium (email, chat, or forum) for various conversations.

Discussion is necessary for exploring possibilities without friction. Reference gives longevity to the results.

Compare the possibilities enabled by these scenarios

discussion reference
send a quote of an article to a friend or post it on your timeline compile similar resources and build a larger idea from small disparate pieces
search for an idea by scrolling through a reverse-chronological archive browse by context and stumble upon something related but unexpected

The Wikum project is a web-based platform that integrates discussion and collaborative summarization.

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