Visceral interpersonal exchanges on the web

There's still something missing on the web when it comes to interpersonal relations I think. Even though there's all these people out there, who are on their PCs all day every day, interacting with others still seems to be stilted somehow. I'm not sure what it is exactly, but most ways of communicating with other web users are so asynchronous as to completely deaden the visceral sensation of actually interacting with them, or so full of noise or volume as to be impossible to relate on a personal level.

That's not to say that the web and the Internet in general is devoid of ways to interact. Facebook, FriendFeed, Digg, Meebo, Twitter, a million forums and more are all dedicated to exchanging thoughts, ideas, links, etc. It's just that there's still yet to be a way that I've discovered which mimics the level of interactivity that you get once in a while from a really good group chat like on IRC.

It seems like there might be a level interactivity that's "too live", though I'm really not sure if that's a general truth or just in certain circumstances. I can hang out in #mobitopia all time (and have in the past) and once in a while get into a decent conversation, but it's mostly with the same people - it's really more of a group chat than a topic-based conversation. Yet every time I log into another IRC channel I think will be interesting, all I see is a million lurkers, and zero conversation. Many times, saying anything gets a response akin to speaking up in a library: "WHY ARE YOU BOTHERING US?!? SHHH!" Combine this with the fact that the only people you'll talk to on IRC are the people that know what the hell IRC is, and obviously there's a large portion of the general population that's not being well represented, so it's hard to know whether IRC is a great example of this stuff or a bad one.

I would have thought a site like Lingr would be the perfect solution. It's a sort of a public IRC channel, but with links, archives, etc. It combines the best parts of a live conversation with the advantages of an archived forum. But it always just seems dead, and I'm not sure as to why exactly. What is it missing? I don't know. Even something like Meebo's Rooms aren't as popular as I would have thought they would be, the largest I saw just now has maybe 50 people in it.

Twitter seems like it could be a great community, but it's really not. Though it's an interesting communication tool, and it's devoid of spam since you whitelist your contacts, I never seem to get the interaction I expect from it. I get a few @replies, but they're random. There's no discussions really on Twitter... It's great for exchanging some information, but most everyone talks past each other. If you use a client like Twhirl, it can be "almost live", like IRC, but since there's no real topic, there's no real conversation.

What I find interesting though is that because Twitter lacks topics or threads, some people have turned to Friendfeed to have a more extended conversations - either about individual tweets, or more often shared links of some sort. I don't actually understand the hype around Friendfeed since it's basically a very limited aggregator or a limited forum centered around links, and not really a great combo of the two. I log in once in a while to see if there's a (single level) thread that's been set off around a link or a Tweet I might be interested in, but it's mostly hidden and hard to discover. If I don't happen to get a particular item from a particular feed, I won't see the conversation thread that forms around it.

The idea of any item on the Internet - any resource addressable via a URL like an article or tweet - being the topic of discussion has formed the basis for a ton of sites, all with their own unique gimmick. For example, Digg is about voting links to the top page in a "democratic Slashdot" sort of way, and Reddit lets you exchange and rank links based around certain subtopics, and yet even though both are ostensibly about bubbling up interesting stuff to help discovery of new sites, they also have very active discussion threads about the links as well. Friendfeed is really just the latest incarnation of this stuff.

That's what I was trying to accomplish with my Roomatic experiment - conversations around resources, events, tags, etc. - but with the added idea of being more "live" by making it look more like an IRC chat room than a "microblog" or search engine. It doesn't always work though... following today was impossible as everyone and their brother were mentioning it. The general idea is the right one though, I feel it in my gut.

The reason I mentioned IRC is because I've seen it happen there - a group of people in various parts of the world chatting, joking, sending links, etc. in a way that really gives a sensation that you're there, with them. It ends up being really fun or informative and worth your time. It happens rarely though - only on the right days with the right people in the right circumstances. But it's possible. The question is how to get that lightning to strike regularly?

Yahoo! used to have public chat rooms, but they closed them all down because of the amount of sex and predatory stuff going on in them. Every chat room, no matter what the topic, ended up being a sex-chat room, and it was impossible to moderate. Times have moved on since then and with social networking, we all have a profile somewhere that makes us less anonymous and theoretically more accountable for our actions - would this allow public chat rooms to come back? Maybe - everyone in Y!'s chat rooms had Yahoo! IDs, but that didn't seem to stop anyone.

Again, with so many people online at once, I don't understand why it's not more "live" and interactive. Why can't I be sitting here watching How It's Made on the Discovery Channel, and immediately pop into a dedicated chat room about the show and have an intelligent conversation about it with others who are also watching it live. (Sort of like what happens on IRC during a Stevenote.) It seems like a great use-case - millions of us watch TV and for many of us it's more entertaining to do it with others... Ever watch the same TV show while on the phone with a friend? Wasn't it fun? Same thing, just with chat.

Though I guess it goes back to quality of - and relationship you have to - the people you're interacting with. I watched a little bit of Leo Laporte's iPhone marathon video broadcast, and the conversation in the chat room of the simultaneous viewers was complete crap. Why? I don't know, but it was all continuous snarky comments or useless chatter. There needs to be some level of filter that allows you to separate signal from noise, I guess, I'm just not sure what it is. Twitter hasn't found it, nor has Meebo or Lingr, or any of the link-sharing sites for that matter.

I guess, that's an opportunity, hey? I just really wonder why no one's figured it out yet though.


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