Correspondence Is Making A Comeback

I was thinking of making a broader point in my "quill pen" post yesterday but ran out of time so I decided to do that with today’s post.

Before the telephone came along, correspondence mostly consisted of letter writing, like the Adams/Jefferson letters I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

The telephone changed all that and by the time I was born, in 1961, most people relied on the phone for their regular conversations. And in the process, we lost a bit of the art and pleasure of the written word. Writing became something authors, journalists and academics did and the average person didn’t do.

We also lost the ability to record these conversations for posterity. Being able to read Adams and Jefferson’s words almost 200 years after they wrote them is an invaluable resource for society.

The internet changed that, starting with email and chat. People started writing again. And the practice of everyman writing has picked up with texting, social networking, twittering, and most of all blogging and blog commenting.

I am excited about the power of blog commenting to bring ‘intellectual discussions’ back to the mainstream.  We’ve had forums on the internet for as long as I remember but they’ve been largely for a niche audience.

Blogging has brought a more mainstream audience to the idea of ‘discussions’ but the friction in the system is still too large.

Much of the friction is just inertia. I get so many comments that start out "long time reader, first time commenter". I try to reply to every single one of those because when they realize that leaving a comment is like starting an email discussion with me (and hopefully others), there’s a good chance they’ll be leaving more comments in the future.

The recent addition of facebook and hopefully other profile systems (google’s system, linkedin, myspace, yahoo, etc) to disqus and other commenting systems will help. Nobody likes having to create a new profile just to leave a comment. But when you can leverage your indentity that you’ve already created elsewhere to quickly and easily leave a comment, that’s going to bring more people into the discussion.

I was going through the comments to the ‘Bits Of Destruction’ post this morning and there’s this great back and forth between two frequent commenters about the bank panic of 1907 and JP Morgan’s role in it. That’s the kind of conversation that just didn’t exist for most people pre-Internet. You could get it in college dorms, bars and coffee shops in the right towns and cities to some degree, but certainly not late at night in your pajamas in your studio apartment.

I think we are becoming a more literate and conversational society because of the internet. And the tools aren’t there to fully leverage this activity. But they are coming fast. It is something I am passionate about and invested in. I hope you are too.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. fredwilson

    I get way more comments on my political posts than anything else I writePeople are passionate about poltics and their viewsWhich is goodBut I agree that we¹ll need filters and feedback mechanisms to get the mostvalue out of these political discussions

    1. Justin Yost

      We may be getting more writing but are we necessarily getting good writing? Monkeys on the keyboard can write but it’s not good writing.

      1. fredwilson

        Go to the comment thread I mentioned and see for yourself. I think its quite good

  2. Ranjit Mathoda

    I think one place where commenting and conversation may cause change is actually with government, as I hinted at in my essay The Coming Digital Presidency (…. Of course with politics people are even more likely to rant than elsewhere, so having the proper feedback systems matters more.

  3. Noah David Simon

    in high school my best friend was a Republican… I just has a conversation with him last night. he doesn’t like me in his party.he wants me to become a Democrat.the most frightening thing for your opponent is for you to enter his home and redefine who he is.

  4. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a point that we have to repeat — that the internet makes us more literate, not less.

  5. Kenosha_Kid

    The Internet phenomenon you describe is on a certain level like the changes caused by the French Revolution. Just like every street merchant then thought himself equal to a king, and in fact superior, so too you now only need a Typepad account to be William Safire. It’s all too easy, and the results are not always positive.

  6. fredwilson

    That is such a great story. I agree that public discussions are way morevaluable than private ones. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Michael Broukhim

      I think this is the real key here… so many of our communications that were previously one-to-one, are now becoming one-to-one-to-many.Fred, you spurred me to finally write a blog post on the ‘rise of the open letter’ –

  7. fredwilson

    I¹ve been known to lose it too on occasion. I try to keep it in check, butit¹s hard.

  8. jer979

    You’re right, with one caveat. I think Adams and Jefferson, etc., given the time it took to respond probably did a better job of holding their emotions in check and keeping the discourse civil and respectful, even when they disagreed. Too often, as you know, things disintegrate into name-calling. I disagree with a lot of your politics, but I respect your opinion and I respect the way you respect those with whom you disagree.That’s rare, in my experience.How do we keep the benefits of the instantaneous/digital while keeping it civil.

  9. Michael Rattner

    Fred,I’m really impressed by how seriously you take this blog. It’s obvious that you see blogging and comment discussions as very important methods of communication. Unfortunately many people (companies) don’t seem to regard their public discussions as seriously as they do their private ones, and it’s generally rare to see a blogger participating in their own comments. This effectively neuters the medium. And yet, most people view a personal email as somehow more valid than a comment reply.When I was an engineering TA about a decade ago, I made a rule: I would not provide homework help over email, but only provide it in the class forum. My initial reason was that, with 150 students, I didn’t have time for so much email and I wanted all my hints to be available to all the students, equally. The students weren’t happy about this, until I proved that any question asked in the forum was answered by me within a couple of hours (and generally, minutes). But what was cool was that once the discussions became public, the answers kept getting better, because rather than me interacting with one student at a time, I was continuously challenged by all my students at the same time! And students were helping students.Unfortunately university policy was to delete the forums after a class was over, to prevent cheating, or some such petty reason.But to summarize, many to many communication still does not have the respect it deserves, but it is a very powerful communications medium. This blog is a perfect example.

    1. kortina

      It’s a shame that everyone else teaching has not made the same decision as you, because I think the public forum benefits your students much more than public emails. Schools should mandate the public TA help forum vs. email.

    2. fredwilson

      michael – i quoted from this comment in today’s blog post…

  10. jmcaddell

    Fred, regarding “Bits of Destruction.” I’ve read a few accounts saying that the newspaper business could be more profitable if it jettisoned print and relied on electronic distribution. I remember reading somewhere that 90% of their direct costs could be eliminated. Have you seen a complete analysis of this, basically recasting the P&L of a newspaper if it didn’t distribute hardcopies? I’d love to see one if it exists.regards, John

    1. fredwilson

      I’ve not seen that analysis. But I often wonder if they increased the cost of a delivered paper to fully subsidize the costs of printint and distribution whether that model would work

  11. tomguarriello

    Interesting. I’ve been thinking about McLuhan’s “tetrad” this weekend. McLuhan asked four questions about every technology:1. What does it enhance?2. What does it obsolesce?3. What does it revive?4. When fully deployed, what reversal of an older technology does it encourage?So, let’s see, the telephone enhanced real time, person-to-person communication. As you point out, it made letter writing largely obsolete. It revived the intimacy of the village which began to be lost with increased mobility. Now that it is fully deployed, we see a revival of the written word but with the reach enabled by electronic means. I suspect we’re also seeing a re-appreciation of the “localness” that was lost when anybody could talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime. (Remember when a “long distance call” meant something special?)

  12. Scott

    While I certainly agree with the internet engendering a “more literate and conversational society,” I think that RSS Readers, and tools like google reader, may limit the future conversational activity–especially with blog comments. It’s built into Google Reader’s brand/name. Its purpose is to “read” posts, not interact with posts.These past three months, I’ve made some huge changes. I’ve gone from being an “offline,” pen and paper person to a fully-online (google calendar, google reader, jott, basecamp, etc.) type of person. Yet, I’ve made some changes and implemented some “quill pen” lifestyle items into my life.I’ve found that, one, balance is critical, and two, I prefer reading articles and posts on my iPhone google reader (in a Starbucks or overlooking a lake), rather than hunched over my laptop. Much like a book, I find the portability that mobile devices offer make it a perfect reading device. I also find that I’m less inclined to participate by writing comments while browsing my google reader.I foresee blogs as much more of a social-networking tool in the future. For instance, if you want to meet venture capitalists, web 2.0 enthusiasts and private equity individuals in the New York region, “AVC” is the place you want to spend time on. Can you meet people through comments? Yes. However, I also think that a lot of blogs will have their own communities in the future for readers to meet other readers (kind of what I did with scottdig at line: I think blogs serve as much more of a cultural/interest meeting place; yet, a blog’s community is built on the blogs content/comment discussion. In the end, I agree, we are becoming a much more literate society because of the internet. But also, we’re given the ability to meet more and more people around us, who share similar interests because of blogs. I think this area will pick up the most activity in 2009

    1. fredwilson

      I would love to see google reader do more to support the comment services on blogs. I wonder if disqus could build a ff extenstion for google reader that would make commenting from google reader seamlessI also think its interesting to note the impact of mobile devices on blog reading. I find that same effect with my blackberry

      1. Riaz Kanani

        its not perfect but have you tried gReader? It originally used Greasemonkey and Firefox to add disqus to Google Reader (… but now there is a Firefox addon as well. You can find it here:

        1. fredwilson

          Sweet. I gotta check that out. Thanks for the tip

        2. Scott

          Nice. That would definitely mitigate the lack of participation via online google reader; however, I believe that the major area of need would be the commenting ability on mobile devices 🙂

  13. mark

    Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather have newspapers with no government than government and no newspapers. The latter is now upon us because, as readers of this blog well know, the business model for newspapers is broken. Blogs like this can help fill the void.

    1. reiboldt

      I wonder what Jefferson would think about the influx of citizen journalists that have developed through blogging. The newspaper business model is broken because people no longer depend on a few writers to provide what they’re looking for. Before we had to find a few writers/publishers we like among a small number of mediocre ones. Today, we find the very specific writers we like amongst a large pool of writers at varying quality. The point is, we can find exactly what we’re looking for, rather than settling with whoever we like most amongst the poor writers at the NYT. Moreover, the WSJ editorial page is no longer what it used to be. I think Greg Mankiw should write everyday there, but I know that’s not realistic, so I’ll read his blog before (or instead of) the WSJ.

  14. TanjaB

    I agree with you when you say “I think we are becoming a more literate and conversational society because of the Internet.” But I also I believe that vlogging and video commenting may change the next generation in terms of literacy and culture. After all, — as someone earlier alluded to McLuhan — the “medium is the message.” FWIW I’m very tempted to hit that red “record video comment” below this form box just to make my point but I’ve decided to remain true to the spirit of your post. Happy New Year!

  15. jonsteinberg

    My undergraduate thesis my be of interest to people looking at the role of the internet in civic life. A bit dated (1999) but still relevant:

    1. fredwilson

      Wow. I had no idea!

  16. Alvis

    Fred, I think you’re right we’re swinging back toward correspondence (as compared to 5-10 years ago) and def in your observation that human conversational/communication effectiveness is steadily increasing. Clearly, the web market is the primary driver of this evolving global brain and there’s much innovation ahead of us that will better our real-time on near-real-time conversation.That said, I think there’s also much room for new technologies that bring to life many or all of our recorded aborted conversations. Immense value has been poured into the web in the form of comment threads and blog responses, but we don’t really know what to do with it all. I’m betting that a combination of technologies, services, models will either directly or indirectly bring these back to life, enabling these posts to bring back informational, monetary, reputation, or other value to their creators and targets. These may include comment history/personality breakdowns/maps, correspondence scores/reputations, longitudinal idea DNA (the natural outcome of patent reform?), semantic mapping of social groups + correspondence history, correspondence assistants or cleaners (PAs or services that either manage/supplement your commenting or go back and take care of your history – ideal for big shot brains with little time), AI-ish software, self-organizing ideas (bits of data embedded with their own drives, laws), etc.In short, the value of total global conversation will be increased by better real-time or topical conversation but also by expanded longitudinal conversation – perhaps to the extent of automated conversation (Blackmore’s temes), meaningful dialogue with our ancestors or better communication with non-humans (biology, software, etc. – essentially super-rapid science that begins to feel more like a conversation). Faster is better, but so is supra-comprehensive.

    1. fredwilson

      Have you seen anything live on the web that starts to showcase some of these ideas?

      1. Alvis

        Sure, though (disclaimer 1) many of them are necessarily incremental developments setting the conditions for further correspondence/conversation/comm expansion. I also want to point out for technical purposes (disclaimer 2) that I see the distinction between blog comments and blog posts (including twitter) fading gradually. — Some examples:Disqus: Obv, I’d include Disqus, a new way to link multiple comment threads over time.CommentPress: Split-screen software for wordpress posts that opens a commenting window/layer that can also be accessed via links at the front of each paragraph. This is a better structure for commenting over time. Example here:… Run by The Institute for the Future of the Book, a project of USC’s Annenberg School, which is also dabbling in something interesting looking by underwhelming called – On some levels I find this similar to – more structure.Facebook Connect and Google Friend Connect: Social Identity/Network + Content + Monetization (soon) = robust new socio-info graph that will catalyze new longitudinal and comprehensive applications and bodies of structured data.Comment Repositories: Usually private databases, but more-or-less comprehensive public lists also count. I’d also include sites like CNN’s FanNation (… and These structures may eventually be rendered moot by really smart semantic search, but will be very important until we get there, helping us to develop better relational maps along the way. – I find it amazing that there’s no serious general commentpedia out there. Perhaps a cousin to Wikipedia is in order – just imagine the value if it’s open-sourced.Comment Ratings: Simple up/down votes on comments (ie daily kos, reddit, blog platforms) will go a long way as we assemble sortable comment databases. Other emerging metrics will help hugely.RSS/Email Comment Alerts: Allows comment threads to keep growing. Allows people to structure conversations into folders (more structure). There will be much room for interesting innovation here.Gradual Patent Reform: I’m not to familiar with the software, but am aware that the patent system is changing to better utilize the web. The result will be a structured body of idea “trails” that will serve as the basis for much high-value and contentious communication. Patent troll nightmare.Dear Idea (speculative): A philanthropic concept that some NYC friends and I kicked around in which content is embedded with drives and supported by a structured format that rewards idea evolution through augmentation, bonding, recruiting. Core concept is a points system that rewards creators, facilitators, commenters and bonders. Think it’s possible to setup such frameworks now, but open-source model will work best.etc.Once again, the above structures are catalysts for both faster/easier blog commenting as we know it, and also open up a new realm of correspondence and complex knowledge assembly. I expect there will be applications geared specifically toward longitudinal conversation built atop these and other structures.Hope these examples are of use/interest.

  17. Ulf Bergstrom

    Jer979 wrote: “How do we keep the benefits of the instantaneous/digital while keeping it civil.”Excellent point. And I think these “profile systems” like Facebook Connect might at least contribute towards a solution. This comment – had I been able to use FB connect 🙂 – would not only have displayed my name, but in a lot of ways be personally identifiable to me on a level that really hits close to home. It could show up in google searches on my name, it would be visible to my FB friends, etc. And that’s a very strong incentive to keep it civil. :)The more that we all have to “live with ” our comments, the more the long term importance of keeping it civil can seep into the internet culture and create new norms.I’m convinced the current range of emotions and tone in comments is much influenced by the anonymous commenting, even for those who do comment using their real name/internet persona(BTW, tried using FB connect, but instead only arrived at some default Disqus error page)

    1. fredwilson

      That’s not good about FB connect. It was working fine. I’ll look into itI totally agree with you. Whenever people leave nasty comments with anonymous profiles, I beg them to use their real identities instead. I think they would behave differently in that situation

  18. reiboldt

    I remember when one of my old school friends was making fun of me for blogging until I explained about the entire business (and revenue) I set up around it and how I enjoyed the extra few thousands of dollars every year. After I told him to wipe the dumb look off of his face (he didn’t realize you could make money online), I sold him on online innovation before the conversation was done. Too bad he was only ten years late. Good post, Fred.

  19. rkorba

    I vote to send you abroad more often — this is a thoughtful post. and apropos the point, for those of us in our, um… middle decades, do you sense that the written word is both much more democratic, and yet the thoughtful, readable posts are all folks that grew up learning to write the hard way? Not that it’s good or bad, but i’m as deft and appreciative of truly good and thoughtful, well-written ideas as i am daft at doing anything but reflexive txt, twitter, and the like. I hope the next generation learns both — that would give the US a huge lift in what we always lead the world in — invention among the “next generation”. just random thoughts — i started as a forum, and it’s led me to really appreciate how open people are in a safe, private environment, and how context drive the form of communication. I like how you select what a post, twitter, flickr, or random update are and how to invest time in the right output. that’s a skill they should teach from day one.

  20. JoeDuck

    Nice as usual Fred. We now see far more intelligent discussion than in the past both because the internet allows us to see it and because the internet inspires more. There’s also more superficial conversation but on balance it’s a great deal for us all.

  21. fredwilson

    Good observations. Disqus can tackle some of these for sure

  22. slowblogger

    I really agree with you. There are some problems (opportunities?) to address.- Discussions don’t last long. This is a major problem. Some topics (such as market vs. regulation) deserve much more than just 2 days of popularity. There should be slow-pace solutions.- The discussions can happen anywhere, which is good and bad. It would be great if one can see interesting discussions in one convenient place.- When a discussion gets popular, similar comments can be made here and there. I would like to see similar comments first, so that I can determine whether I really need to elaborate or just approve existing one.

  23. majorwho

    An interesting parallel is occurring in music right now. With GarageBand and other collaborative tools available, more people are getting involved in composing, playing instruments and performing for friends and each other. The current climate brings out the musician in all of us and a heightened awareness of the creation and mechanics of music making is developing. We are becoming a more ‘musical’ society while the music business continues to become less and less relevant. We live in interesting times (an old Chinese curse, actually).

    1. fredwilson

      Does rock band, guitar hero, and the like help or hurt this trend?

      1. Tyler Willis

        I would say it helps drive more creation, it engages more people in the context of “playing” music instead of consuming music — which gets them moving on a path towards creation.In terms of the business, I think interaction with music in a context of creation drives consumption faster than just interacting with music as a listener. Millions of songs have been downloaded into the game (big profit for the game and the musicians) so that effect is known, but I’d bet that the people who play the game also spend more on music outside of the game than non-playing peers do — but that is a theory, and would be interesting to see proved or disproved.

      2. majorwho

        Many of my musician friends find the technique involved in mastering Rock Band and the like to be quite different from playing actual instruments or writing songs. It opens a new frontier of music commerce but I don’t think it does much to stretch the creative and virtuostic realm among would-be musicians. It’s a bit early to tell. If what Tyler says is true, that it will help people to become interested in playing real music on instruments, then it helps the trend.

        1. fredwilson

          Right. My brother is a real musician who has played guitar professionallyand he sucks on guitar hero

        2. mccv

          I’m not a pro, but play a few instruments pretty competently. The technique for Guitar Hero is definitely different, but there are some fundamentals that I think *do* transfer to playing real instruments. Sense of rhythm, being forced to play in time with accompaniment, left/right hand coordination, and general finger dexterity are all basic things that I’d be willing to bet do carry over. I’d be really interested to see somebody take two groups of inexperienced guitar players, one with Guitar Hero experience and one without, and see how each progresses on picking up guitar over a 6-12 month time span.

          1. fredwilson

            That’s pretty definitive. Thanks for the link. Fascinating post

  24. Tyler Willis

    Lessig made a similar point on Charlie Rose recently ( video:… ). That the tools of the internet were actually bringing us back to participant culture. It’s just after the 10 minute mark in the interview.

  25. Facebook User

    I loved this post as a positive perspective on the power of social media and networking tools to advance public discourse, rather than kill it or dumb it down. It’s encouraged me as someone who loves writing & thoughtful discussion via the more traditional means.I’d love to share this specific blog post further on my FB wall. Anyone know how I might be able to do that?

    1. fredwilson

      I don¹t know enough about facebook to tell you how

  26. MikePLewis

    Couldn’t agree more with your post. Love it. I often look at the hierarchy of participation:- Read- Favorite- Tag – Comment- Subscribe- Share- Network- Write- Refactor- Collaborate- Moderate- LeadAnd i realize that there’s quite a distance between “read” and “comment” even if it is only 2 steps. It’s amazing how few people do it. Even i don’t do it as often as i want to. The key is making it easy and compelling to do so

  27. fredwilson

    I think disqus and friendfeed are well funded and are in good shape. But I agree with your concerns

    1. Morgan Brown

      Hi Fred,I think they are too. I guess my concern is more with the medium. Like digital pictures. Thousands of great photos are lost every year when a hard drive crashes, a digital camera dies, etc. It’s more that people have to remember that these repositories aren’t permanent archives. We need to learn to become somewhat of our own digital historian to ensure that we protect that which is important to us.

  28. Morgan Brown

    Fred,Great post. I believe we’re starting to see some of the other pain points of this conversation, particularly around the “ownership” of a particular question. Ownership under each of the following: FriendFeed, blog comments, and commenting systems like Disqus the ownership of that conversation and content, looks a little different in each scenario.The breaking down of walled gardens of conversation while working out this “ownership” question is going to be one of the challenges of the next few years.The reason I like Disqus so much (and FF) is that the conversation can move and flow easily, ownership in the conversation belongs to the commenter and not just the property that it lives on.The one thing I worry about and hope is protected is the wonderful legacy of these conversations. With so many valuable conversations being had on various platforms (of various levels of financial stability) it would be a shame to see great conversations lost forever simply due to a company folding.Great post and happy new year!

  29. jaredrbrandt

    Great post and comments – and I think you are right, correspondence and discussion are coming back.I find the most meaningful discussions occur when those present have a relationship (past conversations, whether real or virtual, direct or even indirect and a reputation) and take the time, as Jer979 points out, to be respectful and civil.One of the interesting balancing acts for 2009 for FF and Disqus (and maybe even twitter) will be how to promote real discussion through features or lack of. Discussion on forums seems rare – even within the niches that they serve. Features promote multiple posting (ranking systems) at the expense of carefully crafted thought. Multiple communication channels, such as private messages on a bulletin board, are often used at the expense of the public discussion. Reputation is also hard to nail as ebay is well aware.It is exciting to see passionate people focusing energy on these issues.