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July 26, 2012 » 9:14 am

Abelard: A Tool for Slow Discourse

I recently came across Jack Cheng’s essay, “The Slow Web” (via Alex Pang). Jack describes the Slow Web Movement as analogous to the Slow Food Movement. On the one hand, it’s a reaction to the “Fast Web,” this on-demand world of information overwhelm. The Slow Web, on the other hand, is about rhythm. It’s about doing things when they feel right to do, as opposed to whenever they come up.

I studied history of science in college, and I used to enjoy reading the correspondence between different scientists. It was this incredibly intimate experience to be listening in on these conversations, but what really struck me was the quality of discourse. They were respectful, thoughtful, and insightful. They were also slow. If you paid attention to the dates as you read, you’d start to feel a rhythm to the correspondence.

Respectful, thoughtful, insightful, slow. These are not words that describe most of the correspondence on the Internet today.

Ten years ago, I came up with an idea for a tool called Abelard. It was a tool for slow discourse, an attempt to integrate the best of the Web with the slow, wonderful art of letter-writing. The name of the tool was an homage to the medieval philosopher, Peter Abélard, who became famous for his romantic correspondence with his student, Héloïse d’Argenteuil.

I never had a chance to actually write the tool, but it seems fitting that — after 10 years, having had a chance to let the idea stew in the back of my mind for a very long time — I would share the idea for the tool in the hopes that somebody else might be inspired to build it.

The original concept had two key features. The first was a time limit. You would only be allowed to post once a day. The goal was to encourage rhythm and thoughtfulness.

  • Read people’s thoughts
  • Sleep
  • Write a response
  • Sleep
  • Read people’s responses
  • Sleep
  • Repeat

Simply slowing the conversation down would encourage higher levels of discourses (how many flame wars would be prevented if people were only allowed to post once a day?) and higher levels of participation.

Second, it would have tools to make it easy to respond to multiple ideas in a single post. Most of our current tools (especially email) encourage us to respond to individual ideas in separate posts, which leads to divergent conversations. The ability to combine multiple points (perhaps shared by different people) in a single post would encourage convergence.

My focus, at the time, was how to architecturally enable features like this. (This was building on the work that Chris Dent and I did around Purple Numbers and granular addressability and that Chris has continued developing with TiddlyWeb.) But the world of the web has evolved a lot since then. If I were to build something like this today, I would focus much more on the user experience. I’d also spend a lot of time on making it a delightful experience, in the same way writing on beautiful stationary with a great pen is delightful. Paperless Post is a great model for this.

I recently came across a group called the Letter Writers Alliance, which is trying to revive the art of letter writing. I would love to see a tool like Abelard that combined the same joy and benefits of letter writing with the magical world of the Web.

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2 Responses to “Abelard: A Tool for Slow Discourse”

  1. I think of blogs as very similar to your slow writing/web stuff. I have been thinking about this for quite a while in regards to learning and use of technology, e.g. this post http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=61in 2006 and this update at the end of last year http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=2332. I'm with you on the benefits of reflective dialog. More than 30 years ago, I was part of an experiment using elearning instead of classroom discussion. We found higher quality comments in the asynchronous email discussion, not surprisingly. We also found that individual emails addressed multiple threads. Not sure if and why that's changed.

  2. I agree with your assessment of blogs and also your implicit point about tool usage changing over time. With the arrival of Twitter and other "microblog" tools, I find that regular blogs have become much more universally about slow discourse than they were 10 years ago. I really like what Jon Udell said about this almost exactly a year ago:

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