Screen Size and Depth of Dialogue

Via Instapunit, here is an article about online motorcycle forums, which says that there used to be many of these but that they have been drying up and going away.  Why?

In January 2014, desktop internet use was overtaken by mobile internet use in America. This means screens got smaller, layouts moved primarily from horizontal to vertical, and physical keyboards were largely unavailable.

This means writing a longer post was more difficult. Formatting it to appear nicely with photos in line with the text became more difficult. Reading a post that was text-heavy became more onerous. As people drifted away from their desktop computers, they began to drift away from forums.

The post goes on to note that “social media sure is easy” and that many people tend to prefer getting information in social media form and “being served interesting things all the time with cross-pollination all in a one-stop dopamine hit. Do you love golf, Audi cars, retro-cafe motorcycles, and sushi? Social media can easily serve that up to you in a seemingly constant stream.”


You may be saying, “Hey, it’s easier to consume, but it’s a pain to create content on Insta or Facebook.” I’d agree with you. I’d also argue it’s going to be much harder to find great content in the future (if it even exists) because traditional social platforms like Twitter and Facebook are designed to deliver the latest content, not the deepest.

Also, these platforms seems specifically designed for distraction. If you’re trying to compose a reasonably long post on Facebook, you will likely be constantly interrupted by messages informing you that some person (who you may barely know or remember) liked or commented on some post that you did or commented on previously.

People do seem to like the Walled Gardens of social media, even though these gardens come complete with serpent.  The author of the linked article seems to feel that the eclipsing of forums by social media was inevitable, like the replacement of printed motorcycle magazines…and seems OK with it:

The forum, which was somewhat asynchronous and perhaps more demanding of users’ time, whether giving or receiving information, has been supplanted by a much faster mode of communication. Some quality of the exchange probably suffers, but the volume has probably increased by more than the quality of post content has slipped.

The issue here goes far beyond the motorcycle community.  Technologies, especially communications technologies, do affect thought processes and social interactions.  The runaway success of social media…especially as combined with the tendency for the phone to become the universal device…has discouraged connected thought and discussion in ways that cannot be good either for our political culture or for the ability of people who have grown up in this environment to do complicated work.


17 thoughts on “Screen Size and Depth of Dialogue”

  1. On a tangent: Seven years ago Dr. Boli predicted that computers would be less capable “Speaking of word processing, have you tried doing it on an Android device? Even the most capable Android document programs give you a tiny subset of the capabilities of desktop word processing. It’s another conscious design decision. People who use smartphones and tablets are used to simplicity, not complexity; they prefer apps that give them few options and take care of everything for them.”

    Some of us like to think things through in writing, but others of us are content with pre-packaged picture memes that express at least part of what we mean. They’re quick and easy.

    Perhaps those who spend more time on Facebook than I may have seen this, but I’ve never seen anyone post a picture meme with a “but” followed by a different image to balance or nuance the first. It’s easy in prose, but if you’re sharing an image it takes a lot more work to find a balancing image to go with it. Technology shapes the character of dialog/signaling, as you say.

  2. This is universal. I see it for repair forums for sailboats, appliances, cars, etc. The content just disappears like 5-7 years ago or so. I don’t think it’s due to screens/phones, I think it’s due to facebook, mostly, as well as youtube. Neither of which are exactly substitutes for the way forums used to work. facebook seems to be where the interactive relationships went, but the long-term storage of the information is basically zero. Youtube allows more people to share things in a more personal way, but it’s not as interactive in general either–people post what they want to, and it’s harder to post questions and get an answer.
    So when it comes to the change from the old desktop/forum days, I think it’s the old “the medium is the message”, not “the device is the message”…

  3. A fan forum for an author I admire has suffered this issue. The media is still “mailing list”. But the culture is very much “tweet”. And those who take “mail digests” are actively criticized for breaking functionality because replies aren’t “threaded properly”.

  4. My daughter can text as fast as I can type, with one thumb, while talking to you. I need my keyboard and my 32″ monitor to function normally.

    I have never been a member of Facesbook or Twitter. I have an Instagram account to do proper Instagram stuff, posting pictures of my cat. ;)

    My only long term forums are reddit where we go to communicate, harass and fight with each other. I have only been permabanned from the Fallout 76 forums, as I did kinda lose it, when my Jenny could not eat the new content. A long story of one poor woman’s spiral into madness, ROLE PLAYING. Quit the game and moved on. ;)

  5. Brian….”I think it’s the old “the medium is the message”, not “the device is the message”

    I think the attributes of the device are part of the nature of the medium…a small screen doesn’t encourage reading text of any length,and a small keyboard doesn’t encourage writing text of any length.

  6. No reference to reddit’s topical subreddit forums. No reference to Discord channels. No reference to YouTube.

    People are still exchanging information, they are just in new locations.

  7. Erick:
    YouTube was mentioned above, by me.
    Reddit is a “walled garden” social media site. Similar to facebook. The forums there are not nearly as immediately available as dedicated sites from a decade ago, and you’re at the mercy of their crazy employees and people like Ellen Pao, for the content to survive.
    If you want to partake in productive conversation, don’t be obnoxious and just jump right with dismissive (and inaccurate) unproductive comments.

  8. I wonder if its the accumulated information in a forum that slowly reduces posting to a forum – past posts on a subject reduces the need for a current post on the same subject. A search answers the question.

  9. I’m actually less interested in Forums, as useful as they can be, than in political and news-related discussions…but I think some of the same characteristics of social media and small screens are exerting a baleful influence on all of the above.

  10. It’s amusing that Ann Althouse, in a snit, ended all comments on her blog a couple of years ago. She is a retired law professor who was once described as “Libertarian” but is a mild lefty. Most of her commenters, certainly those whose comments are useful, are right wing and many are Trump supporters. When she closed comments, many of the right wing commenters shifted to a Discord channel, which persists in spite of her resuming comments on the blog. I look and comment at both places. The Discord channel is the most interesting.

  11. Althouse referred, at the time she closed comments, to many of us as “right wing squatters.” That is the name of the Discord channel.

  12. I rather like Toob of Ewe for the reno and building series that I like. Also for repair videos – I followed one particular video for replacing the timer switch on the dryer a couple of months ago. Told me everything I needed to know for successfully switching out the old unit, and putting in the new. I also had guidance for installing vinyl flooring – both those videos were sponsored by corporations – Whirlpool, in the case of the first, and Home Depot in the case of the second.
    Honestly, I think I would have gotten lost in discussion boards – too deep in the weeds.

  13. Something that didn’t get mentioned above is money. Outside of rumors about a few people like Glenn Reynolds, I don’t think there has ever been much money in blogging. Most people had to be satisfied with sharing their knowledge, experience, opinion or publicizing some other venture with, at best, a few bucks from Amazon or Google.

    YouTube is changing that. To my understanding, achieving 100,000 subscribers to your channel will generate not quite quit your day job money but some tens of thousands a year in revenue. At a million, things like part to full time video editors are almost mandatory, along with some semblance, often much more, of a camera crew. At the same time, some of the content is extraordinary.

    TikTok is something like the video equivalent of Twitter right now with most content more or less directly from a phone to the world although that is probably changing too.

  14. MCS…there is also a subscription-charge option for Substack authors…they can charge for all content or just for selected posts.

    I’ve heard that Bari Weiss, who had to leave the NYT because of Political Deviationism, is now making more money at Substack than she did at the NYT,

    So, a nice option for the Cancelled, or at least for those among them who already have a substantial following.

  15. I hadn’t really considered Substack. All the people I know on the platform had an already developed following and I, whether I’m right or wrong, associate it with political content. At least they haven’t had the time to develop the sort of diversity that YouTube has. The great majority of what I watch is completely devoid of politics.

    There are a couple of paid video platforms that are trying to gain traction to host just non-fiction type content with seemingly more transparent and different rules that allow content that YouTube demonetizes.

    There’s no question that video content is more accessible on a small screen than large bodies of text. Especially seeing as how web design has never embraced the idea of readability over the newest gimmick.

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