How conversations evolved with technology

Back in the day when the only way to communicate with someone was to talk to them face to face, conversations were completely synchronous. You ask someone a question or make an observation and they respond with an answer or another observation that builds on top of yours. 

When we upped our technology game with the invention of the telephone, the same behaviour was propagated. When text messaging was created, even though we had the ability to communicate asynchronously, we still chose to send each other one text message at a time and wait for their reply before sending the next one.

All this changed with the invention of the internet which gave rise to conversation threading. This is what a modern conversation on reddit looks like

How modern conversations take place

There are actually >21k comments on this thread and am not even kidding!

Thats 21k comments more than necessary!

So how did we go from having one conversation at a time to this madness? I believe it all started when email was invented. 

The need for conversation threading

With email, there was a clear need to segregate conversations into threads and each thread would be identified with a subject. 

This helped with maintaining sanity in one's mailbox and made asynchronous communication a lot easier. You could look at an email days after it was sent and just by looking at the subject a context would immediately be established. 

Email clients further make conversation threading easier with the help of quoted text. When you reply to an email you can click on those 3 dots to expand the entire thread and get a quick overview of who all participated in the thread, what did each of them reply with and where exactly are we in the conversation.

gmails way of letting you see the whole thread

You can also reply to any message that belongs to the thread giving additional clarity as to what part of the conversation you are referring to. 

Reply to any message within the thread

Rise of instant messaging apps

When WhatsApp came into existence, I was under the impression that it was a better alternative to text messaging. But when was the last time any of us used whatsapp to send a single text message and wait till the other person responds before sending the next message? 

When we use WhatsApp or any other instant messaging apps, we send a whole flood of messages one after the other before the poor soul on the other end even has a chance to reply to the first message. 

These apps now needed a way to allow conversation threading and they usually solve this problem by giving you the ability to reply to a particular message

Conversation threading in WhatsApp

This is a good way to add threading to conversations but it can get messy pretty fast especially if you try to use any of these apps for work conversations where there are loads of stuff to discuss and each message could be a thread in itself. 

This brings me to the logical conclusion for managing conversations - Slack. 

Instant messaging with controlled chaos

Instant messaging is not something we can avoid anymore whether we're dealing with formal conversations or informal conversations. Informal conversations can be mostly handled using apps like WhatsApp, Telegram or Facebook messenger but this will not fly with formal work related conversations.

For work related stuff a single interface where you can message one person at a time and keep track of the threads by replying to particular messages will no longer work. Sure we can organize it a bit better using groups but if you have a team of more than 2 people this is a sure shot way to descend into chaos.

Slack solves this problem by giving you the ability to create channels where each channel is meant for having a particular type of conversation and within each channel any message that you send can become a separate thread when people reply to that message.

Conversation threading in slack

Things are further simplified with the ability to mention your teammates in replies and onboard them into the conversation.

Building a modern customer support client

The reason why this topic interested me in the first place was because I am currently building a customer support software for e-commerce businesses with my team and interestingly enough we have the challenge of combining instant messaging as well as an email like interface into one tool.

Customer support will happen via various channels like email, Facebook messenger, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, but our tool must also solve the problem of teammates communicating with each other while replying to support queries. 

We approached this problem by providing a way to maintain conversation threading within teammates in the same interface where they would be replying to customer queries.

Organising conversations in

Closing notes

There are a few other mediums like facebook posts, comments, twitter threads etc that I have not discussed deeply, but the underlying concept in all of these mediums is the same. 

Folks need to say something either to another person or a group of persons. Somebody can then take the conversation further by picking up a single nugget of information from the OPs post and expanding it further. 

This cycle can go on perpetually and every modern tool must have a system to handle this cycle of conversations by providing some sort of conversation threading. I can't wait to see how upcoming products handle this challenge and if it might give rise to a new way of communication altogether.