in technology

Broken feedback loops

Last summer I wrote this quick quip on twitter about my frustrations with Google Reader and Facebook comments:

Screen shot 2010-02-10 at 12.18.02 PM

Many years ago, people started building weblog ranking lists and then weblog search engines and eventually we had a rich set of tools that let you know what someone was saying about something you posted online. At first, these were often dubbed "ego search" and there were comparisons to navel gazing that early bloggers (myself included) were known for.

Over the years I realized tracking mentions of your work across the web wasn't merely for the ego stroke, it was quite a valuable bit of feedback. In addition to the direct feedback you might get on a post through your own comments system, following mentions in Technorati, RSS search engines (I still use bloglines' citations to do URL searches of my domains), and Delicious (which offers a simple backlink search) gave a broader picture of what people liked and disliked about your work. On places like Flickr that are more about sharing photos and sometimes about the nature of learning photography, direct feedback is key to becoming better at what you do.

Today Buzz launched and I realized my annoyance expressed last July was going to get amplified again as there was yet another new channel that could chop up any piece of micro-content I've produced and let people comment, rate, and share it without me having any remote knowledge of it unless I happen to follow someone that interacted with it. It's just like how Facebook doesn't inform me that this very blog post might be shared as a link there, and maybe 7 people hit the "Like" button and maybe there are five comments on it there that I can't answer because I don't know it exists. Google Reader, as much as I love it as a tool for reading blogs, suffers the same issues.

Let me be clear this isn't an ownership issue, it's not a frail ego issue, and it's not that I don't love remixing (I do!). My point is when there are half a dozen places someone can hit a like button or mark as a favorite or leave a comment that I have no knowledge of, the feedback loop is broken. 

When I think about the years I've learned to become a more concise writer and a better photographer by throwing shit online and gathering feedback, then repeating the cycle again, I'm dismayed to see all these new tools that lack appropriate feedback mechanisms that can relay information back to the original authors.

So to future application creators I ask that you simply respect the creators of content and help them improve by offering notification, search, and/or backlink capabilities so it's possible for someone to see where their creations end up. I know it's a lot easier to just consider it all "output" within your application, but the internet is a great communication medium not just for relaying information from anyone to anywhere on earth, but for also making it a dialogue between reader and writer. 

Don't break the feedback loop. 

Update: It might help other writers and photographers to know what tools I use (that you might not be aware of) as feedback loops. Here's a follow-up post about that.


  1. From what I understand (which is not much), Google is using the Salmon Protocol in Buzz to some extent. This is trying to solve the exact problem you discuss. You post something, someone comments on it in an aggregator and you never see it.
    With Salmon (again, not so much knowledge), the comment is then pushed back to the original site. Of course, this requires TypePad, Twitter and all the others to support it, but it could help make for a canonical set of feedback. I cannot wait for the magical day in the future when this happens.

  2. I might not necessarily want to republish it on my site, but I would like to know it is existing somewhere else and interact with it over there if possible (so I wouldn’t inline all buzz comments here, but I might log into buzz to read what people said in comments)

  3. Yeah, I can see that. In fact, it is probably a lot cleaner to keep the communities separate. My assumption is that the consumer of the pushed comment could do whatever it’d like. So TypePad might send it into your Dashboard, but not onto your blog.

  4. I was just thinking about this. Visited a friend’s blog yesterday and left a comment. Realized I hadn’t done that in forever. Does anybody actually leave comments on blogs anymore?
    Seems like having a common place to store interactions with content would be a great thing. Individuals could create/subscribe to that content however they wanted (Facebook/Twitter/Buzz/directly on site/etc)

  5. I feel like the correct etiquette is to leave a comment on the original source.
    So if my friend posts a Flickr photo to Twitter, then I should leave a comment on Flickr. If I were to @reply on Twitter, I’m not contributing to the conversation that lives on the Flickr photo page, where my friend *chose* to host their photo.
    In the case of blog posts, it is best to comment on the original post. Like this.

  6. The Salmon protocol Matt Jabobs linked to looks encouraging. It seems to provide the kind of feedback mechanism you’re asking for. What the source publisher actually does with the feedback notification is arbitrary. From the spec:
    The usual result is for the salmon to be published along with other comments on the source’s web page. Note that sources are not obligated to actually publish the salmon — they may moderate them, spam block them, aggregate or analyze them instead.
    So you could inline comments or provide a link to them or store them somewhere or whatever.
    I totally agree with your hypothesis. It would be great if social networks and blogs worked together the same way email servers do.

  7. This is a big issue for me as an academic. It’s much harder to follow conversations on a topic when they get fragmented across so many communities and media.

  8. “…without me having any remote knowledge of it unless I happen to follow someone that interacted with it.” Well it does appear that public posts are added to your google public profile, so perhaps they would be trackable like twitter posts? In other words, Buzz does have permalinks.

  9. I definitely agree that these things can and do break feedback loops. And I’m frustrated with the multitude of feeds in my online life. But another thing these reading/republishing/aggregator tools might do is remove barriers to discussion, particularly among neighbors/near-neighbors in social networks. The goal of a commenter isn’t always dialog with the public or with the content author (and if it is, they’ll use the source-native commenting functions).
    Like I’m doing here. I don’t know who you are, I’ve never read anything else of yours and might not do so again, but because we have a mutual friend who retweeted you and I found it intriguing enough to click through, I’m here, commenting on this post.

  10. I was going to leave a comment about how we should all just leave comments on the original source, and how this should somehow be ingrained to standard net etiquette, but Leah beat me to the punch. Not surprised, Leah’s smarter than I am.
    So I’m just here to say: Amen.

  11. The harsher thing I really wanted to say is “If you leave a comment on Facebook on something that was obviously crossposted, I hate you and you’re stupid.”

  12. I understand your point. Certainly the feedback loop may be broken if I post this on facebook, or in google reader. But how is that any different from me discussing it with my husband without you knowing? If I want to engage you in the conversation, years ago I would have had to call you about the article you wrote in the newspaper, or email you about something you wrote on your own website, or comment directly on your blog. But you never got “feedback” in the sense of being aware of my discussion about it with others, unless I wanted you to have that feedback. So I guess I’m not convinced your losing out, exactly, on feedback – sure there’s feedback that you’re not getting, but that’s always been the case.

  13. GAH! This is such a huge pain in the ass. I syndicate my 2 big websites on Facebook, and cannot get over how many people insist on posting their comments on FB instead of on the actual posts. Facebook offers no way to disable commenting on imported feeds, so unless I disable syndication … the conversations are fractured and confused.
    Also: I originally posted this comment in Buzz, before a friend pointed out that I had become part of the very problem I was decrying!

  14. If I discuss this article with a friend while at dinner, you’d never hear the comments either. Google Reader, Facebook and now Buzz comments are like that for the most part. Just friends hanging out talking about something they saw/read/heard.

  15. I think it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone who comments on something that you do “in public” on the internets will all comment on it in a place that you can readily find it.
    The much more reasonable assumption is that if you write something that is at all interesting that it will fly into the world into places that you have no way at all of getting any kind of insight into, and that only through very hard work on your part will it be possible to keep on top of things.
    The more you get mass distribution of what you produce, the less likely it is that all of the reaction will be somewhere that you can corral.

  16. Right, that’s how things used to be, but the Internet has allowed us to make great strides and allowed for people to get better as a result of feedback and criticism. I’m just saying we should continue moving into the future and not slip back into the past due to a few bad decisions on the part of application developers.

  17. The idea that e.g. small talk has never been aggregated in the past is valid, but not all of the conversation happening on Buzz, Facebook, Twitter, etc. is small talk. Part of the problem, I think, is that it’s too easy to not click through—there’s this box right here to type in about this thing, so I’ll use that.
    While some of the feedback, perhaps lots of it, probably is that kind of information that wouldn’t and maybe shouldn’t be seen by the author, I would guess that there’s still a fair portion that the contributors would want, or at least wouldn’t mind, being seen outside of their individual circles.

  18. I’m ok with some things not being public, but most everything on Facebook, Google Reader, and Buzz is totally public.
    I disagree that it’s about control of a reaction or that mass distribution means loss of the feedback loop. I’m arguing that the feedback loop has worked pretty well for about 5 or 6 years with blogs and the last couple years with twitter. It’d be trivial for Facebook to tweak their existing search infrastructure to let me do a backlink search and monitor mentions of my URL.
    And again, this is all under the guises of self-improvement as a writer. I’ve never had a real english class or a writing seminar that did real critiques so I find reactions (both good and bad) to my writing online is a fantastic self-teaching tool.

  19. True, but again, the technology exists for many other services and I’m simply asking these new social apps to provide the same.

  20. As mentioned above, we’re working on the Salmon Protocol ( to let co-operating sites share responses back to the original site, among other useful things. And if you want to re-syndicate these responses back out it helps with a standard for that; if you just want to analyze them privately that’s fine too.

  21. I think that’s an overreaction. If I want to comment to YOU about your blog post, I’ll put it on your blog post. If I want to chat with my friends about your blog post, I’m going to do it on Facebook.

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