Being pulled through a vortex of commentary about commenting tools

This is one of those stories where you could jump in anywhere and no matter where you’ll wind up back where you started. I guess for continuity’s sake I will start where I came in.
I noticed that someone — I forget who, now — mentioned that a new link-sharing service had started called Quibb. I went to the site to sign up and saw this:
Screenshot on 2013-08-22 at 10.28.11
I was immediately confused.

  • “Quibb let’s you share what you’re reading for work.” That made me think of tools like Honey.is, which is a work management tool, intended for people to share links, files, and notes with business colleagues.
  • “Our business is to reinvent business news and build a modern version of the Wall Street Journal.” Huh? It’s a curated media play?
  • “Our acceptance rate is currently 44% for new members.” A closed, invite-only community? Another Medium, then?

But I applied, and a few hours later I was accepted.
I hadn’t even wrapped my mind around the way that Quibb is architected when I saw a shared link from Andrew Chen about — and here it gets Möbius meta — the Branch/Potluck.it team, yet another group link share-commenting solution, discussing Quibb:
Screenshot on 2013-08-22 at 10.36.29
Before diving into who said what, here’s a quick profile of Quibb, based on my very minimal experience. Quibb is based around link sharing and comment threads about what those links reference. The magic sauce seems to be one magic feature: “ask to answer.” Basically, I can post a link, which people might find by following me or by tracking things that are popular. But after posting a link, I can also ask specific people for their two cents, and that seems to be a big deal for the site’s advocates, like Lulu Cheng:

Inviting participation vs. reserving seats at the table
I’m a big fan of invitations to participate like Quora’s “Ask to answer” and Quibb’s “Ask to comment.” Branch has a similar feature where you can add people to a conversation. An effective way to convert passive readers into active contributors is incentivizing them with the knowledge that someone wants to hear what they have to say.
Contrast this with the “Ask to join” aspects of Medium and Branch, where certain collections and conversations are open only to invited members. While I understand the motivation for these gating features in the beginning stages of a product, the trade-off is that you alter the dynamic of the community in subtle ways. I think it’s preferable to either screen members at the door (like Quibb) or use a combination of technology and user input to bubble up the good stuff (like Quora). Open membership plus selective contribution can feel arbitrary, especially for products that are supposed to put more emphasis on content rather than authorship.

I concur with Cheng’s clear-sighted analysis, and I suggest that there are two completely different theories at work here: inclusion and exclusion. While I am not a big user of Quora and mostly ignore invitations to play, I am opposed to having to knock on the door (a la branch), which why I haven’t really gotten too animated in that project. I do have a Medium account, but I have been waiting for inspiration to hit before diving in.
Returning to the specifics of the cross comment systems commentary, I read a bit of the comment thread on Quibb, but it all referred to the comment thread on Potluck. So I browsed over there and discovered that the potluck was referring to a post on Medium about Quibb:
Screenshot on 2013-08-22 at 10.51.36
This time I hardly glanced at the comment thread and clicked over to the Medium post, which seems to have been the precipitating event for this whole cascade, the grain of sand that becomes the center of the pearl.
To cut to the chase, a bunch of the information in the original article is just plain wrong — like being a Y Combinator company or VC funded, according to Andrew Chen, an advisor to the Quibb team. Chen says the founder is his girlfriend, Sandi MacPherson (the real back story is better explained in this interview, by Eliza Dropkin, although it doesn’t touch on funding). But the cascade of events makes all of that opaque to any casual reader of the Medium story, where no corrections have been made or corrective comments offered. Chen clarifies the situation in the Potluck room, but after 20 comments from others.
The discussion in the Quibb about all this is amazingly deep, and is really a meta-commentary about commenters in Potluck trying to speak authoritatively about Quibb when most commenting aren’t members there.
The bottom line
I haven’t used Quibb long enough or deeply enough to say much about it, other than it sounds like there are some interesting ideas going into its social architecture, like the “ask to comment” gesture. But my bottom line in this piece isn’t about Quibb per se but rather the difficulties of social discourse in a world of contending theories about commentary.
The original post in Medium had only a few comments, all by one person. The link is carried into Potluck, the preferred hangout of the Branch-Potluck crowd, and a link to that comment space is carried into Quibb, where the quibsters quibbled it for a dozen or so comments. But none of that washed back into Medium, and none of the Quibb commentary washes back to Potluck, with the exception of Andrew Chen’s intercession.
If our tools divide us instead of connecting us then we are going backward.
I want to use tools that are, as Heidegger said, ready-to-hand: tools where the toolness fades into the background and the tool feels like an extension of my self. It’s like talking to someone on the phone, where I am not speaking to the phone, but the person on the other end of the line. Or it’s like using the touchpad on my Mac, where I feel I am interacting directly with windows and menus, not the touchpad itself. It all works best when you don’t even notice the tool, like a carpenter and a hammer. But this disjunction among commenting spheres makes all of them feel present-to-hand, nonintuitive tools that have to be figured out, all needing to be considered in light of the others.
I will return to Quibb and more reasoned analysis after some dedicated use. For some reason, though, I feel I should end with this from McLuhan:

Every extension is also an amputation.