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Interview with a Philosopher: A Way to Have Deep Conversations Online... No, Really

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Assaf Peretz has provided a great place online for people to have deep conversations about things that matter. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematical logic at UC Berkeley, for which he received the prestigious Clay Liftoff Fellowship. Then, confounding everyone who assumes a mathematical logician can't be a fun, social creature, he developed the innovative social website www.THINQon.com.

Tom: Hi, Assaf! Describe THINQon for us in a very logical way.

Assaf: Hi Tom. THINQon is a community built for sharing and achieving understanding, about anything that matters to us, from our daily life's experiences and questions to historical, philosophical, professional and political ones. Informally, people describe it as a place for interesting people to talk about interesting things in a meaningful way.

Tom: I can imagine someone saying: Why should people go online to talk meaningfully with interesting people? Can't we do that, and perhaps better, offline?

Assaf: Yes and no. Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, said:

For the world is not humane just because it is made by human beings, and it does not become humane just because the human voice sounds in it, but only when it has become the object of discourse. However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows.

I really believe this, and wanted to develop a platform to allow such conversations to be available anytime, anywhere, and on a large scale. The Internet allows us like never before to redefine and expand who our potential conversation fellows are.

The desire to feel intellectually engaged with people beyond our closest circle has always existed, and has sometimes been satisfied through publication. "Publication" means to make public, to appear in a format larger than one's friends. What was not possible before was to have an engaged and meaningful conversation on a larger scale, in distinction from merely announcing your views. Most, if not all, the current online formats are still largely modeled on that old format of publication. Now anyone can have a column, or book, or something like their own TV show, but it's not been as easy to have a great deep talk with a broad group of interesting people, and we provide a new format that makes this possible.

Tom: Of course, on Twitter and Facebook there can be a back and forth, a give and take.

Assaf: Absolutely. But both sites still give you limited interaction with just your prior "friends," the conversations possible there are in a sound-bite form, and they are inherently ephemeral. It's hard for one idea to stay afloat in the Twitter stream for long and Facebook essentially deletes old chats.

This takes me to another aspect we cared about when developing THINQon -- to have the conversations be substantive and durable -- creating a new kind of resource, like Wikipedia, but for subjective matters. (Instead of sound-bites, a word we sometimes use to describe the conversations is "diablog," a dialogue of blogs.)

If you look at online communities, Facebook is a Social Network, LinkedIn and MySpace are for Social Networking, and THINQon may be described as Social Thinking.

Tom: How would you define the role of conversations in answering life's questions?

Assaf: For simple information, such as what time a store opens, standard Q&A sites operating through a string of disconnected answers and a "Best Answer" are useful. But for most questions, more is needed. Can you imagine, Tom, a philosopher or researcher not thinking, writing and operating through a conversation with others? Conversation is what allows us to dig the answers from within us and what empowers us. It's what allows us not to start each time from square one.

There's a reason that Montaigne, one of the fathers of modern culture, said of conversation, "In my opinion, the most fruitful and natural play of the mind is in conversation. I find it sweeter than any other action in life."

This is why he wrote all his essays in conversation with the great writers of his past and present. I'm sure you also noticed, Tom, how in Arendt's quote she specifically mentions how a discussion is what we need, not just speaking.

There's a relevant story I like. Someone calls a circus director asking for a job. He says he can read a book from beginning to end and from the end to the beginning. He can instantly multiply numbers up to 30. The circus guy is not interested and hangs up. The caller puts down the phone and thinks: "Oh. I forgot to mention I'm a horse." It's a great joke on why without a full enough conversation, you just don't know what important elements are missing in what you're saying or asking, and that can be crucial.

Tom: This is the difference between merely gathering information and arriving at a meaningful understanding. We certainly live in an age of information. But we often can't even get the information right unless we're interacting well.

Assaf: Exactly.

Tom: But Assaf, let's face it -- we live in a world of dumbed-down television, sound-bite news, and "Jersey Shore" conversations. Would you consider your site to be in any way elitist?

Assaf: Would we consider Socrates in his own time elitist? He talked with anyone who cared about things that matter, and felt anyone can teach him. Why shouldn't we? Anyone can join the conversations on THINQon, they just need to bring the right attitude of sincere and open inquiry.

Tom: People today seem to have short attention spans and like shortcuts. Some would say that extended meaningful conversation is a thing of the past. But they'd say it more quickly.

Assaf: Paul Valéry talked almost a century ago about people only wanting shortcuts. In fact, we feel we are providing a very significant shortcut. Instead of having to take all the information we gather and put it together ourselves, conversations help us put it together better and quicker. People speak of the 10,000-hour rule of practicing a specific task in order to become excellent in it. Understanding can cut this time significantly. Sometime you need to take a longer route, for a bigger shortcut.

Tom: Too bad we couldn't also quote Simon Cowell or Kim Kardashian on that. The point is important for all of us. Our worries aren't new. And our deeper needs remain.

Assaf: Yes. I think many people assume that online interaction equates to quick and shallow, while if you want meaning, or deeper stuff, you have to go offline, if anywhere at all. Our lives are moving online, and increasingly so, and we felt it important to create a platform for a meaningful online existence and way of spending time, since how we spend time online is increasingly who we are.

Tom: How did you decide there was a need for a special website? Couldn't people who want to pursue deeper life questions just start their own blogs?

Assaf: Sure, but let's consider the personal blog. First, you do a post on something you're already interested in, and then you hope for comments from your friends, or from anyone who might somehow find your blog. And blogs always seemed more of a presentation than a conversation to me.

On the site, you can come across topics you weren't already pondering, but that hook you, and you may get sparked into conversations you'd never otherwise have had. It can expand your mind. It's nice to come to a place to see what people are thinking about, and be able to join the conversation at will.

Tom: Good points. When I've visited the site, I've been surprised at the great, considerate tone of the conversations. It seems so welcoming.

Assaf: That's the experience we want people to have. It's a very open minded, diverse and supportive community where people feel comfortable talking. We weren't sure at the beginning if this could be sustained as the site grew, but in fact, people often comment on the graciousness of the community and the discussions, and how much they're enjoying it. The scale only raises the quality. It's becoming the big living room we'd like to have full of our friends and great people that is hard to have offline. Great talk and even great relationships result.

There are experiments that show how social situations can determine whether people will be good or evil. I feel that part of the job of creating a platform is to create one which will help people be their best rather than their worst.

Tom: I believe it, Assaf. I've enjoyed our talk today and I'm very glad for what you're doing. I hope you and the site will continue to flourish, one great conversation at a time!

Assaf: Thank you, Tom. It's been a pleasure.

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