Reengineering Online Discussion

By Tim Hardy

One of the goals of this site is to explore answers to the question:

What can we do online that is uniquely progressive so that if others emulate us they are forced to engage in a debate where the terms are determined by us?

What I mean by that in part is how do we make comment and discussion more productive, moving towards argument based on evidence rather than prejudice and made-up tabloid stories so that debate moves us closer to agreement rather than simply hardening opposition.

I believe that certain prejudices inform the current structures of online debate in the same way that  arranging a room with experts on a podium giving speeches first to which, after listening respectfully, the audience is invited to pose questions reinforces a sense of hierarchy and relative importance.

My contention is that those in power benefit from arguments that degenerate into slanging matches where those who shout the loudest win, often by clearing the virtual room of all other participants. I also believe that the current online structures used most frequently for discussion facilitate this.

Although the internet flattens some hierarchies, popularity still brings massive influence and within a website the original poster’s superiority is flagged through conventions of layout (comments are in a smaller font and below the original post). Anonymity, while necessary, can bring out the worst in people enabling the culture of aggressive “trolling”. With the exception of wikis, online structures promote the immediate over the past, allowing topics to vanish off the front page and into obscurity long before argument has had a chance to come to any conclusions which also encourages people to ignore questions and challenges to their arguments knowing that, if you wait a day, the topic will have been buried.

I’ve seen some excellent online discussions but they are the exception.

What do I mean by a good discussion?

A good discussion is one in which the person proposing the topic returns to engage with critics in the ensuing comments.

A good discussion is one in which all participants are willing to adjust their positions in response to counter-argument.

A good discussion is one in which all participants treat one another with respect as fellow human beings and do not resort to insults or personal attacks even when they disagree.

Some of the students from the UCL Occupation along with members of the Climate Camp were discussing the benefits of consensus decision-making at netroots uk and I’d be fascinated to explore ways in which online discussion could be reorganised from its current forms to something approximating that system. If we could find a way of building tools that embed principles of mutual respect then we could go a long way towards avoiding the situation we see too often online where, for example, feminist contributions to Comment is Free on The Guardian are swamped by aggressive misogyny from men who think that a comical username or profile picture gives them permission to promote shameful, repellent views.

Having written this I think the goal needs rewriting, perhaps to something more like:

What can we do online that is uniquely progressive so that if others emulate us they do so in a way informed by progressive values?

This post will mean nothing unless it promotes discussion, so please do not be shy in adding comments.