Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Notes Toward a Better Open Disputation Forum

This post by David Brin on his Wired essay has me thinking about how to encourage rational discussion on an open thread.

First, let's note the obvious: Some blogs have really interesting comments associated with them, while other blogs have useless comments. Seems to me that there are several key determinants to successful substantive comments:

  • The the number of commenters is fairly small, say, under 50.

  • The commenters have diverse points of view and don't self-select. That is, people with oddball opinions don't get shouted down, even if they're excoriated for something that most consider dumb.

  • Ad hominem argument is fairly infrequent. This goes for arguments about material inside and outside the discussion.

  • The commenters respond to each other as well as to the original post.

  • Commenters are not afraid to express complex arguments at some length.

  • The number of comments in a thread is short enough to be read completely by any prospective commenter.

  • Commenters expect responses and attempt to address those responses.

  • Threads are long-lived. Commenters have enough time to read a thread, think about it, and compose a response.

  • Given these attributes, the most obvious impediment to good threads is the size or popularity of the forum. Blogs with the best reputations are almost guaranteed to have the worst comments because their threads are endless. When there are too many people commenting, you can't read the whole thread. You're then much more likely to flame or just say something flippant as a one-off. Once that pattern begins, the thread is pretty much ruined.

    Note that many of the attributes listed above help to prevent self-selection. Because popular blogs have few of these attributes, they tend to self-select. The extreme uniformity of opinion caused by self-selection is a major contributor to the dumbing-down of discourse on the web.

    Now, some bloggers spend a lot of time moderating their blogs, but this simply can't be done with huge comment threads if you actually have a life outside your blog. (Note that this blog does not currently suffer from this problem!!) Seems to me that there ought to be a way of engineering comment threads so that you can encourage these good attributes but still have the ability to have a wildly popular blog. Here are some possibilities:

  • Segregate groups of commenters into smaller groups.

  • Hierarchically structure the smaller groups, with your best commenters further up the hierarchy.

  • Leaven the groups lower in the hierarchy with the comments from the groups higher up. This will allow the folks on the bottom to read and respond to the best comments, which in turn can allow them to promote themselves in the forum by being smart and interesting.

  • Allow commenters to score their own comments by attaching a set of moderator-provided tags. This may provide a way to move commenters from group to group to ensure diversity of opinion while still providing the individual commenter with material that he finds interesting.

  • I have no idea whether anybody's doing something like this yet. I'll close by pointing out that Brin is right that the web currently has no mechanism for valuing truth and rationality and devaluing content that is wrong, harmful, or deceptive. There's going to have to be a technological fix to how discourse is conducted before the web becomes a tool for disseminating wisdom.


    Michael said...

    I'd like to note that it is possible (though not on any of the major providers, as far as I know), to have a blog that *also* has a forum-style view of the same content: That is, one that displays threads in the order of most recent *post*, not merely of when they were started.

    That would contribute to longevity, although not without drawbacks.

    TheRadicalModerate said...


    You have the dubious distinction of being my first commenter ever.

    I've used threaded blogs before and, if anything, they have even worse problems. When somebody can respond directly rather than to the group at large, it seems like the attacks get more personal and the discourse degraded even more.

    What I'm proposing is a little different from that. Think of it like seeding players in a tournament. The good players tend to move on and dominate the event, but lower-seeded players can advance by distinguishing themselves.

    Michael said...

    No, no, I don't mean threaded that way.

    I mean simply having two views.

    One that sorts posts the way we see them sorted on typical blogs - in order of first post.

    And then just another that sorts in order of most recent reply.

    Basically, that second view would look like a typical forum - each top-level post by the blogger starts a thread, and the ordering of the threads depends on replies.

    All that would do is make the threads with active discussion not fall off the front page into oblivion.