Observation: threaded discussions have weaknesses, amongst which: they are difficult to scale (imagine if even 1% of the 1.5 million people who signed a recent online petition wanted to record or debate their opinion), they can be side tracked, good points can get lost amongst all the dross, expert knowledge can be lost amongst kneejerk reactions, and (the killer when it comes to e-participation?) when the number of comments hits triple figures, it’s difficult to produce an objective summary for informing later debates or decision making.
There are a few people out there who have been considering the nature of debate, and alternative ways of managing, displaying and summarising them.
Starting with a critique of conventional threaded discussions: a while ago, Chris at eparticipation.com posted a YouTube promotion by Truthmapping.com here. The movie contains a good multimedia overview of the issues faced by threaded discussion forums – even if you disagree with the solution that they propose. The video looks great, but the actual site seems to be more a proof of concept than anything useful or enticing – it doesn’t look like they’ve been able to start the community-creating snowball rolling, and the approach is far too logico-deductive for my taste.
Delib is another group of people taking a non-threaded approach. It can be seen at http://www.delib.co.uk/products_and_services/amap – the emphasis is on the process and the quality of the output – it’s produced manually by a team of experts – an online version “is being developed”. Intensive and not scalable – this approach is maybe best suited to citizen juries or other small scale seminars. Anyway, they have a blog too, here so you can keep up with what they’re doing (with RSS feed too – look for the blue RSS icon on the top right of the page)
As a “wiki”, it enables anyone (you included) to easily present and organize the unique arguments made by third-party sources (ie. by scholars, experts, leaders,…) on both sides of a debate. By providing an innovative “logic tree” debate methodology, it enables you to organize debates in the most understandable way. Debatepedia is quickly becoming an indispensable resource for uncovering all the unique arguments in important public debates and for developing a complete and rational position.
It works by structuring debate to a series of binary yes/no sub-questions – not sure how or if (sub-)conclusions are ever drawn, or how the debate would be summarised. It should be possible to extend this approach to allow a range of opinions to be expressed, rather than simple for and against.
All these make a change from threaded discussions.
Finally, another article on Many2Many (Against Well-designed Reputation Systems) covers similar ground. Its focus is a proposal for a community-patent website – but there are some useful general thoughts and experiences of designing for large-scale discussions. Its point is – don’t over design, and certainly don’t rely on automation:
it will be far better to invest in smart people watching the social aspects of the system at launch than in smart algorithms guiding those aspects
Makes for an interesting contrast with techno-optimists’ ideas about automatic categorisation/summarisation of contributions to deliberations?
My comment on Delib’s blog RSS link has been corrected following a helpful email from Ben at Delib. My apologies for any confusion!
14 March – I’ve added a diagram showing my idealisation of the process. Contact me if you want the original Word file