This Thursday, I will be joining a panel discussion entitled Soapboxes in cyberspace: how can the media facilitate debate online? at the Guardian offices in London. The event is open to the public (booking page is here) and forms part of an Innovation Forum started by Nico Macdonald, whose purpose he describes thus
“…to bring together researchers and academics, technologists and designers, business people and marketers, policy makers and administrators to share knowledge about their skills and current insights and projects. We have also started an Innovation Reading Circle to help develop innovation theory by facilitating rich, high-level and well-informed public discussion around key and related texts and discourses. More information on these two initiatives follows.”
The focus of this event will be to consider how the mainstream media can more effectively facilitate online debate and Weblog-based commentary around politics and current affairs.
I am interested in this from the point of view of how to create opportunities for engagement and participation. Newspaper blogs and online initiatives led by mainstream media have played an important role in the development of online debate, but the quality and tone of many of the debates they host lags behind the best that the real world has to offer. In real life, I have enjoyed many high quality debates, seminars under Chatham House Rules, panel discussions and indeed episodes of Question Time and other highbrow BBC current affairs output. Much of these have been characterised by almost painful politeness and mutual respect even among people who might violently oppose each other outside such a context. But this is manifestly not the case in large-scale, open online fora such as Comment is Free, YouTube and on some very public blogs. Why is this, and what (if anything) can major media do to encourage a higher quality of online debate? A lot of our work inside companies points to the need for dialogue to be nurtured within smaller, more intimate online communities before being aggregated upwards to a wider group of commenters or participants. We think a lot about group size, scope, common purpose and intimacy, all of which are very influential on the sort of discussion that takes place, and we also recognise that many sensitive discussions would simply not take place in completely open spaces.
There are many subtle issues around social interaction design that can have an impact on the tone of debate and discussion. For example, Digg exposes user comments by default unless they are repeatedly voted down, whereas Slashdot requires comments to be voted up in order to appear, which tends to incentivise useful contributions. In addition, it may be that the initial culture of a space can influence the behaviour of future joiners. For example, why is Flickr so much more polite and respectful than YouTube
So looking beyond the first wave of MSM blogging projects and innovative projects such as Comment is Free, what role can major media play in positively influencing the style and tone of debate in the emerging commons? There is a the school of thought that says, like Oliver Kamm, that bloggers are merely parasites on mainstream media columnists, without whom they would have nothing (except cheese sandwiches) to talk about. Bloggers might retort that they are the fact-checkers and debunkers of content tossed out of the ivory towers of conventional journalism
Whatever the answer, I think newspapers and organisations like the BBC will continue to play an important role in the future, and their own pre-existing culture will be influential. For example, because of its requirement for “balance” (arguably an outdated view that sees the truth as equidistant between two competing poles that represent the parameters of acceptable debate), the BBC has a lot of retained expertise in moderation and does things like Have Your Say rather well. Newspapers have done something similar with letters pages for many years, with clearly identifiable sub-cultures in evidence in each: Telegraph readers don’t like scroungers, Daily Mail readers don’t like foreigners and Guardian readers don’t like anybody who writes in the Guardian 😉 It will be interesting to see whether this is reinforced or changed when user/reader content is given equal prominence
Ultimately, a lot depends on what we want to achieve. Scale, quality, reliability of information, strength of community, openness of mind – these are all different objectives that can be achieved in different ways. But I think we are starting to get over our fascination with scale and openness and now need to look at ways of increasing the quality and tone of online debate so that we can truly being to realise the vision of a vibrant public commons where people can engage and participate in the world around them.