Sunday, 27 November 2011

Useful links - Other people interested in this topic and useful software.

It's nice to know I'm not the only person working on the topic of how we deal with abusive behaviour in discussion forums:
I've emailed this team at Mozilla - I hope they get back in touch.

Here are some links which give insight into the rapid development of free software which may work effectively to better empower mass oline discussion in the future:

Thanks to Colin McAllister for these links.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Mass online discussion and democracy

“mass online discussion is a tool which can allow a substantial improvement to be made in the quality of modern democracy”
This blog is an attempt to explain why I believe this statement is true.

Key definitions and context
Mass online discussion includes discussion forums and the comments sections of blogs, newspapers articles and the like.
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.  Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law.
 (Definition from the Wikipedia article on Democracy accessed 16th Nov 2011)
A key assumption:That the mass online discussions being considered are  moderated and facilitated in ways which promote free discussion and do not defend a particular view point or propagate abusive behaviour (see the previous blog).  Mass online discussion which are moderated to defend a particular viewpoint or to encourage highly opinionated discussion which is not grounded in evidence will clearly not enhance democracy.

The Status Quo
Many decisions which are taken regarding future plans for our society are highly complex.  Building a picture of the future and considering the implications of decisions which interact with each other is very difficult, so it is inevitable that in decision making processes ‘experts’ will emerge who have a reasonable understand of the future possibilities which are being considered and that people who have not been part of the process by which within which this expertise has emerged may struggle to understand and interact constructively with the decisions being made.
In some cases systems need to be revised and updated and the expertise which understood them in the first place has been lost as people have moved on.
At present it would be considered good practice for those charged with the responsibility of making difficult decisions in these situations to consult extensively regarding the nature of the decisions to be made.  They may create many opportunities where they can listen to perspectives, concerns and suggestions in the early stage of consultation, there may be specific opportunities for consultation related to and pilot studies run and there may be opportunities for the final vision created to be discussed.
Some limitations with the status quo are that the initial opportunities to consult are usually ‘single interaction’ interfaces.  Those being consulted are asked for their insights and opinions as they are at a particular moment in time.   There may be some discussion at the consultation which allows them to develop their thinking in the context of wider issues and perspectives presented but these are usually very limited compared with those available through mass online discussion.
Another limitation of the status quo involves the logistics and costs of getting people to consultations.  People with key insights may not be there.  Pressure groups with financial interests may be over-represented because of the costs associated with participating in consultations processes. 

Introducing Mass Online Discussion into Democratic Consultation
The benefits of allowing those consulted to have multiple interactions with each other:
Probably the most substantial benefit of properly using mass online discussion as part of a consultation process is that it allows the many different interested parties to develop their own level of understanding and insight into the situation because they can easily, rapidly and cheaply engage in multiple interactions with each other.  They can probe each other’s views and discuss their own perspectives and concerns until they come to deeply understand different perspectives on the situation.  It is likely that strong views which are not grounded in real experience will be exposed as being so.
Some concerns disappear while others emerge.  Deeper communalities and insights emerge.  Therefore the quality of the insights being offered to those with the responsibility for making decisions is likely to be much higher and that substantially more progress can be made on the journey from isolated insights being presented to coherent alternative views of the futures being created.
The benefits to the debate of allowing wider participation:
Mass online discussion allows those who cannot attend consultations sessions for whatever reason to participate properly in consultation rather than just to submit their views in a one-off interaction.  Although when people first join in the discussion they may have less understanding than they would have if they had attended a consultation, it is in the nature of mass online discussions that this deficit rapidly self corrects as they engage in conversation.
Many people are unable to attend consultations because they have other commitments or because the consultations are far away and the costs of attending them are prohibitive.  Mass online discussion allows the consulted and developed views, insights and constructive suggestions of these people to be incorporated.  Decisions made are likely to be more robust if more stakeholders have been properly consulted.
Increasing transparency, creating ‘mandates in action’ and the sheer speed of it all:
Most people would agree they would like politicians to do in power what they said they would do in their manifestos.  But life just isn’t that simple.  New problems arise, contexts change and difficult decisions have to be made which take into account circumstances for which no-one had planned. 
Mass online discussion provides a powerful, transparent and reviewable democratic mechanism through which public views can be rapidly expressed and explored.
The ‘undemocratic elites?’
Those who are in positions of power are often accused of behaving in self interested or inappropriate ways.   Are they?  Often we simply can’t tell because we don’t have the expertise to properly discuss and analyse what they are doing or to construct and understand alternative possibilities which describe how they might behave.
Through mass online discusses interested parties who may never otherwise have met can work together to deeply probe and explore what the previously disconnected bodies with authority are doing.  In some cases these bodies may be very pleased to engage in dialogue which is likely to remove suspicion from them and may well further inform what they do. 
In other cases mass online discussion may help identify and resolve issues associated with inadequate ability or inappropriate behaviour.
Reaching out to people and bringing people into society:
One of the things which has inspired me most about mass online discussion is the way it reaches and brings in people on the fringes of society.  People who are in regular employment are usually involved in professional discussion through their work and this challenges and develops their minds.  But people who are not in regular employment for whatever reason often miss out having significant opportunities for type of personal growth.  As unemployment rises and more and more people, especially young people, find themselves without the opportunity to work there is much to be gained by ensuring that people who are in this position feel able to read and engage in the discussion which take place regarding the society they live in.
Most obviously they are more likely to feel included in rather than excluded from society.  Less obviously but of possibly greater important is that those who read and participate in consultations are able to rapidly develop their understanding of and ability to engage successfully in the society in which they live.  
So the benefits of reaching out to more people an involving them in democratic decisions making through mass online discussion should not just be measured in terms of the benefits to the quality of the decisions which are then made (as has already been discussed).  Consideration should also be given to the way in which democracy is improved when people who vulnerable to feeling excluded from society are instead able to feel actively included in it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Mozilla Festival Notes on Cyberrhetoric

Workshop led by Rebecca Hanson at Mozilla Festival: Sunday 6 Nov 2011 2pm.
(retrospective notes including points raised by participants)

For the purpose of this topic, mass online discussion is discussions in forums and discussions in the comment threads to newspaper articles, blogs and the like.

Cyberrhetoric is art of posting in disciplined ways designed to make mass online discussions thrive, to militate against the repeated expression of strong opinions which are not grounded in evidence and to defuse abusive behaviour.  It is not the art of winning arguments – in fact it is quite the opposite – it is the art of diffusing arguments and turning them into vibrant discussions where participants with a wide variety of perspectives enjoy the opportunity to explore many deep aspects of a topic together.

For cyberrhetoric to work forum moderation needs to be light and impartial.  If the moderation of the forum is partial, a well poster who is well informed on issues which touch the sensitivities of the partial moderation and who applies the disciplines of cyberrhetoric is likely to threaten and/or diagnose the partialities of the moderation so abusive behaviour may increase and/or the participant may be banned.
It helps if the mass online discussion is structured so the participants who are prepared to share relevant information about themselves can easily do so.    It’s also helpful if mass online discussions either have either a PM (personal messaging) system or they have indentations within the thread to allow personal conversations.
Bilal Randeree from Al Jazeera described their moderation strategies at his fireside chat which were along the lines of – if a participant flags a post it disappears from their view.  If (4?) participants flag a post it disappears and goes to the moderator who reinstates it if is disliked because it holds a strong view but deletes it if it uses inappropriate language or is spam or clearly breaches T&C.

Some general rules of cyberrhetoric
Never attack the person.  Always comment on an aspect of the discussion.  It doesn’t matter if lots of people were extremely abusive to you and you were only slightly unpleasant back.  Don’t be!
Be clear who you are addressing in every part of every post.  Use the PM system or indentation to explore issues relevant to you and one other participant but not to the whole discussion.
Never assume you know (or post as if you know) someone else’s position.  People’s points of view are very complex and context specific and in mass online discussions they are often developing or changing.  If you want to know someone’s point of view then ask, don’t assume.  (Don’t “straw man” them).
Hang around the discussion and try to answer all questions asked of you.  A few times a day is ideal.  You’ll need access to a keyboard. 
Hold no sacred cows or at least as few as you can.  Be prepared to be changed by new evidence and deeper insights.  If you have them don’t hide them.  Try to state them and live with them openly.
Off topic/related topic discussion can be useful, especially if it involves the exploration of a real example which illustrates an aspect of the discussion.  In general if a conversation is getting stuck this is a useful device to try.  If the conversation is losing focus and becoming chaotic post only on the original theme and ignore all side topics until coherency is restored.  Be aware of the etiquette here.  You should defer to the opening poster (OPer) if they are directing the discussion.  If they are not and there is a dispute regarding whether the conversation should meander or should stick to the original theme, sticking to the original theme wins.  If no one objects to a conversation drifting then it’s fine for it to drift.

Some good types of posts
Say what you think people have said (but not in an accusatorial way).  Because of the missing body language cues people have rarely come across as they think they have.  Here is an example of a good post structure:
*Name*: It sounds like you’ve said *whatever*.  It that what you intended to say?  If so could you explain why you think that?
When you want to make a point, find an internet reference for it.   Make your point and provide the hyperlink to your source.  This invites deep analysis of your evidence while an unreferenced point invites another unreferenced opinion:
Here is an example of a suitable post:
*Name*: You have raised concerns about China’s control of the world’s supplies of neodymium and how this might impact on the future costs of constructing turbines.  You may be interested to note that there has recently been a very substantial discovery of neodymium reserves in Afghanistan:
Back down and apologise.If you behaved in an inappropriate way or you have changed your mind, apologise or state your change of mind clearly and then move on.  E.g.:
*Name*: I regret my comment to you which has offended you and I apologise to you for it.
You raised an interesting point regarding *an aspect of the topic being discussed*......* move on to your point*.
*Name*: You are correct in saying that I stated *whatever you said*.  I would like to clearly state that I no longer hold that view.  My opinion is now that *whatever it is*.
It is fine and often necessary to repeat yourself.  Make your point in a slightly different way each time.  If people have not read your link and their comments indicate that they should then say so and say why it’s so important that they read the linked article.
Ignore all the bluster and abuse and create a reply which extracts a valid detail from a post and interacts only with that.
Help people with strong views you don’t necessarily agree with to express themselves clearly.  People often have fears which have got out of control and this helps to bound them and make them easier to discuss.
Here is a genuine example of a reply which illustrates those two points:
Rebecca: Can you hear me laughing at your stale impudence?
Even your beloved Wiki lists the many acts of aggression against Israel from its neighbors.
Or is Wiki part of the brainwashed system that's controlled by the Jews and US?
Reply from Rebecca:
Which particular points regarding the aggression against Israel are you trying to make Carol?

Please could you list and reference them?
Wiki is fine.

The arrival of a new entrant into the discussion is often an excellent time to write a post which summarises key points arising so far.  Reviewing a conversation is a useful thing to do.  Important links you posted soon get lost in the depths for active discussions so it is useful to refresh them both so new entrants see those key links again and because you become expert at finding them rapidly whenever you need them.

The image of the dysfunctional dinner party
No set of rules is ever perfect and I used this image to try and humanise the experience of being in a difficult discussion forum so that when the rules fail you have a mental image to fall back on. 
You will annoy people.  You will write posts you regret. You may well get upset and annoyed. Conversations may rapidly move to topics which you have never talked about before and which you find emotionally difficult to engage with.
 You will feel again and again like you’re making progress with someone’s extreme views only to find you’re not.  You will probably need to take time out.  You may need to leave or put some distance in time between writing your posts and posting the. 
The consequences of your involvement may be that you find a new friend in one of the other participants and that can be a wonderful outcome.   
However careful you are in your posts, it takes time to get to know the community of posters in a discussion or who comment on stories or blogs.  Some people find lurking helps, but I find people often respond differently to me to how they do to others so it’s less useful.   I simply make a start and work away at getting to know them slowly.  If you’re commenting on a blog it helps to comment on most posts for a while so that the community of regular posters begin to get to know you and you get to know them.
My background is in teaching challenging classes of teenagers and that’s clearly one of the reasons I feel so comfortable in chaotic and confrontational forums.  It takes time to become comfortable in situations where people are being strongly opinionated and aggressive towards you.  Be kind to yourself and accept that it may take you a long time to adjust to this environment.  In the early days kids and communities behave as if you won’t be around for long and my deliberately test you out to see if you can hack it.  Just sticking around long enough for them get to know you is often important.  When you start to get some successes – some people suddenly shifting from being abusive to being brilliantly insightful – you get an energy from it which inspires you to carry on. 

A couple of discussions you may like to look at:
A recent discussion which has inspired me has been:
on >
in the group > TED: Ideas Worth Sharing
on the thread > Why would/ should Palestine not request to be permenant member for UNO?
(The TED group is an open group so if you’re on adjust the window in the top right to search for groups and you should be able to find it and view it directly)
It’s inspired me because it took a long time to make it productive but it has become extremely informative place to be.  It also makes me believe that the days when owning the media gave individuals tremendous power regarding what would be believed are nearly over.   The thread does not, of course, show the substantial number of personal messages which passed between participants in the thread.
This example from John Redwood’s blog shows how I interacted with both him and the commentators on his blog to shape a discussion which far more deeply informed his original post on the day he made that post.  My interaction (as Rebecca Hanson) starts just over half way down the page.

Next steps for me:
Following discussion at the workshop I have set up the twitter handle:@cyberrhetoricwhich I will use to make posts relevant to this topic. 
Please do follow it and please do interact with me on it as I have no idea how to use Twitter and need to learn.
I have also set up a blog for cyberrhetoric here
Where I will post this and other documents, notes and information.
I intend to write further on both cyberrhetoric and other key related topics – such as the benefits of mass online discussion and their applications to the enhancement of democracy and the generation of intellectual capital.  I intend to publish any such articles on Scribd. com where you can find this earlier article:  which explores the history of discussion forums as well as my personal journey into using and coming to love them.

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere thanks to all who took part in the cyberrhetoric workshop.
Rebecca 9th November 2011