Meta XRepublic

Design & Discussion - Barriers to Deliberation
August 2002

In evaluating the prospects for computer mediated deliberation, I consider my experience with various types of web conferencing systems and evaluate what I perceive to be their shortcomings with respect to deliberation.

Once a discussion has reached a critical mass, communication begins to break down. This is especially true when discussions take place over long periods of time. But what is more true is that discussions get out of hand when there are too many people. Although networked communications have been able to bring large numbers of people into disucssions, larger than ever before, this too has limits.

What is especially difficult in this regard is that having reached a critical mass for sustained and interesting discussions, there are inevitably different levels of knowledge that individuals bring to the discussion. For the most part this is good when the goal is learning. However when it comes time for collaboration and decision making, especially when discussing finer points, communications tend to break down in terms of the sustainability of the interests of all parties concerned. People with advanced knowledge want to communcate without having to explain or talk down to people. Those who are not up to speed on the issue like to have things explained to them. Especially with controversial issues this can be very problematic.

When an otherwise productive discussion breaks down over seemingly ingrained styles of argument and levels of knowledge, this is what I call Dissonance. The solution provided by XRepublic is a self-selected set of Houses or Agoras in which individuals find their own comfort level in discursive style and level of expertise.

Significantly different from Dissonance is Disruption. Individuals or groups may seek to hijack a topic and/or engage in offensive or derivative behavior. This can derail conversations and even cause people to leave. While the option of filtering is useful on an individual level. There are times at which it is more useful to specifically discipline the individual. The XRepublic therefore has, on a House by House basis, the ability to progressively shun individuals. This type of peer review is as necessary to the maintenance of civility as positive reinforcement.

Secondly, people don't often have a space in which they can stop and ask, "What do we agree on so far?" Threads are dynamic enough to handle some meta-discussion but when a thread gets to be a certain size, there is no easy way to make note of the salient points and references of that thread. The sidebar is a tool which allows some high level annotation of the discussion which allows someone new to the thread to quickly assimilate the key points made during the discussion.

As time progresses, or even at the inception of a discussion, some polishing of the key points is necessary. Wonking is the process which allows people who have made up their minds, partially or fully, to state clearly their take on the pros and cons of an issue. This may or may not result in a resolution, but it does allow the crafting of conclusions.

Finally, one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in conferencing is the problem of tangents. Every discussion has its own lifecycle. There is no guarantee that what is interesting today will be interesting 6 months from today. But it just as often happens that something that has been forgotten for some time has suddenly become interesting again. Often new discussion threads are launched without prior knowledge that the matter, or a closely related matter, has been discussed before. The ability to link related discussions reduces tangents and 'orphan' discussions.