Interesting post by Josh Miller on Medium about open discussions, in reply to a post by Fred Wilson. It’s interesting because Josh is the lead developer of Branch, a discussion system — and Fred is the backer, and public face for Disqus, the discussion software we use here.
Fred argues that his blog is open to anyone to participate, but I’ve noticed what Josh has. While Fred, admirably responds to every comment on his system — we’re not getting much engagement beyond — hey I’m here. To which you can reply and I’m here, and so am I, etc etc.
These aren’t really discussions, not in any sense that peoples’ minds come open to being changed. People come to recite their beliefs, they skim the posts and comments for key words, and then choose from a set of schpiels they memorized, and type them in.
Online discussions can be a lot like those on CNN or MSNBC, which to me seem like concerts. People are invited to sing their songs, in harmony with other songsters. The songs never vary. The volume does, and each has their own style, but there are rarely any new ideas.
To me, a good discussion is where a new perspective or fact can surface, and everyone has the possibility come away from the discussion changed. Smarter, better informed, with a possibly shifted point of view. Oh that’s what they mean when they say…
Miller may be on to something. Branch allows discussion among a pre-set group of people. The moderator, the person who started the discussion can add new people. And new discussions can fork off from previous ones, exactly as it worked on my LBBS system in the early-mid 80s, only prettier (that was in the day of 300 baud modems, and scrolling “glass teletype” displays).
I still like the idea behind the H20 system developed at Berkman Center about ten years ago. It also had the concept of invited participants. To start, each would post positions on a moderator-supplied topic, privately. Then at a previously announced time, all the positions are revealed. There’s a commenting period where each participant can write a rebuttal, again in private. They’re revealed all at once. And that’s it. The goal is to cover all sides of a topic, intelligently and not personally. Not surprising this was developed at a law school, by lawyers. It’s a very legal approach to discourse.
What we really need are experimental platforms for non-programmers to invent new methods of discourse. We’ve relied too much on programmers, who have a definite style of arguing. But there are other professions that are fairly far ahead of us in understanding how humans communicate and share ideas. We are not that good at it, and so far most discussion systems have been limited by the imaginations of programmers.
BTW, a final note — in case it isn’t obvious — I am also working on discussion software. There is a place to comment in Disqus, that’s open to anyone. There’s another way to participate here, by installing the OPML Editor and clicking on the green button you will see when you reload the page with the software installed on your computer. Instructions are on this page.