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More About New Kinds of Online Debates

In this morning’s piece in the Boston Globe, reprinted below, is a suggestion for new kind of political debates that would:

unfold online over the course of days, or even weeks and months. Imagine that one candidate takes a position and poses a question. The opponent would answer with a written response of some predetermined length, but with the help of staff, experts, and the general public. Then the first candidate, again with the help of anyone who wants to join the process, would dissect the response and reply with (we’d hope) a truly nuanced update. Continue this process at length – and repeat it with many other topics.

Here’s a bit more detail on how such things would occur:

While they’d include audio, video and other media, they would exist primarily in the more traditional form of text, which is still by far the best for exploring serious issues in serious ways. Questions would be posed by candidates to each other, as well as by journalists and the public. But an answer would not be the end of that round; in fact, it would only be the beginning.

Rebuttals and further rejoinders would be the meat of these conversations. They would not be done on the fly, but would come after the candidates and their staffs had some time to consider their responses. They’d point out flaws and inaccuracies in their opponents’ statements, drilling down into details where warranted. Wherever possible, people would use the Internet’s elemental unit — the hyperlink — to point to source material or other supporting information.

The public’s role could be crucial in this system. They would help their own side come up with rebuttal arguments, offering corrections, new facts and other supporting material. Candidates could use this, or not, as they wished. Wise candidates and their staffs would encourage as much participation as possible.

These moderated events would run for days, maybe for the entire campaign season. They would not be debates in a classical sense, but would definitely be the kinds of conversations that would illuminate the public sphere.

What technologies should we bring to bear on this? We’re limited only by our imaginations. We might, for example, use a “virtual world” such as Second Life, where people would create avatars (representations of themselves), helping personalize what might otherwise feel too remote. We could use online forums for part of the conversation. Wikis, which are sites where anyone can edit the pages, are another potential venue; among other intriguing recent ideas, the International Debate Education Association has launched “Debatepedia,” and its work could help us sort out the possibilities.

But if I were organizing such an event, I’d start by asking smart people from the political and tech worlds to work together, and with the public that cares about such things, on identifying the best methods. This itself would be a useful debate, and could be a template for a portion of what’s to come.

Again, active moderation would be essential. These online communities could self-police to some degree using tools that work well for this purpose, but the events would likely need some help from people whose role would be to intervene on the side of maintaining civility. Sadly, some people like to wreck anything they find, and politics can be particularly poisonous in the online world.

I’m going to be thinking harder about this in coming months, perhaps in a project format. It’s a start, anyway.

16 Comments on “More About New Kinds of Online Debates”

  1. #1 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 10:54 am

    “But an answer would not be the end of that round; in fact, it would only be the beginning. Rebuttals and further rejoinders would be the meat of these conversations. They would not be done on the fly, but would come after the candidates and their staffs had some time to consider their responses.”

    Is this so different than what happens today?

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Seems to me it would be quite different, in part because it would be contained in a place where people could actually follow the conversation.

  3. #3 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Indeed. This is deliberative democracy. But I feel that it may be a better solution for governing.

    I’m skeptical thta the Presidential selection comes down to problem solving. It’s more like this: how do you assertively deal with entrenched powers? Those powers are foreign governments, the Pentagon, the press.

    Which is why it’s not such a bad thing for the entrenched press to be running the debates. It’s practice for the real thing.

  4. #4 Dan Gillmor
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Governance is definitely a great application for this, too…

    Selecting leaders is in part about seeing how well they respond to pressure and change. This would be one, just one, metric.

    The entrenched press is not doing a very good job of getting the serious issues on the table, not from my perspective.

  5. #5 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Hold on. There’s a difference between the entrenched press running the debates and the entrenched press running the commentary the rest of the time.

    One question on the table is how the debates should be run. I suggested above that debating Tim Russert is “practice for the real thing” because the candidate would have to face Russert again once elected President. They wouldn’t face a man asking a question posing a snowman.

    As for the agenda-setting role of the press, that’s debateable; I accept the opinion that they’re not a good job, though what should interest us are the variations between different press outlets. Here’s the meticulously-researched “Invisible Primary” report from the PEJ/Shorenstein Center, released the other week.

    “63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates’ ideas and policy proposals (15%).”

    The PEJ measured “online” media, but only the aggregators and, not any blogs or CJ sites (I wonder why?) But would you expect TPM Election Central, Politico, or HuffPost’s “Off the Bus” to be any different? Just because people hope they are? Because they all claim to be doing a fresh take on political reporting?

    At some point we have to fall back on some theoretical framework beyond “newer has to better.” My longheld reasoning is that the weblog format encourages immediacy over depth. And the stories about the political tactics and fundraising are easier to cover immediately. The same factors which drive 24-hour cable news also drive 24-hour blogging.

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 1:48 pm

    Bah. This is net-hype in search of justification. It’s a good example of how web-evangelism seeks intellectual respectibility. We don’t need blogs, wikis, Second Life (my god, who did they buy in order to get such incredible vapid promotion?), etc. etc. to have a better political debate. Let’s go forward to the 19th century. Just look at what they do over at England with “Question Time”. Or a BBC interview – they actually ask hard questions. There’s a whole infrastructure which supports that sort of more-informed political debate. Adding Internet fairy-dust isn’t it.

  7. #7 John Robinson
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 6:25 am

    It would work. We’re going to try something like it on a local level in Greensboro.

  8. #8 Brooks Lindsay
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Seth, I disagree. While verbal debate is very important as you say, the internet offers something very important, which is the ability to utilize the written word in fully documenting debates and arguments. We offer Debatepedia as a means to frame really tough debates/questions, aiming to document the pro/con threads of arguments and all of the supporting evidence, quotes, studies, etc that fall within these argument threads. This is within an easily understood pro/con structure. This written form offers the potential for a deeper dissection and expansion of debates, opposed to solely verbal forms.

  9. #9 Brooks Lindsay
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 9:55 am

    For a look at Debatepedia’s 2008 elections coverage (roughly 30 debates) see the following link. We’re trying to really push this resource forward as something of an ultimate voter guide (not there yet); a way for voters to see all the arguments (so they can draw their own conclusions) and to see all the candidates positions (so they judge their ideal candidate).

  10. #10 Noel
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Actually, when IDEA launched Debatepedia (I’m the president of the IDEA, inc. Board of Directors) is was with the thought of providing a web site that would collect arguments. Debatepedia is not really well suited for a debate like the one you describe, in part because what you describe is more like a traditional debate which has a flow that includes speeches that respond to one another. There are some interesting models of online debate right now that could potentially be developed into good platforms for online debate. One very promising one is, though the abundance of battle metaphors on the site is unfortunate. The Economist has also recently launched a series of online debates that aspires a bit to what’s described above, but the software they’re using is a bit rudimentary.

    We’re hoping, though, that the Economist will give us permission to archive their debates on the Debatabase and add links to research on the issues the debaters and general public make during the debates.

    IDEA is hoping to launch a companion site in the coming months to the Debatepedia in the coming months that will use some more robust Web 2.0 tools than the MediaWiki to allow for debates like the ones you describe above. We’re going to try to improve on the work that and some others are doing, in part by providing a platform for public online debate that will link debaters to the argument prompts and evidence that’s provided in places like Debatapedia. Our goal would be to have online debaters create content that would then be archived in Debatapedia.

    Another interesting tool for archiving debates, by the way, is We are working with the founders of that site to hopefully create an open source equivalent and also a desktop version of that software so people can create maps of debates on their own. The argument maps that software like this provide can be very useful tools.

  11. #11 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Brooks– I debated for my school’s APDA team in college a dozen years ago and took away one basic lesson: Dropped points count in debate (and nowhere else). The Debatepedia project is interesting. But I suppose that Wikipedia itself is an order of magnitude for partisans of all stripes to edit. As Seth can go into gory depth, the edit wars (not to mention the inclusion skirmishes) are what brings the attention to Wikipedia.

    Suppose that 10% of the voting population will at least partly vote on the candidate based on the issues and not on, say, his hair. Well, they’re listening to NPR, or reading the New Yorker or some similar dense material. It’s been very tough to out-smart the “high” media. So the winning strategy online has been to out-shout.

    Compare the Internet coverage of the Presidential election between 2000 and 2004. In the former election, there was a lot of foundation money poured into various nonpartisan deliberative democracy efforts. We know what happened next– to quote Jay Rosen (in all seriousness), “George Bush singlehandedly probably did more to rejuvenate democracy.” And what a difference four years makes: 2004 brought out a new breed of netizens as partisan snipers. I’m not saying that’s bad; I’m not being cynical. That’s what worked. I can’t see deliberative democracy being restored to political campaigns anytime soon. I can see it added to governance somewhat.

    Back to my original (dropped!) point. I don’t think the American public is looking for the candidates to explain in gory detail their health plans, or give away their diplomatic strategy in debates. What they (we) are looking for is grace under pressure. For better or worse, the entrenched press is in the best position to try and get candidates to sweat. Keep the basic format, but build in an audience-participation system where enough viewers can agree to give an electric shock to a BS’ing candidate.

    That said, I do look forward to a “debatosphere” of ordinary folks debating online in realtime. That could be entertaining and informative. As Seth and I have noted, the architecture of the blogosphere today doesn’t encourage many fair debates.

  12. #12 Noel
    on Nov 13th, 2007 at 12:35 am

    I think that Jon has touched on the key point that the it’s the architecture of the blogosphere that doesn’t encourage many fair debates. While I do not agree that the 2004 campaign was remarkable different than the 2000 campaign in terms of the level of debate, I do think that it may be possible, with better architecture to create an online platform for debate that could offer those citizens who are looking either to engage in debate or two observe a debate as it unfolds over time to do so. I think you’re basically right to say that the majority of Americans are not interested in parsing through dense policy discussions between candidates, which is why there might always be only a limited appeal to these online debates, but I do think devising a way foster online debate is nonetheless a worthwhile endeavor, even if in the end the debate sites don’t end up among the most popular sites on the web.

    I do think, though, that it’s important not to confuse a tool for archiving debates, like Debatepedia, and a platform for debate itself.

  13. #13 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 13th, 2007 at 6:14 am

    I’d also be jazzed if every A-List blogger were to have an indicator whether he was online and up for a challenge. And blog readers could come up and request a challenge when they want to argue the big shot in real-time over chat. That would be fun.

    And suppose this works– in probably wouldn’t escalate immediately to Presidential campaigns, but it could to smaller contests.

  14. #14 Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Using Tech to Improve Political Debates
    on Nov 15th, 2007 at 11:36 am

    […] New Legal Threats Database for Citizen Media Creators More About New Kinds of Online Debates […]

  15. #15 Guha Jayachandran
    on Nov 29th, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    I just came across this post, and wanted to let you know about Cruxlux — . This is a site that’s been in public soft launch for several months now and is now ramping up with much more use and “marketing.” It has virtually everything you all have described. Among the highlights:

    – For any assertion, it displays supports and counterarguments to that assertion. The intuitive display prevents people from talking past each other and cuts through any spin.

    – It has sophisticated credibility systems that prevent vandalism and move the top ranked arguments of each side to the top.

    – It allows challenges to be issued to any other members or groups on the site, or to any outside bloggers. We also ourselves are in the process of inviting presidential campaigns to join in on various issues.

    – Other features you can see for yourself on the site.

    I hope you all take a moment to check it out and sign up, and please do give us any feedback you may have through the Contact link on the site. We really want to be of service and to help elevate the discourse (or at least expose people who are unwilling or unable to back up their views). Thanks!

  16. #16 Die Zukunft des “Hochrisikofernsehens”? « Internet und Politik
    on Jul 8th, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    […] Einen Schritt weiter geht das Angebot, das die Debatte im November und Dezember 2007 vollständig in den digitalen Kommunikationsraum verlegt hatte. Organisiert wurde das Projekt federführend von der Info-Website Zunächst konnten Nutzer in zwei Runden Videoclips mit Fragen an die Kandidaten einstellen, die danach von den Onlinern bewertet und so in eine Reihenfolge gebracht wurden. Die zehn am besten bewerteten Fragen wurden schließlich an die Kandidaten weiter geleitet, die innerhalb einer festgelegten Frist antworten konnten – die Kampagnen-Teams produzierten dann ihrerseits kurze Videoclips, die über bereit gestellt wurden (weitere Überlegungen zur Ausgestaltung von Online-Debatten finden sich hier). […]