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.