Conversation Designed for People


Rules of Engagement

Most organizations follow some version of Robert’s Rules of Order. User Experience design is accomplished by structuring who can make comments and when they can do so. Feedback is interpreted for intent, so that reactions can be separated and codified into responses. And if feedback just becomes a bunch of people saying the same thing, we acknowledge that consensus and move on. Moving on from today’s era of trolls and mob doxxing is what we need—we have more important things to focus on. Here’s why...

Post something on Twitter and you might find thousands of clicks of appreciation or innumerable profanities and disparagements. “Avoid the comments section,” has become common advice for those of us who don’t enjoy reading the anonymous, and often hateful, musings of strangers. It is, at once, a golden age of free speech—the restrictions of stodgy media outlets replaced with real people—and the waning of real argument… which is crucial to a healthy society.

Closed Circles, Open Internet

As we’ve expanded our outlets for conversation and exchange of ideas, we’ve transformed the way we tease out truth, while closing ourselves in to see only one kind of truth. Often in the hope for peace, we choose to isolate ourselves in digital niche communities, and in that isolation, for better or worse (mostly worse), we have acclimated to our views not being challenged in meaningful ways.

In new media, the digital proletariat have, in many ways, seized the means of journalistic production. Protesters can now tell their side of the story easily through Facebook Live. Bloggers can share their op-eds from anywhere. And a casual thought posted to Reddit could become the battle cry for a completely unaligned cause.

Yet, there are some things we miss from the era of fat daily papers and nightly news. Because though pundits and personalities wielded considerable power over what was discussed—often to the detriment of marginalized groups—they also warded off a lot of hateful or poisonous rhetoric that stalls meaningful conversation.

Today, toxic and biased talking points are embraced in the arena of newsfeeds. The Internet has given a platform and gathering place to groups who would have been afraid to share their opinions in the past. Perhaps online trolls are ‘refreshingly honest.’ Or, more likely, they just trigger ugliness.

This is how we Troll

Why can’t we behave on the internet? We ask crowds to be quiet and respectful when in the same room in order to achieve shared goals. But if you attend a middle school graduation and are asked to “please hold your applause until all the graduates’ names have been called,” chances are at least half of the parents will blatantly ignore this instruction.

Emotion and connection ultimately compel us to abandon social graces. No one gets their feelings hurt at a middle school graduation ceremony because parents won’t follow the applause instructions—they all get the impulse. But similar emotional connections are riddled throughout political talking points—it’s how newscasters, journalists, activists, and politicians engage their audiences. But, all too easily, these emotional messages are hijacked and weaponized.

Some sides of these issues are perceived as harmful to others and, in fact, many of them are. And feeling threatened is a powerful emotional state. Reaction to change is powerful. Mix in a little internet anonymity and people can get mean. Very mean.

To be clear, this little blog post isn’t a condemnation or commendation of anyone who has ever said something mean online. We’d like to believe that most people are decent human beings who want others to live well and free from suffering. Yet, here we are in a world where innocent YouTube videos are peppered with hateful comments.

Enter, Reddit

The good news is, there seems to be a the least likely of places. As a recent Wired article posits, a Reddit community devoted to openness and argument is our best model for structuring how our online dialogue. The "Change My View" sub-reddit was established in 2013 by Kal Turnbull, a young man from Inverness. He realized that many of his views were simply accepted by his acquaintances. To get around his geography, he started a community designed to foster level-headed argument and change his own perspective.

Since its founding, the subreddit has grown under the watchful guidance of Turnbull, a small host of moderators, and a carefully formulated set of rules. And in only a few years, the forum has changed the views of thousands of posters. How did Turnbull accomplish this? By shaping the limitations of his group via a smart set of rules and motivations. For example, “lazy arguments” and “hostile” comments are often deleted. Compelling views are rewarded through a point system, encouraging commentators to think deeply about the validity and logic of their opinion.

The miracle of Change My View is that it addresses the thorniest issues of the times with a rare level-headedness. In a time where anyone can post anything on the Internet, it’s almost unheard of to have such a clean exchange.

A Rational Exchange

But Change My View isn’t that special. The reason for the egalitarian spirit of the subreddit is two-fold. First, it is self-selective—posters, on some level, want to have their views changed. Second, Change My View is designed to lift up logic while casting out the crowd-following, slogan-uttering, nonsense of most Internet discourse. And that design is accomplished by a simple set of rules.

If you post to this subreddit, you must:

  1. Explain the reasoning behind your view, not just what that view is.

  2. You must personally hold the view and demonstrate that you are open to it changing.

  3. Submission titles must adequately sum up your view and include "CMV:" at the beginning.

  4. Posts cannot express a neutral stance, carry a risk of personal endangerment, be self-promotional, or discuss this subreddit

  5. You can only post if you are willing to have a conversation with those who reply to you, and are available to start doing so within 3 hours of posting.

Those commenting on the topic must:

  1. Challenge at least one aspect of the original poster’s stated view (however minor), or ask a clarifying question.

  2. Not be rude or hostile to other users.

  3. Refrain from accusing the original poster or anyone else of being unwilling to change their view.

  4. Award a delta if you've acknowledged a change in your view (and not use deltas for any other purpose).

  5. Contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

That’s right. Rules. Rules, combined with moderators. Checks on free speech. Just like the nightly news, you can’t just say anything. Which… creates free speech. It turns out structure is liberating.

Isn’t total freedom the point?

Any time we talk about limiting freedom of speech, things get messy. But the truth is that, even on the Internet, there need to be limitations. Certain forms of expression have been banned from Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and yes, even Reddit. Speech can be harmful to individuals, our culture, and even our political discourse. We’re experiencing that right now. And those creating avenues for speech have a responsibility to protect users from harmful ideas.

The Change My View model might be hard to scale to a platform like Twitter. The number of moderators would need to be huge. And AI moderators might not be advanced enough to distinguish the blurry lines that often exist between hate, humor, satire, and sarcasm. However, the rules governing this egalitarian corner of the web do give us a decent starting place. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.