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February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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October 24, 2009

FCC’s Net Neutrality discussion board

The FCC has put up a site — openinternet.gov — where anyone (after registering with a valid email address) can post an idea, or vote existing ideas up or down. I love the idea of the feds opening discussions up, although, I am not convinced that this particular implementation achieves its presumed aims. But, what the heck! Try-fail-try is the right rhythm for the Net.

The site defaults to listing the ideas reverse chronologically, which adds some serendipity, or you can choose to view them listed in order of popularity, which encourages piling on. You can also browse by category/tag.

Anyone who registers can post a comment. The comments are unthreaded, discouraging much development of ideas but also discouraging flaming. You can report a comment as being “abusive,” but otherwise cannot rate them.

At the moment, the most popular posting is from Tim Karr, who, according to his biography at SaveTheInternet.com, a site sponsored by FreePress.net, “oversees all Free Press campaigns and online outreach efforts, including SavetheInternet.com.” Tim — who I know a bit and like — is an activist. He has the most popular post at the FCC’s site presumably because FreePress.net sent out a mailing urging supporters to vote it up.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s how politics is played in this country. If an anti-NN group sponsored by, say, AT&T wanted to play the same game, it’s perfectly entitled to. It’s not hard to imagine a well-funded group swamping FreePress’s shoestring efforts and getting orders of magnitudes more people to thumbs-up an anti-NN comment.

Which is to say that an open discussion board like the one the FCC has posted can serve either of two purposes. It can be a place where people come for rational discussions across political positions, or it can serve as an informal poll of citizens’ sentiments about an issue. But combining the two means that neither works very well. It becomes simply an opportunity for gaming the system.

It seems to me that sites such as these cannot serve as a poll that has any value at all. Besides, we have lots of other ways of gauging public opinion, including scientific polling and elections. If, on the other hand, the FCC wants to sponsor a forum for useful discussion or to generate new ideas, it could modify the current implementation. For example — and these are just ideas that may turn out to be gigantic belly flops — comments could be divided into two tracks, pro and con, with most-popular listings for each. Readers could be allowed to vote up but not down. Comments could be threaded. The comments could be rated. Postings could have buttons for “agree/disagree” and “interesting,” so that the site could highlight articles that people disagree with but find interesting.

All of these techniques could be gamed because everything can be gamed. Some discussion boards do work, though. I don’t know what the magic keys are, but I’m pretty confident that a political discussion board that includes an overall popularity contest will so encourage gaming that its results will necessarily be unreliable. At the very least, the popularity contest should be confined to determining the best arguments for each side.

But I don’t want to close on a negative note, for the FCC is to be congratulated on its efforts to open its processes up not only to lobbyists and geeks who know how to walk and talk like an FCC commenter, but to the general public. And it’s doing so in the proper Webby way of taking small steps and not being afraid to fail in public. That takes guts.

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May 28, 2009

Initial reaction to Google Wave: Maybe transformative

I’m excited about Google Wave, based on TechCrunch’s description of it, and my own fervid projections of what I’d like it to be. If I’m understanding it correctly — and the likelihood is that I’m not … take that as a serious warning — this could be bigger than Facebook and MySpace in terms of how it terraforms the Net.

Social networking sites were hugely important because they addressed a huge lack. The Web knows how pages are linked, but it knows nothing about the relationships among groups of people. SNS’s added that layer. And the smartest of the social network sites treated themselves as platforms on which other apps could be built. Google Wave goes back to the Internet’s most basic layer: people talking with one another. While there are obviously lots of apps and protocols enabling the back and forth gesticulating we call “conversation,” there’s been nothing underneath them all that recognizes that they’re all different ways of doing the same basic thing: IM doesn’t know about email doesn’t know about Usenet doesn’t know about chat doesn’t know about Facebook messaging doesn’t know about Twitter. Each of these ways humans have invented to talk with one another is treated as its own separate app, as different as playing a zombie-killing game and marking up x-rays. In fact, many years ago, a few of us tried to generate interest in what we called threadsML, which we hoped (vainly) would be a standard way for conversations to be shared, stored, and moved around.

Wave, as I understand it, is a platform underneath the multiple modalities of human conversation. It doesn’t care if you’re emailing, IMing, or throwing photos at one another. The structural object is the conversation; the means of conversation is just a detail. [Note: I think.] The fact that you said “No way!” using IM when talking in realtime with a friend who’s reading the same email thread with you no longer will mean your expostulation will have to be treated as a separate app, just as when talking in the real world, we don’t count our hand gestures as something apart from the conversation just because we make them with our hands instead of with our mouths.

So far, Google is (unsurprisingly) doing the right and smart thing, opening it up to developers early on, using the open XMPP protocol, and open sourcing the Google Wave Federation Protocol. If this is to be more than just another app for talking, Google has to treat it like an open platform. The first sign of lock-in will scare away the very folks Google needs if Wave is to be more than just a shiny new set of tin cans and string for those who want to talk with other Google users.

There’s lots that could go wrong. And my understanding of Wave is so preliminary that I’m sorry to be so far out on the limb. But I’ve been waiting on this limb for a long time, frustrated that conversations are splintered by medium when they should be joined by topic and social group. Wave is the first thing I’ve seen that offers a genuine hope for getting this right by starting with the most fundamental social object we have: people talking with one another.

I think.

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March 23, 2009

Arguing for the sake of Heaven

Disagreement is, in its nature, like the creation of the world.
For the creation of the world came about in essence by way of open space,
without which all would have been endless divinity,
and there would have been no place for the creation of the world.
Therefore, God withdrew light to the margins,
and the open space was formed,
and in that space God created the world,
through acts of speech.
And so it is, too, with disagreement—
for if all the sages were of one mind
there would be no place for the creation of the world.
It is only by way of the disagreement between them,
and their dividing one from another,
each one drawing to a particular side,
that open space comes into being between them—
which, in its nature, is like the withdrawing of primordial divine light to the margins—
in the midst of which creation can take place, through acts of speech.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772–1810)
Jonah Steinberg, translator

This is a text a lecture (now postponed) by Nehemia Polen was going to discuss at a class in Newton, MA.

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December 27, 2008

Informationalized conversation

In his important 1996 book, Using Language, Herbert H. Clark opens Chapter 7 by analyzing two lines of conversation between ” a British academic” and “a prospective student”:

When Arthur says “u:h what modern poets have you been reading -” he doesn’t want Beth merely to understand what he means — that he wants to know what modern poets she has been reading. He wants her to take up his question, to answer it, to tell him what modern poets she has been reading. She could refuse even though she has understood. To mean something, you don’t have to achieve uptake, and to understand something, you don’t have to take it up. Still, Beth’s uptake is needed if she and Arthur are to achieve what Arthur has publicly set out for them to do at this point in their interview. p. 191

My first response, and probably yours, is: Well, duh But that’s the point. The fact that Clark has to explicitly state that we ask questions usually in order to get a response is evidence of just how deeply we’ve adopted the information-based paradigm that says that communication consists of the transfer of messages from one head to another. Language is a social tool used by embodied creatures to accomplish complex and emergent projects in a shared world. The transfer of messages is the least of it.

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January 27, 2008

JP Rangaswami on the Net’s capillary action

I haven’t tried the software yet, but I like how they’re developing it:

The concept of Jing is the always-ready program that instantly captures and shares images and video…from your computer to anywhere.

It’s something we want to give you, along with some online media hosting, to see how you use it. The project will eventually turn into something else. Tell us what you think so we can figure out what that is.

Try it, you’ll like it. Find out more in the FAQ, or on the weblog .


Not so incidentally, I found out about this via a post by JP Rangaswami following up on a really terrific post about the incredible capacity of our new circulatory system (capillaries, not a fire hose, says JP). The follow-up post gives an example of capillary action at work. The first post frames the Net as how conversation — taken not just as chin-wagging but as how much of the the work and play of sociality are accomplished — scales. [Tags: ]

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