Designing for deliberation (continued)

To add to my previous post on designing deliberative systems I have been reading Online Deliberation: Design, Research, and Practice by Todd Davies et al. (2009), particularly Part VI: Design of Deliberation Tools, as well as an interesting paper by Deen G Freelon from 2010 about models of democratic communication and their effect on online conversation.

Chapter 25 of Online Deliberation, by Davies et al, featured DEME – an innovative design for best practice in online asynchronous small (to medium) group deliberations. The system included a variety of features to improve deliberation such as easy access to related information, formation of smaller topic-based groups from the larger overall participant community, built in tutorials and features to encourage directed discussion. There were also features to enhance collaboration such as document centred discussion and the sharing of files and links. One important feature was the incorporation of email into the system. The authors stressed the importance of incorporating current practice into systems to aid participation and email was seen to be a dominant communication method among the participants outside of the DEME environment. The authors also highlighted how the early design of the system limited participation due to a confusing interface. This problem was solved by a redesign, utilising newer technologies that had arrived during the project timespan. This example was used as an illustration into the importance of designing the system codebase for incremental improvement – the internet is a fast moving environment and systems must be adaptable to current expectations of the modern user.

In chapter 26 Douglas Schuler introduced E-Liberate: a tool for online civic deliberation. This system was built around the use of Roberts Rules of Order – “a set of directives that designated an orderly process for equitable decision making in face-to-face meetings“. Roberts Rules of Order are used by many organisations and, in the US at least, the directives are legally mandated for use by governments. The directives involve the “typing” of messages into discrete groups – a practice common in conversation mapping and analysis and one that makes discourse particularly suitable for computer processing. The structuring of discourse in this way allows the system to facilitate conversations by enforcing the rules and only allowing legal “moves” such as posing and responding to questions. Schuler admits that this is not always popular with users and built in an “auto pilot” feature that allowed conversation to move more freely if users deemed that the facilitation was impeding conversation. Schuler also addressed the issue of ascertaining who is online at any particular time. Asynchronous conversations are often assumed to be inclusive but at any particular moment it is hard to tell whether a quorum is present or not. Schuler states that solving these issues will take “social as well as technological approaches” such as windows of time where commenting can take place or comment quotas for participants.

Roberts Rules of Order are not the only framework for structuring collaborative or deliberative debate and in chapter 27 Shanks and Dahlstrom describe the Parliament system which can use an external set of rules to facilitate an online discussion. Using a specification language the user can describe new rule sets that meet their particular needs. This functionality helps to ensure that useful discussion is not constrained by limitations in software structure.

Chapter 28, by Raymond J. Pingree introduces Decision Structure: “a new approach to three problems in deliberation“. Pingree describes how off-line discussion is “often assumed to be the gold standard of deliberation” but argues that deliberation is not automatically achieved in offline discussion and designing to mimic it online is not always the best policy. Indeed, doing so can mean neglacting other possibilities of online discussion that could improve deliberation. He suggests that designers of online forums “should instead strive to take advantage of the unique design flexibility of the online discussion environment” to design towards deliberative ideals rather than offline characteristics. To an extent, I think my previous review has highlighted attempts to do just this. Pingree describes how some problems are outside the scope of design, such as diversity of participants views or the willingness of participants to follow deliberative norms but he goes on to describe three problems in deliberation that should be the subject of attempts to solve them through design of online systems. First he addresses the Problem of Scale. Large group deliberation often suffers from problems of coherence and full reception, problems largely mitigated by the written nature of online asynchronous conversations. In these environments “the problem of scale manifests as a difficulty in keeping up with all messages being sent“. Secondly, Pingree describes the Problem of Memory and Mental Organisation, in which the the limitations of human memory impede deliberation, requiring design that assists human memory. I am immediately drawn to my previous notes on argument visualisation as an example of this. Thirdly, Pingree describes the problem of Conflict between Organisation and Democratic Legitimacy, the topic of moderation and facilitation and its effect on democracy that has been discussed by others, some of which is summarised in the previous blog post. Pingree proposes a new model of online deliberation, Decision Structured Deliberation (DSD), that may be used to solve the three problems outlined above. The model combines some of the previously discussed topics such as message typing, profile and trust based systems and ratings systems. The message structure is imposed on users, who must choose a category of message for their contribution when composing it. The structure is “more specific than the mere reply relationships found in existing forums” and is configurable by an administrator to fit a particular environment. Potential types include “problem“, “solution” and “cause” and contributions of these types can build up a conversation structure as discussion occurs. For instance, problems can have causes or solutions proposed and reasons added to back them up. Any number of such problems, causes, solutions or reasons can be added but crucially, the users can vote for or against each, building up a picture of valued contributions which can be presented in ranked order. This user-created argument visualisation seems to present a real opportunity for harnessing mass contributions and building deliberative, democratic consensuses. The problem that immediately jumps to mind is that of the effect of coordinated contribution such as the work of lobby groups. The ratings and profile system could play straight into their hands and such environments could become battle grounds between organisations.

Turning to Deen Freelon’s article, it was interesting to read his account of the widely varying patterns of online political conversation created by different types of community – an effect often overlooked in research about design for deliberation. Freelon describes common strategies of research into online political discussion spaces as either too focussed on purely deliberative quality, ignoring other “equally compelling conversational phenomena”, or studies of diverse systems that fail to categorise each in “ways that are systematic, commensurable and tailored specifically to online discussion”. Freelon suggests a third strategy, based on work by Habermas and, later, Dahlberg, which takes into account the “disparate online discussion cultures” of different communities and allows spaces to be characterised using “distinct scholarly conceptions of democracy“, taking into account types of online political discussion, other than deliberation, that can also be democratically useful. Freelon describes three characteristics that Habermas stated should be present in the public sphere: rational-critical discussion; defined limits of scope of discussion; openness to all members of the public. These criteria can be included in definitions of deliberation and as such deliberative quality has been used as a “yardstick” to assess democratic performance of online spaces. Freelon asserts that “the key disadvantage of this approach is that by focusing solely on characteristics of relevance to deliberation, it ignores many other theoretically interesting features of online political deliberation“. Freelon also notes how increasing deliberation may decrease participation, and vice versa, due to the exposure to opposing views of true deliberation, demonstrating the need to look beyond single democratic ideals and look for neccesary trade-offs between ideals and customs. There have been a number of studies focussing on the different types of online public spheres, notably Dahlgren (2005) identifying five categories of online discussion space (e-government, advocacy/activist, civic, parapolitical and journalistic) and Pickard (2005) identifying three categories of “internet-based grassroots action” (partisan, pluralist democractic and radical participatory) but Freelon describes a lack of consistent analytical criteria and a lack of framework for assessing deliberative quality in these articles, respectively. He describes an alternative model that improves on previous studies in three ways: allows a broadened scope of evaluation, encompassing more than just deliberation; specifies categories of communication rather than sponsorship or institutional linkage; allows the connection of empirical results to political theory. The framework identifies three distinct models of democracy from Dahlberg’s work: liberal individualist; communitarian; deliberative; and allows “more precise conclusions such as ‘communitarian with some deliberative aspect’” rather than simply “more or less deliberative“. Freelon illustrates how these different communities behave differently on the web and shows how his three-model framework can be applied to current areas of research through analysis of political conversation rather than just deliberation. He postulated that the three-model framework could provide insight into how configuration of discussion spaces may affect the type of community dynamic, and therefore discussion structure, that is developed as well as analysing the affect of political influences on design and how design for one of the models of democracy in the framework may be as influential in fostering democracy as design for deliberation.

There are two notable concepts that have remained in my mind after reading the above literature, that of innovative structure of message dynamics illustrated by Raymond J. Pingree in his Decision Structured Deliberation and Deen G Freelon’s account of democratic model and the need for incorporation of online community dynamics in research and evaluation initiatives for e-participation. The former is an illustration of how thoughtful and innovative platform design can potentially structure large masses of contribution into useful conversational materials that lead towards consensus, are suitable for computer analysis and can be integrated into policy formulation. The problem of attracting and encouraging online individuals to sites of such design remains, but the work does address the issue of handling input should they choose to participate. The latter is an extremely interesting account of online community dynamics which shows a clear limitations of evaluation simply by deliberative quality of content. When designing the deliberative and collaborative e-participation systems of the future, models of democracy and the relationship between system design and participant community may be an important area of consideration.


About birchallchris

Research Associate in the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, teaching digital media practice and theory to students on the BA/MA New/Digital Media programmes. I research digital citizenship, using innovative digital methods; trying to bridge the gap between vary large scale phenomena and the individual human.
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