Mediating debate for large scale argumentation

Mark Klein and colleagues recently developed a system for large scale online argumentation which goes some way to answering the question I posed in my last blog entry about how design can enable large scale deliberation within the bounds of structured AV platforms. Defining deliberation as “exploring and converging on problem solutions rather than just… conversing“, the team developed Deliboratorium, a tool to harvest large scale discussion in a tight, argument-structured way, based upon the IBIS argumentation formalism. Allowing free choice of topic the Deliboratorium system is not a problem-based system but it does enforce a problem-solution-argument model that creates an easy to analyse contribution structure as well as encouraging contributors to look for related and contrasting ideas and to encounter opposing arguments before contributing. Like Raymond Pingree’s Decision Structured Deliberation (DSD), the Deliboratorium design enforces typing of messages (issue, idea, pro, con) by the contributor prior to submitting and also prohibits replication and insists upon posts being placed in a logically sound part of the argument map. The system requires moderation in order to ensure posts are structured, categorised and placed correctly and are of good quality. The moderation is not silent, however, as moderators have a “part education and part quality control” role and can communicate with contributors to help them to produce acceptable posts. Klein states that one moderator is required for each twenty contributors an effort level “much lower than those needed to harvest, post-hoc, discussions hosted by such conventional social computing tools as web forums“.

The team acknowledge the challenge of “attention allocation” and the need to help users to find areas of interest within large argument maps and find the appropriate place to add their views and expertise. To this end the developers included several popular web 2.0 solutions such as ratings systems, watchlists and personalisation through the use of personal homepages. Each of these facilities comes with its own risks to democracy and deliberation, as discussed in previous blog entries, but they serve as a method of navigating the large map, enabling contributors to home in on areas of interest, making the large scale of the conversation less of a hindrance to participation. Furthermore version histories, of the type found in popular wiki software, are kept so that editorial control can be maintained as a defence against contributors changing each others arguments rather than sticking to the “live and let live” principle and constructing their own counter-argument.

Deliboratorium is an exceptional concept in large scale deliberation with tremendous potential to allow large scale deliberative participation within argument visualisation systems. It does, however, work towards a very specific definition of deliberation. So far the system has been tested on groups numbering in the hundreds that seem to be somewhat prepared for use of such a system, such as information management students. I look forward to seeing how well the innovative structure translates to use with the general public, if that occurs, and whether the 1:20 moderation level remains at a manageable ratio and the quality of deliberation remains as high as seen in the trials so far.


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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