Why Forums Suck (for debate) Part Two: Forking Debates

February 22, 2008 at 6:59 am Leave a comment

Let’s say you have four people in a forum. Let’s call them Alice, Bob, Carol and Dave. Alice, Bob, Carol and Dave are all smart, polite and rational people who get in a well-mannered debate over X. What is X? It doesn’t matter. All you need to know is that Alice is trying to prove X and what she is giving as evidence is Y and Z (Y and Z don’t matter either). Alice believes X is true because both Y and Z are true.

Along comes Carol. Carol agrees that if Y and Z were true that X would also be true. The problem is that Carol does not think that Y is true at all and therefore calls into question the validity of X. Alice and Carol start politely posting back and forth about the validity of Y.

At about the same time comes Dave. Dave also agrees that if Y and Z were true that X would also be true. However, unlike Carol, Dave has doubts about Z rather than Y. Dave writes a very polite post challenging Z and once again calls into question the validity of X.

Shortly after Dave puts up his post comes Bob. Bob agrees with Alice in every way and notices that Alice seems to have her hands full with defending Y with Carol. Bob also notices that nobody has responded to Dave’s challenge to Z so he posts a polite response defending the validity of Z. Bob and Dave go back and forth arguing about Z. At the very same time and on the very same thread Alice and Carol are posting back and forth about Y.

After all this has been going for a while comes you. You find the topic of X interesting and decide to check in on the debate. What do you find? You find a forum thread that is practically unreadable! The thread topic keeps bouncing back and forth between Z and Y. The topic has come to a fork and now we have two groups of people wrestling to control the topic.

Forum threads fork. Debate forum threads doubly so. In this example the participants are lucky that the debate has only forked once. Real life examples can have a fork every other post. Yet the thread models in (most) forums do not have mechanisms to accommodate a forked topic.

This comes back to one of my major premises: the structure of argument is a tree and not a list. Unfortunately forums organize all posts into a list, just one post after another in the order in which they came. This mapping makes it tough on readers and posters to make any sense of what is going on.

Online debaters would be much better served by a medium that handles a forking topic gracefully. Wikis do this quite well when topics are uncontroversial. However, Wikis have their own problems…. I’ll save that for another post.

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