Why Forums Suck (for debate) Part Three: Signal to Noise Ratio

March 3, 2008 at 9:01 pm Leave a comment

Let’s say you have a forum thread with a small group of participants who are having an intelligent debate on a hot button topic of the day. The parties disagree but are polite and cordial and do not engage in ad hominem attacks of any sort. This goes on for awhile and a short time later other forum participants begin to take notice.

Among these observers are some real partisans who are offended by the very notion of a debate on the subject. Not content to sit on the sidelines they feel they must admonish the participant on the wrong side of the argument. These new participants soon start bickering  amongst themselves in all the ways we’ve come to expect… occasionally punctuated by some thoughtful posts by the original participants. Godwin’s law manifests its inevitable result and the thread dies.
The previous scenario is an all too common occurrence. Debate threads have a really hard time scaling past a few people. In an unmoderated forum there are no means to block out posts or participants that decrease the value of the thread. This makes threads virtually unreadable to lurkers, participants and even search engines.

A low Signal to Noise ratio is not a problem that is unique to debate forums. We know from other disciplines that solving signal to noise ratio problems requires a comprehensive description of what signal means in a given context. Human discourse represents the toughest medium for coming up with such a description but I don’t think the problem is hopeless, just unsolved.

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