Lost Theories

As one of those condescending yuppies who doesn’t have a TV I’m at a loss to do any thoughtful analysis on this clever user moderated site about the TV show Lost. This is a shame because it has some unique properties. I can’t make sense of any of the content (which I’m told is an experience not too different from watching the show) or make any judgment as to its quality. I’d welcome any comments on this matter.

Most interesting is the section under the heading “debunked” for theories that have been disproved in some way. The mechanism to flagging something “debunked” appears to be from receiving a certain amount of “debunked” flags from readers. I’d be interested to know if there were theories the have been marked “debunked” yet a group of users continued to argue for it.

Will pop culture forums will lead us into the promised land of auto-moderated debate? If the ancient Kirk vs. Picard debate is ever resolved then stem cell research and global warming certainly can’t be far behind. Probably best not to hold our breaths though.

Thanks to Jeremiah Hansen making this odd connection.

February 23, 2008 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

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

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.

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

Ignite Recap

Ignite Seattle went off without any train wrecks. People have even had nice things to say about my presentation. Two of the other talks complemented mine really well.

Monica Guzman of the Seattle PI talked about the impact you can have commenting on newspaper articles. She also mentioned the depressing effect of trolls and other forum critters that ruin it for everyone. In fact we both had nearly identical slides containing the Fremont Troll

Ramez Naam presented a manifesto for bottom up organization. He had some mindblowing and revolutionary ideas on how companies should be organized that I wouldn’t dare to try to summarize. His killer line (paraphrased): “Why are our capitalist corporations run like communist regimes?” He’s apparantly preparing a book on the topic that I can’t wait to read.

Ryan McMinn and Vj Vijai won the prize for hilarity. They spoke on psuedoscientific dating techniques and using NLP techniques in interviews respectively. I’m really jealous of people of people who can be as funny as these guys while talking about (relatively) serious things. They got more laughs in their first slide then I got in my whole presentation. Expect to see the videos of their talks make the front page of your favorite user moderated forums soon.

I’ll revisit all these once the videos are up. Until then you can console yourself with videos from previous Ignite Seattle events .

February 21, 2008 at 5:38 am Leave a comment

Wikipedias Most Pointless Edit Wars

You have to love the collective self-deprecating humor you find in some internet communities. The contributors to Wikipedia seem to have that quality and it is exemplified perfectly in their wiki page on their Lamest Edit Wars.

I’m on record as stating that Wikis are every bit as bad as forums at handling controversial content.  What the Lamest page illustrates to me is just how little controversy is required get an one of these Edit Wars started. I know this criticism is a little unfair I guess seeing as controversy isn’t what wikis were designed for. The problem is that nothing seems to be.

February 20, 2008 at 7:21 pm Leave a comment

Ignite Seattle Tonight

I’ll be speaking at Ignite Seattle tonight. I’ll be discussing a lot of the ideas you see here on this blog. Online debate, why it sucks, what can be done about it etc. Ignite is at the Capitol Hill Arts Center at 8pm tonight. If it goes well there will probably be a video.

February 19, 2008 at 4:24 pm Leave a comment

Why Forums Suck (for debate) Part One: Human Nature

People have been  complaining about the quality on-line discourse since the beginning of Usenet in the early ’80s. Many people’s first reaction is to blame the users. This is probably a fair criticism as anonymity has been shown time and time again to have a troubling effect on people’s behavior, on-line in particular. He wasn’t the first to say it but Gabe over at Penny Arcade summarized this best in a comic stating “Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total F*&#wad”.

Not that people are good a debating in real life either. The endless screaming we see on the point/counterpoint TV shows serves as testament to that. In our everyday lives it is considered impolite to bring up politics and religion and for good reason. Nobody wants dinner to turn into an episode of Crossfire.

So on-line debate has two strikes against it: its on-line and its debate but I believe there is hope. The people of the Internet have done pretty well creating things in a collaborative environment. Wikipedia and the Linux kernel are examples. The question is whether quality content can come about as the result of competitive behavior. I believe it can if we find the right rules to referee the game. What are those rules? … Well I’m working on that part.

February 19, 2008 at 4:14 pm Leave a comment

The Index of Creationist Claims

The Index of Creationist Claims is a great site that demonstrates how useful it is to link arguments directly to rebuttals in a large repository. The Index is well organized and exhaustive. It’s a shame that systems don’t exist where the Creationist side could participate more directly. The site will always be vulnerable to the criticism that the Creationist arguments it rebuts are either out of date or straw man arguments.

One could argue the Index disproves one of my major premises, that forums are terrible for debate, seeing as the source for most of the content in the Index comes from the Talk.Origins newsgroup. I have four points in response to this criticism:

  1. Talk.Origins has been around since the 1986,. the Triassic by Internet time. Even with the classic signal to noise ratio of forums you can still manage to generate a body of useful content in that much time.
  2. The users on Talk.Origins though it was a good idea to create the index. Thus demonstrating that they weren’t completely satisfied with the forum system.
  3. Talk.Origins is hardly accessible to everyone. It’s 80,000+ posts are practically dark matter to search engines or browsing were it not for the Index.
  4. The index is an anomaly and probably couldn’t scale to more mundane controversies. The passion of its participants makes it work.

February 16, 2008 at 3:01 am Leave a comment

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