I've been meaning to put this up for awhile. Alas, the best laid plans may go awry. Anyway, in pursuing my research, I've come up against some of a theortical brick wall at points, namely, what is a "good" conversation. In the Slashdot context, how would I know that the comments occuring on Slashdot are happening in a good or bad way?

To help answer that question, I've spent some time looking at deliberation as a process. In June, I went to a conference in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University. The topic was software tools for online deliberation, which is similar to a conference I attended in D.C. about 2 years ago.

Anyway, one of the highpoints for me was a discussion of what is the positive outcome of deliberation. Vin Price, and Jenny Stromer-Galley were particularly helpful in this. As a note, the following lists are not necessarily, obviously, constrained to the online world. Some of these are well established in the communication studies literature, and others were hypotheses, brainstorms, and half baked ideas.

Individual outcome measures:

  • Argument repertoire: can the participants articulate what the major points being deliberated are?
  • Social trust: positive mental representations of other citizens.
  • An indication of future participation. Willingness to return to the same discussion space and/or engage with the same participants.
  • Community mindedness (similar to argument repertoire) often measured with attitude battery. This is mostly a concern for what happens to the group that came together above and beyond the immediate action of the deliberation.
  • Learning: this is more subtle than it sounds. New participants should be able to learn the rules of the space, the arguments that have already been articulated, the issues of the debate and so forth. However, for older members there should still be an overall increase in the information available for forming an opinion in the space.
  • Valueopinion consistency: does the opinion being stated by a participant match their stated (or implicit I guess) values?
  • Opinion-opinion consistency: does the same person present the same opinion over time? If person A changes their opinion radically it could be a total transformation of opinion (rare) or they are gaming.
  • Attitude strength, certainty: does the debate make a particular opinion more or less strongly held by a member? The fear is that people would polarize, that debate only serves to strengthen already held opinions. The reality is that people tend to move toward the middle.
  • Self disclosure: there's not much research on this, and it's not automatically something you want to encourage. Basically, the more self-disclosure participants feel comfortable with, the better indicator that the space can be re-tooled for purposes beyond the initial discussion.
  • Perceived legitimacy: do participants feel that this is good place for them to be spending there time?
  • Autonomy/Agency/efficacy/equality: a grab bag of subjective measures that to some extent equal satisfaction, or maybe perceived personal effectiveness, in a conversation.

Collective outcome measures:

These are all desired outcomes for the *group* engaged in the deliberative process.

  • Clarity of a path to action. How to act is clear and specific to all members.
  • Development of jargon.
  • Formed collective identity of discussion participants.
  • Range of considerations is wide.
  • De-polarization, in terms of groups rather than individuals. This means that the group attitude moves together, rather than individuals moving apart.
  • Decreased variance among group positions.
  • Opinion shift
  • Repurposing: if the conversation is effective, the participants should be able to mobilize themselves for other types of actions.
  • Resilience to “bad” actors.
  • Collective interests are adequately addressed and balanced.
  • Creation of structure. This is a very Anthony Giddens argument that basically says an outcome of discourse is the creation of organizational structure. Groups being the most obvious form of this, but more complex forms created suprisingly quickly.

This, and some excerpts for Stromer-Galley's dissertation, made me realize that this is a particular type of conversation, and I'll need to go deeper into the nature of communication to get a good hold of it. Blech.