Talk to each other – moderation in public forums

Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates maintains a consistently lively, interesting, respectful discussion section on his blog. The combination of substance and civility is maintained with a firm hand on moderation – people who don’t follow the rules are out. He posted his moderation policy, in response to an influx of new readers. In the policy, Coates called out an item that seems striking in our culture of conversation. Coates insists that his commenters actually talk to each other.

When a commenter responds to another participant, he or she must respond to what that person actually said, not a straw man version of it. A commenter who makes straw man arguments in bad faith is quickly banned. A commenter who misreads someone else’s point, out of passion, speed, or misunderstanding, is coached to respond directly, and to quote the person to ensure they are responding directly.

This practice of talking to each other runs counter to the norms of much of our culture’s public discourse. Anyone who has media training knows that in public forums, you plan your points ahead of time, and then repeat the points you planned, matching those pre-planned points as close as possible. Given the characteristics of mass media, where soundbites will be taken out of context, a speaker needs to be extremely polished and prepared to reduce the likelihood of being mis-interpreted. Also, in a political context, extreme positions are used to stake out debate turf, and addressing a point directly can give credibility to a bad frame. By saying “I understand that you doubt human-caused climate change, but the evidence is clear” – you re-iterate the opponent’s point. There are good reasons, in political discussions, to speak over the heads of the immediate people you’re talking to to reach a broader audience. Similar techniques are used in a business context, where someone representing a company is expected to stay on message.

Even in more informal, less risky settings, such as a collegial panel discussion at a conference, people tend to start with talking points. In response to an overall topic, each panelist will recite talking points. A follow-up to another panelist will be in terms of one’s own talking points. Creating an original response runs the risk of sounding unpolished or incoherent, so speakers take the safe route and repeat programmed answers. Facilitators are accustomed to move topics along, so they don’t often ask follow-up questions to clarify and expand on the initial point.

I had this discussion in the last week with folk including Kevin Marks, Jeannie Logozzo, Adrian Chan and Heather Gold in response to some panel discussions at the Supernova conference, where informed, thoughtful facilitators and panelists still held discussions that sometimes contained more fragments of speeches then current engagement with new ideas and with each other. Heather is leading a series of workshops to help people get beyond soundbites to authentic engagement in public forums.

The concept of actually talking to each other – in an in-person public forum, or an online forum such as a high-profile blog discussion, is so out-of-character to the norms of our public discourse that the proposed alternatives seem shocking.

Moderation in general is critical for a good public discussion. See this piece from Sarah Granger about the dangers of ignoring the need for moderation. The comments section in a post expressing political opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle quickly devolved into trolling, and comments were shut down. The Chronicle has had a lax moderation policy, and its comments sections frequently resemble Lord of the Flies.

In software, some basic tools are needed to enable moderation and facilitation. In safer intranet environments fewer explicit features are needed. Large public forums with many strangers need much more explicit tools. Over an above the features, we need to have practices and norms of facilitation and moderation. Starting with the strange concept of actually talking to each other.

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