Mindful Commentary Online

As a PhD. student at U. Washington, Travis Kriplean designed Reflect, an interface that encourages deeper listening in web-based discussions.

Photo: mrPliskin/iStockphoto

We’ve all experienced that stomach-burning feeling when reading comments on news websites or Internet forums: the accusatory tone, the “fascist”-flinging, the validating of arguments byway of links to shady parts of the Internet. Even worse, some of us have contributed, cursing out BestAmerican2000 for their caustic comments and thus fueling the flame war that is web-based discussions.

What is it about commenting boards that turn people into 2.0 year olds?

At the University of Washington, Travis Kriplean spent part of his PhD dissertation working to transform the vitriolic verbosity of online comments into acts of listening. He designed Reflect: an interface that encourages neutral reflection and constructive discussion. In a recent research paper on Reflect, he argues that the lack of sophisticated dialogue online has more to do with the structure of commenting boards and not necessarily the angry person publishing their thoughts. Most commenting boards emphasize speaking and rating comments; audiences end up trying to always say something new while simultaneously judging others around them.

The main difference between Reflect and other commenting boards is an additional space to the right of every comment where audiences are invited to restate what they hear in a 140-character bullet point. The…