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 original commenter can then verify the accuracy of the bullet point and clarify if necessary. Each commenter can also positively or negatively evaluate the bullet points.

(A diagram of Reflect shows how the interface augments the ordinary commenting board by adding an extra space beside each comment for restating and verifiying interpretations.)

There are two major results from the addition of restatements to commenting. One, it deters commenters from skimming over what others have written. Two, it allows for a fluidity of ideas, as users can restate their own ideas or restate those of others, and revisit later if their thoughts have evolved. The goal is a deeper and mutual understanding between users. In a video that shows how Reflect works, Kriplean describes how the interface can expand discussion beyond commenting to interpretation and verification as well.

One of the ways Kriplean tested how audiences used Reflect was by deploying it on Slashdot.com, a popular news discussion website whose users are not known to be particularly empathetic. Kriplean applied Reflect to four stories on the website.

The results indicated that users would voluntarily restate on comments, as each comment averaged one restatement. Further, a content analysis of the 734 bullet points demonstrated that half of the bullet-point restatements were reflective of the original comment, indicating a strong listening tendency, and the other half of comments were neutral (discounting negative bullets that were removed from the board as participants moderated them). Negative comments were present, but as Kriplean notes in his paper, the comments were not as harsh as he or Slashdot’s co-founder had expected.

While the results are promising, in that audiences generally followed Reflect’s design intentions, Kriplean says much more needs to be done with these restatements.

“What if we could actually take those long discussions that we see on the web and extract the value, distill them down, find out what ideas people have, where they disagree, and summarize that based upon a work flow that builds off of Reflect bullet points.”

Kriplean gives the example of a news organization using the restatements to create follow-up articles that would clarify any issues audiences had, or build on audience ideas through what they communicate on the comments board.

Reflect, in its current incarnation, is a small part of a larger initiative of Kriplean’s to bring people together on the web. He is also working on other digital projects, namely, ConsiderIt and Chalkboard It. Both tools aim to get people involved in discussions by using technology that can distill their concerns and be used to formulate larger ideas—something that Kriplean agrees the web has potential for, but it will take some human intervention in order to distill how the thoughts and feelings of hundreds of participants can be channeled into decision-making.

“If we continue to rely on people speaking individually we’ll never be able to make sense of what a large, democratic society thinks as a collective”