[The following post is my submission to the Knight-Mozilla “Beyond Comment Threads” challenge.]
The following are the core problems with current discussion systems:
- Trolls, acrimonious people, and low quality commentary can drown out thoughtful discussion and destroy a good community.
- Bias towards seniority: Deep insight is penalized if it comes from a new, unknown, or anonymous voice. For example, on Quora, answering a question one month faster than someone else can lead to a rich-get-richer phenomenon where the old answer gets more upvotes because it is always shown as the top answer, and hence has more visibility merely because it is older. Nepotism creates artificial friction and a barrier-entry, because it is an effective technique for enforcing community standards. But it has the downside that it discriminates—gently or extremely—-against insightful new commentators and anonymity.
- Voting systems can be gamed by voting rings and ballot stuffing.
- Voting systems can lead to “mob rule”.
How do we address all these core problems in traditional commenting systems?
How can we create an engaging system that most effectively promotes discussion? Can we avoid nepotism and bias against new, unknown, and anonymous commentators? How can we defend against basic trolling and voting rings?
A next generation discussion system must address these core problems.
The core value of a discussion system is to encourage stimulating and engaging discussion. We want a system that is frictionless to participate in: You can lurk for years and then jump in when you have something great and insightful to say, and your voice is heard loud and clear. This is true democratization of discussion.
The solution is personalization. A next generation discussion system is personalized. Personalization makes discussion more stimulating and engaging. Each user that reads and participates gets a comment thread that is sorted by personal relevancy. Irrelevant comments are hidden by default, but can optionally be viewed. Personalization is tuned to promote discussion that the user finds stimulating and engaging, and hiding discussion that the user finds off-topic, spammy, excessively or insufficiently detailed, etc.
The beauty of personalization is its flexibility. It does not force a particular style of discussion. If the user enjoys:
- heated discussion back-and-forth discussion,
- calm discussion with well-reasoned but concise arguments,
- in-depth academic discourse,
- tabloid-like ad-hominem, or
- trolling and hate speech
then the user gets what they want.
Additionally, personalization is adapted on a per-topic basis. One particular user might enjoy a heated discussion about abortion, a calm well-reasoned discussion about NoSQL databases, and low-brow discussion about celebrity romance. Per-topic personalization can satify all these user needs.
I can discuss more details about this approach, including how to:
- capture personalization information through user interaction with the discussion board.
- incorporate atomic commenting.
- federate discussion across multiple sites and liberate discussion from a single site.
I can also discuss possible objections to personalization, and my response to them.
Due to space limitations (500 words), I omit these details for now, and focus on personalization, which I believe addresses the core problems of traditional discussion systems.