what would valuable digital deliberation look like?

One of the subjects I (and many other digital rhetoricians and scholars in adjacent fields) write about is digital deliberation–that is, how does deliberation work (if at all) online, in social media for example? One of the concepts I’ve discussed in the past is “distributed deliberation,” which is a way of investigating how machines and algorithms participate in decisions that we make. Today though I want to talk about something that probably wouldn’t make it into a journal article which is some speculation about what kind of digital environment would best serve us for the purposes of making communal judgments.

A couple of caveats/issues immediately come to mind.

  1. The participants have to be invested in the process of deliberation. They don’t have to be absolutely committed to creating a consensus, but they at least must be placing some value on understanding others’ positions and find the idea of seeking common ground to be a worthwhile endeavor.
  2. There are no perfect or one size fits all solutions here. Once upon a time we believed that anonymity would be a benefit to social discourse. That hasn’t worked out too well. On the other hand, we also know that our social identities carry with them a range of ideological challenges.
  3. All the challenges of access, digital literacy, cultural and human differences as they pertain to digital practices, and so on are always involved.

In short, we can’t imagine the online world as one divorced from the contexts of face-to-face life but as embedded within it (as it obviously is). The digital is not better or worse than the analogy, but it does offer us different affordances. The question is how to leverage those affordances to aid in deliberations.

I wish I had a great solution to offer, but I don’t. I do have some ideas though.

  1. A special gathering: it might be helpful if there was a deliberative space separate from our normal social media, one that reinforced the idea that we would be asked to behave differently. To ask people to deliberate on social media is to ask them to do so in front a larger community that may not be willing to take on these responsibilities.
  2. Time for reflection: I’ve been involved in my fair share of email and listserv flame wars, so I know asynchronicity doesn’t always create a cooling off period. That said, some delay probably wouldn’t hurt.
  3. Structured deliberative processes: I don’t know. Maybe a heuristic that helps participants articulate their objections in a more cool-headed way. Maybe some opening and closing rituals that help participants to recenter/focus at the start and then leave it all behind at the end.
  4. Roles and responsibilities: participants rotate through different roles where they are responsible for moderating and maintaining different aspects of the gathering. This gives each a commitment to the process and community itself beyond expressing their own viewpoint. E.g., can you make sure that the person you disagree with is getting a fair chance to be heard?
  5. Reporting forward/sharing: at some point, the efforts of the gathering then need to be shared more generally. Maybe it’s like the Supreme Court with majority and dissenting opinions. I don’t know. But it then becomes a way that participants can go back to their real and digital communities and share what they learned from their deliberations.

I know it sounds like a lot of work. Deliberation is a lot harder than making a snap judgment and sharing it with a digital echo chamber, which is what most of us increasingly do in social media. And I don’t blame us for that. In my experience Fb and Twitter are horrible places to have disagreements. Once again I’m reminded here of the Monty Python skit about paying to have an argument, except here it’s the part a little later on where the man behind the desk starts insulting him and he says “Wait, I’m here for an argument,” and the other guy says “Oh, I’m sorry. This is abuse. Argument is two doors down.”

I just think we need something different.

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