There’s recently been a trend towards creating question and answer sites like Quora.com and Hunch. I’m a fan of both because I like the way they meld structured discussion with social networking. Quora in particular, blurs the boundary between people and subjects, allowing its users to define their own interests and follow either individuals (who may be subject matter experts) or subjects (which are comprised of individuals). Both are useful.
But through using these sites, I’ve been struck by how little real debate occurs within the community. This is both puzzling and very interesting and perhaps points to an area for future innovation. To explain, let me unpack what I mean a bit and delve into why I think it may be true. I’ll use Quora as my example.
Quora was founded recently by Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever, two social media rockstars and early Facebook employees. The site invites users to ask questions (within defined rules intended to provoke constructive and focused discussion without flame wars). Participants are also allowed to edit and correct various questions in a wiki-like manner. Users can then answer questions and/or follow others and vote on the quality of their answers. The combined dynamic leads to a growing volume of answers fueled by users competing to have their answers voted up, thus increasing the author’s social and intellectual standing. The result is an experience that feels like a hybrid of Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter. It’s also very addictive.
As someone who has written a few answers, I can attest to the fact that I often check back to see how the community is reacting to it. I aspire to be voted to the top of the list and dread being verbally cut to shreds (this hasn’t happened yet). Which brings me to my point; not only have I not been strongly contradicted, it seems that nearly nobody has. And I don’t think this is confined to Quora.
Of course we all know that the Internet has been home to some of the more spirited debate in the history of mankind. Sometimes the happens when an author writes a blog post that readers strongly disagree with. Sometimes it is confined to wars in blog comments. Sometimes "Twitter skirmishes". So the question is, “Why does passionate debate only occur in certain settings”?
One part of the answer lies in civility. In Quora (or any civilized debate forum), the focus is placed on the argument not the author. As such, ad-hominem attacks are seen as weak and malicious. This is at it should be.
Another part of the answer lies in anonymity. Anyone old enough to remember the site F*cked Company, recalls the excrement-flinging delight of its users. What I’ll always remember was the nearly 100% anonymous profiles. My interpretation (which was pretty depressing) was that people were cowardly and malicious. In other words, had the community enforced accountability through registration and real names, there would have been a great deal more civility. But of course then it wouldn’t have been F*cked Company.
Another aspect to passionate debate (related to the anonymity example) is the need to have a strong editorial position. This can be seen through the lens of subjectivity vs. objectivity. In other words, few people will debate that Larry Ellison founded Oracle but an open-ended question like, “Why did Oracle acquire SUN” becomes interesting. More interesting still would be “Who’s a bigger asshole, Larry Ellison or Michael Arrington?”
So why is any of this important? Several reasons. I’ll start with the obvious and move to the idealistic (and lets hope, more important).
Clearly, passion leads to engagement online. The more we understand how to socially engineer ethical yet spirited debate, the more companies will be able to emerge as forums for interesting and valuable discussions. The tools for this may simply be comments and blogs (I tend to think there’s more to it), but it certainly merits examination.
Idealistically, there’s a large scale opportunity here. I’ll run through the logic in a compressed fashion.
- Education is the single most broken element of American society
- Fixing eduction is the largest opportunity we have to compete in the future\
- A large body of research shows the effectiveness of competitive high school debating on improving literacy, academic performance, college admissions and salaries. To be blown away by this, watch this 2007 60 Minutes feature on the Baltimore Urban Debate League.
- The effect of such debate leagues could be scaled to great effect with a moderate level of public and private sector investment. Products like Convince Me are good early steps toward this goal.
So there we go. In a country built on free speech, we’ve nearly mastered the art of debate. Yet our technology lags behind our potential. I’m open to all opinions. Let the debate begin.