Metablog: The decline of discussion

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Tue, February 11, 2014 - 2:06:58

Is our changing relationship to information rendering discussion obsolete?

More information of interest is online than I can consume. Pointers may be enough. Today I may need help or time to find some of it, but before long rivers of gold will stream to us; we will have to push some of it away. The cafés of Paris and Vienna, the watering holes of New York, celebrated for the discussions they hosted, are gone. Virtual equivalents have not appeared.

How does content consumption affect content creation? With an inexhaustible supply of content, differing perspectives can be found online, viewed, assessed, and synthesized. Is discussion a better way to explore different perspectives? With sufficient digital resources, solo activity may be more effective and efficient. I often look online where in the past I’d have contacted someone. When the volume of online information increases by another order of magnitude, a hundred-fold, and more, will discussion have a role? Does it now?

Where do you discuss professional topics? Discussions still take place in courses and laboratories, but possibly fewer. What public forums do you converse in? Online I see some for diagnosing faulty software or appliances, exchanging favorite recipes, and political flaming, but not much else. I participate in fewer discussion forums of any kind today than 30 years ago. Different factors could contribute:

  • My interests became more specialized. I’m reasonably eclectic, but less likely to explore new topics for which a discussion might help. 
  • The field changed. Thirty years ago HCI was arguably a “scientific revolution” as we abandoned traditional experimental psychology and traditional computer science, joining forces to address new problems. Today could be “normal science,” marked by agreement on the major paradigms, research issues, and research, requiring less debate.
  • The possibility suggested above is that easily accessible online commentary and guidance reduce the value of discussion. This would extend beyond HCI.

I’m uncertain about the value of public HCI discussion in 2014. In the past, public discussion forums helped me. Three illustrations drawn from conferences follow.

In 1990 and 1991, I attended ICIS, an MIS conference with a lower acceptance rate than CHI. A 90-minute session had two 20-minute presentations, each followed by a prepared discussant speaking for 10 minutes, a brief response, and audience Q&A. Discussants presented useful counterpoints to the paper and identified obvious omissions. The latter was surprisingly useful in elevating the quality of the subsequent audience interaction, as the speaker could respond selectively and avoid bogging down in defensive responses to each point.

Between 1988 and 2009, I often attended HCI Consortium meetings that had an even more expansive model. Each paper had a 40-minute presentation followed by a 20-minute prepared discussant and 30 minutes of audience participation. Discussant pieces were invaluable.

Finally, in 2002 I attended the annual American Anthropological Association meeting. Thousands of papers were placed in highly focused sessions, each comprising several paper presentations followed by a senior discussant. Given the variable quality and highly shared focus of the papers, a discussant could identify strong contributions and tactfully describe paths to improvement for other work. It was useful for presenters and hugely beneficial to someone unfamiliar with the topic.

Where have all the conversations gone?

Many who attended CHI in the 1980s forget that for years we assigned a discussant to each paper session. Their value became questionable. With most submissions rejected, the three papers in a session were usually weakly related. The relatively polished papers left the discussant groping to find a unifying theme or much to add. Discussants were dropped.

Nevertheless, there was no dearth of active discussion back then. Many usenet newsgroups had a high volume. For years, the SIGCHI email distribution list was a discussion forum, not an announcement board. The SIGCHI Bulletin was a substantial printed newsletter mailed to members, many of whom eagerly awaited it. Its low barrier to authorship surfaced different perspectives. In the 1990s, the CHIplace web forum hosted active discussions. The “business meetings” at conferences often saw passionate debate; ironically, today they are called “town halls” but attendees mostly consume reports from officialdom. Breaks at conferences are still marked by energetic discussion, although we’re unlikely to see the passion that led to a successful petition at CHI’90 to force an election against the wishes of the SIGCHI Executive Committee.

Those conversation spaces disappeared. What replaced them?

Workshops still highlight discussion, but often of a different kind. In the 1980s, workshops led to books and special journal issues. Workshops I have attended more recently have been dominated by graduate students, unaccompanied by their faculty co-authors, who present work in progress. There are exceptions, but the overall level of workshop discussion has not increased.

What of social media? Let’s start with the big three. Twitter’s 140 characters limit discussion. Some disciplines, but perhaps not HCI, make use of LinkedIn groups. Facebook has professional discussion flurries, but my sense is that they declined in frequency as our networks expanded to include more family and friends who don’t engage with professional discussions or reinforce such posts with Likes.

Wikis and blogs seem a natural possibility. I don’t know of sites describing themselves as HCI wikis, but Boxes and Arrows posts a short article every week or two that invites comments, and occasionally one prompts an active discussion.

About once a year I hear of an active discussion of an HCI issue on someone’s blog. It burns brightly for a time, then dies out suddenly and people move on. The blogs I discovered this way generally had only one such discussion and were subsequently discontinued or reduced to very infrequent posts. A blog that welcomes comments nevertheless has an asymmetry that discourages sustained discussion—only one person can initiate a conversation, and if discussion continues long without the blog owner posting, others may wonder if the party should go on when the host appears to have gone to bed.

One of my favorite blog posts illustrates the ambiguities. Clay Shirky’s “Ontology is Overrated” had many elegant points and a couple bad examples, not central to his argument, that peer review would have caught. I was told of a scathing online critique. The detractor had focused exclusively on the clunkers. This strengthened Shirky’s thesis in my eyes—if that was the best he could do, he lost the argument. A valuable exchange, although whether it was a discussion is arguable.

Finally, as the second year of this online Interactions blog forum gets underway, how does it fit in? It was a great experiment, but it hasn’t generated the discussion we hoped it would. There are few comments and bloggers do not respond to one another. I felt a need to choose between short informal posts, more likely to lead to discussion, and polished essays that might inhibit discussion. The former felt riskier—if few did reply they would seem pointless. The longer posts I settled on take advantage of this as a safe place to explore a range of ideas in some depth yet short of a journal requirement. They add to the stream of content that anyone, including me at some later rime, can browse, assess, and build on, quietly at a desk. This species of asynchronous interaction may be appropriate for our time.

Thanks to Don Norman, Ron Wakkary, Kent Sullivan, and Gayna Williams for discussions of this topic.

Posted in: on Tue, February 11, 2014 - 2:06:58

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin has been active in CHI and CSCW since each was founded. He has written about the history of HCI and challenges inherent in the field’s trajectory, the focus of a course given at CHI 2022. He is a member of the CHI Academy and an ACM Fellow.
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