HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 70
Digital Citation

HCI can raise the level of discourse on the Web

Michael Schrage

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You are a fool. You are an idiot. You are a moron. Nothing you write is worth reading. Please go away and contemplate just how stupid you really are.

That's how I began a column I wrote for MIT's Technology Review magazine about one of the true tragedies of the Internet Age: the shabby and disgraceful level of online discourse at "publications" ranging from Salon to Slate to The New York Times to The Times of London. Those opening comments typify the level of "conversation" posted on Internet forums worldwide. Talk about an opportunity missed. Talk about failed innovation. Talk about misunderstanding a medium.

There's been too much celebrating about the Web tools that facilitate the logorrhea of the blogosphere and not enough thought and creativity devoted to facilitating "moderation" online. By "moderation" I don't mean temperate behavior; I mean the skill of provoking and promoting useful interactions and conversations between individuals. In other words, we have a classic CHI challenge. It is a challenge that the CHI community has shamefully underappreciated.

I concede the problem is hard; designing interfaces that consistently add value to interactive conversation rather than merely amplify an individual's ability to self-express is difficult. However, we know it's not impossible because we've all participated in meetings, workshops, and symposia—both physical and virtual—where a human moderator/facilitator has unambiguously improved the quality of our conversations and our interactions. Interaction is managed both as a means to an end and as a goal unto itself. Isn't that inherently a CHI mission?

Ironically, the organizations with the best media brands consistently have the worst quality of online interaction. What usually appears under The New York Times digital brand, for example, embarrasses more than it enlightens. The logic and the language oscillate from infantile to puerile. This is sadly true for a host of quality online publications. Why? Because these organizations care more about editing online text than facilitating online conversations.

Their "core competence" and culture treats customers as readers rather than as potential participants. Indifferent editing/moderating invites a Gresham's Law of Online Interaction: Idiotic interacters drive out the interesting interacters. The conversational currency is debauched. That's why blogs are becoming so popular. But where are the—forgive me!—"diablogs,"—that is, blogs dedicated to the proposition that dialogues, not monologues—represent the highest form of human expression? Where are the tools that simulate how the best moderators or facilitators manage interaction? I don't see them. Even worse, I don't even see meaningful attempts at them. The CHI community is failing in this important regard.

Is there a source of inspiration and hope? Yes. We should pay far more attention to how the open source community manages online interaction. "The open source community has been dealing with how to create forums for constructive dialogue online for the past ten years and if they can find solutions to this problem then anyone can," says Siobhan O'Mahony, a friend who explores open source design as a Harvard Business School professor. "Hackers may have had more experience than us but there is no reason why [other design communities] cannot learn from them."

Simply put, the open source community does a far better job of online facilitation and interaction than any five editors at the nation's top newspapers and magazines. More importantly, this community understands how to use those skills to turn a community into design collaborators that can create new value when none had existed before. They are employing innovative techniques that boost the chances for innovative interactions.

Right now, there is no better place to look for insights into interaction management than the more successful open source initiatives running worldwide. The CHI community should respect that. The ones who don't should reread the first paragraph of this column.

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Michael Schrage is a consultant and author who writes widely about innovation. He is a co-director of the MIT Media Lab's eMarkets Initiative.

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©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

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