Fixing Online Conversations is Great. But It’s Not Enough.

March 15, 2024

Conversations only work if everyone, including people with the power to make a change, is really ready to listen, and to act

Spend enough time reading about the state of online communities and you might find yourself thinking back to the old joke about Texas (or Louisiana, if you’re from the Lone Star State): “The problem with the state isn’t the heat; it’s the humanity.”

Sure, there are a lot of bad actors online – people willfully stirring things up because it profits them in some way. But also: most people can, you know, at one time or another be thoughtless, rude, arrogant, or jerks, for short. And the jerks are suddenly Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once.

So, a lot of initiatives (including our own ARTT project!) devote a lot of time into figuring out tools and methods to help us all co-exist in conversations off and in conversations online. This is not to say that people shouldn’t squabble online – as we’ve mentioned before, some kinds of conflict can be good for you.

But there may be some ways to help channel the emotional intensity of those discussions in a more productive way.

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One interesting one the ARTT team has recently come across is Imbue, a tool from researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford. Imbue uses large language models (LLM) to provide real time feedback to help you learn better conversational and interpersonal effectiveness skills when interacting with others online. The idea here os that you can use an LLM (aka “AI”) to practice different conversational tactics that can make you a better in the moment communicator, which can then be super helpful when you’re deep in a Reddit conversation about, say, bike lanes.

On the other hand, maybe “the problem with humanity online” is that there are simply too many voices all trying to be heard at once. Or a lack of responsiveness, or even acknowledgement. This feeling of not being heard might provoke everyone into becoming generally stressed and angry when communicating online. In response, maybe the blame lies with “the mods,” the people, platforms, and institutions who are in charge of the online spaces, and thereby perceived as being in charge of our entire discourse itself. Writing in the New Yorker, Jay Caspian Kang notes:

Today, we live with the irony that the intense pitch and total saturation of political conversation in every part of our lives — simply pick up your phone and rejoin the fray — create the illusion that important ideas are right on the verge of being actualized or rejected. But the form of that political discourse — millions of little arguments — is actually what makes it impossible to process and follow what should be an evolving and responsive conversation. We mistake volume for weight; how could there be so many posts about something with no acknowledgment from the people in charge? Don’t they see how many of us are expressing our anger? These questions elicit despair, because the poster believes that no amount of dissent will actually be heard. And when that happens, in any forum, the posters blame the mods.

In a sense the problem that Kang identifies is what a lot of online tools are trying to solve for — people are upset, and attacking community leaders for something they have no control over, a reaction that’s very much like yelling at a store clerk for not changing a store return policy that he is not empowered to change.

Tools to facilitate better conversation are a great start, but they’re not the whole answer. In the end, conversations only work if everyone, including people with the power to make a change, is really ready to listen, and to act. To use our store clerk analogy, ARTT can help make that conversation with the clerk better, but it ultimately needs people on all sides to pay attention.

So, how is this supposed to work? More online to offline conversations in our local town halls? Different designs to forums that weight conversations differently? New models of response from community leaders? We’ll try to think about the big picture of conversation, along with the small stressful exchanges, as we continue with the ARTT project.

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