The Future of Dialogue
By Gaurav Keerthi
I’m a self-professed computer geek. I started my first website in 1995 (I used to “blog” before the term existed), and developed my first interactive commenting feature in 1996. Back then, I was filled with hopefulness for the future of the Internet. I imagined that the future of online dialogue would be some sort of utopian fountain of shared knowledge and collective intelligence. My subsequent experience with the reality of online commenting was thus incredibly disappointing; the disrespectfulness, divisiveness and futility of most digital conversations was a far cry from what I had hoped for.
The concept of “dialogue” has a very special place in my life. I was a student debater, who later spent most of my weekends coaching and teaching students from all backgrounds the art of debating. I loved debate and devoted so much of my time to it that it was no surprise that most of my friends — and my wife — came from that circle.
As I got older though, I realised that the idea of competitive debate was not what I liked about the activity. I enjoyed the ability to be among people who understood what it meant to disagree robustly, and yet maintain friendly relationships thereafter. Debaters learned how to disagree without disrespect.
Sadly, I observed that the world was moving in the opposite direction — more disagreements, and much more disrespect, especially online. And unfortunately, not enough people were trying to find a solution to the problem — so I took matters into my own hands, took a year off work to research a solution while at Harvard University, and tried to recreate the idealistic vision of the future of dialogue that I had as a teenager. The journey was not easy, and it is far from over.
I’ll start with a simple definition of what dialogue is (to me), describe what I believe is the immense potential of online dialogue, discuss three critical challenges facing the online community, and finally propose my own solution for the Future of Dialogue.
Definition: What is dialogue?
Dialogue has been described as “a collective way of opening up judgments and assumptions,” by David Bohm, author of the seminal work On Dialogue. William Isaacs, author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, says it is “a flow of meaning, a conversation in which people think in a relationship.”
Simply put, a dialogue needs a few simple ingredients: at least a few people, a few different ideas or opinions, and a medium for the interaction of those ideas (such as a public debate, or an online forum). I’ve written in the past about the critical importance of dialogue for societal stability and progress, but this point is best captured by the youngest Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who argued that guns might be able to stop terrorists, but better dialogue could end terrorism.
Dialogue can also help us solve many other problems in society. Singapore needs more dialogue on important issues, for that reason. As society gets increasingly divided, we need to be capable of handling disagreements without disrespect, and compromising on nuanced policy choices that reflect the best interests of society at large. Today, too few people are able and willing to participate in such discussions because of real or perceived challenges and “OB markers”. We need to resolve this.
Opportunity: The wisdom of crowds can lead to better answers
Author James Surowiecki believed that when many people worked together, the decisions would be better than could have been made by any one person. The earliest (and silliest) demonstration of this phenomena was observed by scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1906 — 800 members of the public took part in a contest to “guess the weight of the cow”. All of them guessed wrongly — including the “cattle experts”. Amazingly, the average of all 800 guesses was within one pound of the actual weight. This concept was repeated in a live BBC experiment using a contest to “guess the number of beans in this jar” — again, with astounding accuracy.
While these statistical miracles might sound a little hokey and useless for real-world applications, consider the most famous example of crowd sourcing: Wikipedia. The idea of Wikipedia was ridiculed when it was first mooted: random strangers uniting to build an encyclopaedia? The prospect seemed ridiculous and unworkable, compared to the well-curated and professional quality of traditional encyclopaedias like Britannica. Today, there are over five million English-language articles on Wikipedia (compared to only 40,000 in Britannica), and most people rely on it for simple answers to everyday questions (like how many articles there are on Britannica!)
The concept of collaborative knowledge creation thus does work in practice. Strangers can come together and write a relatively good and unbiased explanation of complicated issues. Averaging 800 guesses on the weight of a cow might seem ridiculous, but that basic concept underpins many fancier modern ones, like Big Data Analytics or Crowdsourcing. The Internet offers us an opportunity to bring together huge crowds of people to collaborate on problems — and hopefully find better answers than any one of us could have alone. So the natural question must be asked: Why hasn’t this “miracle” of better online dialogue caught on yet?
Photo: Gaurav Keerthi speaking at TEDxHarvard
Challenge #1: Dialogue has been replaced with many competing monologues
There are far too many voices on the Internet, all clamouring for attention. Dialogue is not just quantitative. While it is important to encourage more voices to join the conversation, having more people talking at instead of with one another is not a dialogue, it’s a cacophony. A hundred more blogs discussing Singapore-related issues is not a dialogue.
The nature of the Internet also skews the importance and impact of an opinion towards those with more social outreach rather than those with more expertise. A popular person who sets up a blog will have far more reach than an academic expert who discusses the same topic. Jenny McCarthy, a Playboy model-turned-TV host, persuaded millions of Americans that vaccines caused autism in children. Scientists and doctors could not undo the damage, and this uneducated assertion resulted in significant increases in preventable childhood diseases in America. The democratisation of online opinion can sometimes lead to popular voices outshouting intelligent voices.
Challenge #2: The Internet creates echo chambers and filter bubbles
While many people use the Internet to check the veracity of many claims, there are also those who use it to seek out other individuals who hold the same (incorrect) beliefs so as to form communities to reinforce and embolden these beliefs. This “false consensus effect” is well documented, and helps perpetuate many unsubstantiated views about the world. When blogger Han Hui Hui suggested that the Government was “stealing” her CPF money, she attracted other like-minded individuals who were previously isolated in their inaccurate beliefs. A small community formed to reinforce her views, supporting her at public protests in Hong Lim Park and her foray into politics when she stood in the 2015 General Election.
The algorithms used by search engines encourage “filter bubbles”, which deliver search results that are tailored to your predisposed views. My search results for a phrase would lead to different results from yours, based on what Google thinks we want to read. The ability for Google to create a “filter bubble” can prevent you from connecting to websites with opinions that differ from yours, which in turn plays a part in reinforcing your views — even if they were wrong to begin with.
Challenge #3: Online tools reduce the quality and depth of dialogue.
The Internet has an ever-growing list of online tools that claim to encourage dialogue, interaction, social networking, and make communication better. Unfortunately, this is not always true.
Facebook only allows you to provide positive reinforcement by “liking” an update, which perpetuates the echo chamber effect for that user. Twitter has a 140-character limit that reduces complex debates to just trading insults, and often oversimplifies opinions to pithy one-liners in order to be more “retweetable”. This character limit, together with real-time rapid-fire updates, encourages people to share blunt reactions to an issue, rather than interact with one another using insightful and thoughtful responses.
Meaningful dialogue is difficult to conduct in 140-character bursts. Snapchat – with self-destructing messages – is intended for transient updates rather than meaningful dialogue. Petition-based websites can sometimes be useful (such as those on Change.org, which have been influential in effecting positive change on a global scale) but they can also reduce dialogue to a “numbers game” where each side tries to gather more signatories to “prove” that they should be listened to. This premise that “might makes right” is both incorrect and appalling, and the recent example of the petition and counter-petition on whether the gay singer Adam Lambert should be allowed to perform in Singapore illustrates how people would rather “gang up” with thousands of others via petitions rather than come together for more meaningful dialogue and resolution.
Dialectic.sg: A better model for dialogue?
Rather than just waiting for a solution, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wanted to reclaim that lofty dream of shared knowledge and collective intelligence online. In 2014, while at graduate school, I developed dialectic.sg and launched it in June 2015 in Singapore. I tried to integrate features in the website that embody my vision for a more conducive space for dialogue.
First, I believe that quality comments matter. To achieve this, I help users write better comments by providing a “virtual persuasiveness coach” as they type. The system analyses what they are typing, compares it against a database of “good comments,” and provides real-time tips and suggestions on how they can improve their comment. Such behavioural nudges help improve the quality of each comment.
Second, I got around the troll problem by reversing the way in which moderation is done on all other websites. In a normal online forum, trolls can barge into a conversation quite easily, and it takes multiple users to “red flag” that comment and an administrator to delete the comment eventually. This can take many hours or days — in the meantime, the troll has successfully ruined the mood for all the forum participants (studies show that even a single trollish comment can end subsequent conversation).
At dialectic.sg, a comment is not immediately published. Instead, it is shown to the next random members who visit, and they are asked to assess whether it is respectful and relevant. If two members support the comment, it gets published. This way, the community owns the quality of the conversation, rather than the website moderator.
Other features such as data analytics help glean key insights from long conversations (such as where the areas of consensus could be), and the deliberate framing of every discussion as a balanced debate rather than pushing one opinion out through a blog op-ed.
My goal is to have better debates for a better Singapore. Issues such as introducing a Freedom of Information Act, revamping the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others racial framework, scrapping the PSLE, NS deferment for talented youths, the financial oversight on religious charities are worth debating openly, so that we can understand the collective insight of Singaporeans, and help formulate better and more nuanced policy.
Most importantly, for me, the non-profit volunteer-run project of dialectic.sg is proof of a very important concept that I started this essay with — that a bunch of strangers can come together with common purpose to help build something amazing. I have not met most of the people who contribute to the website, but I am grateful to them all. The wisdom of the dialectic.sg crowd has inspired me that there is hope for the future of dialogue in Singapore. That alone is worth celebrating.
Gaurav Keerthi is the founder of dialectic.sg