December 11, 2009

Technoutopian Chronicles

Quico says: If citizens' ability to reason together on issues of common concern in the public sphere is the cornerstone of real democracy, Venezuela is in more trouble than we know. These days, in Venezuela, the public sphere looks like this.

If we're going to start the long, slow process of rehabilitating our public sphere, reclaiming it as a place for sane interaction between responsible adults, we're going to need mechanisms that allow us to tamp down on pure vitriol and outright ad hominem attacks, to make space for a more reasoned kind of discussion. Caracas Chronicles 2.0 is mi granito de arena: a way to empower an online community to defend itself from the total mayhem on sites like N24.

I've been working on it for a few months, and I really think this software could do the trick - even in Spanish. The system is designed to be self-correcting, marginalizing nutters and empowering people with something to say by using the input of the entire community.

I've thought long and hard about how to make a software platform that's easy enough to use even for the casual, once-in-a-while commenter but that allows people who want to spend more time on a forum to get much more out of it as well. We'll see if it happens.

For now, here's that FAQ.

What is Community Powered Comments?

Community Powered Comments is a new way of moderating the comments section that puts the reader community in charge.

Instead of relying on one or two moderators to decide which comments are good enough to publish and which should be deleted, it asks the entire community to help identify the comments that really drive debate forward. It then makes sure those comments stand out in every comment thread, while it lowers the visibility of comments that add less to debate.

Think of it as the community’s vaccine against gallinerization, a way of protecting Caracas Chronicles as a space for serious debate.

In 2010, we’re going to roll out this system in Spanish, to try to launch a platform for political debate about Venezuela that doesn’t immediately degenerate into the kind of thing we see on Noticiero Digital.

So how does it work?

At the end of each comment, registered users are asked to answer two questions about it:

Do you agree with this comment?


Does this comment add value to the discussion?

All you have to do is answer those two questions fairly and honestly: the software does the rest.

First off, it highlights the comments that add most value to the debate, making them easy to spot in a thread. At the same time, it makes comments that contribute less to the discussion a little harder to read, by displaying them in gray text over a white background. The very lowest ranking comments – plain old trolls – get hidden.

Notice: nothing is ever censored in Community Powered Comments! No comment gets erased outright. Even if everybody hates a comment, you can still click on it and read it.

The goal here is to make trolling relatively unrewarding, by depriving trolls of visibility.

What’s the point of asking people to rate each comment twice?

Sometimes, the comments that do most to sharpen your understanding of an issue are comments that you totally disagree with! So we want you to keep the question of whether you personally agree with a comment separate from the question of how useful it is to the debate.

The point here is to avoid Groupthink: the situation that develops when people just rate up comments they agree with willy nilly. Groupthink bumps off dissenting views merely because they’re unpopular, even when they’re valuable to a debate. Community Powered Comments is designed to avoid that pitfall.

Of course, this will only work if the community really makes an effort to vote fairly on each issue separately. The site asks a lot of you, and gives a lot back.

Do I need to open an account and log in to post a comment?

You don’t: anyone can post a comment, with or without an account. To post without an account, you just have to convince the system you’re a human being by answering one of those captcha word puzzles.

So what’s the advantage of opening an account and logging in?

First, you need to log in to rate other people’s comments. Anonymous cowards don’t get a say on how visible others’ comments will be.

Second, if you don’t log in, the system gives your comments a pretty low visibility setting by default – if you write a good comment and people vote it up, it will become more visible, but to begin with, its visibility won’t be great.

Also, by logging on, you get to decide how choosy you want to be in filtering out comments the community doesn’t like very much. This can range from not choosy at all (“Show me every comment”) to highly choosy (“Show me only the best comments”).

Logged in users get to decide how choosy they want to be.

If you’re not logged in, the system assumes you’re “medium choosy” – showing you most comments but hiding the lowest rated ones (pure trolls).

Finally, you need to log in for the system to be able to track your Reputation Score, which allows it to recognize your contributions to the community in the past and rewards users who add the most value to the community.

What’s my Reputation Score?

Your reputation score is a summary measure of your overall contribution to the community over time. Every time a comment you write is rated by another user, your Reputation Score ticks up or down accordingly.

Write a lot of smart, substantive, interesting comments that drive debate forward and your reputation score will rise over time. Write lot of silly, inflamatory or uninteresting comments that don’t add value to the discussion, and your reputation score will suffer.

Why should I care about my Reputation Score?

The better your reputation, the more influence your ratings have over the way other people’s comments are displayed. The worse your reputation in the community, the less influence you have over others within it.

That’s another reason to really try to write comments that drive debate forward: if you don’t, your reputation score suffers, and if you have a bad reputation score, the system doesn’t take your opinions as seriously as it takes the opinions of your better reputed peers.

There are other reasons, too. If you have a high reputation score, any new comment you write will be highly visible by default. If your reputation in the community is not so good, your new comments will be less visible to start with.

Community Powered Comments sets out to replicates the way these things are (or should be) in the real world. The better your repuation is, the more seriously your opinions are taken. That’s how it is in the real world, and that’s how it is on this site.

How do I improve my Reputation Score?

It’s simple: by writing smart, substantive comments that other community members recognize add value to the debate, and by rating others’ comments fairly, whether or not you agree with them.

Where can I see my Reputation Score?

You can’t, and for a reason. We don’t want people to fixate on an arbitrary number, or to treat reputation building as a game. We want you to focus on contributing as much as possible to the community by writing quality comments and rating others’ comments fairly

What are Trusted Users?

Trusted users are the 10% of users who got the highest reputation score over the previous seven days. The list changes every week, so the universe of trusted users is always changing.

This is all done automatically: every Sunday night, the site analyzes the previous week’s worth of commenting activity to identify the top 10% of contributors to the community over the last seven days. It then automatically contacts them to let them know they’ve been chosen as “Trusted Users” for the next seven days.

Because the set of trusted users changes every week, even if you had a terrible time of it last week, you can still be a trusted user next week if you work hard to contribute to the community. Community Powered Comments believes in giving people second chances.

What are the perks associated with being a Trusted User?

As a Trusted User, the system gives you more say over the way the community operates for the next seven days. Specifically, you’ll get a limited number of “tokens” you can use to promote or demote a given comment.

Think the community is being too harsh on a given comment? You can use one of your tokens to Promote a comment, making it much more visible. Think the community is voting up a really stupid comment? Then go ahead and spend one of your tokens sinking its visibility.

As a trusted user, you have the last word: once you’ve promoted a comment, all voting on it ceases.

And there’s more. As a trusted user, any comment you make on the site will come with a “Trusted User” seal of approval and receive high visibility setting by default. Trusted users are allowed to put images into their comments, and they’re allowed to edit their comments after they’ve posted them.

Can I become a permanent Trusted User?

You can’t. Every Monday morning the system starts compiling data on the following week’s trusted users from scratch.

I have a great idea for improving the system, where can I send it?

Community Powered Comments is very much a work in progress, and we expect it to generate lots of debate – and not a few hiccups.

If you want to contribute an idea or – better yet – code a fix in PHP, we’d love to have it!=

Contact us on caracaschronicles at fastmail dot fm

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