Sunday, December 11, 2011

Collective Moderation and Online Discussions

When I was an undergrad student, I dabbled in debating. Having little passion in competition (pardon me), I didn't really embrace the art. But I've always enjoyed following the structure of logical arguments that each debater performed. Although I personally think that it is more relevant to build a mentality of discussing and opening minds rather than the concept of winning and losing that is central in debating; I understood how important it is to have interest in global, national and local social issues and to have the ability to build arguments. One interesting thing about debating is how a debater would have to be able to switch from pro to contra as assigned by the panel. Their own ideological bias moderated by attempting to understand the argument behind an opposing view. It is a tolerance shaped by logical thinking.

I have been quietly observing online debates for the past year, both public and communal. And I realise that some of the most heated discussions are shaped around the logics of debating. Public discourses are reduced and polarised to winning and losing, pros and cons. And what is even more amusing, often not following the most basic rationales.

First, discussions sway from one topic to the other. If the original topic was, for instance, sexual harassment against females in the workplace, it shifts into a battle of the sexes. That women also objectify men and that the displaying of six packs on the cover of magazines is an example. But weren't we talking about sexual harassment in the first place?

Secondly, instead of focusing on the topic at hand, there are many comments on who the person speaking is. Whether or not they have credibility in what they say. Perhaps it is relevant to emphasise on that if it were a television talk show - because the person was presumably invited for their expert opinion. But online discussions are virtually anonymous. Users can have multiple accounts, pseudonyms or simply display a persona. It becomes irrelevant to pinpoint on whether or not someone has the 'right to say so'. For a discussion to remain focused, it needs to be centred on the substance of the arguments and disregard the background of the speaker.

Thirdly, there are a lot of anger displayed through USING CAPSLOCK and name-calling; which could easily turn into a fight. I have read emails sent by a 50 year old religious public figure calling their 'debating sparing partner' anjing (dog, which is perhaps as malicious as bastard in English). And of course, the discussion soon turned pointless.

Online interactions shape the characteristics of the public sphere and different online spaces, with its own features, contribute to this dynamic. In mailing lists, for instance, the moderator has authority to, well, actually moderate and keep the discussion healthy. In Facebook statuses, the owner of the wall has that authority. In Twitter, it's more libertarian than egalitarian. Users determine collectively how the discussion is carried out and no authoritative figure would step in if it stirred out of focus.

It needs to be a group effort, to maintain a discussion to be as healthy and interactive as possible. It's more beautiful if successful, as it was based on an authoritative-free, 'natural' interaction, and uglier if unsuccessful. I realise in several occurences that the discussion eventually enforced the ideological bias of a person once they're validated by someone like-minded. The initial assumption that online spaces could provide a space for different, even opposing, views to interact and shape a miniature civil society (I am rolling my eyes as I write this, you're not the only one) becomes obsolete. In reality, what's shaped are sub ingroups within the information elites (a penetration level of 22.4% of internet users in Indonesia that are centred on large, predominantely Java and Sumatra cities (MarkPlus 2011)), that, unfortunately, often become the source of news topics in the country's institutional media (e.g. television).

I'd vouch for more responsibility in respect to internet users, but I feel it's both senseless and useless. But here it goes: Indonesian internet users, please realise that what we have to say and the manner in which we collectively moderate online discussions do have offline implications. And as conscious citizens, it's our duty to practice tolerance in all spaces. Since it's very easy for us to exercise freedom of expression, it is only responsible to do it to open our minds and, if respecting is too ideal, to tolerate different views. When an idea is negated, it's because it's not rational - not because it's 'wrong'. Most of the time it's not the polarisations - conservative vs. liberal, patriarchy vs. feminism, religion vs. atheism, the list goes on - it's the grey space in between where we try to find out, for our own individual reflection, a subjective version of truth.

And it can only be done with a clear, unassuming mind.