This is a guest post by Raed El-Younsi, a social entrepreneur and peacemaking advocate based in Barcelona, Spain. Raed submitted the winning entry to CiviliNation’s Create.It campaign contest and won a Skype video call with CiviliNation’s Board members Andrea Weckerle, Jimmy Wales and Kami Huyse.
Raed is fascinated by the combined power of language + design + technology for social change. You can reach him at: info[@]karma.cat
The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline.
I won’t go into why this is a bad thing.
So how did it get to this? Some people might say the current state of affairs is inevitable, and a testament to the destructive nature of human beings. Personally, I believe it has more to do with the reward and incentive system at play.
Online, that means the feedback system.
Whereas technology is changing at breakneck speed, the “thumbs up and thumbs down” system has barely changed since its inception, save some minor variations.
We’re talking about a system based on the gladiators in the Roman circus. To me, this is a system that is ham fisted and can easily lead to ultra-competitive behavior. And I believe that, with such a feedback tool, we are unwittingly rewarding, and thus perpetuating, antisocial and divisive behavior.
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game.
Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.
There is an incentive to attack because of the perceived danger in the environment which, ironically, makes the space less and less safe.
There is also an incentive not to participate in the conversation because, on top of often being an exercise in futility, getting involved can make one a sitting duck for attacks or derision.
But by not participating, it’s as if we were relinquishing our schools to be run by the bullies.
Again, I won’t go into why that’s a bad thing.
So what’s a possible alternative? How could we encourage participation, while potentially making collaboration and openness sensible choices?
I’m convinced that the answer lies in rewarding civility. Not just civility for its own sake, but for what it can bring along: namely, a safe environment in which we can let our guards down, where we can feel trusting enough to be open and vulnerable. And I believe that such an environment, in turn, would give us a clearer recognition of our shared humanity regardless of our worldview.
So how can we encourage people to disagree without being disagreeable? How can we help people to develop and use a collaborative conflict style online? How can we help to reduce seeing others as “enemy images”? How can we drown out all the saber rattlers and the screaming hawks, and help bring the quieter voices – which generally tend to speak for peace and reason – to the forefront?
In order to get that kind of environment, we need a special kind of community moderation (in both senses of the word).
The same way as a well-managed forest, this new system needs to incorporate a set of “firewalls” to protect the trees from arsonists and careless campers. At the same time, it would remove dead wood from sight and help new plants (constructive comments) see the light of day. It would basically nourish what strengthens the forest and starve what doesn’t.
Practically speaking, this means focusing less on “action” (solutions, strategies, etc.) and more on the relationships. I am convinced that, once there is trust, solutions have the space to surface with ease. But, with no trust, there will never be communication and common ground, no matter how well developed the idea may be.
“[I]t’s clear that how you say something matters nearly as much as what you say, and sometimes even more, because the message you’re trying to communicate won’t get through if people are turned off by your approach.”
– Andrea Weckerle
To help in gauging this, the proposed feedback system takes into account both the content (what) and the tone (how) within the comments.
It also brings further accuracy and nuance to the rating system, providing better feedback regarding our communication styles.
[Unfortunately, some communities have intrinsic (and financial) incentives to keep things polarized; they are obviously not our target market. Similarly, the idea was to create a more sophisticated feedback tool for more sophisticated issues. As such, not all online communities may be ready to be early adopters of such a system.]
I think the internet is a great place to start in our quest for civility, and not only because incivility is so rampant and boldfaced (caps locked?) here. I believe that if civility can reliably happen online, it could happen anywhere else.
I am convinced that this system would underscore our difficulties in speaking about controversial issues without blaming others. And it would also give us a better understanding of what helps to escalate conflict and what helps to defuse it.
As I said initially, the internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. By thinking of new ways to tap into this new and boundary-less human experience, we could be setting the building blocks for peace on a truly global level.
“The axis today is not liberal and conservative. The axis is constructive-destructive.”
– Steve Jobs
Many thanks to Andrea Weckerle, Kami Huyse and Jimmy Wales of CiviliNation for their feedback and encouragement, and for their trailblazing work in making this common vision a reality.
You can watch the video presentation of the proposed feedback tool below. This is a work-in-progress and, as such, your suggestions are welcome, as well as any interest in helping to develop and test the tool.