Can sweet reason, and persuadability, be the default behaviour for online communities? Change A View shows it can be done

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We blogged last week (and have done regularly) about how online debate, as enabled by the info-corporations, is designed to drive opinions to extremes - which those companies then profit from, as they display ads to those furiously clattering away on their networks. How this might change often seems like a long slog from advocacy to carefully-crafted regulation.

But sometimes, using the same platforms available to everyone, enlightened souls just decide to do things differently. This is the case with Change A View - a new and powerful site which “aims to improve the world’s discussions”.

Many claim to do this, of course - but the fascinating story behind this initiative is the way it has been prototyped by a young man from the Scottish highlands, deciding to operate differently on one of the web’s most contestive platforms, Reddit, since 2013.

BBC Trending tells the story:

Kal Turnbull in Inverness

Kal Turnbull in Inverness

Kal Turnbull can't remember what presents he got for his 17th birthday, or what type of cake he had. If someone gave him a particularly amusing birthday card, the joke has long been lost to history. 

However he does have one standout moment of that day in January 2013. Kal started a discussion group, or subreddit, on the social media site Reddit. 

Change My View wasn't meant to shake up the world. It was simply the pet project of a curious guitar-playing teenager growing up in the Scottish Highlands near Inverness.

"I was very aware that I might have grown up in a bit of a small-town bubble," Kal told us recently while meandering down a path along the River Ness. "It's not that we all agreed on everything, we certainly had disagreements. It's just the sense that there's much more than this place. 

"Being 17, I wasn't going to start up a website or a company. Reddit provided the perfect platform to try this idea out."

In its first iteration, Change My View was - and still is - fairly simple: users post an honestly-held belief, anything from politically provocative ("The case for reparations to African-Americans is strong", "Women already have equality") to the relatively unimportant but still extremely contentious ("Avengers: Endgame did not make any sense"). 

The posts cover a huge range of topics and political perspectives - and once they're live, other Reddit users are urged to argue against the proposition.

There are some basic ground rules: explain your reasoning, challenge the proposition, but don't be rude or hostile. Original posters are required to engage and to truly consider counter-arguments.

Kal's subreddit took off, growing to 100,000 members within a year and more than 700,000 today. 

Six years later, what started as a side project has now become Kal's main occupation - and he's convinced it might just help solve a vexing problem of online life.

The new site opens with a spinning Delta shape - which highlights one of the interesting technical features of the original. Which is that if anyone manages to successfully change someone’s opinion, the proposer awards them a Delta - this sign: Δ. So the incentive, or the game, of the site is to be able to deploy sweet reason and calm argument - the more Δ’s, the better your reputation appears.

That makes it all fun. But what’s striking is how both the sites managed to generate a culture in which persuadability, not dogmatism, is the dominant tone. This seems very much down to Kal Turnbull himself, who also carefully recruited scores of moderators on his Reddit site, who could identify and promote those who went along with the reasonable spirit of proceedings.

Turnbull has great ambitions for the site, as reported to Wired UK:

For now, Change a View is just a website with a narrow use-case. But Turnbull sees a future where Change a View serves as a framework for all kinds of conversations online. Maybe the Change a View model could work to replace the comments below online articles, facilitating more productive discussions about a piece of news. Maybe it could promote better conversations in the classroom.

“We’re really hoping there’s a model in providing our structure to private groups,” Turnbull says. “Maybe schools or organizations who want to have the kinds of conversations we’re hosting in their own area of the site. We’d like to work with them to build that experience, and that would be a subscription-based model. For now, we are just building the public forum in the perfect way, and there’s a bit of a leap of faith in that.”

We’re really interested in this kind of work at A/UK - and in the simpler digital designs that can meet the majority of people where they are (Vermont’s Front Porch Forum is something we constantly cite).

More: read this story from Wired US of how someone’s moral position was radically changed by the patient commenters of Change My View.