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The Civility Algorithm

The map shows clusters of opinions on foreign policy issues. Careful -- left doesn't equal liberal!
The map shows clusters of opinions on foreign policy issues. Careful -- left doesn't equal liberal!
Ken Goldberg and the Clinton State Department launch Opinion Space -- a game-changing online community tool

Ken Goldberg, the U.C. Berkeley professor of engineering, robotics expert and Internet artist, has disabled comments on his blog. Like many individuals and news organizations, he’s grown weary of the petty sniping and vitriolic attacks that too often overwhelm what are supposed to be useful and open Internet conversations.

"I just can't handle it," he says, somewhat sheepishly, referring to the uninformed postings on his blog at SFGate.com.

Bad online behavior, what former Well moderator and online community pioneer John Coate calls "sport hassling," isn't new.  But it's more prolific, and moderation tools have evolved suprisingly little over the years.

Goldberg, though, has invented what might be a solution. While news sites, including The Bay Citizen, have begun to move away from anonymity, requiring registration and real names as a means of encouraging civilized discussion, Goldberg has taken an algorithmic approach.

Together with a team of researchers at U.C. Berkeley's Center for New Media, and in collaboration with the U.S. State Department, Goldberg recently launched Opinion Space – a potentially game-changing new online discussion platform.

What Opinion Space does differently is use data visualization and a mathematical algorithm to map people's views on issues such as climate change, nuclear terrorism and women's empowerment onto a very non-linear "opinion map."   It also asks participants to rate others' comments, on two levels: your agreement with the view expressed, and also how insightful you think the comment is.

The lofty ideal, part of Sec. of State Hillary Clinton's 21st Century Statecraft bag of digital tricks (State.gov's Twitter feed has 25,000 followers and is quite robust), is to host a global discussion of complicated and often controversial foreign policy issues.

When I hear the words "opinion map," my mind leaps to one thing: The Red State -- Blue State map that has come to symbolize our polarized electorate. That map oversimplifies reality. Opinion Space is engineered to do the just the opposite.

Rather than solidify opinions into binary silos that are by nature oppositional, Opinion Space gathers information from users on a range of topics and then places each user on a map in relation to the opinions of others.

Like opinion itself, the map has no strict boundaries. There is no axis of left equals liberal, right equals conservative, for example. You register your views on five foreign policy issues and then write an answer to one open question.  The system then places you on the map as a glowing yellow orb in a sea of other glowing orbs.  Nearby orbs are users with views similar to your own, distant orbs the opposite.

The "geography" of the map changes as new users enter the system. Clusters of orbs, resembling little solar systems, form around certain combinations of shared opinions.  Since its launch on March 15, approximately 4,000 people from around the world have registered over 18,000 points of view.

Goldberg is no stranger to the challenges of harnassing the wisdom of crowds.   He is the inventor of the collaborative filtering algorithm Eigentaste, which can be used to recommend books, movies or jokes (see Jester).  And his art projects, such as the Telegarden, show the limitations of technology-enabled groups to do simple tasks, such as tend to a garden.  But he has never applied his formidable skill set to the firey realm of human opinion.

One of the things he's most excited about is using data visualization to actually show the complexity of a web of opinions.  "You can assimilate a lot visually," Goldberg said.  "The human eye can spot one fly in the midst of the jungle."

I asked Ken if he thought the Opinion Space approach would have been useful for an extremely incendiary issue such as the Danish Cartoon controversy.   "Oh definitely. Most people jumped to conclusions before considering the potential for perspectives and insights from a global set of viewpoints."

It's too soon to tell if the U.C. Berkeley-State Department experiment will have legs, but I could imagine it being employed in other contexts, including journalism.  Some readers who see the Danish Cartoons as a free speech issue may support Obama's policies on immigration, for example.  Some may not. News sites could use opinion maps on these sorts of topics to supplement discussion in letters threads so readers could see that raging polarization is not always the whole story.

Cultivating civility online isn't about simply shutting people up or pushing people toward middle of the road opinions that won't offend anybody.  With millions and millions of people pouring their opinions into the Web every day, the challenge, as Ken says, is to "manage the conversation so the best ideas come out."

Any map that helps lead us to that outcome, I want to follow.

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