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UW study hopes to figure out if it’s possible to have a productive internet argument

A 'like' sign stands at the entrance of Facebook headquarters May 18, 2012, in Menlo Park, California. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Imagine a world where you could conduct a productive, if perhaps contentious, argument on the internet.

Amanda Baughan, a third-year PhD student at the University of Washington, and Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the UW’s Information School, are trying to determine how to make that possible.

“Our study had two goals,” Baughan explained. “We were looking to see what people’s opinions were of current social media platforms when they’re having online arguments, and also test out some ideas for novel designs to support having more constructive online arguments.”

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What surprised Hiniker is that people truly wanted to have these kinds of tough conversations.

“That was actually really kind of the initial motivation behind all of this,” she said. “We weren’t trying to prevent people from arguing online, that was never our goal. But as we started talking to people in this initial round of formative interviews, what we found was that people actually really wanted to be able to have these challenging conversations.”

“They told us there’s so much that they want to be able to talk about online and they feel like they can’t, and the reason is because they care so much about the people in their lives that they don’t want these arguments to get in the way of relationships that matter to them,” she added. “And so that was the point when we started to ask these questions about, OK, well, these platforms that people are using, they’re not natural phenomena, these aren’t sort of things that just fell out of the sky like this, they’re designed in an intentional way. And so what can we do, what can designers do, to support that interest that people have in talking about things that are challenging without destroying the relationships that matter to them?”

Whether or not that support is moving in the right direction depends on where you look.

“Twitter was definitely a platform that people thought was designed for arguments because the content is so easy to see and so easy to share,” Baughan said. “And they contrasted that with Facebook where comments are usually more hidden and truncated, so you can’t necessarily see everything and jump into the conversation as easily.”

But for those getting involved in tense political discussions, it did seem to come from a genuine place.

“There are obviously so many different styles of contentious conversation and so many different motivations behind what people are saying,” Hiniker said. “But one thing that really stood out to me was just this good faith interest in having these conversations. People really want to be able to talk about stuff — politics matter, the society that we construct for ourselves matter, people’s sense of what it means to make ethical decisions matter, and people want to be able to have those conversations, and we need to support them.”

“One thing that we were curious to explore was whether we could move past these design paradigms that are trying to help people shut down these conversations and explore innovation in spaces that actually encourage them or let people have them in better ways, or let people step away from them and come back at a later point,” she added.

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There are some features available now to block others or walk away and shut out the conversation.

“Sometimes I’m sure that’s kind of the best course of action,” Hiniker said. “But shutting down all arguments is not the best way to get to kind of a healthy, deliberative democracy and strong relationships. And so we wanted to see what we could do to support those conversations so that they happen in a good way when they do happen.”

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