AR; Is information good for deliberation?

Polletta, Chen and Anderson study in a recently published article the extent and effects of information sharing (link posting) in online deliberation.

When asking the question “is it good for deliberation,” the authors look at the process, not the outcome – this makes sense, especially given the subject matter of the conversations they analyzed: a debate about what to do with the twin tower sites after 9/11.

As it is cited in the article, link posting – the frequency of conversation participants posting at least one relevant hyperlink in their discussion entry – is known to vary depending on the topic and the stage of the discussion. Ideally, link posting is expected to enhance deliberation, because it’s a convenient way to cite hard(er) evidence for or against an argument, or to refer to external sources in a transparent and precise manner.

The problem might be if the digital divide – citizens’ unequal resources and skills of computer literacy – is reproduced through link-posting too. (If such is the case, then the savvier and better off can make their claims sound better than they actually are, by posting more, seemingly relevant, evidence in their support. Well it’s a bit of a simplification but I’m sure you know what I mean.)

The authors argue that

  1. “participants did take advantage of the informational capacities of the web”, and link-posting helped foster discussion, and also addressed the “scale and uptake” problems of deliberation. (The “scale” problem refers to how to represent the largest possible number of parties in the discussion, while the “uptake” problem concerns the effects of deliberation – i.e. how to make sure that there are going to be consequences after reaching a decision.)  — BUT:
  2. “the availability of online information may have given additional advantages to already advantaged groups”, and
  3. while the scope of discussion was considerably expanded by posting links, the quality and credibility of the referenced material is an uncertain factor.

To be honest, the best idea from this article seems to be something that is only mentioned en passant; but something that resonates really well with Bobbio’s ideas about the oratory model of deliberation, and with mediated deliberation in general. That is that deliberation should be divided into two distinct, consecutive phases: that of divergence, in which the largest possible number of opinions and perspectives are collected, and that of convergence, in which “participants come to conclusions [and] shared insights.” This is something to return to.

But in other respect I wasn’t entirely convinced by this piece. One problem that it highlights is the lack of standards for measuring “what is good.” It is revealed that, during the observed 2-week period, 2.8% of the discussion posts included shared links. Based on this figure alone, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to jump to the conclusion that “participants did take advantage of the informational capacities of the web.” Even if it is true that posted links started lengthy conversation sub-threads, it still does seem like a relatively small figure to me. But the real point is that this should not be a matter of “seems like.”

Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Christopher Anderson (2009): “Is Information Good for Deliberation? Link-Posting in an Online Forum”, in Journal of Public Deliberation, 5(1), Article 2.

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