User Interface for Debates

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last posted March 22, 2016, 5:31 p.m.
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We need a new kind of interface for debating (even arguing!) online.

Anyone who has argued online knows that it is somehow more productive on some venues and less on others. For example, everyone agrees Facebook is kind of shitty for reasoned debate. I would say it's not because people become stupid when on the site, but because the interface itself supports only the most casual kinds of interaction.

I have some ideas about this. Maybe something like what I am going to describe already exists.


Debating can be productive if done correctly; productive meaning: the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments are made clear to all involved and overall understanding of the topic is increased.


Here's my idea for a debating website.

  • Debates are between two parties. One person starts the debate and invites the other participant, who must accept in order for anything to happen.
  • Once started, no participant "owns" the debate, meaning it does not live in any one person's account and cannot be deleted without the other person's consent.
  • Debate can be public, private within a group, or private between participants only.

Much like normal debates, a debate begins with a topic or proposition. Probably if you initiate the debate, you state the proposition and must argue for the affirmative.

For example, say I want to argue about drug legalization. I'd state "The war on drugs should be ended" and argue in favour of that position.


Once the debate starts, each side can begin laying out their arguments, which appear side by side in real time. There are no "turns" per se.

Each argument consists of a title followed by any amount of text.

Arguments are treated as nodes in a map and can reference each other. A counterargument is simply an argument that directly references an argument made by an opponent.

Once published, arguments can be edited, but version history is easily viewable.


The debate unfolds in a way that is:

  • Non-linear -- so counter-arguments are easily connected to the specific arguments they are intended to rebut
  • Zoom-able -- each argument can be viewed as tweet-length or as a detailed multi-paragraph essay


Each argument would have:

  1. A title or summary, limited to 115 characters (allowing the summary to be auto-tweeted along with a permlink).
  2. A free-text portion of unlimited length.
  3. Footnotes. These could be cited in the text and include references, links, etc.
  4. Optional attached media: images, video, etc.

In addition to its own footnotes, an argument can also reference any other arguments. (Note the plural).

Any time you link to another argument, you would also have to denote the nature of that link -- i.e., whether you're a) supporting that argument, b) arguing against it, c) using it in support of the current argument.

In this way the system can easily present the entire debate as a map of arguments and counter-arguments.


Commentators and Referees

As mentioned, the debaters can invite private individuals or members of a given group to offer commentary or to "referee" the debate.

Spaces would be provided for commentary to be entered on individual arguments, or on a side of the debate (affirmative or negative), or on snapshots (the complete debate as it existed at a particular point in time).


The referees would not actually be able to penalize the participants in any quantitative sense.

They are simply there to provide additional commentary, feedback and context.


The comments offered by these referees would not be delete-able except by the one who commented.

Each comment would itself have room for a single two-fold response by each debater: an upvote/downvote, and a short text-response (115 characters). Since there are only ever 2 debaters, the range of possible scores would be -2 to +2. The score would not affect the display of the comment in any way, but would serve as a good marker for comments which both parties agree were exceptionally fair/astute, or exceptionally bad.


Winning and Losing

The goal of these debates is not that one person win and one person lose. Rather (as stated before) it's to inform and make the strengths and weaknesses of each side clear to all observers and participants.

However, it is of course possible for one side to emerge with a clear advantage.

So at any point in the debate, the referees can each state their vote for who has the "advantage" at that point in the debate (Pro, Con, or Neither).


A vote only applies to the snapshot of the debate as it existed when the vote was taken.


What makes this different from the YouTube comments section?

  1. Mutuality. If a debate begins, it's because both sides are there to do so, and because each person trusts the other to make it productive. No one has been ambushed.
  2. Clarity by default. Debaters are required to summarize individual points in less than 115 characters, and required to flesh them out in some way, and required to specify exactly which claims they may be responding to.

Regarding Mutuality: I can see where even the invitation to a debate could become a means of uninvited aggression. E.g., Person A makes a comment on Facebook, Person B calls Person A an idiot prepares a debate and links them to it as a challenge. The implication being, if you decline, you forfeit.

Obviously such behaviour would be outside of the site's control, but it could be heavily mitigated by social cues from the UI and by the influence of the site's moderators.


One big measure would be to have groups of users and something of a reputation system. New users would only be allowed to send and respond to invites for debates with others within their group(s). Once they have made, say, a certain number of arguments, they would be allowed to respond to invites from outside their group.

Thus, in order to successfully bring someone from outside the site into your debate, you'd have to invite them not just to debate but to join your circle, which feels quite different.


Random Features

  • It should be easy to start a new, separate debate from within the current debate, and to reference other debates from within the current debate.
  • As I hinted before, "arguments" would have a publishing workflow quite similar to ThoughtStream thoughts. They can be saved and edited any number of times in draft mode and invisible to others until "published". Once published, any further edits will be tracked in a version history that anyone with access to the debate can look at.
  • Although the nonlinear view would be the default, the site could also present a somewhat linearized account of the debate, In which chains of argument/counter-argument would be presented in some kind of time-order. Each argument could be printed in the order that they were posted, or they could be printed as chains of arguments/counter-arguments, with each chain sorted by (say) the average publish timestamp of all contained arguments.


Separate from the arguments, both sides need a place to say what they mean by certain key terms.

Either side can define a term, and for each term each side can explain what they mean by it with text of any length.