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Open Public Debates

580699246_31f59b22b4_b This evening I attended an open debate (in real-life) on “debates on the net”. While I won’t go into that topic on this post, I got some ideas in regards to how to apply technology to emerge more contributors.

Premises of what I’m about to explain is that it has to be easy to do and fairly cheap, if not free, to do. It has to bring value to the discussion without taking over; the local debate with real breathing humans has to be the main focus.

Internet has created a way for anyone to air their voice. It’s totally different from the previous generation of media, which includes newspaper (books, ++), television and radio.

While the old media technology is very easily controllable, the net is virtually incontrollable. It has to be formed by its (net-)citizens. You can’t control individuals, but you can create the mechanisms and environment for constructive dialog and debate.

Before I move on, I would like to mention that the old forms of media are still very much alive in the sphere of a global network. You have online television shows, you have online radios and you have online newspapers. Additionally, we see the creation of new types of media communication, through blogs, micro-blogging and podcasts.

The Internet is an evolving and almost biological mechanism that continuously evolves and takes new shapes and forms, we are so fortunate to be alive at this moment in time and we can have an impact on its shape and form.

Please excuse the incredible length of this post…

(Photo by Gaetan Lee and published under Creative Commons license)

Traditional Debates

The traditional way a debate with a panel works is that a moderator controls who’s allowed to talk and keeps the debate on topic and makes sure it progresses forward. They have an very important role; their role is the same as a blog or forum owner. If you are unable to moderate the discussions, you are not fit to be in charge of the debate. You should not be running a forum you are not able to moderate it. There are no excuses.

Let’s start by illustrating how a traditional panel debate is arranged.

Debates 

A panel debate can take many forms that are beyond the context of this post. Let’s take the simple example on a group of experts that will debate amongst each other, while the moderator controls the whole show. In some instances, the microphone might be opened up for the audience. It’s normal courteousness allowing your audience to speak their minds, given that they have taken the time and effort to come and listen to you.

Not allowing your listeners to speak can be compared to how some blogs that doesn’t allow comments; you’re being ignorant towards your audience. To earn respect, you need to go into a mutual agreement of trust and allow them to contribute with their thoughts. Only through an open dialog can you earn credibility, or just being incredible intelligent.

Technology is our friend

It’s created by us to help us, you should accept technology with your open arms and embrace the endless possibilities it opens up. The days of Internet and Computer Technology being accessible only to high degrees students and geeks is long gone. Even grandparents are now becoming active net-citizens, keeping contact with family and friends using email and web services.

Some parts of utilizing technology has become mainstream and it’s those we’re going to utilize to improve the way we arrange open debates.

The Value Proposition

Defining the return of value from anything we do is important, both for your own personal gain and for the value of your local and our global society. When you write a blog post, a forum comment or talk actively in a panel debate, you have to consider what kind of value your words and text are bringing.

There is more than enough negative, counterproductive and useless information being actively created and published on the Internet every minute, so make sure your contribute counts for the creative, positive and valued side of this global experiment called humanity.

My value proposition with this post is opening up the debate to a wider array of contributors, enabling the moderator (or the owner, host, etc.)  to receive valuable feedback on what’s being debated. It’s important not to be afraid of the forces applied on the Internet. They can be daunting and exhaustive, in the forms of flooding, spamming, trolls and forum debates whose sole purpose it to wreak havoc. Those are, in most instances, pretty easy to control and manage.

Technology makes it simple for someone to contribute (both negative and positive) to a dialog, and technology makes it easy too moderate that dialog. Though, it isn't a walk in the park to moderate a heated debate and it’s a thin line between to much censorship and too little management. The brains behind any good debate is the moderator/host :-)

Humans trust computers and online personas more easily than we do with people we meet in the real world. We are more easily fooled on the net and we are more open with our thoughts, ideas and feelings. This can be harvested in the context of retrieving honest feedback during and after a debate. Standing up in front of an audience and speaking your mind doesn’t come natural to many, so lowering the entry for having a voice is very valuable.

Moving Forward

I have a background from software development, so a lot of my thoughts and experience is formed from the industry, conferences and online content that apply to software engineering.

So I would like to bring forward a recent conference I attended as a background resource for what I’m elaborating in this post.

Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC) in Los Angeles in October 2008 was a groundbreaking event in the feats it achieved. Every single session on the conference was published online within a day or two, freely available to anyone who has an interest.

Two other very bold feats from the PDC was the direct publication of photos from the event. Anyone who uploads a photo tagged with #pdc2008 on Flickr can potentially have their image displayed on the PDC web site.

The second is publishing tweets from Twitter on the walls in the main auditorium. My good friend Gregory Rendard was fortunate and had one of his tweets displayed on the big wall, visible for the thousands of attendees at the conference. I just happen to be SondreB on Twitter, in case you care enough to follow me.

Redo_Twitter_PDC2008 

It’s the combination of these two communication forms (video and audio together with text based responses) and additionally live transcribing as I experienced in the debate (“Debatt om nettdebatt”) I attended earlier today.

No Excuses

Before I get into the technical details and services you can use to broadcast your debate on the Internet, I would like to make a point that there are no excuses to be made for not opening up to the world.

If the topic of the day is one that awakes people’s interests, there will be plenty of volunteers who will be willing to help out. Someone from the audience can be in charge of live transcribing, another can stream the debate live with video and audio. Depending on the size and popularity of your debate, you might need someone to filter the tweets coming in and deciding which ones are constructive and valuable enough to be brought into the live debate.

Wireless and/or wired network access to the Internet is nearly always available, so you’re out of excuses.

Live Video Streaming

The simplest form of spreading the words of your debaters is to stream the video and audio live. There are various free services on the Internet that makes it easy for you to stream video. You don’t need to invest any money in expensive infrastructure and servers, which is one of the promises behind Cloud Computing. Enabling businesses, organization and individuals to build and use solutions and services, without expensive investments.

One of those services is ustream.tv. This is a service that allows you to create different channels, your own TV channel on the Internet. All it requires is a cheap web cam, a microphone and you’re ready to go. There are no software installations (it’s dependent on Adobe Flash) and no tricky configurations. Register with your details, hook up your equipment, and click Broadcast!

ustream

Here is a photo that shows the interface while I’m broadcasting from my home “office”. When you start broadcasting, you activate a text chat where your viewers can comment and communicate back to you.

Cover It Live

Another service you can use to provide an easy mechanism for opening up a debate is CoveritLive. This is a service that enables you to publish text, photos, video as the debate is progressing. And it enables you to interact with your listeners.

Here is a quote from the CoveritLive website:

When you use CoveritLive’s software your commentary is streaming live onto your web pages or blog, so your readers hear from you immediately after that election result comes in, or that terrible play gets called or the next time an actor gets bleeped at the Oscars. Because they can instantly get their questions to you as well as participate in polling questions you create, there is a reason for them to stay online for a long time…not just check back in once in a while. Once you add in some pictures and videos all in real time, you’ve created an event worth watching.

With CoveritLive, you can get tweets straight into the live timeline of your ongoing debate. This is very useful and helps make the transcript better for historical purposes. My next section will explain a way to actually get live questions to the debaters using Twitter.

Tag, You’re It!

Twitter is one of many micro-blogging services. Micro-blogging is the concept of writing short and concise messages. It’s hard to keep a deep dialog using a micro-blogging service, which is some of the strength it has. Since there is a restriction on the lengths, it opens up more room for everyone to make their statements. It doesn’t take much effort to read a bunch of tweets and you can easily keep track of your favorite twitters by subscribing to their updates.

Within the micro-blogging sphere, a concept of tagging was created. The way it works is to put a specific word within every tweet you make on a specific topic. Usually you use the # sign to declare a topic.

Here are some examples on how this has been used:

DoItWithDrupal, 3 days seminar: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23diwd

PDC 2008, 4 days conference: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23pdc2008

MIX 2009, 4 days conference: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23mix09

Debatt on nettdebatt”, one hours open debate: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23nettdebatt

In preparation of any event, you should come up with a distinct key word that can be used to tag tweets. That’ll ensure tweets not getting to fragmented.

Live Tweets

All of the above brings me to the final concept of ways to improve an open debate, live tweets. That involves projecting tweets directly from the Internet an onto the wall in the debate room.

Depending on the volume of tweets, you might require someone to filter which tweets should be displayed. My suggestion is to leave all related tweets on the topic and allow the audience to see the stream of feedback.

Though you should have someone (assistant to the moderator) that picks which tweet contains questions that is good enough to be raised to the debaters in the panel. You should do your best to avoid the focus of attention going over to the tweets. The tweets is nothing but interesting background noise, they shouldn’t be allowed to distract or otherwise make the time unpleasant or wasted for the debaters.

Conclusions

If you go back and take another look at the first photo in this post, you might notice more details. There is a project on the right which displays video feedback and possibly an agenda. This could be used to display the live scribing from CoveritLive. Then you have the windows, which in the photo is static, but in the future I could foresee huge walls that are digital screens. That’s a good spot to display random tweets from the audience and it doesn’t matter if the audience is there in real life or connected through the Internet.

  1. Stream video and audio.
  2. Collect feedback.
  3. Involve your audience, offline and online.
  4. Be creative with the media that exists around your topic (aggregate photos, video, tweets and other information and randomize it on the walls)

Please feel free to leave comments and your own ideas on how to improve the way we traditionally do open and public debates.

Here are some photos from tonight's debate:

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