Friday, August 7, 2009

What is a forum?

I use the word "forum" in a classic sense. I think of a discussion as an organization not only of the topic but of the people themselves. Where they are positioned in the discussion may greatly influence the amount or type of power that they possess. A forum is the processing of the topic through various discussion forms. The variation of form gives both a greater range of expression to the speakers and a better listening experience for the audience.

Take any topic and put it through a complete process. Let's begin the process with a type of democratic form that is random, open circuit, with unlimited numbers of speakers. We have all seen this type of discussion in online forums. Usually, the only division of the discussion would be strictly topical, simply dividing the topic down to it's constituent parts, each division then becoming it's own topic. The discussion could be divided into separate threads or separate subforums.

In the random form the posters may sustain the expository mode just by outlining and composing their individual posts. We then accumulate a collection of expository posts. The benefit of this style is that every voice can speak as often and as much as they want. The problem is that it is very hard to follow the discussion, especially when opinions diverge.

What's the next logical step in the process of a classic forum? Rather than further division of the topic, the extension of an ordered expository discussion would be in the ordering of the posters themselves. We might begin the discussion anew with one limitation - that each of them are allowed one and only one post. Or whatever limited number. Or we might ask them to make one post and remain silent until one round of posting is completed. Then the posters may resume again each allowing themselves one and only one post. This form helps to maintain the principle of equal say or equal time. It also checks the dramatic since the dramatic mode is improvised and thrives on random form. It demands that each speak once and listen nine times (in a group of ten). It introduces rational form, allowing the members control over the mode of discussion, and it is a measurable objective.

We have moved the topic through a process from one form to another. The purpose is that the posters may refine their originally random presentations and condense or summarise their expositions. This allows us a better listening experience because such an expository form would be trimmer, easier to follow and easy to reference concerning who thinks what, since all posts are summarised by each poster.

Let's say that multiple opinions emerge and their are clusters of opinions, say, three distinct viewpoints that each poster could position themselves with respectively.

The next step in the process would be to appoint or elect three representatives of those opinions and use the circle form again to hash it out using a strict circle form (ABC ABC...). One or more opinion may emerge as stronger than the others. One may be swayed to join another or may split into two factions due to it's own inherent weaknesses and be joined to the other two. We can then measure this in terms of relative quantities in a closed system using whole numbers and fractions. We can quantitatively assess the outcome of the debate. Where two opposing opinions become clarified we may then move on in the process to a two sided evaluated debate using the following form (AB AB AB C)

A Pro
B Con
A rebuttal
B rebuttal
A closing
B closing
C Evaluation

The evaluation itself may be conducted by a team of observers who critique the grammar, rhetoric and logic.

Using this process, the discussion is moved from an irrational to rational form that can be counted by a whole number. The relative quantities of equality, majority and minority can be deduced from this whole number.

The benefit is that the community receives a complete hearing of the topic. The majority is not allowed to outvoice the minority because by the end of the process the community has trimmed down the number of voices to two equal voices for the purpose of assessing the logic of each argument. The majority may still vote in favor of it's proposition but as the process continues the minority voice continues to be heard.

So we maintain another type of equality. If nine people believe one thing and one person believes another, we do not allow nine voices to one. We want to hear all of the logic of one side compared to all of the logic of the other. One logic may outweigh another. Allowing the nine to dominate gives us repetitious arguments and a drowning of the minority voice. The value in this process lies in the fact that most of the people are often wrong! We know historically that the best ideas come from very small numbers. The scientific and literary communities comprise a small percentage of the whole community. Scientists like Galileo and Darwin and writers like Frederick Douglas, Allen Ginsberg and Mark Twain could be censored or their ideas could be persecuted.


An historical example would be the emergence of the theory of evolution into public currency. In the Scopes Trial of 1925, the Evolutionists lost the case to the Creationists but gained immense ground in bringing attention of the existence of Darwin's theories to the general public. 83 years later and it is hard even to find a Creationist who won't at least accept microevolution as a fact.

This process is progressive.

But I am speaking in the context of Faciliating Online Communities. I believe that traditional democratic forms perform the best faciliation. This is self-moderated forum, quite distinct from just a topical organization of threads or subforums. And this is what I mean by the word "forum", a form that allows the community to discuss, deliberate and decide through an online action.

To recap, we used a three phase process of different discussion forms or organizations of people and speech for the purpose of achieving a better listening experience.

1) Random form, where everyone was allowed to speak as often and as much as they desired.

2) Circle form, where speakers were assigned to speak in a given place. They may have both the right and the responsibility to speak. In this circle form, each must listen to the others before they may speak again.

3) Debate form, that the logic of two or three opposing ideas must get an equal hearing regardless of the the number of supporters for each idea. In this form a greater demand is made upon the speakers to exercise their responsibilities to speak.

You can see the different effects that each form achieves. In the first, an opposing group may dismiss the arguments of others and simply ignore them but as the discussion takes form, greater responsibility is upon the speakers.

This was only one process described. There are other discussion forms and therefore many variations of forums that can be organized.

What is a forum? Learn more...

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Facilitating Online Communities

The ordinal discussion arts lead us into coherent group building and groups become the building blocks of communities.

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