It’s good to talk

Blogs and other user-generated content are creating a mass of hard-to-navigate debate on the Web. Scott Billings takes a look at how digital designers could be meeting these challenges, particularly the design of effective interfaces for discussion

A few years ago, a colleague’s elderly relative asked her, ‘Who owns the Internet?’ This sweetly anachronistic question was born of a different age, when brands were owned by manufacturers, and news and information were distributed in a one-way fashion by newspaper publishers. Even when the question was asked, it was perhaps easier to answer than it is now. We had Amazon, the Electronic Telegraph and Boo.com, all digital renderings of a corporate business. Now, it’s even less clear who owns the Internet because we all own it and we are all contributing to it, feverishly and on a moment-to-moment basis.

This latest ‘version’ of the Internet – dubbed Web 2.0 in technology vernacular – is a surging slew of user-generated content and interconnections. The blogging phenomenon that started as a simple diary-keeping exercise is morphing into something bigger, turning us all into proto-journalists, would-be commentators and trend-makers.

As digital designers know, this presents one of the biggest information design challenges of the age: how to cope with and make useful the growing swell of content from Web users. The news media are trying to keep up, offering areas such as Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section, designed in-house, where professional journalists mingle with the public at large in a basic form of discussion. The BBC’s Have Your Say pages are a simpler, list version of moderated responses to current affairs questions.

But multi-user discussions are difficult to navigate or present coherently on-screen. ‘Threads can work, but they can be very hard to follow,’ explains Applied Information Group creative director and digital pioneer Malcolm Garrett. ‘It’s like having a conversation at a dinner party, where you’re trying to listen to the people opposite you as well as those at the other end of the table.’ Benjamin Tomlinson, creative director at Ico Design Consultancy, makes a similar connection. ‘There has been a lot of scientific research into how people communicate in conversation. At a party, if more than five people are talking about something, they will naturally start to split into sub-groups. Could a similar thing happen in on-line discussions?’ he asks.

A number of news websites are keen to push their Web 2.0-savvy approach to journalism and comment, but user input is generally structured less as a real debate and more as an enormous footnote to an article. Another problem for discussion sites using the standard thread approach is that relevance deteriorates when users contribute at different times. ‘It will jump around chronologically because people are in many time zones. You need a lot of mental dexterity to keep up with the points,’ explains Garrett.

So how else could on-line discussions be organised or navigated? Digital consultancy Poke developed a more three-dimensional approach to user-generated content for Orange, which could be adapted to other uses. Orange’s Talking Point system poses a topical question to which users give a one-word answer that appears as a note sticker at www.talkingpoint.orange.co.uk. Each user can pick an existing word from the pile of notes, or add a new one. The most popular answers become bigger and move toward the centre of the sticker ‘cloud’. Stickers can also be flipped over to reveal more detailed comments. ‘It’s a very visual way of seeing a whole discussion. People are generally very lazy and this bubbles significant things to the top very quickly,’ says consultancy creative director Simon Waterfall.

Tomlinson proposes another approach to threads. ‘Text and visual threads are very important for problem-solving. Should a problem-solving thread be edited once it’s complete into a single solution?’ he asks. Waterfall cites a real-world example where computer giant Dell did something similar. Following a deluge of complaints after some of its batteries were found to be faulty, Dell conducted an analysis of all the blogs and responses to the issue, before distilling the relevant points and responding to them on its own blog, www.direct2dell.com. Could an approach like this make more sense of on-line debate or does this editing process undermine freedom of speech?

While at Canadian digital consultancy I-mmersion (now Parallel World Labs), Garrett worked on a pioneering debating system, Cyber/Explorer, funded by the Canadian government for the 2004 Canada-France Celebrations. This 3D interface allowed users to compile text and video components into a database, ready for a later two-way live video debate between La Cité Des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris and the University of Montreal.

‘It was very experimental. We developed it in a 3D gaming environment, with a tier of topics and icons – a 3D representation of all the components people had put in,’ says Garrett. The consultancy then built a ‘knowledge web’ based on collective opinions using key words and video. Users could pick a topic and create a response for others, using an audio-visual toolkit.

As we seek to absorb more opinion and information at every visit to a screen, it is digital designers who can guide our way with ideas such as these. Users looking to extract real value and debate from what Garrett calls the ‘powerful democratisation’ of the Internet may need such guidance if they are to avoid sinking into a mire of lists packed with banalities and profanities.

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