Is This What You Meant? Promoting Listening on the Web with Reflect

Travis Kriplean, Computer Science & Engineering, U. Washington
Michael Toomim, Computer Science & Engineering, U. Washington
Jonathan Morgan, Human Centered Design & Engineering, U. Washington
Alan Borning, Computer Science & Engineering, U. Washington
Lance Bennett, Political Science, Communication, U. Washington
Andrew Ko, The Information School, U. Washington

Communication is about listening as much as speaking. Unfortunately, our web interfaces have thus far paid scant attention to supporting listening, creating a feedback gap and likely contributing to the scorched earth nature of our web dialogue. We have designed Reflect, a simple interface for encouraging listening, and deployed it on Slashdot. As a by product of their acts of listening, commenters open up new possibilities for crowd-sourced discussion summarization.

Looking for a public space full of nasty rhetoric? It’s hard to beat the comments sections next to online articles. These spaces, for all their great potential for exchanges, often devolve into flame wars with commenters attacking the writer, and each other, personally.

In this way, the web is like a 2.0 year old. It’s become more social. It can express simple thoughts. But it’s not very good at listening yet. Commenting interfaces on the web makes us all look like two year olds to each other — and we often respond by acting like we’re toddlers.

Why? One reason is that our designs make it far easier to speak into comment boards than to actively listen through them. We need a way to counteract the misunderstandings that often fuel flame wars –without resorting to censorship. And to do that requires tackling a major problem with online commenting: people speaking on reflex without listening deeply.

We can’t make people listen online. But perhaps interfaces can encourage deeper listening. How?

One way to do this would be to alter the traditional discussion board. What if there was not just a comment box after an Internet story, but also a listen box? Alongside each comment, readers would be prompted to restate what they hear the commenter saying, and commenters could verify the accuracy of the summaries (or clarify as needed). The restatements would be visible to everyone. Everyone would benefit: the commenter would feel heard, the person making the restatement would show good faith, and others could see the comment in a new light.

Why would this work? Listening is not just hearing. By committing public acts of listening, such as restating points, listeners can demonstrate that they are being attentive, can help speakers determine that they’re being understood, and can make clearer for others what is being said. Listening is certainly possible on comment boards, but it’s not encouraged. Replies are generally meant for contributing a new point, not demonstrating listening.

We’ve designed this system. It’s called Reflect.

Unfortunately, I cannot embed a video here, but I am tricking all of you by posting an image of an embedded video which, when clicked, will take you to the video. GOTO MINUTE 3:05 to see the Reflect demo.

In our CHI paper, we describe a few deployments of Reflect in different contexts. Our primary deployment was on the technology news site Slashdot, where Reflect was enabled for four stories. Slashdotters used Reflect a fair amount, creating one summary bullet point per comment on average. Furthermore, based on a content analysis, these bullet points were on the balance used to restatement the meaning of the comments, rather than to reply to the comment or flame. See the paper for details and screenshots.

We see Reflect as a building block from which we can advance the stagnated world of web-based discussion.

With systems that encourage listening, we can perhaps build reputation systems that not only reward speaking well, but also listening well. Is a particular commenter someone who never listens to others? If so, that commenter’s comments might be displayed less prominently. Commenters who accurately restate the comments of others would find their comments favored in display.

Another possible future direction would be to use these restatements to summarize full discussions online. The summaries themselves might shape follow-up articles and help commenters and publishers build lasting relationships.

If the goal of Internet discussion is dialogue, we need to reshape the basic architecture of the web for dialogue. That requires new interfaces and designs that pay as much attention to listening as they do to speaking.

What do you think?

For more, see our full CHI paper.
Much of the text of this story was originally posted at Zocalo.