Do we really want to talk?

by Ros Atkins, BBC’s World Have Your Say

Or would that show a chink in our armour?

A lot has changed since World Have Your Say last took part at We Media. Coming on for four have passed, and I won’t waste space telling you about developments in technology that you almost certainly know more about than I do. But of course our experience of everything that’s come alive online since 2006 is defined by how we and everyone else use it. And this is what I’m interested to talk with you about this week.

I find it’s useful to divide think of your interactions online as falling into three categories – our communication with people we know away from the net, those that we’ve come to have personal relationships with online but have never met, and those we only encounter as we gather together to discuss a subject of common interest.

WHYS is very much about the third category, though some of our regulars would now claim they belong in the second because of the relationships they’ve developed with us and each other.

And there can’t be many of you who don’t belong to the third category at some point during your time online. So let me ask you a couple of questions, and it’d be a pleasure to discuss your answers during our time at We Media.

When you share your opinions online, is your objective to discuss the matter or to win the argument?

And is discussing an issue with those who disagree with you to show weakness and to damage your cause?

You’ll have guessed that I think some, maybe many people – if they were really honest – would say to enter into a discussion is to agree your argument may not be right. And that the other side needs to be beaten, not engaged with. Certainly programmes I’ve hosted on climate change, the social responsibilities or business and US politics have felt like that.

The Internet, and in particular social media, has led to a surge in the opportunities we have to share our views and billions of us have taken up the chance.

My concern is that in many cases what might be called an online discussion is either a series of points that fail to acknowledge each other, or a shouting match. Jaron Lanier expressed similar concerns on WHYS a few weeks ago.

That’s not to say all online discussion is not worthy of the name. But those of us in the business of trying to host and tap into debate online need to be very much aware of this.

In my view, there’s one thing we can do and one thing we need to help us along.

We can encourage respectful and ongoing relationships between ourselves and everyone else in the discussion. You are much more likely to listen to and respond to someone you feel that you know and respect (and that doesn’t mean being best buddies).

And what we need are better places to gather. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums and even text messages have done wonders for our ability to converge around subjects of common interest. But I still feel we’re being restricted by the medium. Blogging while still really useful and great fun, feels terribly clunky at times. Facebook is probably as fluid as we’ve got, and maybe Google Wave is as well if any of us could work it out.

We need something new that allows freedom, spontaneity and meaningful and relevant connections. Anyone at WeMedia who knows what that’ll be, please do come and tell me. Until the technology kicks on we’re only going to be able to take online discussion so far.

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