Forum Assisted Discussion

by Dan B2 min read19th Jul 2020No comments

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This post is a record of a meetup I hosted for the NYC rationalist group a few months ago. Its name changed a few times -- for a while it was called "Askhole For Internet Points", and then I decided that was weird, and by increments it changed to "Forum Assisted Discussion".

Here's the philosophy behind this event: I wanted to hold a discussion, but I've noticed in the past that large-group discussions aren't really fun. My experience of the problem is that I'll be part of a large discussion, and I'll have a thing that I want to say, but five other people will also have things that they want to say. The worst case is that we wait for someone to finish and then we all interrupt each other to try to be the next speaker. A better case is that there's a moderator who tells us what order we'll speak in -- but then I have to wait for five other people to say their thing before I can say my thing, and "waiting for you to finish talking so I can talk" isn't the right mindset to enjoy a discussion.

Here's the idea for this event: we all got in a Zoom chatroom, and we all got in a forum. I'd post a discussion question on the forum, and everyone would answer it by posting a top-level comment on the post.

(There was a rule: you must always post a top-level comment. If you don't know, post a top-level comment saying you don't know, and talking about how we should go about finding out. If you don't care, post a comment explaining why the question doesn't matter.)

Then, we'd spend a few minutes reading everyone's top-level comments and posting second-level comments.

(We had another rule: upvote any comment that gives you new insights or information about the topic. Never downvote anything unless it's actually trolling. The "never downvote" rule was necessary for the "you must post a top-level comment" rule to work.)

The game was intended to last one-and-a-half hours; due to poor planning on my part it ran two hours and change. We had nine people posting comments at the start of the event, and six people at the end. I felt it was a moderate success.

The Zoom was used purely for meta-discussion, eg, "okay, the second discussion question is up now!"

Here are my notes for things to do differently next time:

  • Reddit turned out to not be an ideal platform for this. Its antispam features tripped us up at first -- there was a ten-minute cooldown between posts for people who weren't "members of the subreddit", and it took me some time to figure out how to make everyone a "member of the subreddit". I had hoped that we could use the upvotes and karma to compute some fun statistics, but some questions were raised about whether reddit obfuscates those numbers, and we wound up not pursuing it. Threaded comments, with upvotes, were still nice.
  • I asked six questions, which was too many questions. Three questions, plus a retrospective bit at the end, would have worked better for our time window.
  • We didn't generate as many second-level comments as I wanted. I'm not sure if this is a problem.
  • It wasn't always entirely clear when we should end one discussion and move to the next question. My original plan was to do this after fifteen minutes, but what I eventually did was I'd periodically say "do we feel like we're done with this question?".
  • We didn't explicitly talk about the culture wars, but we did talk about some culture-war-adjacent topics, and that's scary online. I asked everyone to create a new pseudonym for the occasion, and I was pretty happy with that; but then we had an optional deanonymization step at the end, where we asked if anyone could guess anyone else's identity, and in retrospect I'm not sure if that was great. Ultimately I made the subreddit private, so only people who were members of the original group will be able to view it.

I remember seeing feedback that someone was unhappy because we weren't doing any actual discussion -- the entire thing was happening on reddit. In theory we could have had a verbal post-comments discussion, but avoiding large-group verbal discussion was sort of the goal of the event, so I think I'm at peace with my decision not to have that discussion.


I think there's some merit to keeping questions secret before an event, so that people don't pre-write their answers. (If some people pre-write their answers, then other people will feel obliged to pre-write their answers, and then it's a barrier to entry, and even almost an essay contest.)

But this event has ended, and here are the questions I asked in it:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QUgIkYt8LIQ94ywfkbRnO2IN04F639YuPaNDFW-9YEk/edit?usp=sharing

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