04 September 2010

Question Forums

Question Forums


In online discussions, people talk past each other. It's a fact of online life. Much moreso in discussions about politics or ideology, but even in friendly discussions, it crops up.

A few years ago I had an idea about how to fix it - or at least ameliorate it.

The idea

What if there was a forum where in order to answer a post, you had to, well, answer it? That is, a post could formally ask questions. Those who wanted to reply to the post would have to answer the questions first.

Software could enforce this rule. It could be much like online polling. The answers could be displayed associated to the replies, and in other ways.

Potential problems

He asked too many questions!

Another potential means of abuse: Participants who ask, not a modest few questions, but a boatload of questions. After all, they have a captive audience!

Participants might be just indluging themselves, or might use it as a strategy to block replies.

I'd propose a limit to the number of formal questions a post may ask. There might be some flexibility here; the limit might depend on such factors as:

  • How long a participant has been participating
  • Whether he is in good standing.
  • How much "question-juice" he has stored up - but this has its own problems.
  • A strategic tradeoff whereby the replier need only answer any N of the questions. Ask too many questions just takes some control away from the questioner.
    • "Soft limits" on the above, where the replier who answers fewer than N questions still can reply but their reply is automatically modded down.

He just replies in another thread!

Participants might adopt a strategy of circumventing the mechanism by just replying somewhere else.

They'd have to answer the questions there too, but:

  • Not if they started a fresh thread
  • On answering one post, they might put in their replies to many posts in that single post.
  • Or they might congregate on a thread that asks questions more to their liking.

To some extent that problem contains its own solution. If respondents put their answers in strange places, the posts that they "answer" will appear to go unanswered. This generally is not what posters want.

I'd also propose some limitation on people starting new threads. Most forums have that anyways. I don't see right now how anything can be done about the other two problems.

Figuring out a question's exact flaw is too much work!

In the solutions above, I proposed that there be a spectrum of It won't just give one option for "Question is flawed", it will suggest flavors.

But here we have a dilemma. OT1H want participants to be specific about what flaws they claim that a question has. OTOH, we don't want to require participants to do a lot of work taxonomizing the exact flaw of each flawed question they see.

I think a reasonable balance is achievable, but how can we achieve it? Well, I don't think the answer is to predetermine a particular level of detail. Discussion should be more flexible than that. So:

  • We'd have a taxonomy of question flaw types.
  • Repliers could specify the flaw in as much or as little detail as they chose to.
  • Feedback mechanisms would exist, possibly involving challenges to insufficiently detailed objections.

The flip side of questions that assume

Above, questions that assume too much were considered a problem. But that's only half of the picture. Normal, healthy discourse does assume a lot. But in healthy discourse the presuppositions are already believed by all participants. Nobody is trying to sneak presuppositions in.

And the following scenario would be just wrong:

  • Participant A asserts position X
  • Participant B asks a question that presupposes X
  • Participant A then objects that the question is flawed because it assumes X.

I have some ideas about that which involve structuring questions further, but it's late.

How to carve up answer-space?

Other forms of flawed question

  • Off topic questions
  • Incomprehensible questions
  • Questions that assume too much. This is a slightly more general case of what was discussed above.

Further ideas

I have further ideas, but it's late. I will try to post more another day.

Some theory

Why is this a good idea? That is, not the motivation or the mechanics, but the theory behind it. Why should questions in particular be so great? Why should one sentential mood be favored above the others? Let's look at them:

  • Questions: Questions are naturally interactive. Which is not to say that they are always really used that way - there are rhetorical questions, and browbeating questions, and so forth. But notice, even those work by superficially appearing to be interactive.
  • Statement. Statements are less interactive. They don't naturally leave a place for your interlocutor to respond. That's not to say that people don't answer statements - it happens all the time. It's just to say that statements don't naturally invite it.
  • Imperative. The imperative mood ("Do this!") could be viewed as interactive too, but in a different way. You're commanding your interlocutor to do something. A group of people telling each other what to do isn't going to improve improving the quality of communication, nor the tone.

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