Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Global Voices and collective decisionmaking

How do 70 opinionated people from around the world make up their collective minds?

Easy. They use an opinion spectrometer.

After a day-long brainstorming meeting about human rights issues online and a two-day conference, the Citizen Media Summitt, we’re now spending two more days discussing the future of our collective project. That means passionate, difficult conversations about big issues, like whether Global Voices editors and authors should be permitted to express strong personal opinions in their articles on the site.

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The opinion spectrometer in use at the Global Voices 2008 Summit

We were introduced to the opinion spectrometer by Allen Gunn of Aspiration, though our deployment of the technique may be slightly different. If you’re interested in deploying the technology, we offer the technical description below:

With line segment AB, bisect the opinion plane equidistantly.

(Take a roll of toilet paper and unroll it down the center of the room.)

Designate A as representing the extreme of the opinion spectrum and B as te opposite extreme.

(People who really think GV should pay correspondents on one side of the room, while folks who favor volunteerism on the other side. More neutral positions in the middle of the room.)

Line C bisects segment AB perpendicularly, creating a two-dimensional plane. The C axis operates in terms of inverse absolute value, reflecting intensity of opinion.

(If you feel really strongly that GV should have a physical office, stand real close to the toilet paper. If you don’t care that much or could be swayed easily, stand towards the edge of the room.)

Interrogate points on the plane with regard to their two dimensional position. All other points are free to replot in response to interrogation. Iterate through a subset of the set of points.

(Pass around a microphone so people can explain their views. People will move around in response if their opinions are swayed.)

The resulting graph is a reflection of community opinion… which may reflect polarization, agreement or indifference.

It’s amazing how well this technique works. There’s a tendency in group discussions to attempt to come to a single conclusion. It’s actually way more helpful to know how strong feelings are about an issue, how polarizing that issue is, or whether an issue is truly unsettled for most speakers. It requires good moderation to make sure no one dominates the debate… but in a high-functioning community, people who find themselves at an extreme of the graph get visual feedback that they’re in a minority… and real-time feedback on whether an argument is persuasive.

A good method for running a meeting? The Global Voices folks are tightly clustered on the affirmative end of the toilet paper.

5 Responses to “Global Voices and collective decisionmaking”

  1. Alanna says:

    That’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever read, and it’s going into my large-group management bag of tricks.

  2. betsy says:

    This reminds me greatly, and favorably, of the decisionmaking process described in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Glad to hear it’s effective in real life!

  3. Dan says:

    That makes sense. I wished I had seen this and learned before !

  4. The whole idea that any sort of organization is equal with it’s reports it produces is a little off. I completely agree with hearing unbiased information, but who’s information is not biased. People with an agenda will try to convince others by getting their feelings validated.

    What’s to stop a system like this to block any valuable opinions because someone has associated it as extreme. It is all people’s perception of what is right or wrong.

    I take global warming for example. Scientific evedence has basically proven we are at least a little off in the way we are living. Certain organizations, with interest in keeping people dependent on oil, have raised enough doubt to cast a shadow in the publics head to ignore the possibility we are possibly messing up here.

    The people (in public) that choose to ignore it are afraid of what will happen to their convenient lifestyle so they will not ever accept we have stepped down the wrong road until we cannot go outside anymore.

    Who is right here, the people that hear global warming as extreme opinion, or the people that see it as a fact of life. What happens to valid, DIFFERENT, ideas that are not acceptable to people’s emotional, reactive, non logical thinking, simple minded lifestyle.

    One could say this last sentence is very strongly opinionated, but when you look into it more, you may see it is reality for alot of people in the world.

    It is my opinion that we should take responsibility for our own lives and not try to repress anyone else’s thought and ideas. If we educate ourself and not rely on other’s for a how we feel, when we hear very opinionated ideas we could distinguish from if it could hold merit or just another person trying to get their feelings validated!!

    Thanks for reading this long comment!
    Mark Babineaux
    http://www.progressyourlife.com

  5. Thank to you guys and Allen Gun for this great idea and its implementation on our Summit.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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