Mapping the Discourse of the Internet

Update:

http://rbutr.com is now a reality. This was the post which made it happen. Go to rbutr.com now and register to see the vision in action!

The Minimal Viable Product

A browser extension which allows people to link “Rebuttals” to specific web pages so that when other users view that specific webpage, the extension indicates that a “rebuttal” webpage exists, and by clicking on the extension icon you will taken to it.

Real world exmple:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2003824/Earth-facing-mini-Ice-Age-years-rare-drop-sunspot-activity.html
The Daily Mail posts a story that “Scientist’s Say Mini Ice Age is coming”.

In response, Potholer54 makes a video: http://www.youtube.com/user/potholer54#p/u/19/adAvYK1O-ic which provides a strong rebuttal to the article (and the numerous spin off articles which copied the fabrication verbatim).

But anyone who gets directed to the original article has no idea that the headline of the article is a complete fabrication, and tend to accept it as true (since it comes from a ‘respectable’ source – not just some blog, for example). So for all of the great work that has been done debunking the ridiculous article by Potholer54 and the hundreds of other bloggers and scientists and youtubers out there, people who see the original article have no indication of any of that. So much great work, effectively wasted because they cannot (easily) reach the target audience!

Hence the need for a tool like this. With this browser extension, if you have the tool installed, when you get directed to this article by some misguided friend on facebook, as soon as you land your browser will clearly indicate that rebuttal(s) have been submitted to this article. When you finish reading the article, you are then free to click through and read the rebuttal to it, and likewise, click through again if there are in turn, more rebuttals to those rebuttals.

Why Make It?

The purpose of this tool is to facilitate ‘forward’ moving discussion. Whenever someone posts a rebuttal style article online, they always link to, or at least indicate the article that they are replying to. It is necessary. You have to let people know what it is you are replying to in order to reply to it! So whenever you come across one of these sorts of posts online, it is easy to look ‘backwards’ through the discussion, but wherever you enter this debate, it always seems like it is ‘the last word’ on the subject. But it rarely is.

This tool will show where the discussion has gone, rather than just where it has been. It will allow people to follow discussions forward through time, rather than just backwards. It will help reduce ignorance by providing internet users with a way to look beyond the information they find themselves presented with.

The internet is a huge mess of information – organising that information into a USEFUL format is one of the biggest challenges of the internet.

  1. Search engines were the first major breakthrough on that front, and they are still great – within their bounds.
    Find what you are looking for, roughly.
  2. Social Tools were the second major breakthrough, with clever systems of recommendation based on subject. StumbleUpon, Reddit, Facebook etc.
    Discover stuff you didn’t know you were looking for/Discover stuff similar to what you already like
  3. This tool – this concept – could be the third major breakthrough by providing a ‘threading’ system to internet subject matter. Discussion based direction to the web.
    Discover the next piece of information you need.

The long vision (below) will go in to more details on the following stages of development and on how this simple idea could be rolled out to acheive far more of this information-organising function.

Reaching the Market

This is the biggest difficulty with this idea. There is no organic-growth model. There is no content creation, so no SEO based traffic. There is nothing inherently viral, or recommendable about the technology. It isn’t particularly cool, so people won’t share it on Reddit or Facebook or Stumble Upon. And unlike StumbleUpon’s toolbar (a very similar technological concept in many ways), this lacks any on-page presence. ie: People add “Thumbs Up on StumbleUpon” badges on their websites as a way of attracting more Stumble traffic to their site. This tool has no such ability.

The only people who might want to promote this tool are the authors of rebuttal style articles, but ironically, they need to promote it to the readers of the ‘opponents’ – because their own subscribers don’t need to the tool!

Variations on the Basic Idea

The idea of creating a system of organising topical discussion threads throughout the internet seems to be one of value to me. Instead of toolbar, it could be taken to google or internet regulatory bodies as a tag which indicates relationship. Just as Rel=”No Follow” was created as a way to combat spam, so too perhaps could a tag be invented which allows websites to indicate that they are rebutting/replying/agreeing with websites they link to. For example, something like this might be written:

Yesterday, the website which I disagree with wrote this article: <a href=”url” rel=”rebut”>Article Title</a> – but it is so wrong, because it said X, but Y is demonstrated by this reason.

or equally:

Last night, the website of a friend published this article: <a href=”url” rel=”agree”>Article Title</a> – and I just want to restate how important this view is, because it said X, and Y is a real problem that X deals with.

So, as an example, this sort of markup could be created and introduced to the internet, perhaps with the values of “Rebut”, “Agree”, “Review” and/or “Reply” (with strict definitions of each) and then the search engines, the browsers themselves, or other robots could use this markup to construct meaningful maps of online discussions. Hopefully even offering ideal pathways through the discussion…

The Long Vision

The tool described above is the MVP, and is very simplistic. There are a lot of improvements which could be made, and I currently expect they should be rolled out, roughly along the plan described below:

Stage Two

If any sort of market penetration is reached then the first people to really use the tool will be the internet marketers who will abuse it as a way of linking from popular articles to their own website. First improvement will be the ability for users to upvote, downvote and spam-vote the articles presented to them through the tool.

Repeat offending domains (repeatedly marked as spam) could be permanently blocked. And other obvious steps to reduce abuse would be implemented.

Stage Three

Implement a more detailed system which allows more types of replies to be entered. The MVP above doesn’t actually allow for agreements, reviews or other replies to be indicated (though it was mentioned in the variations section). So this sort of specification could be implemented, if it seemed desirable. Thus “n replies” would be indicated, and onclick a popupwindow would break down : “X Rebuttals, Y Agreements and Z Reviews” – at which point you choose what you are interested in.

Stage Four

The first major upgrade to the system: The creation of a way for users to delve in to the arguments themselves and provide analysis of the original article in relation to the reply through a side-by-side view with page-overlay highlighting. In other words, build a way for users who are particularly interested/involved in specific discussion the ability to bring up both articles connected by a ‘reply’ link side by side so that they can highlight sections, and visually connect those sections to highlighted sections in the reply, and comment about that connection etc. In effect, this component would not be too different to web annotation tools which already exist (http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/web-annotation-tools-research-annotate-collaborate/), but just used in a specific context and with a precise objective of facilitating discourse. ie: the comments should be made to highlight how the reply has actually dealt with the claims, rebutted points, and/or failed to address key points.

Stage Five

The super long vision:

Develop a sophisticated algorithms/intelligent software which learns to identify repeated claims and the standard replies to them. Automatically starts to provide ‘standard rebuttal’ options for false claims, bad arguments, logical fallacies etc on the fly while browsing. Turns the redundancy of millions of internet pages and posts on the same topic on its head, and focusses the results of all of the repeated arguments in to the one most productive outcome. Could sort of work like word’s grammar tool, but with bad claims/arguments. It would underline or highlight lines which are found to be repeatedly used even though they have been rebutted hundreds of times elsewhere, and onclick or onhover, provide the rebuttal and a list of resources for that false claim.

Feedback

Please leave feedback and comments to this. I would like to build it, but I am struggling with how to reach any sort of market penetration with it at all – and of course, with all of these sorts fo ideas: is it even worth making it? I think it is a cool idea, but there is never any way to know without trying, or at least without talking to people – which is the point of this post. Feedback!

So please, let me know what you think.

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2 Replies to “Mapping the Discourse of the Internet”

  1. This is intriguing as a foundation technology which has long-tail characteristics. I can see your point about reaching the “market” as the adoption rate depends on self-reinforcing traits of having an article/author willing to accept rebuttals, downloading the tool, and also having a counter argument. You have to decide whether you wish to be a platform play v pitch-play. As such I’d point you to

    http://www.crashdev.com/2012/01/product-vs-platform-competing-at-right.html

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  2. Shane, Do you want funding for this? If so, I would like to offer some and become a shareholder in return in rbutr. Contact me on the email if interested. Many thanks, Guy

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