Designing for Debate: Towards a Design Taxonomy for Online Deliberation Platforms

This paper was submitted as my final project for the Media Arts and Sciences class, Unpacking Impact, in December 2015.


In this position paper I explore the possibilities and challenges surrounding the design of platforms for civic debate. I draw on lessons from theory and practice to offer a taxonomy of characteristics, which may serve to guide designers in the creation of such platforms. I then turn to assess two existing platforms in light of this taxonomy, exploring their strengths and limitations as sites of popular deliberation and decision-making. I conclude by offering some future directions for this emerging praxis.


In this introductory section I first explore the central concept of the public sphere and assess its relevance to this area of research. I then introduce the theory of structuration as a conceptual basis for my later discussions of design and use of deliberative platforms.

Public spheres

Probably the most frequently cited concept in discussions of public deliberation is the ‘public sphere’. The origin of a public sphere – a space within which the exchange of views amongst citizens can be shared, and political decisions made – is often traced back symbolically to the agoras of Ancient Greek cities, and intellectually to the work of Jurgen Habermas (1991). In such spaces, speakers have the right not only to speak uninterrupted, but to be heard by all others in attendance (Peters, 1995). Yet in the ancient agora, only wealthy, free, adult men were considered ‘citizens’ and thus able to participate. This line of criticism has been carried forward by Nancy Fraser in her (1990) critique of Jurgen Habermas’s work. Fraser characterises Habermas’s conception of the public sphere as explicitly ‘bourgeois’ and implicitly ‘masculinist’. Although, as Fraser notes, formal exclusions from popular debate and decision-making on the grounds of (besides much else) race, gender and class have been gradually lifted, nonetheless the “protocols of style and decorum … function informally to marginalize women and members of the plebeian classes” (63). Fraser also critiques Habermas’ notion of a singular public sphere, suggesting instead that – especially in societies consisting of “social groups in structural relations of dominance and subordination” – a plurality of competing public spheres “better promotes the ideal of participatory parity” (66).

Fraser’s idea of counterpublics has spawned discussions of the diverse forms that such counterpublics might take (Calhoun, Robbins). Squires (2002) has extended the discussion by offering a typology of multiple public spheres in relation to African American communities. Following Fraser, Squires points to the importance of ‘safe spaces’, operating with various degrees of secrecy or separation from the dominant public, to support a community’s needs and interests. Nonetheless, Squires also acknowledges the importance of “exposure to wider publics, allow[ing] and encourag[ing] participation in wider discussions” (461).

Both Habermas’s treatise and the critiques of it already discussed were written before the mass adoption of the Internet and, particularly, communication platforms such as social media sites. As the following section shows, the emergence of these platforms – and, as will be seen, the controversy they have generated – highlight the need for more considered, well-designed systems, keeping in mind the debates which have arisen around the public sphere. The following sub-section provides some theoretical foundations on which this design process can rest.

The theory of structuration

That the design of a system or platform has important consequences for those who use it is obvious. Indeed, as the theoretical debates over the public sphere have shown, the design of platforms for deliberation is a particularly sensitive domain. Yet it is simultaneously important also not to overstate the impact of design on the discussions and decisions that result from deliberation platforms, particularly where this would downplay the role of actual participation; such a drift towards ‘technocentrism’ has been viewed in the educational sphere (Papert, 1980). One way to mediate between these two tendencies – to acknowledge the importance of design decisions on the platforms which emerge, without diminishing the importance of how, in fact, they are used – is offered by Charlie DeTar’s (undated) development of the theory of structuration for design. The theory of structuration, first mooted by Anthony Giddens (1984), emphasises the duality inherent to social structures, as both the medium for and the outcome(s) of practices which constitute social systems. De Tar derives from this dualistic conception a useful lens through which to view the process of design:

It is not possible for a designer to create value-neutral technology — a designer who operates without the intentional selection of use cases, affordances, and structures will instill the values of the context of production in the work. Despite this … artifacts … only gain social meaning when they are used; and in use, structures are applied to them which may be more or less consonant with the initial intentions and goals of the designer (16).

Thus, designers must consider the ways in which “designs will embed the values consonant with (their) desired social structures” (17), whilst also remaining cognizant of – and, thus, humble about – the probability that technologies will be used in ways not originally intended or considered. A balance is thus neatly struck between the responsibility held by designers of a platform and those who participate in it. This recognition of a significant role for both creators and participants provides the conceptual basis for the discussion of particular design features that follow.

Designing deliberative platforms: lessons from theory and practice

Deliberative democracy has been characterised as “an enlightened and open-minded search for consensus amid diverse participants” (Barabas 2004). The criteria by which such a standard might be met have varied: some suggest that the infusion of relevant information is an important component of deliberation, while others emphasise the open-mindedness and diversity of participants. It is more widely agreed, however, that the key criterion of truly democratic deliberation is the move towards consensus, or agreement on matters where disagreement once existed (McLeod et al, 1999; Barabas, 2004). Yet while there is broad agreement in theory, scholars note that understanding of how deliberation works in practice is hamstrung by a scarcity of empirical research (Page and Shapiro, 1999; Thompson, 2008).

The emergence of the Internet as a medium for communication has offered illuminating insight into the dynamics of discussion between diverse, dispersed users – and, by extension, how design decisions feed into this process. One recent study, for example, looks at the online discussion platforms Reddit, which has been at the center of a series of controversies surrounding the content and nature of conversations that take place on the site. Massanari (2015) emphasises a series of design factors which have enabled “toxic technocultures” to take hold and achieve prominence on the site. First, the ‘karma’ system of credit given for contributions prioritises the posting of popular content across the site, rather than merely in specific ‘sub-reddits’. Taking into account the site’s “cyber/technolibertarian bent, gender politics, and geek sensibilities” (9), this means that “toxic” content relating for example to recent controversies such as ‘Gamergate’ and ‘the Fappening’ is promoted more widely. Moreover, the way in which material is aggregated across threads on the site can serve to bring unsavory content to the fore, even for users not choosing to view it. Massanari also pinpoints the ease of account creation – which allows anonymity – and the laissez-faire approach taken by the site’s managers as factors promoting toxic discussions.

Further insights can be drawn from other sites of communication and information exchange online. For example, collaboratively constructed repositories of information hold lessons, both positive and negative, for the design of discussion sites. On the positive side, Grimmelman (2015) has demonstrated the powerful and important role of moderation, contrasting the “sophisticated and intricate” role of moderators on Wikipedia (80) with the “abject failure” of a ‘wikitorial’ on the Iraq War hosted by the Los Angeles Times (79). Yet Wikipedia itself is not without its critics or controversies. The remarkable lack of diversity among its regular contributors and the hostility many members of underrepresented groups face on the site has been widely attributed to insufficient governance and the privileging of seniority (Simonite, 2013; Wagner et al, 2015), making Wikipedia feel to many like an exclusionary space.

Albeit brief, this discussion of deliberative systems in both theory and lived experience online has yielded a tentative set of characteristics, which would-be designers of an online space for deliberation might bear in mind in their design work. These can be grouped under three headings – the participants, the platform itself, and the purposes to which the platform is put. A taxonomy of these characteristics is offered in the table below.

Category Characteristic Description
Participation Diversity and representativeness of participants The quality and scope of views offered will increase with the diversity and representativeness of participants
Degree of (self-) identification of participants Some degree of self-identification is important to establish trust and rapport between participants
Platform Arrangement/aggregation of discussions The aggregation of the ‘most popular’ discussions can downplay the importance of different issues to different people
Nature of contributions The ways in which users can express themselves – from ‘upvoting’ and karma to long-form contributions affect the nature of discussions
Infusion of relevant information The ability to contribute information can raise the quality and relevance of the discussion
Moderation policy Some degree of moderation seems essential if minority views are to be protected
Purposes Promotion of civil, respectful debate Discussions should be civil and participants should be respectful of each other
  Consensus bias Discussions should ‘go somewhere’ – the consensus and/or decision should be a core outcome

Two platforms: comparative analysis

I now move to apply the principles outlined in this above taxonomy to two online discussion platforms, Brigade and democracyOS <;. Brigade is a smartphone app, currently in beta, which allows users to ‘take a stand’ on a series of political issues, presented in the form of a news feed, with the provision of information about how a users’ friends have voted. The app uses this information to ‘match’ users both to their friends (or ‘supporters’) and to public figures, showing how much they agree overall. It also encourages users to participate in nearby elections.

DemocracyOS is a non-profit, open-source platform, formed in Argentina, which also allows users to discuss and vote on given political issues. The platform is made up of individual ‘democracies’, or spaces where individual issues can be discussed and ultimately voted upon.

These two platforms differ in interesting ways, specifically in relation to the taxonomy presented above. Both are in their early stages and thus it is hard to gauge their overall success (although DemocracyOS succeeded in winning 1.2% of the vote for its proxy party in a municipal election). But a comparative analysis nonetheless allows the effects of different design decisions to be drawn out.

Due to the limitations of this study, it was not possible to analyse in sufficient depth how the two platforms handled three of the eight characteristics listed above – the diversity of participants, moderation, and the promotion of civil debate – due to a lack of resources and information. The remaining five characteristics are discussed below.

Degree of (self-)identification of participants

The two platforms differ as to how users identify themselves in a ‘real-world’ sense. Brigade offers Facebook integration, which allows users to find their Facebook friends and import profile information, However, users can sign up with the service directly. DemocracyOS offers only a site-specific sign-up. The distinction between a ‘social’ and site-specific and sign-up protocols is noteworthy. On one hand, allowing users to sign up separately is an important provision given that many users might like to keep their ‘social’ and ‘political’ identities separate. On the other hand, Massanari (2015) cited the relative anonymity permitted on Reddit as one of the factors enabling the development of toxic contributions from users free from reckoning or accountability. It seems difficult to strike a successful balance between respecting the wishes of users to be private or otherwise distinct from their other online personas, but also to discourage negative or toxic contributions offered behind the cloak of anonymity.

Arrangement/aggregation of discussions

The two platforms differ in how discussion threads are presented. Brigade more closely resembles Facebook, with the ordering driven by ‘trending’ issues and those issues which friends have recently taken a position on. DemocracyOS has a more simple presentation akin to Twitter, with a simple reverse-chronological list of ‘democracies’, ordered by when they were created. This suggests that Brigade may be more susceptible to the emergence of a long-tail distribution of issues, with much more attention given to a few very popular issues (a phenomenon which has been explored in the case of online petitions – Hale et al, 2013). This could hamper the ability of users to have the issues most important to them reach a wider audience. DemocracyOS’s more egalitarian structure certainly introduces serendipity to the process of issue discovery, but this may encourage repeat-creation of topics by users to ‘bump’ their issues to the top. As above, a balance needs to be struck here, and if a more complex algorithm (such as Brigade’s trending section) is to be used to order issues, its design needs to be understood by users.

Nature of contributions

This characteristic shows the importance of subtle design decisions on the process of deliberation. On Brigade, the quantitative act of voting ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ on a given issue is given prominence, but the ability of contribute a qualitative opinion on this issue is a couple of taps away. On DemocracyOS, ‘arguments’ are given greater prominence within the topic, suggesting more potential for qualitative engagement between participants. This distinction makes sense. In the case of Brigade, with its focus on ‘matching’ users based on their dichotomous agree/disagree responses on a range of topics, the quantity of opinions offered may matter more than the deliberation or discussion afforded to their formation. Brigade’s own promotional material openly advocates this straightforward, narrow engagement, stating “being heard is as easy as tapping ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’”. The design of DemocracyOS may pivot it more towards the genuine exchange and possible change of views.

Infusion of relevant information 

The distinction here is quite clear-cut: DemocracyOS allows users to contribute multiple links as ‘resources’ for a given topic, whereas Brigade does not have any special fields for the entry of sources. A user on Brigade might include a link to external content in their argument, but since following this link would involve users leaving the app, the design does not encourage this activity. As noted above, the infusion of relevant information has been held by some as an important component of deliberative debate.

Consensus bias

To some extent, both platforms include elements supporting decision-making; they are, however, very different. By matching supporters to political figures, Brigade can in an indirect sense encourage voters to support a given candidate at the ballot box, supported to a small extent by the reminders for users to vote in elections. DemocracyOS, however, is much more oriented to the reaching of decisions, since when creating a topic, users can add a time limit to the vote. This time constraint serves to ‘force the issue’, pushing users to reach a decision (assisted by debate) before the time runs out. This is perhaps the most important distinction between the two platforms, potentially giving their debates a very different flavor, with DemocracyOS involving more urgency, drive and purpose.

Conclusions and future directions

This position paper has presented a conceptual basis for the intersection of the design of systems for public debate and their use; offered a taxonomy of specific design characteristics, drawn from theoretical and empirical research; and finally tested two existing platforms against several of these taxonomic principles. As noted above, each of these aspects has been necessarily preliminary and at certain times speculative. But it is hoped that this position paper facilitates future, deeper engagement with this platform type and the design decisions associated with it. The Internet has transformed so many aspects of everyday life, yet even the most Panglossian would struggle to present evidence of empowering, inclusive domains of democratic debate which feed directly into the political system and ultimately serve to improve society. Rather than serving to dishearten, this should serve as a clarion call for the continued design of such systems which make democratic debate as empowering and enjoyable as the many other uses to which digital devices are presently put.


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