Conversational Feedback

I’d like to spin off of a recent conversation over in dsr’s journal.  He pointed out that non-realtime online conversations suffer badly in terms of feedback: when you do something inappropriate, it takes a while to get feedback, and once the feedback does come, it tends to be in the form of a tsunami.  Siderea then pointed out some of the failings of text as a form of feedback in general, compared with face-to-face.

Okay, so let’s explore that a bit.  What could we provide to make feedback more effective?  To put it more specifically, what might CommYou do to provide good tools for social feedback?  It is probably impossible to make online feedback as effective as the face-to-face kind, but can we make it better than it usually is?

Let’s look at a few of the common problems:

  • Text tends to have a different subject than face-to-face indications.  When someone does something inappropriate in person, I indicate *my* discomfort, and leave it to empathy to provide the feedback.  Textually, the point tends to be “You did something wrong”, which is a much sharper and more direct criticism.
  • Text is often too blunt and explicit — it’s hard to say that someone has been inappropriate without stepping on social taboos and being rude yourself.
  • In non-realtime conversations, when someone says something inflammatory, it tends to produce a response of “I Must Respond!” in all the readers.  Even if I know there are a lot of responses, which might already take this person to task, the desire to say something can be overwhelming.  By contrast, in a real face-to-face situation, everyone might start shouting at once, but it usually quickly dies down to one person making the point first and everyone else hearing it; this cuts down somewhat on the dog-pile effect.

So the question is, can we improve on this?  I have a few off-the-cuff ideas, but I don’t know if any of them are reasonable.  For instance:

  • Provide built-in concepts for emotional expression that are subtler than text.  Shadings of color are potentially expressive, but not universal — they’d probably require social convention to have any effect. (Emoticons are essentially an attempt at this, and illustrate how hard the problem can be — they are often badly misused.)
  • Roll up these expressions onto the message being reacted to, possibly as a single cumulative effect, to reduce the verbal onslaught.  (Slashdot kind of does this in its karma system.)
  • Distinguish between “near-real-time” and “later” in conversation; (subtly?) discourage this sort of emotional feedback more as things go along, to avoid the syndrome of people beating the dead horse.

Of course, these are still in tension with the problem of “I” vs “You” — done naively, these still come across as “you did something wrong”, since they adhere to the posted message, whereas the ideal would seem to have a connotation of “I’m uncomfortable” instead.  I’m not sure how to express that notion of discomfort in a way that is as subtle but effective as facial expressions in real conversation. The heart of the problem is that (especially in non-realtime conversation) the rest of the audience doesn’t have a good way to provide the sort of ambient feedback they do face-to-face.

Ideas?  I think this is a terribly interesting problem, and I suspect there are a bunch of experiments worth trying. (Note that dsr has a couple of good ones in the linked conversation — I’m especially intrigued by the general notion of participants being able to add what amounts to typed metadata.)

6 Responses to “Conversational Feedback”

  1. Chad Says:

    There are a number of comment systems out there that allow a thumbs up/thumbs down sort of flagging, where you can indicate a positive or negative feeling towards a piece of text without initiating a separate piece of text to do so. These systems are usually aggregate however, and can’t tell you what any individual participant in the conversation is feeling. But even in aggregate, if I see more negatives than positives, I’d think and reevaluate what I wrote. As you point out, /.’s Karma system is a derivation of this, but one with longer term pseudonymity effects.

    One similar system is in the forums of our new course management system. Instructors can rate or grade forum posts, usually on a scale with a predefined rubric, but it is a system that would be adaptable to other reflectives.

  2. Chad Says:

    Thinking about it, there is a place where I’ve seen aggregate metadata that reflects varied but useful thoughts on something; social bookmarking sites. Most social bookmarking sites allow individuals to tag a site with any number and variety of tags, and looking at the tag cloud related to a URL can be very informative.

    Conversation, however, is a much ‘faster’ medium, and not worth the energy for many to actually tag individual posts.

    As for the realtime aspect, I’ve been using Adobe Connect here for virtual meetings and virtual classrooms, and participants there can put up an icon or emoticon chosen from a list to show their current state. This icon shows up next to their name in the participant list, so even if they aren’t saying something directly themselves, the community can glance at that list and see quickly the various icons.

    The hardest part seems to be the emotion-over-time aspect. In a plus/minus rating system, or a color meter system, you could probably return the rating towards neutral over time (some sort of log function?) so that the older the post the more it will reflect the reality that over time we tend to let things go.

  3. Monica Says:

    My immediate thought is similar to some others that have already been expressed. People don’t craft thoughtful effective feedback designed to help the (to their minds) erring poster because that’s a lot of work. If, instead, people could choose from a palette of options for insta-feedback, you might get interesting results. Options could include “I’m uncomfortable”, “this makes me angry”, “stole the words out of my mouth” (positive is important too), and probably a few others. (This is off the top of my head.)

    Now we’ve all seen people try to stuff the ballot box out of personal grudges. By default this feedback should be private, and the poster of the comment being reacted to should be able to filter on source — participant in this thread, member of the community/my subscription list/my friend/etc, other signed-in user, anonymous. (These might not be exactly the right groupings.) The point isn’t to make a public scene, which can spiral out of control, but to give the poster the kind of data he would get from body language if he could see us.

    Possibly there should be a way for the poster to attach the equivalent of “I get it and I’m sorry” to the comment; he can post that down-thread but people might not see it. Or maybe he can freeze feedback?

    Just thinking out loud here (and going to be off the net soon for a little while, so wanted to get this out rather than resurrecting it when everyone else has moved on).

  4. Justin Says:

    @Chad: Yeah, I thought about the thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing — indeed, an earlier draft of the post mentioned the Facebook system. But my concern is that there’s a social asymmetry involved. It’s very socially acceptable, and rather lightweight, to give something a thumbs-up, but it feels much heavier and more consequential to give a thumbs-down. Again, it seems to come down to the “You did bad” thing, which feels like the tough nut to crack.

    The Adobe Connect thing is interesting, and a possible approach to the “me”/”you” problem, and I agree that it may make sense to cool the emotional feedback over time. I’m not sure how that interacts with the long-post-facto responses, but it’s an idea worth playing with.

    @Monica: Good point about the effort level. Indeed, I wonder if having an easy and lightweight way to send subtle messages might reduce peoples’ tendency to respond with verbal flames instead.

    I’m *personally* not too worried about the stuffing-the-ballot-box thing, but of course that’s because I tend to be CommYou-focused, and CommYou so far doesn’t permit true anonymity. (And may well not.) There’s a danger of sock puppeting and such, but that’s at least a good deal more effort than in a system with anonymity. I agree that giving the poster some ability to understand the feedback may defuse that problem at least partway.

    And the idea of giving the poster some mechanisms to social-cue back is intriguing — hadn’t even thought about that side of the equation. Thanks for the thoughts, and hope to see you next week…

  5. Bergey Says:

    There are a couple of ways I see people negotiating this problem currently. The first is to criticize on one’s own blog, rather than in a comment thread. This tends to make the tone feel more I-focused, and separates the potential pile-on. It potentially means that the OP doesn’t read (or feel obligated to read) the responses, which can be good or bad.

    The other response is a direct reply to the OP. This is curiously opposite the first. I think the sense here is to communicate discomfort or outrage without grandstanding for a general audience. Maybe that’s the point in both cases; writing for two or three different audiences is really hard.

    I don’t know how either pattern would translate into CommYou, of course.

  6. Alexx Kay Says:

    “(Emoticons are essentially an attempt at this, and illustrate how hard the problem can be — they are often badly misused.)”

    Is that misuse the fault of the emoticon concept, or of the (mis-)user? A huge part of why text communication is hard is that it is merely a subset of the general “*Communication* is hard — and lots of people suck at it even face-to-face” issue.

    Personally, I think emoticons are a tool which has done more good than harm, on net.

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