ViewPoints — streamlining online discussions

Internet | Building/Consensus
As Internet discussions have moved from primarily text-based environments (such as mailing lists) to the web, it has become possible to greatly augment the experience. Participants can quickly scan multiple discussions at once, and catch up on older discussions. The downside is that as barriers to entry and exit dropped, many more casual users could disrupt what were once small community discussions.

I introduce ViewPoints, a technique to further augment discusison experiences, and also to help socialize new users to those discussions. A user selects an icon to represent their viewpoint in response to a story or post, and that viewpoint is visible alongside their post for future readers. Effectively, ViewPoints are a way for people to express “me too” in a polite manner; or just as well, they can register disapproval without triggering a flame war.

There may be research efforts which offer techniques which resemble ViewPoints, but the technology is not to be found in any of the more popular online forum systems. What’s interesting is that, the concept has been around since the very first webserver which Tim Berners-Lee created at European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva:

“…anywhere on the CERN server that we created a subdirectory called Discussion, a new interactive forum would exist. It allowed people to post questions on a given subject, read, and respond. A person couldn’t just “reply.” He had to say whether he was agreeing, disagreeing, or asking for clarification of a point. The idea was that the state of the discussion would be visible to anyone involved.”
Weaving the Web (1999) p172.

The implementation of Viewpoints is on this Drupal server. I had actually implemented it two years ago on a custom-build collaboration server (when I drew most of the icons). This year I was able to easly port it to Drupal within perhaps a couple dozen hours of programming time.


Here’s the set of requirements I considered when building ViewPoints:

  1. There should be a range of opinions to assignable to points, represented by iconographic symbols, which cover a sufficient range of value-scales.
  2. A poster should be able to choose one of these symbols to represent a point they wish to make regarding the reference point.
  3. When displayed in a summary list, the icon should help direct the user to posts which they are looking to read.
  4. A reader should be able to register an opinion with an icon without needing to compose a post.
  5. This sum of opinions, should be presented in a convenient shortform of a “scoreboard”, and thus lending itself to an opinion poll.

For the choice and presentation, we seek an economy and clarity in our visual design, according to the guidelines of design guru Edward Tufte. Additionally, the use of ViewPoints should be evaluated by how effectively they improve the interaction among participants. As participant who learns about how qualifiers are applied will be able to concentrate on the skills they need to become more constructive in their interactions.

The fourth point above is perhaps the most revolutionary one. Under what circumstances would a choose an opinion without entering a message? My hypothesis is that users will see the communal good of not contributing to information overload. One way to architect this is to ration the number of posts allowed; this is beyond the scope here.

For the scoreboard, I will stop short of any recommendations as to how to weight the opinions. On Civilities, I am using the simplest of strategies, merely to count each person’s opinion equally. This assumes that the community is relatively honest and well-behaved. Nonetheless, it may be useful to architect in a flexible weighting system in larger communities; see more about research on trust metrics.

Traditional Approaches

Message Icons

The function of message icons is to allow the user to mark a message with an icon which will be displayed alongside the topic in a summary page. For example, here are the icons used by InfoPop (formerly Ultimate Bulleltin Board):

This display would seem to meet the first requirements, but in practice, the icons are not always used. The latter requirements were never really considered. The shortcoming is that the icons specify emotions instead of opinions; this is probably derived from popular use of “emoticons” in messaging systems. 

Peer Ratings

The “News for Nerds” site site Slashdot greatly popularized the use of peer ratings five years ago (more or less documented in a FAQ format). The system allows users to rate other posts by picking a rating modifier from this list: Normal / Offtopic / Flamebait / Troll / Redundant / Insightful / Interesting / Informative / Funny / Overrated / Underrated.

The catch is that rating is you don’t rate when you reply; the ratings are applied separately by moderators, which under a fairly complex system rotates among different users on the site (favoring the good contributors, as measured by their “karma”). A moderator can’t participate in a discussion. Each comment has a calculated total of its score, which is truncated to between -1 and 5 (and clicking on an individual comment will reveal the components of its rating). The utility of the score is that readers may choose a threshold score, below which comments will not be expanded, but merely linked.

Got it? The documentation goes on to explain how additional tactics have been devised to check users who try to “game” the system. All users are allowed to “meta-moderate” the system, by evaluating the moderated ratings based on their fairness. Got it still? 700,000 registered Slashdot can’t be wrong. Whether there is any magic formula in the rating system in sites that adopt the slashcode technology (which drives slashdot) remains to be seen. There are 90 sites which are listed as using Slashcode (the underlying code for slashdot), but many of them hardly feature any moderation, let alone discussions.

In summary, Slashdot’s rating system still misses some of the basic requirements stated above. There is no way for a would-be participant to choose to rate a post as part of, or instead of, a response. It’s very difficult to browse through Slashdot stories and get a quick understanding as to what kind of opinions are reacting to the story. It’s also difficult to see whether the Slashdot ratings actually improve the level of dialogue.


I introduce the ViewPoints icons as an effective way to combine opinions and ratings. The user should be able to register an opinion and, if necessary, compose a post to back it up. We expect that this can prove effective when displayed in a summary list or as a scoreboard for giving an overview of the community’s responses. Most importantly, by allowing a user to choose to register an opinion without composing a post, they can avoid the non-usefulness of being a lurker, and avoid the tedium of parroting responses like “me too” and “kudos”. The icons should represent a good range of responses, and I will explain them in detail below.

I’ve organized the opinions into four categories. The ones on the left are expected to be more commonly used, as they reflect simple opinions. I’ve used different colors for many of the simple ViewPoints icons.


These icons are generally meant for answering a proposal. A stop sign  indicates that a propsoal cannot be done. On the other hand, a green flag  suggests that that it can be done (a “green light” would not look striking enough). A compromise is offered by the caution sign , depicting that further research is needed.


The position column distinguishes a discussion of the validity of the facts from the actual viewpoint on the use of those facts. The respondant choose to indicate that the facts are   valid or invalid. They may also implicitly acknowledge validity by stating  agreement or  disagreement. These are represented by plus/minus to suggest that the agreement and disagreement is often the core of a poll and have equal weight (whereas an argument about validity cannot be judged by how many votes each side has). In this sense, these ViewPoints can lend themselves to an ad hoc poll. By contrast, conventional online community sytems cordon off polls in an entirely different part of the website.


You may want to give a more nuanced explanation of how you find the facts invalid. I came upon the idea of using three linked “puzzle pieces” to indicate the complete components of an argument: references, logic, and conclusions. The icon with all three  indicates that the point helps your understanding. It may otherwise  need references, or be incomplete in its conclusions. Most points can alternatively be dismissed if they  do not follow logically. This category itself can suggest any of the forty or so familiar logical fallacies (which are presented on the web by the Nizkor Project )

One exception to the semantic grading above is that when the middle piece is shown alone , it indicates the the point is poorly written .


By now you may be worried that all of the ViewPoints require you to state an opinion. I’ve added a couple of icons in this column which are value-neutral: a question and an anecdote , using conventional icons. These can’t be used as pure ViewPoints, but they can be useful in representing a post.

The other posts summarize a few process issues which arise in discussions. A table with books on it  indicates that the point is redundant of one written elsewhere– the respondent better suggest a link to the earlier resource.

Another favorite violation is the when a post is off-topic and thus potentially annoying for the other readers. How can one possibly depict what it is to be off-topic? I offerthe incongruous items of a pipe and a derby hat– which arranged as  might suggest an invisible man, but art appreciators will recognize these as two of the favored elements which appear through the paintings of the  surrealist René Magritte.

Lastly, there is what Slashdot calls “flamebait”, though I use the more civil word inconsiderate. This is represented by the boot, and the sharp eye can pick out that it appears to be stepping on a hand. Readers can think “give ’em the boot”. There was a temptation to use an icon showing a “flame”, but that imagery, while popularly associated with rude behavior in online discussions, is too overloaded.

Usage Patterns

  • Any point of discussion can become a quick poll.
  • A debate may develop between two parties; participants may score each point in the debate as it happened.
  • Meta-moderation works simply by applying ViewPoints to an existing post.

Looking Forward

ViewPoints are just part of a complete solution– technical and behaviorial– meant for improving the discussions on websites. The moderators of the site must set the tone for the type of discussions they want. They shouldn’t be afraid to devise strong guidelines for this site), and enforcing them. Other techniques I will write up later. ViewPoints strictly speak to address these needs:

  • Can a reader of a story quickly ascertain its value?
  • By understanding the value of posts, will users compose posts which match the quality desired by other users?

If we can demonstrate these, than I think ViewPoints will be a success.

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