And, because thats what the people want:
In Unchat: Democratic Solution for a Wired World, Noveck opens by discussing the necessity for deliberation in democracy, in her words, â€œDeliberation is a special form of speech structured according to democratic principles and designed to transform private prejudice into considered public opinion and to produce more legitimate solutions.â€ She continues by adding that technology in and of itself is not a solution in bettering democracy, but it can be used to such an end by creating- through software- a structure for deliberation. She then describes the design and use of her Unchat software, which is of course for sale to at http://www.unchat.com!
Noveckâ€™s main point before going into detail about just how Unchat works is that while the web has essentially been built out and formalized for commercial use and (especially) e-commerce, it has not adequately done so for political, social and cultural uses.(22) I would advance that while it is certainly the case that e-commerce has essentially worked out its kinks, these uses of the web are certainly on the rise, with the advent of commercial and free services that allow people to gather and deliberate on a variety of platforms to all of the aforementioned uses. Granted, Noveckâ€™s Unchat design is quite remarkable to me, but at this point it is not the only software in the running. (See Slashdot, Digg, Flickr, del.icio.us, Kuro5hin, WIKIPEDIA) In discussing the needs of an e-deliberation platform, Noveck outlines the following: Accessibility, no censorship, accountability, transparency, equality, pluralism, inclusiveness, staying informed, publicness and facilitation.
Part 2 of the chapter outlines how Unchat aims to fulfill these needs. It runs on free software and is designed to work for all common computing platforms. It appears to be unencrypted and â€œon an open portâ€ though her reasoning that having an â€œopen portâ€ promotes openness is questionable- if nothing else it leaves the computer open to exploitation in a number of ways. I donâ€™t believe that implementing security (including https encryption) would hinder the speech of participants, but would aid in keeping snoopers from accessing profile and library information that may not be intended outside the context of the chat. Is that against the nature of Unchat? I would say no, as protecting the privacy of the participants in what is ultimately a moderated forum should be considered.
Autonomy is dealt with in that the rules for deliberation can be modified based on the needs of the group â€“ though the way she outlines the hierarchal nature of the software, it may be up to the higher level administrators to define how discussions will operate and who is participating in them. Accountability and transparency are dealt with by forcing people to engage as themselves, â€œsignaling to the participant the seriousness of the exercise, thereby linking real life consequences directly to virtual conversation.â€ (27) Noveck believes that the recognized advantages of anonymity on the â€˜net work as disadvantages to deliberation because the user does not take their role as a deliberant seriously.
Unchat was designed to act as a real time conversational tool to simulate a real life conversation between people. According to their website it can be used asynchronously as well.
Unchat uses a roundtable-like representation to guide users into a situation where they feel engaged with each other in a recognizable setting without the reliance on intensive video technology. They have also considered its appearance and design so as to not alienate the technologically literate and illiterate from its use. I donâ€™t know how one could resolve a situation like this, but in its dealing with user autonomy and visual representation, I wonder if they have considered the effect of real life knowledge of each other chat participants might have, and how it effects the way they converse within the chat room. Consider an office-like situation, where there could be an established social order- will the fact that the communication is not face-to-face be enough to encourage all participants to engage freely, or will they bring the weight of their position (bosses, managers, secretaries, etc) with them, and engage each other as they would in the real world.
Unchat has a number of interesting features in facilitating deliberation- it is designed to be easy to use for moderators and users and even has a feature that allows the moderator to step out if they need to reacquaint themselves with the program or if they feel the discussion should go unmoderated. Roles are defined as Site Administrator, Topic Administrator and Unchat administrator, and while they are hierarchical, they do allow for multiple users to control a lot of the functionality based on how the chat is set up. One feature that I keep coming back to because it is such a good idea is the ability to not only speak, but also to shout and whisper. In Unchat, shouting is a function that allows a user to make an empowered, somewhat spontaneous exclamation to emphasize their point and step outside of the moderatorâ€™s control. They designed this specifically to allow for the kinds of spontaneous exclamations that occur in regular conversation, but as this is software, they have even built controls into the system to allow for the suspension of shouts if the user begins abusing that power. Whispering allows users to talk person to person without having their conversation appear in the main chat, which allows them to deliberate amongst each other before making a decisive statement.
The software features logging of chats for both archival use and instruction. One of its logs is used to monitor a moderatorâ€™s actions for potential abuses and to â€œstudy the effectiveness of different rule structures and their impact on the group.â€ They are considering adding search tools, threading and collaborative filtering to the archives. They also provide a â€œlibraryâ€ function that can be used for distribution of information for the entire group as well as individuals. Allowing libraries to be user searchable would be a great enhancement, with users designating private or public information, letting users â€œtagâ€ data with keywords that can be shared among other users and for easy recollection and filtering of the data in the libraries. This would effectively allow a delineation of data between users but also facilitate sharing of relevant information to interested participants.
In order to facilitate informed deliberation, Noveck has created impediments to directly entering a chat, allowing chat room administrators to force a user to interact with the content and enter the chat better informed and given context for discussion. It even allows for a counter point to any argument a user may make in its pre-chat quiz system, forcing the user to consider other points of view before she engages with others in the chat.
Noveck concludes by discussing the possibilities of future iterations of the Unchat and other deliberation software, including accounting for the advantages of anonymous speech, allowing emoticon-like non-verbal speech inclusion (though I would argue that users will have long figured out their own ingenious ways of engaging in yawns, guffaws etc without having it standardized in softwa
re), and other administrative and user-based tools and rules to effect deliberation. She closes by noting that we now realize how important media is for democracy, and that though it may be changing, its impact has not.
That last sentence is really something to think about, as our class has gone back and forth on the value of this new technology. As I interpret it, her point here (besides selling her software) is that technology is going to influence the way we engage no matter what, and we are at a point where we can influence the direction the relatively new technology of the web takes. Unchat, as it is described, is both evolutionary and revolutionary, and put to good use, seems like it could have a significant impact on the discussions of its users. It is evolutionary in that is building on accepted paradigms of chat, threaded and moderated bulletin and usenet discussion as well as face to face discussion. It is revolutionary in its attempts to democratize the discussion, harnessing the power of internet chat while reigning in the potential anarchy. One could argue that despite its openness, there will still be controllers- administrators and moderators who shape the discussion, the quizzes and the libraries to force users into a particular perspective, but at the same time this product seems to try to account for many of the internetâ€™s problems of discussion- shouting, dominant uses, jokers, flamers etc. It is absolutely a great first step.
I am really trying not just to deconstruct, but it seems extremely ironic to me that a software product designed to facilitate open discussion is apparently not open source, or even free. Open source software is software that allows anyone to look at the code, modify it and even create their own version if theyâ€™d like. The creator controls the copyright over the code but users are allowed to derive as they wish (depending on the license- I am generalizing here with the GNU Public License in mind) and add features and functionality to better suit their needs. If Unchat or an Unchat-like deliberation tool were to become a part of institutionalized democracy one would hope that at the very least it is designed around either approved standards or de facto accepted standards and protocols, if not fully open source to insure complete accountability and openness in its use. I may be off the mark, as the Unchat website really provides very little useful information about the product itself. Its server side is built on open software, but they make no mention of the availability of its code. If it is based on the GPL, they must make the code available upon request. It could be that they as they are in the business of selling service and support for the Unchat software, they may make the software itself available at no cost.
As I mentioned above, collaborative deliberation tools are taking shape on the internet, and while they do not take the very specific form of informed deliberation, they are intriguing nonetheless. I mentioned in my previous paper sites like del.icio.us and Digg.com, which are entirely dependant on user contribution and discussion. The latest buzz word in Silicon Valley is the term â€œ Web 2.0â€, with many people focusing on the future of the web as a user-centric, user created medium. Unchat seems to sit quite close to the idea of a person centric, collaborative discussion. With the advent of blogging, flash mobs, collaborative tagging, filtering and information gathering, there is potential for people actually step out of what was previously very much a one to many discussion with news and information filtering down through special interests. Earlier I mentioned tagging and how it could prove quite useful to a tool like Unchat in allowing users to access information quickly and on their own terms. Building in interfaces to online information resources that support tags could take their use even further.
Ultimately, the adoption and use of deliberation tools like Unchat could very much help inform citizens, and it is a fantastic start. I have to at least mention that deliberation tools like this made available from government will only be truly successful if there is a populous educated enough to use them and which has access to the internet (though they have sought to keep bandwidth to a minimum) and access to a PC of some kind. Unchat is a great solution to organizations, schools and the like, but a successful e-government initiative that used a tool like this would depend on nearly ubiquitous access, which we are still nowhere near and there is really no clear plan for accomplishing it. Still, this is exactly the type of work that must be done now so that we can insure it becomes a part of the democratic landscape in the future.