When does an online exchange come to a conclusion?
The question may seem simple, but the answer is not so obvious: exchanges conclude when nobody is contributing any more. Some platforms generate a de facto conclusion (for example, by preventing anyone from contributing beyond a certain deadline), whilst others impose no limit, leaving threads to die away for lack of protagonists. But the absence of new contributions does not mean that the exchange actually got anywhere. Did everyone get a chance to have their say? Did every point of view get a hearing? Did participants find points on which they could agree or accept a minimum consensus?
We don’t know.
It makes little sense to criticize Facebook or Twitter for not letting constructive discussions develop, since they were not designed for that purpose. Yet we ought to be realistic: more often than not, choosing a platform is a default choice rather than a reasoned one. One consents to work with what is simple, where one’s network is to be found and where one finds people whom one wants to debate with. Not to take account of such criteria means is to risk finding oneself on a site that is not used or not used very much. When it comes to choosing between discussions that are structurally flawed or no discussions at all, it is clear that the ‘digital agora’ is going to be difficult to achieve.
In this context, rather than waiting for public sites that are both popular and (better) suited to debate, it would be useful for every internet user to ask themselves about their online behaviour and the ways that they use and/or avoid the facilities offered by their favourite platforms. This will not change those platforms. But taking a critical step back could be one way to overcome their intrinsic limitations.
Photograph by image_less_ordinary