'Mini U.N.' Online Platform Fights the Echo Chamber Effect

The Talkabout website provides a forum for civil discourse about controversial topics, including the recent U.S. election.

Like so many Americans, Julia Cambre was distressed by the divisive tone of the recent presidential campaign. She also worried that, post-election, Americans would just retreat once again to their respective digital echo chambers.

That's when it occurred to Cambre that the digital platform she helped develop, the educational video conferencing system Talkabout, might be tweaked to address the problem. Designed to facilitate small-group discussions in online classes, Talkabout provides an online video platform for bringing people together in scheduled, structured discussions. Click over to the Talkabout homepage and you'll see a list of scheduled online discussions on everything from Beginner Spanish to Palliative Care to Social Psychology.

"As someone who has never lived outside of California and has only a handful of conservative friends on social media, I was motivated to provide avenues for discussion outside of the one-on-one conversations we might have with friends, family members or neighbors," said Cambre, 24, a research assistant with the UCSD Design Lab in San Diego. "Ideally, we allow participants to step outside of the confines that our geography or social networks tend to impose."

The Talkabout platform started out in 2013 as a research project in the Human Computer Interaction Group at Stanford, and is currently used by thousands of students worldwide. Powered by Google Hangouts video chat technology, the platform was aimed at students enrolled in MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses - hosted by various universities and other institutions. But now Cambre and her collaborators have opened up Talkabout for discussions on the recent election, the current political climate and, really, the future of America.

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With the Election 2016 series, anyone can join in - you don't have to be an enrolled student to participate. Select an upcoming discussion and you'll be grouped with up to six other participants from across the nation. You can choose to identify as Liberal, Conservative, Independent or Other, and the system automatically creates balanced groups for 30 or 60-minute discussions.

Talkabout facilitators provide detailed instructions and discussion questions and each participant is asked to agree to a code of conduct. The election discussions are not monitored, but at any time a participant can call for a moderator who will step in to help out. The moderators, at this point, are those on the Talkabout team, including Chambre herself and principal collaborator Chinmay Kulkarni, assistant professor with the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

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"For these election-related Talkabout sessions, the discussion questions are actually largely borrowed from the set of questions that the New York Times Run-Up podcast used in their series about the election," Cambre said. The developers also worked with the creators of The Village Sqaure, a similar initiative dedicated to restoring civil discourse in American politics.

In a world of endless online options, the path of least resistance is to engage with the news, views and people we already agree with. By their very architecture, Facebook and Twitter encourage users to clump into like-minded groups. The core concept behind Talkabout is to break those patterns and, in the old-fashioned spirit of American civil discourse, encourage online discussions with people of varied political persuasions.

Feedback on the Election 2016 series has been encouraging so far, Cambre said, and she hopes that the open political discussions will follow the same path as the established classroom discussions.

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"In our previous experience with discussions in MOOCs, we've had some really interesting, encouraging results," she said. "For example, the median discussion time across several early courses was close to twice the recommended duration, and nearly half of the students voluntarily share email and social network information with people they talk with."

Talkabout isn't a commercial endeavor, but it's more than just an academic experiment, Cambre said: "This effort is really just intended to provide a safe space for people to discuss the election."

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