What’s in a name? What’s in a hat?


Riffing off of Fox’s post about Artificial Life and research ideas with these two questions. The first: does using a “fake” name make a person behave more or less civilly in online forums? (and the corollory: does using “real” names make people behave more or less civilly?) And secondly, how could we engineer civility into the technology or at least the structures that guide communication and dialogue?

Let’s start with the names we use; the personas we inhabit and the flow of dialogue. I’ve had this idea of using the Six Thinking Hats in an online dialogue. Like: what happens when you’re asked to adopt a persona when responding to someone. Maybe I’m a person who is bad at being too critical. Maybe I’m assigned the black hat (for identifying flaws and barriers). Here, I get to “hide” (positively this time) behind the hat. “It’s not me,” I can say. “It’s the guy in the hat. I’m just playing a game.” We did this in educational drama and theatre at university and it worked amazingly to help people who are more shy or those who always adopt the same ‘persona’ in public conversation e.g. the Voice of Doom becomes the Rabble Rouser.

The thing I always got stuck on is how to conduct the experiment (is a true experiment even possible here?) One idea could be to pick a random group of people from the same population (e.g. in response to a Craigslist ad); start two online conversations: one where people are asked to respond to some question/topical issue/idea (maybe you’d have to test on all these types) using their own names; the other where they have their own names but are asked to don a ‘hat’; and the other where they can use a pseudonym (perhaps that describes some aspect of who they are in a crowd).

The other thing that is often present on a site that you might not be able to reproduce is the culture and past history of conversations on a particular channel. For example, do I respond differently when I’m in a place that is supportive/aggressive/friendly/direct? What’s the first thing you do when you go to a place you’ve never been? You look around. You see how loudly people are talking to one another. You see what people are drinking. You adjust your behavior accordingly. In the same way, I ask questions differently on Burda open sewing community to the Wikipedia Foundation mailing list.

The question would be how you could conduct the experiment with that culture in the background and how you would control for the different ways that people perceive of that culture. e.g. ask folks to conduct a conversation on 3 different platforms and take a more qualitative approach – asking them questions about their experience. What they said, what they chose to leave out etc.

Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Illustration by Cathy Woods on Flickr, cc-by-nc-sa


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