Promoting Conscientious Discourse with Thought Swap

Promoting Conscientious Discourse with Thought Swap


Deborah Tatar
Deborah Tatar

Deborah Tatar, CHCI member and faculty in Computer Science (and, by courtesy, Psychology at Virginia Tech and an affiliate of the Program for Women and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech), has developed a web-based application called ThoughtSwap that is intended to promote conscientious discourse in face-to-face small groups or classrooms. Thought Swap is a targeted, ephemeral tool that enables people’s initial contributions to the discourse to be submitted anonymously. Anonymous initial contributions can be used, by themselves, to prompt discussion that includes a wider range of positions than might emerge without the protection of anonymity, thus grounding the conversation on a firm basis. As such, it changes the infrastructure of discussion.

ThoughtSwap has another key feature: by allowing the redistribution of contributions, it asks people to defend someone else’s position. That is, instead of asking people to explain their own positions---a request which often leads them towards using practiced words and degrees of elaboration---we may make them responsible for presenting someone else’s positions, asking them to extend their own imaginations to encompass why a person acting in good faith would respond the way they did. ThoughtSwap is one of a suite of tools developed and under exploration by ThirdLab that utilizes a philosophy we call zensign, that what we do not do with the tool can be as important as what we do. In this case, face-to-face discussion with a human facilitator or instructor remains the key activity. The technology just nudges that discussion to encompass a bit more of the elements that people might be difficult to say directly out loud.