About this debate

Some stories aren’t well-suited to linear narrative. Some issues aren’t best explained from a single perspective. So how do you take the deep knowledge of specialists and find ways to stir it together with a broader community in which there is hidden expertise?

Over the years we’ve done a series of debates on cultural issues at ArtsJournal. The idea was simple: find the dozen or so people you’d most like to hear from on an issue, frame the issue in a provocative way, and set the experts to blogging for a week. We’ve had lots of smart people, and, for the most part, the debates have been vigorous and thought-provoking. But we noticed something. Often the most insightful and interesting comments came from commenters who followed the blog and decided to join in.

Lesson #1: There are a lot of smart people out there, and if presented with a thoughtful conversation about an issue they care about, they’ll not only contribute meaningfully to it but they’ll help define the debate. The “audience” wasn’t just passive, it participated

There were some downsides to our blogs. First, the format was still linear. And as arguments got denser, it became more difficult to follow them. Second, the commenters were treated as second class citizens, relegated to side-column discussions except when “official” participants referred to their arguments. We tried to highlight the best of the audience comments in the main stream of the blog, but it was still unequal status. Third, because the discussions got so dense, it was difficult for readers to untangle the mass of ideas and find pathways through the discussion.

Lesson #2: There’s an important role for a “moderator” or “discussion leader” to curate a discussion in ways that help participants and readers find where the best value is. This role is similar to what traditional journalists do when they talk to sources and wrangle information into a narrative. It’s unlike what traditional journalists do in that the information-gathering happens in real time and in public, and the journalist rides the discussion and tries to shape it.

So we’re trying an experiment. This discussion (January 23-27) brings together prominent arts administrators, artists, curators, and journalists. The issue: In an age of greater transparency, should cultural institutions take the lead by assertively using their expertise to cut through all the noise, or should they follow by taking advantage of new technologies to tune into their communities and better understand what they want.

There are several innovations we hope will facilitate this discussion.

  1. The front debate page will be divided into three equal columns. One column will feature arguments on the “lead” side and another on the “follow” side. The third column will be for audience members who will identify themselves as being on one side or the other. In this way, the audience gets equal standing and is not subordinated to a “comments” section.
  2. Readers will be able to vote – once each day – on whether they lean more toward the lead or follow sides of the argument. The votes will be shown in a thermometer-like graphic, and over the course of the week readers will be able to see whether the community is influenced by the arguments.
  3. Arguments in posts will be linked to the places in other posts they are referring to. In this way, readers ought to be able to better follow threads through the week.

Many publications now have debates. Our hope is that this isn’t just another discussion but perhaps a new way to explore an issue that taps not just the expertise of a few but, rather uses that expertise to give voice to and empower the larger collective experience of the many.

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