Collective Argumentative Criticism in Informal Online Discussion Forums

By Lewinski, Marcin | Argumentation and Advocacy, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Collective Argumentative Criticism in Informal Online Discussion Forums


Lewinski, Marcin, Argumentation and Advocacy


One of the relatively uncontroversial claims regarding the internet is that it is changing the way we engage in public deliberation. Indeed, many communication technologies for which the internet is a vehicle have been used as venues for novel forms of deliberation. Argumentation analysts examine how these technologies function on a continuum from highly specialized tools (such as Group Decision Support Systems) for formal decision-making within various types of organizations (Aakhus, 2002a; Brashers, Adkins, Meyers, & Mittleman, 1995; de Moor & Aakhus, 2006; Rehg, McBurney, & Parsons, 2005), to tools for e-governance (Edwards, 2002; Ferguson, 2008; Wright, 2006; Wright & Street, 2007), to widely accessible technologies used in the computer-mediated public sphere for informal deliberations among ordinary citizens: online chats, Usenet discussions, Web forums, wikis, blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, and so on (Aakhus, 2002b; Benson, 1996; Jackson, 1998; Weger & Aakhus, 2003). Despite significant differences in function, design, management, and domain of use of such online technologies, all of them allow for large-scale deliberation, characterized by many-to-many, interactive communication to an extent hitherto unknown in public discourse.

However, controversy does arise over whether the change the internet has introduced to the ways people deliberate improves or deteriorates the quality of public discussions. Unsurprisingly, this question has been answered in various, often contradictory, ways. Enthusiasts of the new technologies for online deliberation argue the internet has the capacity to revive the very idea of democracy by providing deliberative venues where the voice of citizens can be heard and does matter (Blumler & Gurevitch, 2001; Hauben & Hauben, 1997; Rheingold, 1993). Such an optimistic position assumes that more active participation in public discussion leads to more extensive and intensive deliberation in which people can openly and actively scrutinize public arguments. Pessimists, however, maintain that the apparent freedom of internet discussions results in chaos punctuated by truncated exchanges full of unwarranted claims, irrelevant arguments, and unexamined objections (Davis, 1999; Sunstein, 2007; Wilhelm, 2000).

Primarily at stake in such normative assessments of online deliberation is the quality of argumentation given that "argument always has to be central to deliberative democracy" (Dryzek, 2000, p. 71). Scholars from distinct disciplines studying public deliberation (whether online or offline) largely agree on the centrality of argument in deliberative discourse, and share a basic understanding of argumentation as a verbal activity involving giving reasons for one's claims with the aim of convincing those who disagree. (1) Still, their respective theoretical frameworks accentuate different elements of the process, procedure, and product of argumentation (Wenzel, 1990), and thus engender distinctive accounts of the shape and quality of argument in deliberation. Notably, the bulk of attention in "deliberative theory" was initially devoted to conceptualizing broad, normative conditions of rationality in public discourse (see, e.g., Benhabib, 1994), rather than delving into the quality of actual arguments.

In order to strengthen the empirical adequacy of such normative theorizing, the proponents of deliberative theory increasingly turn towards "research that focuses on the actual happenings of deliberations" (Steffensmeier & Schenck-Hamlin, 2008, p. 22; see Bachtiger et al., 2010; Mansbridge et al., 2010). In such research, investigation of the quality of argumentative exchanges becomes a focal area of inquiry, as is evident in a growing body of studies analyzing actual deliberations, and online deliberations in particular (Dahlberg, 2001; Davies & Gangadharan, 2009; Davis, 1999; Graham & Witschge, 2003; Hill & Hughes, 1998; Janssen & Kies, 2005; Linaa Jensen, 2003; Papacharissi, 2004; Wilhelm, 2000; Wright & Street, 2007). …

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