Culture

Kialo Is An Internet Unicorn

The Utopian Fantasy of Rational Debate On the Web

By Kevin Craft ·
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It’s now received wisdom that social and online media have deteriorated into bottomless pits of vacuity set on diminishing attention spans and I.Q. scores one mind-numbing meme or shamefully slanted editorial at a time. This position is so rampant few people would even bother debating it. Complaining about online media ranks second only to consuming online media as a large subset of Americans hobby of choice. And the vast majority of people who love nothing more than to hate what they simultaneously crave remain convinced that 1) the situation is only getting worse and 2) nothing can be done to remedy it.

This makes Kialo, a new website whose self-described mission is “empowering reason” and fostering rational discussions minus the “editorial noise” so characteristic of online chatter, interesting and possibly meaningful. It’s not every day you stumble across a site that bills itself as the opposite of what the internet is generally considered to be.

Kialo announced its inception this past August via a commendably modest blog post. In it, the authors insinuate there is a critical mass of people who find the “Internet Shouting Factory” exhausting and crave a place where “critical thinking, thoughtful discussion, and collaborative decision-making” rule the day. Kialo positions itself as a tool capable of going against the proverbial grain and presenting a digital platform where reason-filled discussion trumps inane carping.  

Sounds good, I thought to myself, as I established a free account on the site and took my first steps towards sharpening my rational debate chops.  

Users who enter Kialo will find themselves confronted by a series of opinionated statements, such as “Eating Meat is Wrong” and “The electoral college should be abolished,” each of which is accompanied by an image. These are the site’s theses or the issues users can debate. Each thesis takes a particular stance on a topic, thus inviting users to respond with claims that support the stance or disagree with it. Any user can propose a discussion topic, but only theses approved by “invited users” make it to prime time. The site says this level of control prevents trolls from sullying the discussion, though when it comes to determining how a person earns the coveted status of “invited user” your guess is as good as mine.

Click on a thesis or its accompanying image, and you’re taken to a page that shows the full thesis and a circular infographic that sort of looks like a less precise version of those seating charts found on StubHub. These infographics are one of Kialo’s proprietary design features: dual-colored visual representations of what the site calls the “discussion typology.” The green parts represent the claims that support the thesis and the reddish-orange represent those that oppose it.

It would take someone far better-versed in the intricacies of visual communication to explain how exactly a colored circle with linear stalks radiating from it in all directions is supposed to represent the evolution of a particular discussion. But upon my first foray into the site, I couldn’t help but find these infographics somewhat charming and arguably necessary. The risk a site like Kialo runs is presenting users with nothing but text box after text box, which is not exactly a winning aesthetic in what is increasingly an image driven online culture. Those splashes of color, indecipherable as they may be to a lay user like myself, break up the monotony of just reading.

But I digress—something Kialo is designed to prevent. Once a user has viewed a discussion’s full thesis and typology, the user can enter the discussion and see all the pro and con claims others have posted. The site asks that all claims remain concise and restrict themselves to one point, and it enforces these parameters by limiting the character count per claim to 500.

Upon my first visit to the site, I clicked on the thesis “the electoral college should be abolished” and found my way to the page where I could view all the affirming and refuting claims. I had no idea whether what I was about to read would constitute the reasoned discussions Kialo intends to empower and found myself pleasantly surprised. The bulk of the claims are well-written and express a clear point without tending toward the obnoxious. Users can rate claims based on the impact they have on the parent thesis and respond to claims with comments of their own. The enforced brevity of each claim often leaves a reader wanting more, but that seems to be the point. By ensuring every response is kept to a minimum, the site incentivizes users to banter back and forth with claims and counterclaims, thus propelling the discussion ever forward.

Since joining Kialo, I’ve perused discussions about abolishing private education in the United Kingdom, the ongoing controversy over certain NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, and the ethics of eating meat. I’ve learned a few things—Margaret Thatcher once described referendums as “a device of dictators and demagogues”—and felt provoked to at least consider responding to the various theses and claims I perused. (I imagine Kialo would be of incredible use to high school and college students looking for inspiration or for material they can rephrase or repurpose in term papers and other assignments.)

In a discussion about whether or not public schools should include philosophy in their curricula, I found myself heartened by the highly rated pro-philosophy claim “It (philosophy) compliments the more career-oriented or objective disciplines by creating more well rounded thinkers,” and dumbfounded by the highly rated anti-philosophy claim “The purpose of education is to teach people enough so that they are good employees and obedient citizens. Critical thought is detrimental to both these ends.” But this particular discussion thread proves that Kialo has thus far demonstrated itself adept of attracting users from both sides of socio-political spectrum, including those who would happily accept government subsidies to spend time in the New Hampshire woods contemplating life’s deeper meanings and those willing to see the fruits of their labor forward corporate growth and governmental flirtations with autocracy.   

I’d be lying if I said that upon reading the aforementioned anti-philosophy claim I wasn’t tempted to forgo decorum and post a response arguing the author was a poorly disguised fascist whose espoused idea was antithetical to rational thought and individual freedom. But I demurred. Most people believe rules govern personal behavior, but the truth is individual community’s cultural norms play a much more significant role in shaping how people interact with one another. I don’t know if Kialo has moderators on standby, ready to remove personal attacks masquerading as claims. But in all my time on the site I didn’t stumble across a single ad hominem style criticism, the kind that so regularly sully Facebook discussions and Twitter feeds. I imagine most users refrain from this sort of behavior simply because they don’t see anyone else on the site engaging in it.

The question facing Kialo is will the site generate enough forward momentum in its first six months to one year of existence to attract a loyal user group. So far, so good—it seems. Kialo has received lots of play on social media, one of the online realms it seeks to be different from, and every single day the site presents fresh new discussion topics just begging to be validated or rebutted. The aforementioned infographics aside, the site does risk coming across as too text heavy; when even traditional media companies are making a conscious effort to “pivot to video” and other more visually dynamic forms of storytelling, it’s hard to feel confident about the continued shelf life of digital-based writing (gulp!).

The internet is arguably one of the ficklest creations of the past 50 years. It’s impossible to predict which sites are destined to succeed and which will amount to nothing more than flashes in the pan. And some of the medium’s most successful sites (Google, Facebook) are just more sophisticated remixes of less dynamic originals (Lycos, Myspace). Kialo seems to have tapped into a vein few people thought existed: the desire of succinct discussion of prevailing topics of interest, unimpeded by trolls. Whether or not it can capitalize on this discovery over the long run is a question that should probably be debated on Kialo.

Kevin Craft writes on the internet, where he uses “ironic” exclusively in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word.

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