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Web App Facilitates Better Online Conversations

two men and a woman

A team of researchers from Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters has released a new web application aimed at keeping online conversations on track.

The Faciloscope app, developed by faculty and students in MSU’s Writing, Information and Digital Experience research center, provides rapid, real-time analysis of how online conversations are developing.

All too often, online conversations, like those that take place within informal learning and discussion environments, such as Internet forums, a comments section or social media, stray off topic and become unproductive exchanges that may even become abusive, said Bill Hart-Davidson, WIDE senior researcher and associate dean for graduate education for the College of Arts and Letters, who is a member of the Faciloscope research team.

That’s where Faciloscope, a new kind of comment analysis technology, can help and may even be useful in detecting trolling behavior.

To use the app, a moderator must simply copy a conversation and paste it, in plain text, into the text box of the app and click the submit button.

Faciloscope then reads the text and looks for “moves” that people make that affect the overall dynamic of a conversation – moves that can keep it going or shut it down.

The conversation is broken down, using a machine-like algorithm trained to recognize three basic functional moves participants make that move conversations along.

“The Faciloscope takes the text of the conversation and produces a visualization of what facilitation moves are happening in that conversation,” Hart-Davidson said. “But what’s important to understand is that it doesn’t evaluate any of the substance of the discussion. It’s only looking for the structure of the conversation that tends to keep it moving, that tends to invite other people in and that tends to make connections between what people are saying.

“In a way, the Faciloscope is paying attention to those little cues that we sometimes take for granted as humans but that are really important in forming the fabric of a conversation or a deliberative exchange.”

Originally developed as a tool for science museums in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina, Faciloscope is part of a larger WIDE research center project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which focuses on enhancing techniques for informal learning in science.

However, as word of the app has spread, it has become clear the tool can serve a wider purpose.

For example, the North Carolina-based organization SpeakUp NC is exploring how Faciloscope can foster better discussions and public interaction on sites operated by newspapers, civic organizations and the like.

“What SpeakUp NC and our partner collaborators have in common is they all try to use the Internet and online forums to raise the level of public engagement and have meaningful conversations without devolving into ugly shouting matches or abusive language,” Hart-Davidson said.

Besides Hart-Davidson, the other members of the Faciloscope research team include:

  • Ryan Omizo, who led the app development as a post-doc researcher in WIDE and a fixed-term faculty member in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Omizo is now an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island.
    Minh-Tam Nguyen, WRAC Ph.D. student and WIDE research assistant
    Ian Clark, undergraduate research assistant, who has since graduated with a major in experience architecture from the College of Arts and Letters. He now works as a user experience analyst at Auto-Owners Insurance.

“We’re not looking to replace the nuance of human conversation with automated robot responses, and we are not trying to replace anyone’s judgment,” Hart-Davidson said. “We hope to demonstrate that we can do smart things with machine learning and robots of various kinds that help humans achieve human goals.”

William Hart-Davidson, Ryan Kilcoyne via MSU Today

- PHOTO: Ian Clark, Minh-Tam Nguyen, and William Hart-Davidson (Photos by Pete Johnston)

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