Archive for the ‘AthenaBridge’ Category

Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government

August 9, 2009

Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.

To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale).  We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name.  Here are the four questions we asked:

  1. President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care.  Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  2. If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  3. How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
  4. How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)

These were the results:

  • 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
  • 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge

We find the last statistic particularly important.  26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge.  Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind.  That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.

The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions.  The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.

The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum.  We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:


  • 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.

For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves.  Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:


On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.

One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.  One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear.  Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.

We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.

So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion.  We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.

More data about our survey population:

  • 36% female, 64% male
  • 100% American citizens or residents
  • 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
  • frequency of commenting online:


If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here.  We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.

UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include

  • The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
  • The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation

The Machine is [Changing] Us

July 18, 2009

Michael Wesch gave a very entertaining and informative presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum this year.  He discusses how the technology we create eventually changes us.

He criticizes the one-way, sound-bite culture that mass media created; he raises the possibility that online collaborative tools can invent new ways of engaging in deeper and meaningful conversation.

More information about his ideas is here.  Watching this presentation in person was exciting; he deserved the standing ovation.

I look forward to Micheal’s ideas becoming mainstream.  Currently most folks in the Gov 2.0 world are still focusing on social media.  Social media are useful, but getting everyone together in one place online is just the first step; the next (and more complicated) step is collaboration on a deeper level.

Feedback from Teachers!

June 8, 2009

paIn association with the Pennsylvania Department of Education we opened our software up to feedback from dozens of teachers across the state.  They provided keen insight into how AthenaBridge (formerly DeepDebate) can be used in the classroom in many subject areas in addition to those that we mentioned before.

Here are some of the positive comments:

“This is an effective way to visualize and organize student opinion.

“At first it was a bit confusing to navigate through the options. However, after a few moments I got the hang of it. It was easy to respond to a specific point someone was making… Once I understood how the website worked, I found it easy to engage in discussion on different points of the debate.”

“I liked that you can continue discussions on topics. I also like the idea of being able to rate/evaluate someone’s opinion. I really like the ability for people to log in anonymously to have a say. This allows someone to really express themselves without the fear of judgment.”

“I liked the idea of AthenaBridge. It offers many possibilities for my classroom.”

“I am going to try to use this with my students.”

“Everyday, there would be a new topic for the students to debate to get them ready for the day’s lesson.”

“I could definitely hold back-and-forth debates connecting social issues to literature that we are reading. We could run polls in order to get primary research from students during research projects. Most importantly, though, I would use this program to communicate with students in other classes/ disciplines. I would love to have my English students debate/ converse with social studies students when we read To Kill a Mockingbird. We could even open debates across grade levels and use this for tutoring help and things of that nature. I love this program and would love to start using it ASAP.”

Here are some of the comments suggesting improvement:

“A simple task made too complicated.” (Our thoughts: “Yes, for simple conversations of just a few people it’s best to use standard forum software.  AthenaBridge is most valuable in situations where participants will respond to each other’s ideas and engage in an ongoing conversation.”)

“I liked reading the other responses, but should not have had to double click on them. All responses should be visible. I can limit from there.” (Our thoughts: “We’ve incorporated this feedback into the most recent version of the software.”)

I thought the layout was a little confusing. Also, there were no directions on how to use the interface.”  (Our thoughts: “The new design of the software has been fully field-tested and is fairly intuitive for the average sixth grader.”)

We thoroughly enjoyed this project, because we learned a great deal about how our software can be useful for teachers and students.  We’ll also be able to address many of the excellent suggestions as we build version 2.0 of the software.

We look forward to working with the State of Pennsylvania and the creative ways teachers will use AthenaBridge in the future.  As we hear of other innovative ways to use AthenaBridge in the classroom, we”ll be sure to share them here on this blog.

Contact Us

If you’d like to bring AthenaBridge to your school district or organization, be sure to reach out and let us know!

Exploring a Model for Peer-to-Peer Learning

May 20, 2009

2013 Update: AthenaBridge software is free for classroom use in grades 5-12.  For example, find examples on our homepage or drop us a note at to get started.

We were invited to speak at Georgetown University’s Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Summer Institute. With about 350 participants, this was the Institute’s largest year ever.

The topic of our session was peer-to-peer learning and how AthenaBridge can significantly increase the bandwidth of communication in a classroom. The following diagram shows the difference between the standard broadcast model of education and peer to peer learning; the two can be used together in a very powerful combination.

Broadcast and Peer to Peer

These peer-to-peer conversations can occur anytime:

  • Before a lecture: identify the best ideas from the students to incorporate in the lecture that follows
  • During a lecture: real-time integration of broadcast and peer-to-peer
  • After a lecture: continuing the conversation until the next lecture

AthenaBridge software has been used in classroom settings ranging from middle and high school to colleges and universities.

There are some things that one simply shouldn’t learn from their friends (like how to become a surgeon), but in others fields (philosophy, history, civics, etc) learning from fellow students is essential. In some fields, learning occurs best by listening and in other fields learning occurs best by expressing ideas and receiving feedback.

With the structure that AthenaBridge provides, students can provide constructive feedback on each other’s ideas and turn disagreement into opportunities for learning.

Integrating VSAS and wikis into a single workflow

May 18, 2009

Wikipedia is the most well-known use of wiki software.

Wikis are tools for creating documents that reflect a consensus position. The defining feature of wiki software is that anyone who has access to a wiki document has the ability to edit it. The most current version is available to everyone at the same time. Wikis have been around for a while, but they have become more popular as businesses, non-profit organizations, and government agencies embrace collaborative tools.

VSAS (the enterprise version of AthenaBridge) is a tool that works very well with wikis, because it helps the participants identify the common ground and the points of disagreement before they start to write the consensus document using a wiki.

How Wikis and VSAS are Different: Two Scenarios

VSAS helps organize many ideas in the form of a conversation map; related ideas are displayed near each other. VSAS is different from wikis, because none of the ideas that people publish can be edited by anyone else.

To illustrate why this is important, we’ll create an example scenario where three people are editing a wiki. Person #1 writes the first draft. Person #2 edits the first draft. Person #3 comes along and edits what Person #2 wrote. This situation will work fine as long as each person that comes along is making improvements to the document. If Person #2 makes the document worse, then Person #3 will not be able to see Person #1’s original contribution unless they know to look for it.

If we imagine the same three people using VSAS to accomplish the same task, we will notice some distinct advantages. Person #1 writes the first draft just like before. Next, Person #2 comments on the draft. When Person #3 comes along, she will see both the first draft and Person #2’s comments and will be able to comment on both– not just the most recent version of a wiki.

As additional people come along, they will be able to see the first draft and all the comments. If they were using a wiki, they would only see the most recent version of the document, and they would have to sift through all the previous versions of the document to see the comments of other participants.

Integrating Both Tools into One Workflow

After all the thoughts are captured in a conversation map, then it is time to summarize them in a consensus document like a wiki. In fact, it might be very useful to create to consensus documents– one on the pro side and one on the con side. Because VSAS measures the credibility of each participant, it is possible to grant access to the wiki documents to just the most credible particpants on each side.

Using VSAS in addition to wikis has several significant advantages:

  1. Diversity of ideas improves the quality of ideas: With just a wiki, previous versions all idea are not readily available. Wikis have an additional assumption that every edit is an improvement. VSAS does not rely on that assumption and instead records and displays each idea.
  2. Less work for the document’s creator: When participants comment on each other’s ideas, they will synthesize all the comments for you, so that you as the document creator are not left with the monumental task of integrating everyone’s contradicting feedback.
  3. Less work for the colleagues who are providing feedback: If their ideas are already present as someone else’s feedback, then they can indicate their support of those ideas rather than having to create them on their own.
  4. Reduces the risk of groupthink: VSAS can allow anonymous feedback if necessary, to ensure an honest conversation that is not disrupted by office politics.

How to handle large conversations online

May 18, 2009
Standard layout of blog comments

Typical layout of blog comments, representing the 120 comments to this article

Same blog comments with color. Same color indicates agreement.

Same 120 blog comments with color added (Same color = agreement.)

Same blog comments mapped in DeepDebate

Compress the blank space top-to-bottom and it looks similar to our style of maps.



This is what the same 120 comments actually look like in a AthenaBridge conversation map. This looks complex, but compared to the comment section of this blog, which has the same 120 comments, it only takes up 4% of the vertical space. Most importantly, related comments are displayed right next to each other, to make browsing more efficient.


Blog comments cannot handle large conversations. The above images make a side-by-side comparison possible to see what the same conversation from the comment section of this blog looks like in an AthenaBridge conversation map.

There are several significant advantages of AthenaBridge over the format of blog comments:

  • Blog comments are trapped in the vertical dimension. They do not take advantage of the horizontal dimension, and therefore take up much more space on the screen (see the images above). In this particular example the AthenaBridge conversation map displayed the same amount of information while only using 1/25th of the space.
  • AthenaBridge conversation maps preserve context; related ideas are right next to each other. With blog comments, often related ideas are pushed so far apart from each other, they won’t even show on the same screen.
  • Blog comments are not color-coded to indicate agreement or disagreement. Color coding provides an executive-level overview to understand which comments are in agreement with each other even before you read them.
  • Unlike AthenaBridge, blog comments do not ask participants for a summary of their comment. Having summaries makes browsing the conversation much more efficient.
  • Blog comments are free-form and do not challenge the user to categorize their response. Simply asking participants in a conversation whether they agree or disagree helps to limit out irrelevant responses. This can significantly increase the quality of conversation.
  • The comment software on this blog does not have a rating function so, unlike with AthenaBridge, a reader has no way of differentiating between the best comments and all the others.

Case Study: 12 Angry Men

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The conversation that we used in this case study comes from the iconic movie entitled 12 Angry Men (1957). This movie documents a jury’s deliberations in a murder trial. The movie provides a powerful example of what one person with conviction and logic can do to change the course of a life-and-death decision.

(Interestingly, the idea of a completely male jury wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows in 1957. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court ruled that women should be allowed to serve on juries.)

The proposition– or topic sentence– in this debate is “The defendant in 12 Angry Men is guilty of murder.” There are eight primary arguments which support this proposition:

  1. The lady across the street saw the defendant stab the victim.
  2. The man living below the victim’s apartment heard the argument and identified the defendant running down the stairs.
  3. The defendant had a motive to stab the victim.
  4. The victim was stabbed in the chest with a knife that is traceable to the defendant.
  5. The defendant has no alibi, therefore he must be guilty.
  6. The defendant’s background indicates he is likely to be guilty.
  7. The evidence is sufficient to remove all reasonable doubt.
  8. The defendant had sufficiently competent legal representation to ensure a fair trial.

In total, there are 120 comments in this conversation and the entire conversation is displayed in the comment section of this blog. You’ll see a few of the comments multiple times because they are applicable in more than one place.

Once you’ve skimmed the comment section, you might want to look at the same 120 comments displayed in this AthenaBridge conversation map to experience the difference firsthand.

Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

What makes AthenaBridge different?

May 18, 2009

AthenaBridge provides structure to make online conversations of all sizes more productive. You might ask, “Wait– how large can these conversations get?!” Well, because AthenaBridge is hosted on Amazon’s Elastic Computing Cloud, there can be millions of people in the same structured conversation.

The quality of a typical conversation– either online or face-to-face– decreases as the number of participants increases due to a lack of structure. The key is to provide just enough structure so that the conversation improves as more people join; this is a big challenge, and it’s one that we’re passionate about.

AthenaBridge helps to find the best ideas on each side of an issue and opens those ideas to critical analysis. It’s not enough to just list pros and cons; we must follow up and dig deeper to get past sound bites and talking points.

There are several advantages of the AthenaBridge method:

  • Efficiency: Creates a map of each conversation for simpler navigation of complex conversations
  • Quality: Sorts the highest-rated ideas to the top to make the most of your time
  • Scale: Allows an unlimited number of simultaneous participants to collaborate in the same conversation. More people = more ideas. Having more ideas is better as long as you have a system like AthenaBridge to empower the participants to separate the good ones from the uhh… not so good.
  • Structure: Can be used to provide structure for almost any type of conversation- collecting feedback, multi-linear instant messaging, group brainstorming, two-sided debate, etc.
  • Credibility: Track of each participant’s reputation over time, and find out who your superstars are
  • Logic-Based: Opens all ideas to logical discussion based on facts, assumptions, logic, and definitions
  • Optional Anonymity: Anonymity, if used correctly, can be critical to creating an atmosphere of honest dialogue. Tied to reputation and credibility, the risk of abuse is minimal.
  • “Red Team” Analysis: Giving a voice to dissenting opinions, or even assigning people in your organization to take a divergent view and challenge conventional wisdom is essential to reducing the risk of groupthink.
  • Common Ground: Using the map, participants can visualize the common ground so you can move forward as a group on the items with which you agree, and focus on the disagreements when appropriate.
  • Context: The same exact conversation can exist in many contexts across many URLs. This means you can engage many different audiences in the same conversation without them having to leave the websites they are on. If you’re interested in doing this, please contact us for more information.

However, there are several barriers to adoption in many organizations:

  • Logic-Based: Some people are afraid to have their ideas open to constructive feedback and do not want honest dialogue. (What are these people doing in your organization?!)
  • Unconventional: It’s a commonly held assumption that, as more people join a conversation, the less productive it gets. That’s generally true for face-to-face discussions. AthenaBridge software creates the possibility of harnessing the intelligence from very large conversations using just the right amount of structure.
The best time to use AthenaBridge is when you’d like to organize a lot of ideas from a bunch of people. AthenaBridge will not produce an absolute answer, but it can arrange the group’s thoughts so that you can make an informed decision in a short amount of time.

For information about our software, please visit our page of frequently asked questions or these articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.