Can Design Make Online Debate Less Toxic?

A web concept by Artefact looks for common ground in non-partisan terms to get ideas–and real-world actions–flowing.

Artefact, the Seattle-based technology product design studio, is best known for producing brilliant interaction design for wearable technologies and gadgets. But in a recent internal project, called Civic IQ, the team at Artefact is attempting to redesign political discussion in America. What spurred the shift? According to newly made American citizen (and Artefact Principal) Rob Girling, it was frustration with the basic mechanisms of democracy today. “I’ve become cynical,” he explains. “In some ways, American democracy has never been worse than it is now. We’re trying to create tools that let people take on the problems that our leaders appear to be unable to solve.”


Civic IQ was born from a talk Girling gave at a recent conference, in which he floated the idea of building a platform for finding political consensus online. He was stunned at the positive reaction. Back in Seattle, he gathered a team of designers and started fleshing out an idea for a system that he calls “a scaffold for ordinary people to create real solutions together.” The idea is to connect like-minded people with a series of subtle questions, rather than grouping them by party, and give them a space to develop proposals to specific policy problems–not unlike Finland’s new Citizens’ Initiative project. It hopes to be a kind of web-based think tank for the average citizen. “The idea behind Civic IQ is to create a megaphone for a lot of very disparate voices to find consensus, and to voice those ideas to our elected representatives,” says Girling.

Strong Opinions, Weakly Held

In his 2008 book, The Big Sort: How The Clustering Of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop argues that Americans have been on a long, slow trajectory towards political extremism. His reasoning lay in a shift that took place in the 1960s, when America began to self-organize into communities of neighbors that shared political views. In doing so, we stopped having daily interactions with people who held different beliefs–we no longer had to be civil with our bleeding-heart liberal neighbor every morning–and lost our sense of decency and commonality.

In a sense, this is the very problem Civic IQ seeks to solve, using a carefully designed user interface that detects shared beliefs based on a series of questions. The crucial thing here is that you’re not asked about your party affiliation right off the bat. Rather, users receive a “fingerprint” based on their answers, that organizes their views into a hexagonal matrix rather than a binary labeling system. It’s entirely possible (in fact, it’s likely) that a registered Republican and Democrat could overlap on certain nodes in the matrix, like “social progressivism” or “individualism.” The idea is to find points of consensus, rather than divide users into camps. Users can up-vote specific issues to show their support, rather than ascribing to generalized political platforms.

Proposals, Not Demands

Perhaps the biggest difference between Civic IQ and other open government platforms is that the system is designed to produce full-fledged proposals, not generalized demands. Once a topic receives enough points, it moves into a brainstorm phase where users build a plan of action. So rather than gathering a petition of signatures for the president on’s We The People site, users would work together on a detailed proposal to tackle a specific issue. The most popular issues are unpacked into a collaborative document where stakeholders can draft and edit a plan.

It’s the full proposal that is eventually voted upon, rather than a one-liner issue. So rather than asking Congress to, say, “make school lunches healthier,” the Civic IQ system would deliver a detailed proposal for how much it would cost to make lunches healthier, and where such funding could come from. According to Girling, this sort of informed brainstorming has never been more attainable, thanks to the wealth of government data available to the public. “Using openly available government data, you’d be able to simulate the economic impact and model the outcome of a particular proposal,” he explains.

It’s important to keep in mind that, at this point, Civic IQ is just a concept. It’s unclear what would happen to policy proposals that make it through the site’s vetting process. Successful proposals, explain the designers, “will receive full media and lobbying support from the Civic IQ policy platform team,” which suggests that the site will have an acting arm in Washington. Another possibility is that Civic IQ could be absorbed by the Open Government Initiative to act as an auxiliary to existing petition platforms, like We The People. Or it could simply stand on its own as an Internet-based activism platform–which, as the viral response to SOPA demonstrated last year, can be a significant force for real-world political action.


Right now, it’s simply a meditation on how to make political discussions on the Internet more productive. The next step is funding it–according to the team, they’re hoping that a Knight Foundation News Challenge on open government could support the platform’s development.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.