7 January 2010

Britain Thinks: Wisdom of Crowds or Mob Rules?

Have just decided to show some practical support for new internet site Britain Thinks which looks like it could be jolly good fun. At the moment the interface is a bit sparse, I imagine it's intended to be a sort of social networking site with an agenda of debate. Well, we have loads of social networking opportunities, but debates not so much. So they've opened the site with a number of debating tools.

Basically you can go to a topic, there's voting buttons and a neat flashy type widget that plays videos. Obviously the videos are all, or mostly, the starting content, mostly minute long soundbites, but I saw one sort of documentary style piece as well. Inevitably there's a comment box and lots of rating facilities and so on and so forth.

So you watch the videos, you read the comments, you vote on the voting panels and you do so having signed up for an account.

Initial thoughts?

Well, I'm a bit disturbed that for a substantial site, or at least a site that purports to be all about the substance of debate about everyday issues, it seems quite bitty. In my cursory inspection it seemed quite difficult to flit from clip to clip, the tumult of opinion seemed quite random. As someone who likes a good organised debate I was quite dismayed that there was nothing there to get your teeth into.

I have to say the site was only launched on Monday, as such it's probably a more technical achievement at present than an instant classic of web design. Things I would hope to see in the future:

  • I am a user, but I have no acces to edit my account profile! Oh noes!
  • There are other users but they have no visible public profiles.
  • The debate pages are designed cleanly from a graphic design POV but this masks an underlying incoherence in conceptual structure. Is this op ed Twitter where statements of length are to be frowned upon?
  • I think I would like to be able to aggregate debates and even run them from within the personal profile I don't yet have. This would help enormously with, my final point...
  • The content is grouped by topic and videos are star-rated but the arguments are not streamed like an essay, you just get assaulted by a little bit about this and then a little bit about that. The topics are huge and being banged around in an opinion pinball machine is weird. If topics had administrators who applied some sort of taxonomy to the issues this would help a bunch. For example in a debate about education comments could be labelled "teachers", "exams", "government", "parents", "students", "curriculum" so that you could watch streams of comments about one sub-topic.
Having said all that I think the idea of using the web as a speaker's corner is a great idea. Usually the forum for issues are controlled by government or some half-baked subset of functionality offered by a social networking site built, primarily, for other purposes.

I would love to see Britainthinks become something that gets referenced on the news when emotive news stories arise, I'd love to see its clips being used in Question Time and things like that. If the man on the street can vent a sophisticated opinion at home and be watched by people who are going to entertain his ideas seriously and respond in kind that's a great leap forward in net based political interaction.

I imagine it will also be a home for people to vent shocking stupidity and vile hate speech, but that's as important.

If you are reading this, and you're British I urge you to support this initiative, I think it's a winner. DISCLAIMER: In 2006 someone sent me an invite to link to their profile on something called "Facebook". I looked at the site, decided it was rubbish, it would never work, so I never accepted the invitation. My powers of prediction should be measured by that opinion...


  1. Backing a heavily flawed BritainThinks con and ignoring facebook cos it will never work.

    think will leave britain thinks :)

  2. Er... thank you Anon, I think. Although your powers of vagueness do boggle me somewhat...

    If you mean what I think you mean then I am curious to know:

    Why is BritainThinks a con? In what way are they taking advantage of gullibility and how do they profit from it?

    Also I think you may wish to re-read my disclaimer. It was intended to be a "what do I know" kind of comment as in:

    When I saw Facebook years ago I thought it was rubbish and would never catch on. Now I think BritainThinks is a good idea in principle and may catch on if handled correctly. But what do I know?

    I continue to find BritainThinks in it's current incarnation to be difficult to use and somewhat underwhelming. I also note that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of activity at their end. I think it was an unwise move to spend so much money on advertsing, drive about the country promoting and then just disappear.

    So maybe this will go down the pan. But I still like the idea and I don't see how it's a con...