Online Constellation of Opinions

By Gordy Slack

We often think of opinions as blunt things, binary and stubborn. But they are not necessarily so. Often, they just do not have a chance to assume their natural, nuanced, intelligent shape. Before they even have a chance to spread out, their finer appendages are amputated, caricatured by polls, and polarized by the feedback amplification effects of extremist blogs, talk shows, and websites.

A new website, the product of collaboration between the Berkeley Center for New Media and the U.S. Department of State, is designed as an exciting but civil place for opinions to exercise, shape up, and explore each other. Opinion Space, launched on the Department of State’s main website on March 15, is an analysis and visualization tool that employs dimensionality reduction algorithms to depict thousands of opinions on several issues in one simple, two-dimensional animated illustration. With just a little practice, a user can see where he or she falls in a field of opinions on a certain subject, but with much greater nuance than the typical red-state/blue-state representation. The site describes its mission as an attempt to “move beyond the usual linear left-right spectrum to display ‘constellations’ of opinions.”

The tool features colored pulsing circles distributed in a field that represents the full diversity of opinion on the subject being addressed.

The site gives users a forum for expressing their opinions directly to the Department of State, encourages the exploration of other opinions, and helps to “break down the toxic effects of polarization,” says Ken Goldberg, the multi-talented director of the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM). Another major objective of the program, says Goldberg—which may, ultimately be much more important than art or opinion sharing—is to help the Department of State troll the world for new insights on hot issues.

When a user first logs in, she is asked to give sliding-scale responses to five assertions. For example, “The most urgent security threat to the United States is a terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon.” If the user strongly agrees with that assertion, she pulls her slider all the way to the right. If she strongly disagrees, she pulls it to the left. Other questions in the set reflect opinions on the role of diplomacy, climate change, food politics, and the empowerment of women. The degree of agreement with other users on the five assertions determines each user’s position on the graphic, or “map” as Goldberg calls it.

Everyone in the world (U.S. citizen or not) is encouraged to register. After they have answered the five questions that plot a five-dimensional space on the map, users write a few sentences in answer to a discussion question. For example, when the site was first launched, the question was “If you met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what issue would you tell her about, why is it important to you, and what specific suggestions do you have for addressing it?”

The site also asks users to rate the answers of other users on two scales: first on whether they agree and second on whether they find an answer “insightful.” Making this distinction has a surprisingly illuminating effect, says Goldberg: “It encourages people to explore and even appreciate opinions they do not share. But responses to your micro-essay determine the size and color of your dot. The algorithm used to do this uses a nonlinear scoring function that amplifies ratings based on metric distances.

The more people agree with your comment, the larger your dot grows. The more they find your comment insightful, whether or not they agree with it, the greener it becomes. The less insightful people find it to be, the redder it is. Big green dots that are far away from your own dot are likely to be the most interesting; they express opinions that the crowd has chosen as insightful, but which are quite different that your own.

The position distance information is used as a scoring metric to combine data to rate each comment. Then the program adds all the ratings together and posts the top-rated users on its “leader board.” If you just want to look at opinions that have been selected by the “wisdom of the crowd,” you can go directly to the leader boards.

The site, now six weeks old, already has about 3,500 registered users. Only about 200 dots can appear on the map at any one time, though, and these are randomly chosen to represent the range of opinions from the full field.

“State is very….,” Goldberg chooses this word carefully… "“traditional” when it comes to technology. But they are trying to adopt new approaches to get dialogs going and to get their message out, both here in the U.S. and abroad.”

In November 2009,Goldberg was approached by Alec Ross, the Department of State’s Senior Advisor on Innovation, who was looking for ways to broaden the use of technology to promote the Department of State’s image and to solicit ideas that reflect more than re-treaded stereotypes.

“Insights are hidden by nature and tend to be distributed,” says Goldberg. “How do you find an insight that is buried like a needle in a haystack?” he asks. “If you can fine-tune the wisdom of crowds, you can do it,” he says.

By “fine-tuning” Goldberg means tweaking the algorithms so that the really insightful comments rise to the top. One impediment to this, as with Google’s page-ranking system, is that “older” users, who have had more time to grow big dots to represent their popular opinions, will tend to get more hits and thus remain at the top of the field, even though newer users may be just as popular if they had more exposure. To correct for that, Goldberg is allowing the popularity of entries to decay over time, giving newcomers a foot in the door.

Since its launch in March, the site has stuck with one question, but soon the questions will begin to change more frequently, Goldberg says. The hope is that Opinion Space can be responsive to world events, soliciting ideas and encouraging creative engagement when crises arise. Natural disasters, volatile regional conflicts, as well as ongoing crises are all subjects that can use creative contributions.

The State Department is interested in reaching out to—and hearing the viewpoints of—not only U.S. citizens, but those of other countries too.

“Ultimately, the highest objective is to find insights. If we can find some young person in Afghanistan who has a new way of thinking about the situation there, that would be spectacular,” says Goldberg. The challenge for Opinion Space is to ensure that if such an idea is expressed, it does not get lost the way it might in the hundreds or thousands of responses to a blog or an online publication. A great opinion, wherever it is from, should have a place to take root, to grow larger, blink green, and attract attention.