The problem of large, simultaneous online discussions


Right this moment, I am supposed to be participating in a live, online discussion as part of a project that involves over a dozen different people. All of us in the project have done some individual work over the last week and are supposed to come together between 3:00 and 5:00 today to discuss some issues. (I have to be vague due to a non-disclosure agreement that comes with the project.) It’s 3:39 right now and I haven’t been able to access the discussion area. Part of the problem, it seems, is that the proprietors of this project set up a discussion board for this online meeting that is, well, proprietary. It’s all home-grown technology, from the looks of it, and such things often have a fairly high probability of screwups at the worst possible moment.

So while I’m waiting for tech support to get back with me, and before I convince myself that my difficulties stem from my using a Mac (in fact, my contact in the project told me that most of the discussion software worked only until Internet Explorer or Mozilla), I’m pondering the question — just how do you have a meaningful discussion, on line, in more-or-less real time among more than, say, six or seven people?

When I was first told that this project would involve a large online discussion, I just assumed I’d be firing up iChat and having an IM conference (and maybe FINALLY use the video IM capabilities of the Macbook). But now that I think about it, this seems like a recipe for confusion. You’re trying to have a serious discussion that is supposed to arrive at a consensus about something. How’s that going to happen when you have all these people IM’ing on top of each other, and potentially 12! inter-threaded discussions happening at the same time? Even worse, we could have used an IRC channel — which is complete linguistic chaos. So I suppose that’s what motivated the choice of discussion board software — it’s not exactly real time, but it’s threaded, so at least you can see what response goes with what.

But still, is there no way to replicate real-time discussion among more than a handful on the internet? In this day and age when the collaborative facets of web technology are supposedly on the rise, this seems like a pretty serious limitation. Makes me wonder about distance education too, for example if a professor wanted to conduct a class discussion with a class of 18-25 students, without it turning into something like the Tower of Babel.

It must be my Mac. I’m off to slum try a Windows machine running IE.

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One response to “The problem of large, simultaneous online discussions

  1. Pingback: Casting Out Nines»Blog Archive » Online discussion woes