Spirited: A Web Application for Structured Debate

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Spirited: A Web Application for Structured Debate

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Title: Spirited: A Web Application for Structured Debate
Author: Mcelfresh, Joshua
Citation: Mcelfresh, Joshua. 2016. Spirited: A Web Application for Structured Debate. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
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Abstract: Discussion forums have been used since the beginning of the mainstream internet and changed relatively little since then. The open-ended design of discussion forums allows them to be used for online debate. Separate from discussion forums, many structured argument tools have been built in the last 20 years. Unlike traditional forums, the vast majority of these tools seek to break the text of an argument into parts, such as statements and claims, which can be tracked and linked by the software.

Forums provide a space for debate because of their flexibility, but are easily disrupted. Argument software only allows arguments to be entered, but can be difficult to use and lack readability. There is currently no way to have an argument on the internet that is both approachable to outsiders, and structured in a way that keeps debate coherent.

Designing and building a web application to enable structured online debate was the focus of this project. An application was built that provides a blog-style interface for posting articles of any length, as well as additional features, like citations, to support the argument. Each sentence in the article becomes a point of potential debate. Sentences can be commented on, supported, or contradicted with additional citations and flagged for containing logical fallacies. Alternative or replacement sentences can be proposed. Voting on the statements that make up an article and responses to those statements shows users what parts of the argument are most controversial.

The application uses a web browser client built in the Ember JavaScript framework. The client is responsible for displaying the application, responding to events such as clicks, and maintaining a client-side copy of relevant application data. The client retrieves and saves data via an API server running the Ruby on Rails web application framework. The client communicates with the API server using a RESTful protocol, where HTTP requests are used to specify requested data and the response is returned in the JSON format.

The application is designed to run on the public internet and support any number of users. The API server runs on Amazon’s EC2 platform utilizing a load balancer to direct requests and auto scaling to increase the number of servers if the load becomes high. Requests are restricted to HTTPS, with most requests requiring a token to authenticate the user.

The completed application improved upon current forum technology while keeping the core features intact. Just like typical forums, what users can write is not restricted in any way. The sentence level annotation interface is automatically added to their writing, providing an additional layer on the article without losing any of the flexibility that makes forums popular. By categorizing reader responses, the application allows other users to know the intention of each response, requiring users to read less. Finally, the application allows for an interaction that has been difficult if not impossible until now – having a productive argument on the internet.
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Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:33797385
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