A few months shy of his high school graduation, Kal Turnbull came to a realization: Conversations on the internet are broken.
The Scottish teenager had been looking for an online community for friendly debate, a forum whose participants would crack open his mind and fill it with the kinds of perspectives he didn’t get growing up in the Scottish Highlands. But wherever he looked for probing discourse and intelligent discussion, Turnbull found more the same old junk—bickering, abuse, finger-pointing, and trolling.
And so, like any 17-year-old raised on the internet, he decided to craft his own community in that corner of cyberspace where one’s personal dreams are realized: Reddit.
Turnbull’s little invention, a subreddit called r/changemyview, began in 2013 as a simple forum for debate: State your belief, explain your reasoning, and ask the many voices of Reddit to convince you otherwise.
Six years later, it’s grown to a community with over 700,000 subscribers, many of whom regard it as an online oasis. Any topic is open for debate: All drugs should be legal, voter ID laws are a good idea, flour tortillas are superior to bread. CMV has captured the attention of journalists, who have called it “our best hope for civil discourse,” and researchers, who have used it to study the effective online rhetoric. Jigsaw, the Alphabet-owned tech incubator, has used it as a sandbox to test a comment-ranking engine designed to “detoxify” conversations online.
Turnbull has grown up with the subreddit—he’s now 23, with a degree in civil engineering—and along the way, he’s watched his community grow up too. But as participation increased, he started to see the cracks in Reddit’s infrastructure.
Reddit’s ranking algorithm often pushed flash-in-the-pan controversial threads to the top of the page, displacing the threads with deep, meaningful conversations. The metric for success on the subreddit—a “delta,” which represents a view that’s been changed—wasn’t built into the design; someone hacked together a “delta bot” to keep track, but it required users to copy-and-paste the symbol or type out the string of Unicode characters to produce it. It could be difficult to weed out the worst of the comments, and when someone’s post or comment was removed by the moderators, there was no place that user could go to ask why. Plus, Turnbull and the 20 or so moderators all worked on a volunteer basis. That’s a few dozen people overseeing a community of three-quarters of a million Redditors, whose squabbles touch on the most inflamed issues of our time.
Eventually, Turnbull started to think that the community had outgrown its home. “Had we built CMV from the ground up and hadn’t just fit into the Reddit mold, we would’ve done things differently,” says Turnbull.
Today, they are. There’s now a new place on the internet to expand your viewpoint: Change A View, which lives at the domain changeaview.com (and yes, the group swapped the “my” in its name for an “a”). The new platform is the result of 10 months of hard work from Turnbull and a small team of dedicated moderators, and was built with the help of a little funding from Jigsaw. It borrows the same forum architecture and the same strict set of rules as the subreddit, but the goal isn’t just to facilitate debates online. Turnbull sees a world where Change A View helps internet commenters see eye-to-eye, where the platform breaks us out of our online filter bubbles, and where we re-learn how to talk to each other online. To him, it’s not just a forum for interesting conversations. It’s a lighthouse for conversation on the internet.
Most people come to r/changemyview to exercise their opinions. Liz Weeks came to sharpen her understanding of family law. Then a law student studying for the bar, Weeks spent hours responding to threads about alimony and elder care, explaining why no, it’s not legally feasible to exempt men from child support just because they would’ve aborted the baby. “I had racked up a significant portion of deltas, and that usually gets you on the leaderboard,” she says. Soon after, she was invited to become a moderator.
Weeks says moderating the platform can be challenging—not just because it’s big and full of controversy by design, but because there’s not a lot of transparency between users and moderators. There’s no way for users to see why a post was flagged or removed, whether by a human or by Reddit’s AutoModerator feature, and there was no real customer service channel to bring users in touch with the people running the place. “That was something we tried to really make a premium feature on the subreddit, but it’s a subreddit,” she says. “We can’t build beyond what Reddit allows us to build.”
The new Change A View website works a little differently. There are still moderators on the custom platform, but Turnbull says they’re paid for the work they do. There’s a public mod log, so you everyone can see which moderator took which action. And the platform will make use of Jigsaw’s comment-ranking engine, called Perspective API, which scores comments to weed out abuse and harassment while taking some of the load off of moderators.
There are some thoughtful updates for users, too. “We had a conversation early on about private messaging,” says Weeks. “We wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get in a situation where someone posted a thread and someone else could message them directly and be unkind or hostile or threatening. So we said, let’s shelve that.”
Compelling arguments are still rewarded with a Δ symbol, showing exactly when and where someone’s mind was changed. But the process of awarding a delta is a lot easier. On Reddit, you had to either copy-and-paste the Δ symbol or use the corresponding Unicode markup to trigger the bot. On Change a View, there’s a delta button built right in.
It’s also easier to note an illuminating comment, even if it doesn’t warrant a full delta. Reddit relies on a system of upvotes and downvotes; a comment you agree with may earn an upvote, and vice versa. But that system left out the nuance of debate—that your perspective might not be changed so much as modified, or that someone may simply point out something you hadn’t thought of before. So the team replaced the upvote/downvote system with a feature called “shine,” which means “this comment shines a light on the issue for me.” Top comments now appear next to the original post, so you can see not just the topic of the discussion but how people are discussing it.
The foundation for Change A View, as with r/changemyview, is a strict set of rules. Each post needs a clear title title, an explanation of the view, and the reasoning behind it. You must genuinely hold the view. You must be genuinely open to changing it. You have to respond to replies within three hours, and those responses have to be substantive; you can’t just write, “I disagree.” You can’t be hostile. You have to communicate.
Elena Musi, a researcher who has studied argumentation on r/changemyview, says the rules make the community conversation different than other platforms online. Elsewhere, the point of posting online is not so much to persuade as to signal boost. We’re herded into filter bubbles. Our perspectives get reduced into 280 characters. The nuance is lost, but so is the art of argument itself: The point isn’t to spark discussion or to hear a different opinion, and it certainly isn’t to have your mind changed.
On Change A View, Musi says she sees a ripe model for reinventing the way we argue online. “The design of the subreddit itself really mimics how argumentation should be in a formal way,” she says. “If I had to build a piece of argumentation, I would use the same rules that are there on r/changemyview.”
For now, Change A View is just a website with a narrow use-case. But Turnbull sees a future where Change a View serves as a framework for all kinds of conversations online. Maybe the Change A View model could work to replace the comments below online articles, facilitating more productive discussions about a piece of news. Maybe it could promote better conversations in the classroom. “We’re really hoping there’s a model in providing our structure to private groups,” Turnbull says. “Maybe schools or organizations who want to have the kinds of conversations we’re hosting in their own area of the site. We’d like to work with them to build that experience, and that would be a subscription-based model. For now, we are just building the public forum in the perfect way and there’s a bit of a leap of faith in that.”
Turnbull says he doesn’t expect Change A View to cannibalize r/changemyview. Instead, he sees the new platform as an extension of what the subreddit started: a place online where everyone’s mind is open, in a world where that’s increasingly rare.