Argument clinics: Where I Stand and UberSpat
Looking for balanced and thoughtful arguments on topics that matter to you? Look elsewhere.
When I talked to Opposing Views CEO Russell Fine in preparation for a week ago, I asked him if he honestly thought that his service, which recruits experts from both sides of contentious issues, would actually change anyone's mind. The question comes from my observation that the profusion of contemporary media choices--by which I mean talk shows and blogs--allows users to easily associate themselves with content that fits into their own particular views. And that it's so much easier to read people with whom you agree than it is to open yourself up to being proved wrong or ignorant.
Fine believes that everyone is on the fence about something, and that Opposing Views can help people find opinions they identify with so they can hone in on a stance. And that if they do have a stance on a topic, they can learn on the site how to argue it more effectively.
These two sites put the opinion of their users foremost, which is all well and good and Web 2.0-ish, but it doesn't make for very deep reading. On both sites, the primary content is the opinion of users, in response to issues posed by other users.
Now, there are elements on both sites that have potential. On Where I Stand you can "follow" users you're interested in, and then when they post new stances on topics you'll get an alert. The site, indeed, is designed so users can "define who they are by their opinions."
The site does encourage users to seek out and post the official positions of notable thinkers (or failing that, journalists). There's also a big effort to translate content on the site so users can read about topics and opinions in their language no matter what the native language of the debate is.
But for the most part, gut-level arguments on poorly-articulated questions override the sense that there is actual thought happening on Where I Stand. I spent a fair amount of time on this site and didn't learn a thing, except which way the Where I Stand user base leans on various issues.
Competitor UberSpat has a slightly better architecture. It gives more weight to "official" positions supporting or refuting various arguments. Users then vote on those positions. However, the site's users do an uneven job of pulling in sources to support positions, and there's no breakdown of the arguments as there is on Opposing Views.
If you have an issue you want to see argued, you can easily launch the debate on either of these sites. But the responses you get, while you may them gratifying to your ego, are unlikely to educate or enlighten.
As businesses go, these are both fairly hands-off services. If users take up residence on either of these sites (against my advice, they probably will), both the sites can be run with very lean teams, and might be able to rake in enough advertising to be self-supporting. But they feel like most Facebook apps: Faux viral, and frothy.
Opposing Views, comparatively, is an expensive operation. Issues are selected and defined by paid editors, and crafted to be neutral and clear - appropriate canvases on which topic leaders can paint their opinions. The team then goes out and finds the best representatives for the pro and con of each issue, and they make sure that these people stay on target, not just talking to the issues but staying in their fields of expertise. The payback for collecting these opinions and experts is higher-quality content that can later be re-packaged and re-sold. It also makes for a much better read.