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Helping the Community Cover the Debates

BY Joshua Levy | Wednesday, October 11 2006

How often do you wish for intelligent and diverse post-debate commentary? How about a place where you can discuss the salient points of the debate with others rather than watch people give their pre-packaged opinions on TV?

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DebateScoop hopes to be this kind of place. Taking cues from community forums like Slashdot and Digg, it offers a new way to follow political debates.

Of course, the site isn't merely about following a debate but also about participating in the cultural conversation surrounding it. It's built using Scoop, the CMS/blogging engine that, like Drupal, takes a user-centric approach to content creation. This is the right kind of tool to get people involved -- now it's up to the creators to get the word out and put the focus on the users.

The site is the first major project from the Open Source Debate Foundation, a project founded by Ross Smith and Tim O'Donnell, debate coaches and instructors at Wake Forest University and the University of Mary Washington, respectively. In their mission statement they make an implicit link between the goals of debate and open, participatory culture:

The Open Source Debate Foundation’s (OSDF) mission and purpose is to promote debate as a method for producing, organizing and assessing knowledge and as a method for sound decision making. To that end we support projects which: build networks of skilled debaters, support teaching of debate skills, use debate as a method for educating the public, and which in any way enhance the role of debate in society and the public sphere.

The site still needs to attract more visitors to make good use of this open philosophy, but it's on its way. The home page of DebateScoop features the work of the "DebateScoop Fellows", who are, according the the site, "the nation's leading academic experts in political debate." They include Smith and O'Donnell, and provide commentary, analysis, and live-blogging of debates around the country. While these posts are often fascinating explications of the style and content of debates (a refreshing change from the horse-race analysis typically offered by televised coverage), I was at first struck by the limited number of authors on the site.

However, the experts on the center of the page are only part of the fun; the site includes a broad range of tools that make community-building and content-sharing fairly easy.

Like a number of other sites (they're multiplying like rabbits), registered users can write their own blog (a "diary" in DebateScoop-speak) and their posts will show up in the right-hand sidebar under a "Recent Diaries" heading. Other users can then recommend those diaries, and if a diary receives enough recommendations it will be promoted to a "Recommended Diaries" section. You can also subscribe to other users' diaries, which will then show up on your "hotlist," providing a convenient way to stay on top of your favorite writers' posts.

On the front page of the site -- reserved for the Fellows -- there has already been a lively conversation about the George Allen/Jim Webb debate in Virginia and the Conrad Burns/Jon Tester debate in Montana, among others. However, thus far there has been very little action in the diaries. These need to be much more active if the site is to work according to its founders' plans. I have no doubt that it will if it gains a larger group of participants and encourages them to post freely.

One way to gain more participants might be to plug into high school and college debate clubs around the country. Given the kind of work being done by folks like Will Richardson to incorporate blogging and social software into education, getting younger debaters to write DebateScoop diaries could be interesting.

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