A Structured Approach to Online Discussion

Emma Lieu

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Online message boards have transformed public discussion, allowing anyone with internet access to share their thoughts on a broad range of topics. While they present users with a wealth of information, online message boards currently do not provide an effective way to make sense of it. These systems are typically designed as unstructured lists of comments with no overview. This lack of structure provides little incentive for users to interact in ways that benefit the collective, resulting in poor contributions and behaviours that lower the overall quality of discussion. These problems are expected to worsen as the activity on online message boards increase.

This dissertation aims to investigate how online message boards can be designed to structure and facilitate online discussion. To start, a novel structured discussion flow is conceptualised. Each step of the discussion flow increases the affordances and information available to the user. This discussion flow is then implemented into Potluck, a working online message board. Potluck is designed to (1) have users actively participate in the discussion and express their views without social influence; (2) help users make sense of the discussion by automatically collecting and summarising similar viewpoints; and (3) add structure and encourage reflection of different viewpoints by having users recursively answer and ask questions.

This work is evaluated through three field deployments of Potluck in professional, educational, and event-based settings. Results suggest that the proposed discussion flow and system provides support for different forms of engagement; gives users a relevant overview of the discussion; encourages normatively desirable user participation; and is usable by different user groups. The studies also reveal potential applications of the system beyond online discussion to be explored in future work. Ultimately, design considerations are presented for system designers and engineers to build more effective online message boards than are currently available.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Watkins, Chris, Supervisor
  • Jensen, Rikke Bjerg, Supervisor
  • Hague, Matthew, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Feb 2024
Publication statusUnpublished - 2024


  • Online discussion
  • Online communities
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Social tools

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