5 min read

The politics of Voice

May 31, 2020 6:04:17 PM

The concept of voice is both literal and abstract. You can hear voice with your ears. You give voice with your mouth. True voice is an existential freedom, given and understood more acutely when it’s taken away.

We shout, and we protest.

We stay quiet, and we accede.

Voice, both literally and in the abstract, is what we care about in building the Platos platform.

There are many surprising dimensions to how it can be delivered with smart technology.

Pre-emptive voice

Platos was born in the founders’ years of mopping up corporate and community conflicts.

They proposed a simple proposition: why wait until the sh*t hits the fan to include the people who bear the brunt of your big-bet decisions? Why not - if it’s easy - include them before a decision and its details are locked down ?

Wise decisions arise from the understanding and inclusion - through negotiation - of the different interests of all those who have a stake in the outcome of a decision.

Platos’ premise is that including stakeholders’ voices in the decisions that affect them will make for better decisions and, collectively, a better world (business, society and governance).

Platos empowers leaders and their communities of interest (employees, customers, citizens, customers, members, students, whoever turns the cogs of your agenda) in that shared aspiration. (With the click of a link and the swipe of a credit card.)

Below is how technology takes this lofty ideal and makes it doable.

Platos as a “troll-free” space?

At Platos, we talk about the freedom to speak. We also talk about freedom within a controlled environment.

Freedom under the law is a foundational democratic concept: we are able to live and thrive because we stick by an agreed set of boundaries that protect “the commons”. It’s worked - largely - for centuries.

The internet swept away so many of the fortresses that stopped equal access to power and freedom to express opinion. Consider the (old) media barons.

With the internet, anyone and everyone who wanted one had a platform. A wisecrack tweet could bypass the media and ping people in power in a way not imaginable even 20 years ago. The Arab Spring showed its mobilizing power. 

But what was far more egalitarian was also far less constrained. Enter The Troll. Enter the concept of “cancelling”.

Its deep unaccountable sociopathy diminished us, took away the freedoms the Internet had opened up. Bullying made the “digital piazza” unsafe.

Platos is a micro- “commons” experience. With freedom-within-rules you get equal voice. It’s fair.

Text talk brings equal opportunity

We all know what equal opportunity means in real life, especially when we don’t get it.

In a digital setting it means instruments that enable voice, increase participation and diversity of voices. Because it’s done in analyzable text, this also gives you great insight through rich data

We chose text-based communication for some compelling reasons: text, rather than audio or video, is good both socially and technically. These seemed counter-intuitive until COVID-19 came along to shake up our mental mindsets.

Socially it means introverts, those thinkers – rather than talkers – get to have their day. You won’t hear from introverts in a physical meeting or town hall. You’ll hear from the truly aggrieved and the truly extroverted. These make for very poor data.

Text is “deaf” to personality - we all “sound” much the same. Text means there’s no limit on time to talk, no struggling to get a word in. If you need time to think, to get your language right, you have it. Text means many more than one person gets to “talk” at a time.

You can’t do that in a face2face meeting or on Zoom.

Technically, text-based communication creates the freedom to think long-form, to deliberate, to muse, and this gives our algorithms rich fodder for analysis.

Words for our linguistic analysis algorithms are like food scraps in a worm farm. The more words there are, the better the data “castings”.

Text gives people a fair go and not one word is lost to the ether.

Synchronous vs asynchronous

The pandemic’s shove to virtual has shown our adaptability. Video-conferencing grew at warp-sped. It’s a good substitute - in some ways better- for a face-to-face meeting.

Synchronous – all at the same time – communication is good if you only need a few people to contribute. With video-conferencing, the geographic limits have peeled away. Scheduling is a dream across the globe (mostly).

Synchronous is good for reading body language. The instinctive “eye-balling” is an evolutionary triumph. Synchronous is also good for nailing actions and making fast decisions.

For most purposes, synchronous meetings either on videoconference or chat platforms like Slack or Yammer are really good for connecting people and for getting stuff done together, in the moment, and person-to-person in side-channel chats.

But the shortcomings of videoconferences emerged after just a few weeks in COVID-19 lockdown.

Chiefly, only one person can talk at a time. Finally! No interruptions, you might say.

Expect that “mute-button etiquette” means meetings end with probably only 3 or 4 people having a chance to speak. And usually the same ones. Death by meeting just shifted to computer screens and phones.

We’re used to getting people into the same room and focused on an issue we all care about. Get stuff done. Collaborate on shared important matters.

All good for a species hardwired to read people’s faces and get “the vibe”.

COVID-19 changed all that. No more face-to-face.

The truth is, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway.

And in reality, not many of us are that good at reading body language, second-guessing the emotional subtext, even face2face.

In a video conference, our ears have to work twice as hard as our eyes for signals, because we give up trying to read a grimace or a frown that we can’t see in the tiny square we each inhabit for the 55 minutes left after headphone/audio settings palaver. Zoom fatigue has now entered our lexicon.

And let’s face it, the same social limitations of meetings are still there. The boss does all the talking, audio etiquette means the spontaneity is lost.

These are some of the reasons for our decision to combine the surprising benefits of text commenting with the freedom of time. We call our Platos forums slow-motion events. They typically run over two or more days, so that more people can fit in time to comment, even comment often about different topics as they evolve in the forum. It defies the tyranny of geography and time-zone.

Synchronous is not good for two-way, iterative feedback. And so, it’s not good for equality of voice.

With Platos, because we’re focused on the opportunity to speak, and to listen, because we’re deliberately deliberative, we go further because there are many conversations that need it.

If you need the space to deliberate, text comes into its own.

As marketing guru and muse of our human instincts, Seth Godin, says in one of his big leaps blogs:

“A discussion board isn’t the same as a Zoom call. It turns out that we can create rich and layered conversations with async communication, but we also have to be just a bit more patient.”

Asynchronous text means there’s no rush. Patience is rewarded with deeper, more diverse interactions.

Platos is so not Twitter. It is so not uncontrolled, so not 140 characters.

Platos is for equal deliberation. It’s built to solve a different - more important - problem.

Barbara Sharp, CEO

Written by Barbara Sharp, CEO

Barbara is CEO and Co-Founder of Pax Republic

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