Why Parlia, the encyclopedia of opinion, is pivoting a year after launch

Future News 95

It was always going to be difficult, even if you’re a serial media entrepreneur and VC like Turi Munthe. He’s been trying to build an encyclopedia of opinion with Parlia.

With the backing of Bloomberg Beta, Tiny VC and Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund, the project launched last January. But Munthe soon had a “rude awakening” in large part thanks to the pandemic, which forced his nascent team out of their subsidised offices in Somerset House in central London.

“[It was] a crazy time to launch a start-up,” he told FN. “We had to build a culture and team remotely. First, we tried to meet once a month, then that stopped because of the lockdowns. It’s been tough to build a team culture over Zoom.” 

There was also a realisation half-way through 2020 that one of the project’s fundamental assumptions – that Parlia could be built as a collaborative editorial initiative, as a wiki – was wrong.

The start-up subsequently pivoted towards a review model more similar to Goodreads, Reddit or Quora. The move came earlier than Munthe expected it to, but it was a necessary one. 

“We’re building single cards and then letting people build up those opinion cards into valuable offerings of thoughts,” he explained. “We’re hoping to not exist as moderators. We want to do our moderation as design. If you build the right design incentives into your platform, you don’t have to do the moderation yourself.” 

But how does that work from a user experience perspective? “We want to give good points for good opinions; we want to give stars for opinions which have helped people change their minds,” Munthe added. “We want to incentivise kind, civil and intelligence behaviour on the platform, while disincentivising the shouting, the screaming and the rude words.”

And why shouldn’t users get their opinions from Reddit, Twitter or anywhere else for that matter? “We want to be the definitive place for opinion,” Munthe said. “On Reddit you may find the same opinion a hundred thousand times across various subReddits...we’re trying to build a knowledge monument.” 

You can contribute to the project here or check-out Parlia’s podcast ‘On Opinion’, which launched in June. Here’s what FN said about Parlia last year:

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If you want to stump the great Google machine, ask it an open-ended question. A few ‘whys?’ here and there, and the good folks at Menlo Park will be left baffled. That’s probably why wannabe ‘Googlers’ have been cruelly tested with boggling brain-teasers designed to get their critical thinking functions going. 

Wikipedia, the internet’s other go-to resource for instant knowledge, suffers from a similar issue – the website’s enthusiastic army of volunteer editors will quickly delete conjecture or opinion from the encyclopedia. 

There is, therefore, a gap in the ideas market and that is what new kid on the block, Parlia, is attempting to fill. The project soft-launched in January and is being led by London-based Turi Munthe, the former CEO of photo agency Demotix and a venture partner at VC NorthBaseMedia. 

Parlia recently closed a pre-seed funding round with an undisclosed amount of cash from early-stage VC Bloomberg Beta and Tiny VC. The organisation has also received a grant from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund. The figures? Munthe preferred not to say.

He is, however, an energetic advocate of mapping the world’s opinions, which he claimed to be finite. Exactly how finite remains to be seen. If you’ve delved into meta-ethics, for instance, you will know what I mean. Either way, Munthe, who has “thought about this for a while”, is on a mission to catalogue the main arguments. 

“[Journalists and politicians] must have written a trillion words in the run up to the Brexit vote,” he said. “It was fascinating because it was so polarising. But it was also fascinating because people kept having the same arguments over and over again. [Really], there were around three or four arguments on either side of the referendum.” 

Parlia currently has more than 2,000 arguments listed, around half of which are counter-arguments. These were generated by 940 wide-ranging questions, including ‘is marriage an outdated concept?’, ‘should exotic animals be pets?’ (a debate Tiger King fans may want to contribute to) and ‘is a hot dog a sandwich?’ (it’s a flat ‘no’ from me). 

As Munthe readily conceded himself, it is just a start – a base – for the project. Wikipedia, for instance, has a 19-year head-start on Parlia. So how, crucially, are collaborators and readers incentivised? 

“We want to provide some intellectual satisfaction – a hit of pleasure, of understanding and of surprise around arguments,” he said. “There are enough people on the internet who are committed to describing the world around them...who would be keen to aid and abet a more civil discourse.” 

Munthe also stressed that he hoped “news-obsessives” and experts would find their niche on the platform, much in the same way corners of Wikipedia are policed by their own online Praetorian Guard. 

The website, which originally started off as a side-project between Munthe and designer J Paul Neeley (@jape), has adopted a simple and scalable layout: a question followed by positions (sorted into coloured columns) and then the arguments supporting a position listed underneath it. “We tried lots and lots of things, including mind mapping,” Munthe said. 

As with any open and collaborative project, there is a relatively high risk of misuse, abuse and vandalism, especially in our age of misinformation. The Parlia team are therefore “building mechanisms” to mark the factual validity of the opinions described and “offensive” content will also be flagged. 

“We are not here to relativise the truth,” Munthe stated. But what is ‘truth’? I guess we will have to visit Parlia to find out. 

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