Debate on YouTube: a guest post by Fred McVittie

Outline and Rationale

The Youtube platform has, since its earliest inception, offered the opportunity for topics of interest to be ‘debated’.  Initially these debates were informal (i.e. not following any of the recognised structures of debates) and usually used the ‘video response’ function.  This functionality was removed from the site in 2014, and whilst response videos are still made they do not have the profile they once had (and now tend to appeal more to ‘pwnage’ than honest argumentation).

More recently debating has returned to the site through the use of Google Hangouts, which allow disputants to engage ‘live’ with one another in an online version of more traditional debating formats, c.f. The debate between Dr Kristi Winters and Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad).  This debate had many of the features of a standard debate, including the presence of a moderator, time-limited Opening and Closing Statements, and opportunities for Rebuttals, again time-limited.

(It is worth noting that this online version of a debate had the advantage of allowing participants to cite their sources and have them appear in the description of the video, a feature not present in live offline debates).

There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these systems:

Video Responses:

  • Advantages
    • They are naturally time-limited without the need for moderation
    • Opportunity for good preparation
    • Sources offered by ‘opponent’ can be considered
    • New sources can be found to advance one’s argument
    • Input can be given by viewers which might be taken into consideration
    • Video response format is not limited to ‘talking head’ and might include graphics, quotations, clips from video being responded to etc.
  • Disadvantages
    • Potential difficulty in following chain of debate (particularly since video response feature was removed from Youtube).
    • Different subscriber numbers for participants might mean different viewing numbers for the ‘sides’ of the debate.
    • Response videos have something of a bad reputation.

Google Hangout/Livestream

  • Advantages
    • Liveness
    • All the debate is in one place
    • Familiarity (they are similar to offline live debates)
    • Rebuttals are spontaneous, therefore indicator of live knowledge (maybe)
    • Questions and comments from viewers can be collected from Chat (not necessarily an advantage).
  • Disadvantages
    • As with live debates, they prioritise rhetorical flair and quick-wittedness over capacity to marshal information to construct an argument or rebuttal.
    • Don’t allow for checking of sources.
    • Doesn’t (necessarily) allow for an ‘equilibrating’ of styles.
    • Is constrained to talking head format.
    • Potential technical problems with live streaming.
    • Can be over-long
    • Different experiences for ‘live’ viewers (who have access to the Chat feature) vs. those watching the recording later.

A disadvantage shared by both systems is that the Youtube environment is not always supportive of ordered discourse.  Comment sections particularly can become hostile or partisan, neither of which condition contributes positively to the advancement of intelligent life.


To initiate a system which combines the advantages of Video Responses with those of Hangouts/Livestreaming.  The following structure is proposed:

  1. Debates are between two participants.
  2. A specific proposition is selected in advance, with participants taken the position of ‘Proposer’ (arguing the Affirmative) and ‘Respondant’ (arguing the Negative).
  3. Each participant makes a 10 minute video containing their Opening Statement with regard to the proposition.
  4. These Statements are uploaded to Youtube and set to go live at the same time.
  5. After a fixed period of time, say 24 hours, each participant uploads a Rebuttal video to Youtube, again set to go live at the same time.
  6. A second Rebuttal video is uploaded and made live a fixed period of time after that, say a further 24 hours.
  7. Participants each upload a final video containing their Closing Statement after a final fixed period of time.
  8. (Optional) Participants take part in a joint hangout in which they discuss the debate.
  9. All videos are posted onto a website set up for the purpose.
  10. Comments on the website are moderated according to clear guidelines.

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