The Human Face of Online Dispute Resolution
In September 2004, we were both at the Association for Conflict Resolution conference in Sacramento talking about Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). We were lucky enough to be in a room with some of the most experienced online mediators in the world, including people who had mediated 3,000 or more disputes online. We also had as our guest the Chief Executive of SquareTrade.com, now one of the largest providers of alternative dispute resolution worldwide with a record of handling more than 1.5 million disputes (Conley Tyler 2005). Yet we only half-filled one of the smallest rooms at the massive conference venue. It led us to articulate the question: what's going wrong with ODR? Our suspicion is that most alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practitioners still regard the role of technology in dispute resolution as something of a fringe issue. Usually known as online dispute resolution or by its acronym, ODR, this area can appear specialist, technical and irrelevant to some dispute resolution practitioners. George Alter's recent article in ACResolution sums this up nicely with a (fictional) letter from frustrated mediator "Face-to-Face in Springfield": I am continually accosted by ODR experts who are trying to convince me that integrating ODR into my practice is a good thing. (Right!) I am convinced that ODR cannot work because there is no body language, no non-verbal cues in online communications. You can't expect me to be able to guess people's moods and attitudes if I can't see them! Besides, the last thing I want to do right now is to learn another difficult computer technology. Please help me disprove this ODR effectiveness myth, because I am fed up with the suggestion, and I swear, the next person who tells me I should integrate ODR into my practice is getting some empathetic empowerment right in the kisser (Alter 2005, 9). While this is a parody, it does neatly illustrate some views which we believe are widespread among conflict resolution practitioners. We think there are good reasons for attitudes like this to change. As "traditional" ADR practitioners, we both started out with some variation of this attitude. With dispute resolution experience including court connected civil and domestic mediation, negotiated rulemaking and public dispute facilitation, international treaty negotiations, community mediation in the Bronx and reconciliation work in South Africa, we were not obvious candidates for developing enthusiasm in ODR. But the more we learnt about the potential role of technology in dispute resolution, the more we started to see the potential of ODR to assist with a range of disputes. One of us was commissioned to do an in-depth study of online dispute resolution carefully weighing its potential. The other tried it with a skeptical view towards proving it was bunk, and was converted. Both of us have learned that ODR can prove useful, powerful, and indispensable in some kinds of cases.