What You Sign Up For When You Sign Up to Participate With ThoughtExchange

Joe Baker

Like other online services, including social media giants Facebook™ and LinkedIn™, we present the users of our service with a “Terms of Use” (TOU) document that lays out expectations for both our users and us. Although these remain legal agreements, the trend among online service providers is to move away from obtuse, legalistic language toward a much more conversational description of the rights and responsibilities of the user on the one hand and the service provider on the other.

We’ve done this as well. We’ve completely revamped the TOU between our users and us, and in doing so we feel we have made ThoughtExchange™ significantly friendlier. The changes that we are most excited about, however, are not just changes to the tone of the document or the clarity of the language that we use. What we’ve done with our new TOU is to fundamentally change the relationship that we have with the participants in a ThoughtExchange process. We’ve changed the way we define the information they contribute and what we will do with it.

A quick review of the ThoughtExchange Process

ThoughtExchange makes it possible for large, diverse groups to contribute ideas and surface priorities among those ideas in order to help inform and improve the decisions made by the organizations that serve these same groups. The customers who hire us – school districts and other large organizations – invite their communities through email to participate in a ThoughtExchange process.

When someone chooses to accept, they become engaged the ThoughtExchange process. The process consists of receiving and thinking about questions, contributing thoughts in response to those questions, assigning stars to their thoughts and those of others to show which thoughts they value, and then learning what was important to the whole group. We refer to these three steps as “Share,” “Star,” and “Discover.”

Back to the TOU

In order for a ThoughtExchange process to work best, we need as many community members as possible to participate fully. For this to happen, we need to remove as many of the barriers to participation as we can. One important way of doing this is to reassure participants that we are being responsible with the information we collect as part of the process.

What do we mean by “information”?

With our new TOU there are 3 kinds of information we collect, either directly or as a result of participation. There are other types of information that we collect and protect, but we feel these are the 3 that are the most important – for us and for our participants.

  • Input. The thoughts that a participant enters in Share step and the stars that they assign in the Star step is input. Other information that participants provide, such as demographic information, is also input.
  • Identity. A name, email address and other contact information that specifically identifies a participant makes up his or her identity. We may get this information directly from participants through a self-registration process, or we also often receive it directly from our customer.
  • Association of Identity to Input. The connection between the input and who provided that input; that is, who said what thought or assigned which stars.

What we do with the input

In order for our process to work as designed, we need to be able to share, compare and aggregate all the input we receive in order to reach conclusions and make the input as meaningful as possible. We need to be able to share all of the input publicly. It’s why participants participate – as long as we protect their privacy at the same time.

What we do with identity

In order for a ThoughtExchange process to work as designed, both we and our customer need to know who is participating in the process. Our customer needs to know who they are having the conversation with, even though they will not know who said what. Beyond that, however, we don’t need to share identity information with any other person in order for the process to work. For that reason we treat a participant’s identity information as confidential among the participant, our customer and us.

What we do with information that connects input to participants

In order for a ThoughtExchange process to work as designed, we need to know that particular input has come from a particular participant, and we use that information as part of the ThoughtExchange process.

For example, we have found it is important that participants know they can be identified as the source of a particular thought, because they will answer more carefully than they would if they were completely anonymous. We have also found it to be critical to be able to give participants back their own thoughts along with thoughts of others for assigning stars, in order to show that we have heard and care about the thoughts that come from the participant.

At the same time, we need completely candid responses – even (and maybe especially) when they are controversial or uncomfortable. We want participants to feel free to speak freely and honestly, without fear of being shamed or otherwise having to face negative repercussions for doing so.

The ThoughtExchange process doesn’t require that we share this kind of association information with anyone else, including our customers. Our customers don’t need to own, have access to or use this kind of association information in order to have ThoughtExchange work to its full potential.

As a result, we feel that the connection of input to identity, what we call association information, should be kept private between the participant and us. Our software knows it and uses it, but unless the participant consents or we are compelled by law or we feel morally obligated to do so to, we won’t share it with anybody else, including our customer.

You own your Information (and other ways of putting it all in writing)

We have designed our TOU to lay this out as clearly and as conversationally as possible. In fact, most of this article is embedded, almost verbatim, in the TOU. From there, though, the TOU uses the legal concepts of licensing and our Privacy Policy to make these principles legally binding.

For example, the TOU starts with the agreement that each participant owns all of his or her information, including thoughts, stars and other input provided to us. The participant only grants us a license to use the information, and the license grant to us is the right to use the information as outlined above.

The privacy policy that immediately follows restates these same concepts. Together, both put into writing, in an agreement between our participants and us, that input is public, identity is confidential and association information is private.

Our Customers feel the same way

A final important note is that we feel our customers also have a responsibility to protect participant information. And all of the customers we’ve spoken to agree. As a result, under all new software and service agreements our customers will agree to honour the TOU.


We think our new privacy policy protects our participants, our customers and us much better. We also think it will lead to more and better participation if ThoughtExchange participants have a clear understanding of what happens to their information. You can find the full TOU at participants.thoughtexchange.com/en/tou. We have also created a new web site for participants to answer their questions and provide more background. The site has a number of questions and answers related to the new TOU. You can find the draft FAQ site at participants.thoughtexchange.com/en.

About the Author

Joe Baker

For the past 20 years Joe has worked with entrepreneurs and their start-ups in all kinds of roles, including as angel investor, board member and CEO, and has held a number of other positions, including executive level sales, business development, corporate development and general counsel positions. For the past 10 years, Joe has lived in and worked from Whistler, BC, pursuing that elusive balance between helping to build great companies and living an awesome life. He is happy to have been part of three new company success stories since coming north, and during that time life has generally been awesome. He has no doubts that the ThoughtExchange team has what it takes to do it all over again, but that’s not the whole reason he’s here. Joe is excited to be with ThoughtExchange because he believes it is on to something special in a broader sense, and he’s keen to be a part of it.