E-Democracy and Online Civic Infrastructure

It seems to me that on the web the people who make the biggest splash aren’t always successful. Think about all the spectacular .com failures who had all the money, fame, and dreams in the world. The reality of the Web 2.0 mini-boom we’re experiencing is that the big success stories – Flickr, TheFaceBook, del.icio.us – were built by people who think deeply about the details and sweat the small stuff.

People have been talking about civic issues — politics, news, community life — online since the early days of the internet. Yet I know of none who have thought longer and deeper about how to foster a high quality discussion online than the people I’ve met tonight. This evening I attended a presentation hosted by Steven Clift from a small Minnesota group that has been doing some interesting things on the web called E-Democracy.org. For the last 10 years they’ve been developing high quality civic online discussions on the internet – over both email and web.

While the scale of what the group has done is very small and the technology not very glamorous (they have in the past used Yahoo Groups and a variety of listserv technologies — more on this in a minute) I am truly impressed with how much they have thought about something which I fear gets short shrift online: quality and inclusion. The group has implemented a variety of methods to try to build geographically specific (first state, then city-based) nonpartisan, inclusive, civil space for online discussion. “I feel like we invented the city park, and I want every city to have one,” said Steven Clift, one of the group’s founders. They are shooting at launching 100 forums this year, and telling 1 million people.

The core of their project is something they call the “online issue forum,” where they seek to develop “geography-based, multi-topic, non-partisan online public spaces where citizens with diverse perspectives and backgrounds gather for online discussion, dialogue and deliberation on real public issues.” So yeah, they’re experts at small online forums. So what’s the big deal? Well, for starters their little Minnesota project is gaining some surprising traction. They’ve established a high quality niche in Minnesota, and the leaders have traveled the world sharing their experience. Most recently, several local governments in the UK sought them out to create forums in their cities.

I’m also excited because the simple reality is that while there’s a lot of lip service given to “self policing communities” online, they can be elusive when dealing with emotionally charged topics like politics. When this blog was a popular site about Ann Arbor I would often ignore the comments, which would spiral off into vitriolic, unrestricted exchanges. One very intelligent local journalist told me he loved my blog but didn’t post comments because there was so much “machismo.” He was right: the blog worked because I was able to hold the central stream of discussion in a consistent and level manner (for the most part), and the comments didn’t always work because there was no mechanisms of restraint. Now, this may sound a bit odd from an ACLU-er like myself, but I am not an anarchist: sometimes people should sign up to speak or wait their turn so that the voices of all can be heard.

This was an issue we have grappled with on DCist over the past year and a half: while we want to have totally free discussions in the commenting, how should we handle personal attacks, libelous comments, or even mentally deranged people? We have developed a subtle approach which involves acknowledging and diffusing critics (Steven from E-Democracy called this tactic the “smother with affection” approach), interjecting when we needed to clarify our position, setting and consistently enforcing policies, and, when necessary, deleting posts or banning IP addresses.

It turns out the e-Democracy people have been thinking about these issues quite deeply for a while now, and have come up with some electronic talking sticks that are quite simple. Here’s their first two rules:

  • Sign Posts – Use your real name.
  • Limits on Posting – Two per member per day in most forum charters.

Steven explained that they think as much about the lurkers who are reading the site as they do the people posting because, after all, most visitors are just reading and do not post regularly. The first rule provides accountability, necessary for a civil environment. (There is always a role for anonymity — but that’s what the rest of the web is for.) While the second ensures a reasonable flow of debate that enables the most people to participate, not just the most active.

All of this may be fine and good, but if it stopped here we would simple have some expert forum moderators. The technical angle is interesting. They very quickly realized the ideal platform to host a high-level civic discussion combined both the “push” of email with the permanence and accessibility of a website. Forums which don’t email members about new content are often neglected, and it’s easy to lose – or skim over – email. Thus, they spent much of the last ten years moving from one imperfect platform to another, stopping along the way at several common ones like Yahoo Groups.

Over a year ago my friend Emily (from Echoditto) told me about an idea she had which was website software which would seamlessly combine an email list with website content management system, so that if you were on the email list or on the website you would see the same content, perhaps organized according to category. Eerily, the software I heard the e-Democracy folks have been working on develop almost exactly mirrors that solution. Furthermore, like a blog the layout is elegant and simple – the conversation is linear, predictable, and well-organized. The >>’s resulting from email are hitten, posts are clearly signed, and all of it is neatly archived on a public website much easier to navigate than Yahoo Group’s archives. For an example, check out this thread from their tech support forum. The tool is something they stumbled across in New Zealand called GroupServer and they have spent some grant money the group was provided to pay the developers to add new features and customize the software to their needs. While there isn’t a very large development community they have released the software as open source, and hope that other people use it for their own purposes.

Some of the most interesting material I found was in their section about starting issues forums. They have used some of the money from the UK to write a 60-page guidebook (PDF, 3MB) about some of the finer points of how to foster constructive online communities. I told you they went deep. Now it just seems they need a little entrepreneurial fire from what they referred to as the “advocacy” community. While I suppose the number of people engaged in an online community will be less than would be interested in a civic blog (like ArborUpdate or DCist), the numbers they talked about were quite low. If they are able to push the technology out to more people and more places, I think some quite remarkable things could happen. All of this talk of local discussion forums got me thinking about Mlive.com’s “Town Talk” forum and the “community” section of Craigslist. Clearly, if these very imperfect tools are being used so heavily I think there is a niche for well-run civic forums in addition to local blogs in the emerging online civic infrastructure.

The evening got me thinking about a variety of topics which I may or may not get to in a timely manner including the potential uses of technology and public input in urban planning decision making (hello, masters’ thesis?), how the popularity power curve is a misleading way to think about the web, re-posting and revisiting my ‘Cool Cities and Blogs’ posts, and a survey of DC’s emerging online civic infrastructure …

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Re: The rules of signing your own name and such.

    It sounds like the early days of The Well, which operated under “you own your own words.” There was more too it, and I bet there are lessons to be learned there.

    I am a proponent of anonymity but I also value organized, purposeful communities with such policies in the spirit of those proposed and believe that in some fora the best policy is to at least have registered consistent identities so that individual voices are identifiable at the least.

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