July 5, 1999
Improving Dialogue on the Internet
By DENISE CARUSO
hanks to the Internet, as some very wise person has noted, we
have at least disproved the old saw about a thousand monkeys at a
thousand keyboards eventually producing a Shakespeare play.
And all the millions of nodes in all the broadband,
packet-switched, fully synchronous networks in the world apparently
cannot prevent people from exchanges that are the digital
equivalent of "Your mother wears Army boots."
Internet snobs may be inclined to dismiss the inanity of most
public conversations on the Web as irrelevant in their larger, more
commercial vision of the Internet.
But others, noting a seemingly insatiable appetite for public
messaging, argue that the future of even the commercial Internet
depends on making this crucial component more satisfying for
To move people beyond the graffiti-esque quality of much online
messaging, they are developing software and discussion practices
that encourage computer users to talk to, rather than at, each
other. One of the most innovative ideas for creating value and
relevance in online conversation is coming from the world of
Marc Weiss is a longtime independent filmmaker and past producer
of the highly regarded PBS television series "P.O.V.," which
addresses controversial topics in American culture -- abortion,
Vietnam, death and dying, gay life, ageism, school prayer -- by
allowing people to tell their own stories.
"P.O.V.," an acronym for "point of view," started online
salons to encourage postprogram conversation. One particularly
remarkable response -- to a program on the Vietnam War Memorial --
drove home for Weiss the potential of the medium.
The theme for the Vietnam discussion sprang from Weiss'
realization that his "whole life had been changed" by the values
he learned in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and early '70s.
Whether people were for or against the war, had gone to Vietnam,
stayed home or come to America as refugees, he said, "I realized
that there was a whole generation who had never reflected on how
their lives since the war had changed."
This theme -- notably sidestepping the polar arguments of the
last 25-plus years -- drew thousands to the site, creating 225
topics for discussion, each with 300 or 400 messages. "We had vets
who said they learned more in that forum than they had in 25 years
at the veterans' hall," Weiss said.
He says the success of the Vietnam forum inspired him to create
a nonprofit organization, Web Lab (www.weblab.org), that is
developing new models for online media and sponsoring projects that
bring "fresh perspectives and new voices" to the discussion of
The Web Lab software now under development will allow the
creation of highly structured online dialogue, using standard
bulletin-board technologies and features. But though the basic
technologies are standard, Web Lab's enhancements are not.
For example, people interested in joining a Web Lab discussion
group must first complete a detailed registration form. The
software gathers these registration forms and sorts them by
categories, and when all the slots in a forum are filled, it spits
out an e-mail message to inform people that their group is ready to
Each group is limited to 60 or 70 people -- only about a third of
whom typically post messages -- to keep the conversation manageable.
But once the groups have started, Weiss and his team stay out of
the way, letting the group manage itself. "Our function is
monitoring, not moderating," he says.
In September, Web Lab will produce the online discussion for
PBS' "American Love Story," a five-episode "P.O.V." program
about an interracial marriage.
Weiss says Web Lab is already gathering people's stories on the
Web Lab site. And although he acknowledges that the discussion will
obviously include racial issues, Weiss says the theme -- again,
sidestepping the usual polarity of conversations about race -- is a
more universal question: "How do couples negotiate their
Negotiating differences is the key to online discussions and to
relationships, says Benjamin Barber, director of the Walt Whitman
Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers
Barber, in conjunction with the Yale University Information
Society Project, has started Civic Exchange: Strong Democracy in Cyberspace, a project based in part on the theories he developed in
his book on participatory democracy, "Strong Democracy."
Financed by the Markle Foundation, Civic Exchange
is building an online environment
designed to reinvigorate the ideals of thoughtful democratic
"We're trying to address the dilemma that technology moves
people too fast," Barber says. "It's an impediment to democracy,
which should be slow and deliberative. So we're trying to install
speed bumps on the Internet."
He says the same kind of paradox exists for the Internet that
has always existed in the practice of democracy.
"On one hand, democracy is about doing it yourself," he said.
"But to turn self-interested, narcissistic individuals into free
citizens takes education, acculturation and some sense of external
authority," to give them enough discipline to be responsible and
Similarly, the Internet is designed to maximize speedy
do-it-yourself communication, without the intervention or hierarchy
of authority or even mediators.
"That's what makes it appear more democratic," Barber said.
"But as we've seen, instead of knowledge, you get raw information.
Instead of informed opinion, you get private prejudice. Instead of
common ground, you get divisive private interests. So it isn't
democracy; it's anarchy."
Yet any introduction of editors or monitors is perceived as
undemocratic. Barber and his Yale partner on the project, Beth
Noveck, hope to bridge that dichotomy by inventing a new genre of
Their Civic Exchange software will require that participants
answer a few questions before they gain access to the discussion
area. And when participants are in the discussion site, there are
stringent rules. "But," Barber said, "with the participation of
the others in the group, you can remake the rules or modify them."
Unchangeable, though, is a rule imposed by the software itself:
The group must elect its own moderator. Barber says this single
feature alone may solve the dilemma of online anarchy vs. democracy
-- if not for the Internet writ large, at least for those seeking
Whether the go-go culture of the Internet will slow down for
Civic Exchange's speed bumps is uncertain. But what drives the
group is the attempt to harness the network's strengths to people's
needs, instead of vice versa. "It's about using the architecture
to your advantage, but not being victimized," Ms. Noveck says.
"At the very least, we shouldn't be bullied by it."
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