The online version of the Listening to the City discussions
was an afterthought. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, the president
of AmericaSpeaks, had been planning the Javits Center meeting
for months on behalf of the Civic Alliance when she met Marc
Weiss, the founder of Web Lab, at a conference. Intrigued
by the notion of an online meeting that could handle the overflow
from Javits and by the Internet's potential for promoting
the kind of grass-roots participation that her group advocates
Ms. Lukensmeyer asked Mr. Weiss if he could raise funds
for an online dialogue.
Securing small grants from AOL
Time Warner, the Surdna Foundation and the family of one
of his volunteers, Mr. Weiss began registering participants
in a matter of weeks. With virtually no advertising, the response
Based on personal information required for registration, the
26 online groups were organized to be geographically and demographically
diverse. Anyone from New York City and the surrounding counties
could take part. Participants received an agenda item by e-mail
every few days and responded to polling questions on topics
like whom a memorial should commemorate, whether housing should
be incorporated on the site and how much green space should
Many participants said they were motivated by a desire to
find out what others thought about a subject that they themselves
felt strongly about. Others said they hoped somehow to influence
the decision on what was built. A driving impulse to contribute
almost as a sense of obligation surfaced in many online comments.
"I wanted to participate in what's going to happen next,"
said Ellen Datlow, 52, a science fiction editor who became
the de facto leader of Group 4, the one that met downtown.
"This is all I can do there is nothing else I can do to
make this happen. I'm not a government official. I'm not someone
with any say except a New Yorker who cares very much about
what happens to the city."
Whether people could be inspired to take part in online discussions
on issues that inspire less passionate feelings is unclear.
Organizers also wonder to what degree the sense of common
purpose arising from the events of Sept. 11 softened and civilized
the online interaction.
But the discussion was certainly not bland. The groups, which
had an average of about 30 members, exhibited the gamut of
online behavior. There were members who never posted, showoffs
who competed for the longest and most articulate posts, and
one flamethrower who was barred from his group midway through
the discussions for disruptive behavior, including posting
"Rebuild the towers exactly the way they were" over and over
Civic activists debate whether discussion in itself helps
shore up democratic ideals, or if influencing policymakers
must be the goal. An informal poll of several participants
indicated that as much as they enjoyed the back-and-forth,
they would like their words to have an impact rather than
simply occupying cyberspace.
"Who am I?" said one, Vincent Pecoraro, a bank manager who
works in Lower Manhattan. "The Port Authority owns the land.
Larry Silverstein owns the lease. But there's a slim chance
of hope that they're going to listen. That will be wonderful
if I could have been a part of that."