an online discussion about one of the most divisive issues in recent
years, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, in which participants from
different sides of the issue complimented one another about the quality
of their arguments. Imagine one participant calling Hilary Clinton's
"own agenda" "kinda scary," then earnestly asking others in the group,
"Or is it? Any opinions?" Then, imagine other user posts that resembled
op-ed pieces, polished (even grammatically correct) ruminations on the
issue or even high-concept news parodies and humorous send-ups of mass
Could this have been the same fire-breathing
impeachment debate the rest of us lived through? The same wall-to-wall,
intransigent exchanges among Republican and Democratic Party
apparatchiks that passed for TV news programming during those
nightmarish months? Indeed it was -- at the aptly-named Realty Check, one
of several experiments in conducting more civilized discussion groups
in a medium infamous for its conversational "rants," "flame wars," and
While the rest of us tended to yell at each other
online throughout much of the late 90s, the New York Internet think
tank Web Lab was evolving a better way at sites like PBS Interactive's
P.O.V. and American Love Stories, Reality Check, and recently at
MSNBC.com. Its Small Group Dialogue (SGD) tool is both a general method
of structuring more civil online discussions and a software toolset
that content providers now can license from Web Lab. As a means for
raising the level of online discourse, it is already an unqualified
success, enjoying rave reviews from participants and from MSNBC.com.
And for the ever important bottom line, SGD communities tend to be
self-regulating and thus (potentially) cheaper to maintain than
monitored bulletin boards. Web Lab founder Marc Weiss proudly boasts
that, after several years of experimentation across multiple sites and
tens of thousands of threads, the quality of discussion has been so
high and so civilized that "We have never had to delete a message for
content reasons, and we've never done an internal edit on a message."
Accountability Breeds Respect
to Web Labs, SGD works because it identifies and addresses the root
causes of online nastiness: lack of focus, anonymity, and the absence
of real community. SGD posters are not drive-by blowhards, but
self-selected members of a group whose purpose is to discuss issues and
understand diverse viewpoints. They sign up in advance at a site for
focused exchanges on specific topics (impeachment, September 11
aftermath, interracial relationships, et. al.) that are scheduled to
take place for two to four weeks. The pool is divided into groups of 50
to 70 people. Members can retain their formal anonymity with any
username they choose, but each is required to write a short
biographical statement that usually contains their age, race, religion,
and often how their life experience informs their opinions.
to Weiss and Jed Miller, the director of collaboration and community at
Web Lab, this basic up-front structure goes a long way to separate
online discussion from the roots of animosity. By breaking discussion
areas down into limited groups that have even the most glancing
familiarity, "It gives them a sense of accountability and intimacy with
one another," says Miller. An online ranter generally has nothing
invested in the discussion group that he harasses, no concern about who
is listening, and even less about what they think.
On the other
hand, SGD members are asked to introduce themselves when assigned to a
group, and they then get an email with about 20 sample bios of other
members. Early in the experiments with this format, Weiss recalls,
"People got to know each other on a level of who they were before they
started debating the issues, so there was a little bit more sense of
responsibility." Members can only post to their own groups, a rule the
designers feel helps to reinforce a participant's investment in the
success of the ongoing discussion, but also helps isolate any brush
fires that do erupt. Even in this more structured environment, the
first smoldering of a good old-fashioned flame war can occur, but the
group dynamic almost always extinguishes flare-ups quickly. "You'll
always have a couple of soap boxers and potential demagogues," says
Miller. "But when people are forced to look at what they just said by
looking at other people's response to it, and are invited to declare
what and who they are early on, the pinata effect is reduced."
of the more important lessons to emerge from Web Lab's experience is
just how much power a publisher can have over users' online behavior
simply by establishing the right context. When signing up for SGD,
users opt into a set of expectations for civil, respectful exchanges
and for exposure to diverse views. In part, the self-selection process
guarantees a more serious group, but the system itself encourages
members to monitor the general quality of discussion. "What's really
fascinating about this is that once you put the responsibility for the
success of the group into their own hands, they rise to the occasion,"
says Weiss. Another key component is modeling. Participants can
nominate posts or threads to be featured for all members of all groups
to see on the board's home page. By highlighting superior discourse,
the publisher collaborates with members to model and encourage good
behavior and raise the bar of expectations. "People are as responsible
communicators as you invite them to be," Miller has learned.
MSNBC: Beyond the Mosh Pit
is all well and good in the otherwise genteel environs of PBS sites and
Web Lab's other up-brow venues. But things are likely to be a bit
different when you tackle the more mass, raucous rabble of MSNBC. com,
which boasts 15 million to 20 million unique users a month. Even the
site's executive producer for communities Joan Connell admits that
prior to the Web Lab experiment at the site her well-populated message
boards too often became a mosh pit. Despite a costly staff of human
monitors, "We had a lot of trouble with hate speech and off-topic
conversations," she says. That and budget cuts forced MSNBC. com to
shut down its bulletin boards in early December, just after Marc Weiss
approached the site about hosting a SGD on the September 11 attacks.
Web Lab was hoping to stress test its SGD software on MSNBC.com's
massive traffic flow, the discussions only attracted a modest 1,800
participants (20 groups) over two months beginning in December 2001.
"While the volumes of conversations we had were not high, the quality
of the interactions were excellent, and from a community standpoint
this was very important," says Connell. In fact, in the first
three-week session, all ten groups exercised an option within SGD's
software to extend the discussion beyond their allotted time.
half of those who signed up actively participated in the MSNBC. com
discussions, a slightly higher percentage than in previous SGD forums.
"This crowd was used to a more rough and tumble environment for
discussion," Miller found, but ultimately these groups followed the
same patterns as earlier trials. "The investment in self-expression as
opposed to pure attack was high, an eagerness not just to shout
opinions, but to relate experiences."
Free-Standing, Not Free-Wheeling
Web Lab and MSNBC.com learned that discussion groups like these require
very active promotion and linking throughout a site, even one as
well-trafficked as this one, in order to attract high participation.
Getting placement on that all-important front page was critical to
capturing eyeballs, but even with strong advocates among the MSNBC.com
editorial staff, SGD had trouble competing for featured links against a
run of war news.
The MSNBC.com experiment enjoyed underwriting
from Web Lab's funding sources, and the site has not yet decided to
make SGD permanent. Web Lab is talking with numerous media companies
about licensing the product, arguing that this software produces both
more civilized and cheaper online conversation.
The process is
remarkably automated; it is a modified version of Web Crossing's
bulletin board programming. Once a preset minimum of users signs up for
a discussion, the software uses their basic profile information to
assign groups, each of which reflects the demographics of the entire
pool. It then emails the invitation to introduce themselves and a
second email with sample bios and perhaps a starter question. Users
themselves are able to modify somewhat how they see messages, and every
post links to a pop up of the writer's bio. The software even polls the
members at the end of the discussion about whether they want to extend
it. While many groups do elect to continue, it is important that
discussion sessions are finite. This seems to encourage involvement
because members are willing to commit to a burst of serious
conversation if an endpoint is in sight.
In the MSNBC.com test,
Web Lab had budgeted one monitor for every 30 groups, because the need
for human intervention is minimal and the system lets members quickly
notify the site about any tech problems or misbehavior in a group. The
only editorial task involves selecting and pruning the posts that
members nominate to be featured on the main page. A very comprehensive
administrative tool gives monitors a detailed view of activity levels
within the groups. As more sites drop their message bases because of
budget or concerns over propriety, Web Lab is hoping to address both
concerns with SGD.
The Value of Community
a budget crunch, the bottom line value of a site's online community is
among the most difficult things to quantify, and often it is one of the
first features to go. Content providers do this at their own peril,
Connell warns, because it ignores a key differentiator of this new
medium. "In old media, it was a one-way street. I write it. You read
it. End of story. In new media, we present the news and we provide a
platform for our readers to express themselves." Without interactivity,
the Web is just a radically uncomfortable way to read a newspaper or
Miller thinks that online community has been woefully
undervalued in the first and second waves of online publishing. "The
missed opportunity on a lot of Web sitesâ€¦was that droves of people were
showing up simultaneously at the same location with a tremendous
motivation to connect, with a latent instinct that needed a context."
These communicators are among a site's most loyal return users and its
most frequent online purchasers, he argues.
But even if an SGD
member never bought a single book or pullover from a site's affiliated
ecommerce partner, she still provides a site with a valuable
commodity -- content. Many sites have tried to capture and repurpose the
free but unstructured stream of user-generated material, but generally
it involves costly editorial time. Average posts within the SGD forums
are inordinately polished and engaging, something closer to an informed
panel discussion than the usual graffiti wall of online commentary.
online discussions really can prove their worth on the bottom line,
Connell feels that the SGD method is most laudable because it revisits
some of Web culture's early idealism, how the medium might expand and
enrich civic discourse. "Free speech is messy. Human interactions are
often chaotic and unpredictable. But this kind of focused forum is like
a well-maintained public park where people can feel safe about
interacting with others and perhaps even learn something about
themselves," she says.
For all of its democratic appeal and high
ideals, however, one of the most interesting lessons from the SGD
experiments is that even this more civilized online discourse is not
about changing one another's minds. Post-discussion surveys find that
few participants shifted their views on an issue as a result of taking
part in the session. What did change was their level of understanding
and tolerance of opposing views. In an online world of "drive by"
exchanges, this is no mean feat.
Imagine if there were an online flame war and nobody came.