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Highlights | The New York Times

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Improving Dialogue on the Internet, by Denise Caruso
July 5, 1999 (free registration required)

Thanks 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 everyone.

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 documentary film.

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 public issues.

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 go.

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 differences?"

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 University.

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 discourse.

"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 free.

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 online discussion.

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 meaningful dialogue.

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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