Project 540

to the City

MSNBC Dialogues

Reality Check

SGD History

SGD Evaluation
report: Transforming Dialogue (pdf1)
excerpt: RC report (pdf2)
selected responses: RC report (pdf3)

exec summary: RC report
SGD Press Release
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Small Group Dialogues

The Evaluation Press Release

February 10, 2000


New York -- Words like quality, respect, and commitment aren't often used to describe Web-based discussions. But a recent report on an innovative model for online dialogues provides a glimpse of an alternative to chaotic bulletin boards populated by drive-by postings and flame wars.

Funded by the Markle Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and carried out by an independent team headed by political scientist Steven Schneider, the report provides in-depth information about the impact of Reality Check, Web Lab's four-month long experiment in small group dialogues that tracked the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in the winter of 1998 - 99.

About 450 participants contributed nearly 13,000 messages during the four months site was active. According to the report, two thirds of dialogue participants who responded to a post-dialogue survey felt their discussions were higher quality than other online dialogues in which they've participated, and almost as many reported that their respect for other participants with whom they disagreed increased as a result of the dialogue. Personal attacks were virtually non-existent, remarkable anywhere online, but especially in a public conversation about the impeachment proceedings. Over half of the respondents reported reading more than three-quarters of the messages posted in their group, and spent more than one hour per week reading messages.

Reality Check forums succeeded where most fail by modifying the usual "rules" of online dialogues by creating small groups rather than a revolving door; helping participants get to know each other quickly; monitoring discussions, but rarely intervening, allowing members to run their own dialogues; and facilitating only indirectly, by highlighting exemplary exchanges.

The results were extraordinary:

  • Nearly 70% of those surveyed said they learned something about the impeachment from Reality Check, a phenomenal figure considering the saturation media coverage and the high level of news consumption reported by participants.
  • 30% of the posts studied contained positive comments towards another member, while only 10% contained negative comments.
  • 40% of the respondents reported that most or all of the members respected what they thought. And almost half of the respondents felt that most or all of the members seemed interested in understanding those with whom they disagreed.
  • 80% of active members reported reading messages because they felt a responsibility to the group, and an equal number reported the same regarding posting.
  • More than 60% indicated that they were better able to understand others -- especially those with whom they disagreed -- as a result of participating in Reality Check.
Reality Check is a project of Web Lab, a non-profit that develops, supports and champions innovative uses of the web to enhance public understanding of -- and participation in -- the issues of our times. Web Lab most recently used the small group dialogue technique for a discussion of race relations in conjunction with last fall's broadcast of "An American Love Story," the celebrated PBS series about an interracial couple. (An evaluation of the ALS dialogues was completed in early spring). Web Lab partnered with Global Media Design, an Orlando-based new media development company, to build the software that runs the dialogue groups.

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