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
Top Ten Lessons

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Web Lab's Small Group Dialogue Technique

The Executive Summary

Reality Check billed itself as a "new model for dialogue on public issues." It was a web-based, computer-mediated asynchronous dialogue forum, featuring small groups of participants who committed themselves to engaging in a dialogue for at least 4 weeks. Fifteen dialogue groups were launched and conducted between November, 1998 and March, 1999. These groups involved about 750 different registrants, who contributed a total of nearly 13,000 separate messages during the project's existence.

Web Lab (the organizers of Reality Check) sought to create an online space in which a diverse group of citizens could construct meaningful conversations about the impeachment controversy and other political issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect and shared commitment. Through a series of seemingly small but potentially important adjustments to the technical and social structure of the familiar online dialogue, Web Lab hoped to change the dynamic of Internet conversation about politics. We believe that, to a significant extent, they succeeded. The technical and social changes implemented in this project created an atmosphere of respect, learning, community, and positive relationships unusual (to say the least) in the online world.

Participants were highly committed contributors and readers - nearly 80% of the registrants responding to our survey said they were motivated to either read or write messages by a sense of responsibility to the group. Two thirds of the respondents believed their discussions to be higher quality than other online dialogues in which they've participated, and almost as many reported that they developed respect for other participants. Substantial proportions of the participants in the dialogue groups invested considerable conversational resources in community building and developing positive relationships. Personal attacks, common in other online forums, were virtually non-existent. Nearly 70% of the registrants responding to our survey said they learned something about the impeachment from Reality Check - a phenomenal figure given the saturation coverage in traditional media, and the high level of news reportedly consumed by the registrants.

Perhaps more importantly, most registrants interviewed indicated that they were better able to understand others, especially those with whom they disagreed, as a result of their participation in Reality Check. A majority of the respondents reported caring a lot about their dialogue groups while they were active. They indicated their level of caring by investing significant time and effort in the groups. Over half reported reading more than three-quarters of the messages posted, spending more than one hour per week reading and writing messages. 30% spent two hours or more reading messages.

We believe that the model demonstrated by the Reality Check experiment offers exciting possibilities for the future of Internet-based conversation. We encourage those interested in expanding opportunities for democratic discussion online to pay close attention to the technical and social features associated with the Reality Check dialogue groups.

(Download the two PDF files. The first pdf (136k) contains excerpts from the full 65 page report. It includes the executive summary, the introduction, a statistical profile of participants, and the closing section summarizing the impact of Web Lab actions on the dialogues. The second pdf (96k) contains selected responses to the open-ended survey questions.)

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