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    Participants Balk at Controversial Topics

    by A. Adam Glenn
    April 22, 2008

    It might seem a good starting point for building virtual community when people already know each other in the real one. But for Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker, we’ve been surprised to find that doesn’t seem so true. For many potential users of our online group blog and forums, the risks of speaking about a controversial topic so openly in an online public forum appear just too great.

    When we launched our project in the summer of 2007 in the wake of the city’s approval of a carbon tax to fight global warming, we began with the premise that experts and interested participants from the community would have enough to say that at least some would want to become “citizen journalists,” that is, frequent contributors on the pro-am group weblog we were setting up. After all, the subject of global warming was, er, hot, and Boulder had just become a pioneer in acting locally on a issue of planetary scale.

    But while we got enthusiastic feedback, no one seemed to be stepping forward. We came to believe this had mostly to do with the psychological barrier of become a (capital “J”) journalist, a daunting prospect for folks with little to no background in reporting and writing skills (something we hoped to address through training).

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    But last winter, we decided to experiment with a different approach to grease the skids for participants. We launched a series of online forums that we felt would lower the hurdles for potential contributors, making it much simpler for them to take part. They no longer had to act as “journalists” – they could simply make online comments in our forums, a pretty tried-and-true community building tool.

    Since we also wanted to take advantage of online conversations already taking place, we divided our forums into half-a-dozen different specializations, such as government watchdogging, energy efficiency, business and transportation issues. By cross-seeding existing forums and our own, we thought, residents with expertise in those topics (of which we know there are many in Boulder and environs) could then also take part in just that one forum on our site, without being overwhelmed or distracted by other carbon tax-related issues.

    And perhaps in the process, we mused hopefully, some forum participants would become sufficiently engaged that we could entice them into posting to the main group weblog itself, even with some regularity.

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    Only it didn’t work. After months of trying to spark conversation in the forums, not much has happened beyond a few interesting guest posts. Now we think we understand why.

    In the interest of sharing lessons learned, here’s our thinking. Many of those we’ve approached in recent months to participate in the forums have been very interested. But at the same time, they’ve started to make it clearer to us that the barrier is not the technological one of having to post to a forum or blog. Rather, it’s a political barrier — there are just too many interests at stake in a small city to so publicly voice their views.

    By expressing themselves on the controversial carbon tax topic in an open forum — rather than in more private and safer listservs or face-to-face conversations – they expose themselves to controversy, possibly even career harm.

    We think this is an important insights for us about our project as a whole, as well as perhaps for other sites that seek to build single-issue conversations in relatively close geographical quarters. Some topics are just more difficult to focus a conversation on than others.

    But like the legendary experimenter Thomas Edison – who once said “every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward” – we continue to plunge ahead.

    We welcome your thoughts, suggestions, approaches along the way. Anyone experienced similar challenges? Were you able to overcome them, and how?

    Tagged: boulder carbon tax tracker forums group blogs online conversation
    • The subject of knowing identities or not online has been rattling around in my head most recently (following Dan Schulz on Anonymous) because a consulting client, Changents, considers it an absolute requirement that people be able to hide all identifying information from other users of the site and the public. I had always agreed with the philosophy adopted by the Narco News Bulletin’s co-publisher space that requiring real names markedly enhanced the quality of discussion.

      But this article makes clear that anonymity is necessary for some important discussions.

      I think the best of both worlds is to have people who are verified as real people, who have a consistent pseudonym, but can have their real-life identity secret.

      A better, non-technical, societal solution would be a great expansion of free speech rights.

      Currently we have the interesting situation where the vast majority of people have to work for a living yet the free speech protections of the First Amendment are interpreted only as applying to direct government censorship. In short, you can say whatever you want but you may be fired and consequently broke.

      Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

    • Adam:

      Bravo for being brave enough to share these lessons. I’m as enthusiastic as anyone about the need and desire to involve the community as participants. But that turns out to be easier said then done. Whether it’s at the Mercury News or The Next Newsroom Project, I’ve found it confounding at times to understand what gets people talking and sharing, and what doesn’t.

      At the Mercury News, we found that the level of discourse in our forums was low, and destructive at times. And in part, that seemed to be caused by the ability to post anonymously. We recently implemented a new Drupal-based forum system that includes profiles and tracking posts and ratings. By attaching a digital identity of people, we’ve found the level of conversation has drastically improved (though still not perfect).

      We’ve also been working on Jay Rosen’s Beat Blogging project (www.beatblogging.org) and there’s been some discussion over there about this same issue. How to truly engage a community to participate and contribute to a discussion?

      That community manager function remains an elusive job, both an art and a skill. But I’d also love to hear about “best practices” from other folks.

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    • Adam and Amy:

      The problem of getting those with influence, or for that matter power, to play their cards in public promises to be a continuing problem. Even in an area where their expertise is desired, their efforts are most often communicated in papers, memos or even speeches.

      This is how power communicates and will continue to communicate until those who have been acculturated differently assume the reins of power in the future.

      There was a rather effective politician serving in the State Senate from this county. The man was so ‘in touch’ there were jokes that you could never have a three-some in Paulding County because this politician would show up making the fourth.

      Because of this I was amazed that the local politicians, who could come on and talk directly to the public on paulding.com, declined my efforts to get them to post given there are typically hundreds of people on line at any one time.

      The few who have, unfortunately, have found their posts often evoke critical comments.

      Instead the discourse we have tends to be by surrogates, at least in the online conversations.

      That said, the politicians are typically eager to appear in my video news programs. The interviews, which range from two or three minutes to eight minutes, are generally off-the-cuff and have been well received by the viewers.

      In a strange way it is a form of job security for journalists.

      I do have a suggestion.

      Consider framing an issue in such a way that the ‘community’ is involved in making a choice between several alternatives. Consider, say four approaches for consumer involvement with the winner in the contest earning $2,000 grant from your site. By putting something on the line, I suspect that your experts will seek to support their personally favored approach and criticize those they find ineffective or silly.

      Regardless, the prize gives them a ‘reason’ to endorse one of the alternatives and that would create conversation.

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