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).

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.

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?