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Minnesota E-Democracy is blessed with a number of dedicated
volunteers <http://www.e-democracy.org/volunteer.html>.  Many of
these volunteers (I am one too) are finding that their interest in
facilitating local online political discussions is transforming them
into sages with experience and wisdom to share about online civic
participation writ large.

Read on below.

Steven Clift
Democracies Online
Minnesota E-Democracy

------- Forwarded message follows -------
From:                   Tim Erickson <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
Subject:                Local Disputes and Online Dialogue

Local Disputes and Online Dialogue

by Tim Erickson
Volunteer Forum Manager, St. Paul Issues Forum

In the St. Paul Issues Forum, an open online civic discussion e-list,
<http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mn-stpaul/messages> we've been
grappling with the dangers raised by discontented individuals who
make disproportionate use of our technology and space to air their
controversial and usually very negative viewpoints. These same
individuals often tend to start the most volatile and destructive
exchanges, which have in the past damaged the credibility and image
of our forum.

Our struggle is how to avoid having our list sink to the level of the

lowest common denominator, without resorting to overly heavy handed
management which damages the ideological diversity of our list.

I'd like to share the strategy that we've developed and begun to


We've generally found that by bringing quality information into a
discussion, that participants begin to hold themselves and their
contributions to a higher standard of accuracy and accountability.
We're taking active steps to fill the information void that sometimes

appears in our forum and maintain a good mix of opinion, ideas, and
hard facts.

   a) Volunteers scan local newspapers on a daily basis for news
articles related to topics of interest to our forum and post a daily
list of links to those relevant news articles.

   b) We're asking volunteers from each of the 18 official
neighborhoods in our city, to post a monthly update on the main
issues and developments in their neighborhoods.

   c) We are establishing a list of contacts in several government
agencies who have agreed to forward us information on issues and
questions that come up in our forum. A list volunteer will alert our
government contact when an issue comes up and ask for any readily
available information or web links that might better inform our
online discussion.

   d) We've offered some city staff secondary channels to get
information into our forum to inform our discussion, without exposing

them to the danger of getting sucked into back and forth discussions
or becoming lightning rods for disgruntled citizens. By having the
list manager or a volunteer post the information that they provide
(usually, listing the source), they, as city employees, are often
more comfortable contributing.

   e) We're actively training list members of the importance of
getting FACTS and INFORMATION into our sometimes very opinionated
discussions - quickly, before they spin out of control.


We've decided to simply acknowledge the newness of this medium and
actively work to train participants, city organizations, and city
staff about how to efficiently use, contribute to, and benefit from
our list.

   a) As list manager, I'm setting up appointments with various city
staffers to explain the purpose, goals, and culture of our listserve.

   b) We're preparing messages with important tips on participation,
that we can repost from time to time.

   c) We're planning to host a panel discussion aimed specifically at

city staffers and members of important community organizations that
we would like to get involved in our discussion. Invited panelists
include a journalist who regularly monitors our list for stories, an
elected official (school board) who participates, and 1-2 city
staffers who have made good use of the list in their official
capacities. The purpose of the discussion will be to share ideas and
tips for how to participate efficiently and constructively.

   d) TEACHING MOMENTS: As list manager, I often provide individuals
with alternative ideas for constructively presenting their viewpoints

in our forum, when they get too personal, disrespectful, or
inflammatory - rather than simply chastising them. I ALMOST always
thank them for contributing.


We believe that in a city forum, where we all live and work
relatively close together, that we ABSOLUTELY MUST get out from
behind our computers and get together from time to time. We need to
drop the mouse and pick up the telephone more often than we do.

E-mail will never replace face to face contact!

It is our overdependence and exclusive reliance on e-mail that
sometimes gets us into trouble. The more that we are connected
offline, the most constructive and respectful our online
communications become. This is also, or especially, true of
individuals with widely differing political ideologies.

We are making a concerted effort to get together in small groups as
often as we can. Not everyone can or should come to every event, but
we encourage as many people as possible to attend one or another of
our events.

We've also asked various government agencies to host these in-person
events, as an opportunity to establish relationships with those
agencies and build confidence in forum - while providing our citizen
participants a chance to meet with that agency and see what they do.


Tim Erickson ([EMAIL PROTECTED]) is a volunteer for Minnesota
E-Democracy and the manager of the St. Paul Issues Forum
http://www.e-democracy.org/stpaul/. He also manages and moderates
Politalk discussions on specific local, national, or international
topics http://www.politalk.com. More about Tim at:


Tim Erickson              http://www.politalk.com
St. Paul, MN - USA                   651-643-0722
[EMAIL PROTECTED]                   ICQ: 105978430
Check out the current Politalk discussion called:

            "Making Sense Of India"

------- End of forwarded message -------
^               ^               ^                ^
Steven L. Clift    -    W: http://www.publicus.net
Minneapolis    -   -   -     E: [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Minnesota  -   -   -   -   -    T: +1.612.822.8667
USA    -   -   -   -   -   -   -     ICQ: 13789183

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