Local Disputes and Online Dialogue
Added June 12, 2002

The following article, written by Tim Erickson, was posted on DO-WIRE.

In the St. Paul Issues Forum, an open online civic discussion e-list, 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 implement.


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.

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Tim Erickson () is a volunteer for Minnesota E-Democracy and the manager of the St. Paul Issues Forum. He also manages and moderates Politalk discussions on specific local, national, or international topics. More about Tim is available at www.politalk.com/pages/host.html

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This message was posted on DO-WIRE, a moderated email announcement list provided by Steven Clift of Publicus (www.publicus.net). DO-WIRE connects over 2500 experts, practitioners, journalists, and citizens from around the world who are interested in democracy online, which includes politics online, new media, e-governance, e-government, online advocacy, citizen interaction and related topics. To subscribe, email lists[email protected] and type "SUB DO-WIRE" in the body of the message

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Last updated Tuesday, June 11, 2002 7:17 PM