Web Lab's Small Group Dialogue Process
The following text was excerpted from Web Lab's website (www.weblab.org).
What is Web Lab's Small Group Dialogue (SGD) Process?
SGD is a more perfect discussion tool built to foster intimate, high-quality online exchanges. By limiting group size and lifespan, Small Group Dialogue emphasizes each member's value, encouraging a sense of belonging and an investment in frequent visits. The result is a structured experience requiring minimal intervention, and an astonishing signal-to-noise ratio unmatched in any conventional online dialogue model.
Principles of SGD
- Size - structure over clamor. Participants are assigned to multiple small groups, instead of joining a crowded, anonymous mass.
- Time - investing, not driving by. Limited lifespan of each group promotes commitment and provides closure.
- Accountability - listening instead of flaming. Emphasis on member bios and member-promoted content drives visibility, a sense of belonging and self-regulation.
- Efficiency - automation reduces moderation. Tracking, administration and notification system for users and hosts allows for cost-efficient community monitoring.
The SGD tool and technique were refined over several years, through a series of extraordinary discussions on topics including interracial families and the Clinton impeachment. The latest version of the software was built by Web Crossing, a leader in online community technology, in a non-exclusive partnership with Web Lab.
We first tried this approach in the summer of 1998, when we created the P.O.V. Salon to encourage discussions about the independent films shown on the public TV series P.O.V. Although, as a first time experiment, the process was flawed in many ways, the impact on active participants was so powerful that it changed the way we thought about the possibilities of online dialogue and the role it can play in people's lives.
A few months later, in the fall of 1998, we refined the process with Reality Check, a unique set of dialogues about the impeachment process that ran for four months. We also used this approach for a discussion of race in conjunction with the PBS broadcast of the series An American Love Story.
It turned out the effects were not only reproducible, but inspiring:
- Members with conflicting opinions communicated across their differences and often came to respect those with whom they disagreed.
- Personal attacks were rare, constructive criticism and appreciation abounded, and members generally treated each other exceptionally well and with a thoughtful frankness. When conflicts did erupt, the group dynamics were usually strong enough that protagonists not only accepted responsibility and apologized, but learned something in the process, without Web Lab's intervention.
- Some members reported the experience changed the way they communicated both on and off line, whether developing improved listening skills or strengthening their ability to speak their mind and defend their beliefs.
- Active members grew remarkably loyal and the site became, as they say in marketing, very sticky.
- Members developed enough trust to share deeply personal aspects of their lives and looked to one another for advice and support.
- As members grew to know each other, each group identified topics of common interest and took their dialogue in directions different from the other groups.
Philosophy: A Different Approach to Online Dialogue
At Web Lab, we believe that people with divergent backgrounds and beliefs -- given the time and space to connect in a safe environment -- will find ways to explore their differences and learn from each other, emerging with a deeper understanding of themselves and the world.
When looking at the standard practices online, however, we noticed that although Web-based discussions offer participants the ability to connect with each other -- one of the most powerful things any technology can do -- they often create a collection of people with no sense of accountability who leave a series of drive-by postings, rather than contribute to a dialogue or a community.
Rather than expecting and planning for the best from participants, most approaches seem more concerned about preventing the worst and, as a result, end up reproducing the very problems they aim to avoid. We decided to take a different approach.
- Instead of a dialogue which is so large members can't keep track of each other and know who's there, the Web Lab Dialogues organize groups that are small enough that members can actually tell who isn't there.
- Instead of a dialogue in which participants experience different start and end points, so people are constantly arriving and leaving as if through a revolving door, participants in a Web Lab Dialogue Group start together and come to closure together.
- Instead of a dialogue in which anonymity is treated as if it were as sacred as the First Amendment, the Web Lab Dialogues lower the level of anonymity to raise the level of accountability, while still preserving a level of safety and trust that online anonymity can generate.
- Instead of dialogues with moderators or facilitators driving the dialogue and defining what's appropriate for discussion, the Web Lab Dialogues take the administrators out of the dialogue and let each group take ownership over their own conversation, allowing group dynamics to let natural leaders emerge and encouraging self-moderated groups.
Resources About SGD
Web Lab's website
New York Times column
Denise Caruso's July 5, 1999, New York Times column on Improving Dialogue on the Internet (www.weblab.org/press/nytimes070599.html). The column focused primarily on Web Lab's developing model, calling it "one of the most innovative ideas for creating value and relevance in online conversation."