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

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.

SGD's History

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:

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.

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."


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