The latest Sciencewise Bulletin asks whether constructive dialogue is possible online.
"One of the key problems in online deliberation [is] that it can result in a game of who can shout the loudest. We’ve all seen discussion threads which end in name calling, usually around a few contentious issues which had nothing to do with the original topic. It is this tendency which lies behind ‘Godwin's Law' which proposes that as an internet discussion thread grows longer, it also grows angrier and the probability of someone comparing someone else to Hitler approaches."
Colleagues from the field of 'virtual facilitation' have been adding to the debate, including on the Sciencewise-ERC Forum, considering the role of anonymity versus seeing the other contributors as real people (for example by inviting them to add a photo to their profile) and also the usefulness of active moderation.
I am working with some national government clients at the moment, helping them to plan their engagement with stakeholders around a couple of different policy-related decisions coming up later in 2011. I stress how useful it is to be clear what they, as the 'decision makers' want to get from the engagement process. How they can identify the stakeholders they should be in touch with, and phase the conversations so that they get information and opinions at a time when they can influence the decision-making process.
For example, some things will be decided early on, and other things can only be decided later. There's not so much use in asking people about things which have already been decided!
But an open on-line dialogue is less easily controlled or structured by the facilitators. Anyone with internet access can join in, and you may not know if they are who they say they are. This lack of control makes organisers nervous. Should it?
If it is true that "for some people, conflict is simply a source of recreation", then online dialogue could "get out of hand". This is one of the learnings from the list of "What online communities can teach the Public Conversations Project", posted on the Public Conversations blog, by Deborah Elizabeth Finn.
What are the implications for on-line dialogue?
My experience is almost entirely in bounded, organised and above all, face-to-face engagement. I confess to some anxiety myself about open on-line engagement - how do the relevant decision-makers make sense of the inputs? How do they steer conversations back to the issues which are yet to be decided?
Your thoughts are very welcome, here or on the Sciencewise Forum.