Managing Large Scale On-line Discussions:
Secrets of the Open Meeting

Roger Hurwitz and John C. Mallery
Intelligent Information Infrastructure Project
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abstract: The possibility of communities steering themselves by large scale, online meetings are limited by support system capabilities for managing their discourse. An asynchronous conferencing system the Open Meeting supported a meeting in which thousands of U.S. government workers discussed reengineering government services. It enabled users to learn and share opinions about proposed changes, because its design focused on decomposing the inflows of comments, structuring multi-lateral conversations and maintaining civility. Access was provided over SMTP and HTTP to a topically differentiated hypertext synthesized from an object database, which was extended by users' comments. The comments composed virtual conversations, structured by a discourse grammar that constrained what types of comments could be attached in specific contexts. Civility benefitted from use of moderators and from participants' having similar bureaucratic culture backgrounds. The results suggest that cultural diversity is a greater challenge than numbers to enabling effective on-line democratic action.


Can the Internet invigorate the democratic practices of large communities? Will it become a new public sphere[1], a space where people gather to rationally discuss issues in the hopes of reaching consensus and influencing policy makers? Expectations for that have been raised by a) the diffusion of on-line community forums and newsgroups, b) the power of the Internet to quickly and cheaply gather dispersed individuals around common interests, and c) its use by governments and political activists to distribute information. Parties, candidates and even rebellions now have web sites and email. As expressed in the ugly buzzword disintermediation, digital networks can create direct links between people and government, bypassing the mass media, interest groups and other gate keepers.

Some argue that the Internet will not nurture a public sphere, which, in any case, is an inappropriate model for democratic practice. Its earlier manifestations in Berlin salons and American civic associations were unrepresentative and exclusivist; its rhetoric, abstractions and self-evident truths assume an underlying homogeneous society, steered by white, literate and propertied males[2]. On this critical view, characteristics of on-line communications as well as the growing diversity of voices on the Internet prevent the realization of a public sphere, even one accessible to all and where difference is acknowledged. These include a bias toward speedy, unreflected responses, the absence of social context cues and hyperlinking which, pointing a reader elsewhere, dissolves the authority of the text at hand. On-line political discussions will be situated, personal, and chaotic; more likely to immobilize a community than help form its collective will.

This paper joins the debate by examining how the Open Meeting an experimental network-based information system brought together many, dispersed people to discuss government policies, which affected their work lives. The system's architecture and its theory of knowledge representation have been described elsewhere[3]; the present focus is on how the system organized the large scale discussions, particularly with regard to managing inflows, structuring interactions and maintaining civility. The achievements and shortcomings of the experiment are examined for their relevance to issues of on-line governance. Clearly just broadening people's access to one another and to information does not generate participation, order discourse or produce group decisions. So it is important to show how it is possible to get some of these results.

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Roger Hurwitz
Tue Aug 18 16:30:36 EDT 1998