The on-line meeting demonstrated that virtual discussions localized to specific topics in a domain could attract people across organizational boundaries, remain coherent and produce possibly valuable ideas. What factors account for the success? Can they be replicated in other venues and with other groups?
The meeting provided individual self-esteem incentives for access and participation, felicitous levels of discussion and effective discourse management. Users knew they could acquire, share and be seen to have information or ideas. Any positive motivation which they as information workers had toward these activities was strengthened by the salience of the discussion domain and the opportunity to investigate a new information technology. "Reinventing government" was frequently mentioned by the media at the time in the context of downsizing and hence a possible threat to their employment, but fewer than half the registered reported knowing much about it or even having seen an NPR report. The meeting also offered concerned workers possibly their only opportunity to influence the implementation of the recommendations. This incentive was strengthened for some workers by their belief the Vice-President would personally review the discussions. More group oriented motivations, like helping to form a group or speaking with one's peers, may have motivated some users to revisit or track discussions. In informal, post-meeting evaluations, these users reported having a "we" feeling when they discovered people from other organizations who were contending with the same problems.
The focus on individual recommendations for common operating systems placed the discussions at a level close to that of concrete operations, without requiring users to know terminology or conditions of a particular organization. It was consequently easy for users to draw on their own experiences in reading and responding to the recommendations and comments. Because the focus also limited the attraction and participation for any particular discussion, potential contributors could have realistic expectations that their opinions would be noticed and could influence the discussion. This sense of being critical encourage some users to expend the intellectual energy and time to comment, rather than just lurking. Note the meeting was arranged to reduce other costs of participation by enabling attendance from their desktops and at any time convenient for them during work hours -- with the blessings of the Vice-President. Indeed the potential for the Internet to decrease the transaction costs of participation is a major reason to imagine it can help revive a public sphere.
The presentation format for the recommendations and the structure provided by the discourse grammar were sufficient cues for participants to recreate the collective policy or program reviews, that many were practiced in their work. This result could be expected, given their background organizational cultures and bureaucratic roles, but was not inevitable. Since roles were under-specified, and the discourse moves were general, the situation was open to interpretations. One participant, a line worker and union steward, submitted scores of questions, agreements and disagreements, which emphasized the need for the government as employer to improve working conditions. He seemed to be following a script or personal role of questioning authority and only stopped, when a moderator suggested by private email communication that he could get more attention by posting fewer comments. The incident highlights that discourse grammars do not constitute a universal pragmatics, that is sets of moves (speech acts) and rules which are understood similarly by all and which construct processes that are transparent to everyone.
As implied above, the second source of success was the people who attended the meeting. Most had training that made them ideal participants: They were information workers, socialized to a culture of meetings, with a professional or managerial interest in what was being said and pre-existing familiarity with how to say it. Such attributes can also be found among the information workers, who have some experience of collaboration over networks. But while their rapidly increasing numbers make them politically significant in the United States these workers hardly constitute the universe, and newsgroups demonstrate that discussions of political and social issues among networked information workers are no more rational and orderly than those of the general population. On-line public spheres open to politically and culturally heterogeneous participants are consequently likely to have problems of governability, beyond the capacities of current types of controls.