How well did the Open Meeting realize the ideal of a public sphere? How good a model is it for an on-line democratic institution? One answer is that the participatory process through which a community becomes an active agent on an issue requires members' access to relevant information, their deliberation, decision, privacy, commitment to the decision and time. Privacy here refers to protection of participants from intimidation, insult, defamation or similar means intended to chill participation in public discussions. Time refers to the examination of a significant issue and the expression of all interested parties' views on it taking a considerable amount of time -- weeks or months. By these standards, the Open Meeting does half the job; it successfully provides a platform for accessing information and participating in orderly discussions.
As implemented for the meeting, the major shortcomings of the system appear in regard to decision and developing a community spirit that would facilitate commitment by participants to a decision. As noted, there were reasons for not implementing a decision mechanism, and such a mechanism, arguably, might not be needed, since argument grammars have an implicit decision mechanism. They terminate when challenges to a claim are exhausted, a challenge cannot be countered or the opposing sides agree to disagree. These endings are more in keeping with a consensus seeking process based on force of reason alone. Nevertheless, few communities really have the time for exhaustive arguments and few scenarios allow decisions to wait for them. Realistic, effective support of on-line processes in which communities clarify issues and take stands has to include event-creating moves like cloture and voting procedures. These moves are event creating; they change the phase of a deliberative process by ruling out some previously permitted moves and activating other ones. More generally, an effective Open Meeting system will need a library of tested procedures, represented by discourse grammars, with projected outcomes and identified risks, against which conveners of community meetings or collaborations can measure their needs.
As noted earlier, the strategy of decomposing large meetings into small discussions has the potential to isolate users and block their sight of the large community. A low cost means of meeting this problem is an interface display of the distribution of interests over the various topics and proposals, as measured by user visits or comments. Users would be able to gauge where their own discussions fit in the distribution of the community's attention and to directly access popular or other spots, if they so wanted. Slightly more expensive is the automatic generation of cross-links, based on statistical information retrieval methods and patterns of semantic links, that point users to other discussions with themes or information similar to their own. As well as discovering cross cutting themes or issues to integrate the knowledge produced in the discussions, this technique can also be used to discover construct wider circles of participants with similar problems.
By showing under certain condition, suitable mechanisms can produce a successful, widely-attended discussion of issues, the Open Meeting was a useful step toward building democratic practices in networked communities. However, because of the importance of shared organizational/ cultural backgrounds for the success of these discussions, it is more realistic to think about multiple public spheres, each serving a different subcommunity. Each group could develop its own discourse grammar, and agents in each sphere would seek cross-links to other groups by similarities in issues discussed. While that procedure does not create consensus, it might promote mutual awareness.