There are a number of clear advantages and disadvantages of online communication that need to be considered when you are planning a digital citizen engagement strategy.
Online discussion forums have long been used in educational contexts as part of a broader movement towards online learning. Citizen engagement around complex public policy via online forums provides a similar environment in which discussion participants are able to share their views, enter dialogue, and learning from each other. In this context there are, however, clearly advantages and disadvantages of online communication. In my view the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages, however, it is as well to be aware of the disadvantages so that strategies can be put in place to minimise their impacts on participants.
Part 1: Advantages of online communication for citizen engagement
Communicating online is still considered the “new kid on the block” in both educational and public policy contexts, more so in the later. Because of this “newness” it is still having to prove itself through a multitude of qualitative and quantitative research projects. While you won’t find me arguing that online communication should replace face-to-face engagement processes, there are clearly a lot of benefits from online communication that make it a very valid modality for community-government relationship building. I’ve outlined eight advantages of online communication below, but there are, without doubt, many more.
#1. Online community feedback options increase citizen participation rates by providing flexible access to participate asynchronously
Online forums are accessible 24×7, anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. Public gatherings are not.
We have seen this advantage demonstrated clearly in the visitation patterns of each of our client’s EngagementHQ citizen engagement sites.
Some 60% if visitors to our client’s sites do so during their working day with peaks around morning and afternoon tea. It is quite clear that the majority of users take full advantage of the convenience of the opportunity to get involved in the discussions while they are at work rather than in their own time. In contrast, the vast majority of traditional citizen engagement processes take require participation either after work during the week, or on valuable weekends when there are far more interesting things to be doing. As a result of this convenience, we have often seen vastly higher online participation than face-to-face participation in policy discussions.
Our observations mirror those of online course providers. College Atlas notes that:
Many people participate in online courses because of the flexibility they provide. Online college degrees and programs make it possible for students to work during the day and complete their studies from their homes at nights. Those who spend a lot of time traveling due to work can also complete their education in their spare time.
The competition for “time” is tough. Everybody has lots to do. It’s hard enough getting someone’s attention, let alone convincing them to prioritize your issue above all of the other things they have to get done in a day. “Convenience” is a crucial strategy. Online participation, like online learning, is the most convenient form of citizen participation.
#2. Online discussion forums democratize community voices exposing new opinions and options to the light of day
Reserved people who usually don’t speak up can say as much as they like while “loud” people are just another voice and can’t interrupt.
Educationalist blogger, Lisa Nielsen, observes that:
“Students in online environments enjoy the equity in the ability to share thoughts and ideas. No longer is it just the student in the front of the room or the one with the loudest voice who is heard. When learning online the playing field is leveled and opportunities are in place such as commenting on posts, videos, and student work or participating in discussion forums. These environments provide students with varied opportunities to share their thoughts and ideas.”
In discussing the direct application of online discussion forums to citizen engagement practice, Vincent Price, writes in chapter 1 of Online Deliberation: Design, Research and Practice, that:
“The quasi-anonymity and text-based nature of electronic group discussion… might actually reduce patterns of social dominance. Studies demonstrate that online discussions are generally much more egalitarian than face-to-face encounters, with reduced patterns of individual dominance and increased contributions by low-status participants.”
“Group decision-making experiments generally indicate that online discussions, relative to face-to-face group meetings, generate more open exchanges of ideas, suggesting considerable utility for deliberative work.”
While not everyone agrees with this sentiment, it has been our observation that provided the online forum is careful moderated, they are almost always at least as constructive as public gatherings, if not more so. We have seen this phenomenon play out repeatedly on many of our client sites.
The main “leveling” benefit for me is the “democratization” of the thoughts, ideas, suggestions, value statements etc that occurs through anonymity. In theory, all views should be seen as equal, with their merit tested against the logic of the argument. However, as we know, in reality, all animals are equal; except pigs, which are more equal. The power attached to the position of the speaker can often overwhelm the logic of an argument. Divorcing the comment from the commentator through the anonymity of an online forum removes this power. Similarly, a person who would usually feel dis-empowered suddenly has nothing to fear from their debating partner.
The interpretation of the discussion thus becomes all about the “text” and the merits of the line of argument, rather than about the personalities involved.
We have seen this happen over and over again. But my favourite story concerns an online discussion about changes to local bus timetables. Two participants in the debate were a retired man in his late 50s or early 60s, and a usually taciturn twelve year old girl. The protection offered by her anonymity gave the girl the freedom and courage to speak her mind despite attempts by the older man to talk down to her.
The discussion below is part of a much larger debate about horse culling in national parks in Australia’s Snowy Mountains national parks. It provides another example of a young person holding their own in an online debate. Perhaps they would have done the same in a face-to-face environment, perhaps not.
I am very concerned about allowing a small number of very loud people to clog this debate. National Parks have clear definition (at end), that preclude horses or other feral animals being allowed to run free and trash the place. Horses belong on farms, and in Mongolia. This issue should not even be up for public comment, control of feral species its obligated under environmental law, and international agreements. The vast majority of Australians supported National Parks been established across this country. If you want to delist these parks and make them horse paddocks, then we need a national vote. Otherwise horses have no place here, or in any protected area in Australia. Definition: “Large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities. Primary objective To protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation.”
26 Sep 2014, 03:41 PM
Thankfully for those of us among the “small number of very loud people”, we live in a democracy and as such, need no permission to take part in a public debate. You appear to be confused that the intent of these discussions is to take all aspects of the issue into consideration, and all views, culminating in a management plan to ensure horses aren’t allowed to “run free and trash the place”. It’s unfortunate you choose to believe only one side of the issue should be heard or listened to.
Its about National Parks which has clear definitions, no beliefs required. The only discussion should be about how to control impact of horses.
#3. Online discussions are documented verbatim for posterity, analysis and reuse
Unlike unrecorded verbal conversation, online discussion is lasting and can be revisited and reinterpreted for answers to different questions using different analysis techniques using analytical packages like Nvivo.
The a-synchronous nature of the forums means that it is not uncommon for hours, days or, on occasion, weeks to go by between comments within a particular discussion thread. This “time lapse” approach to discussion does nothing to lessen the value of the individual contributions. In contrast a verbal conversation inevitably moves on and it can be difficult to take the conversation back to an earlier point.
A number of years ago we were asked to host a site to engage Australian’s who were either living with, or caring for someone with, a disability. The site consisted of a discussion forum with a number of topics about the technicalities that should be addressed through the legislative process, along with a story sharing area for people to share their personal experience of what it was/is like to live in Australia with a disability. This is one of those stories.
I Wish My Son Had Cancer….
I can almost hear the gasps and you all shaking your heads as you read this but I don’t care. It is true…I wish he did.
For nearly 17 years he has been through almost every type of test, scan and has had so many procedures and surgeries that I gave up keeping count long ago. Trying to keep him healthy has been a constant and a sometimes impossible goal. A good year is usually followed by a disastrous one and sometimes they have all blended together into a swirling blur. I try to keep his brothers and their interests a priority but sometimes they’re not. As for me and my husband….that is also something that has altered and bent and is somewhat more of a habit than anything else.
We get very little respite and there are definitely no nurses or support staff to coordinate his care and our lives.
Most of what we know we had to find ourselves and on a bad day it is all too hard. And he will never be cured….no chance. Oh, and would you believe that every couple years we have to fill out a mountain of paperwork and go to see all his doctors to prove that he is still disabled!
So yes I am angry, frustrated and upset because what does he have to do to be heard? How much more do you want him to go through? How many more times does he need to lose control of his bowels in front of his classmates, friends, girls and strangers before someone says enough! But he doesn’t complain just chooses to stay at home and watch tv in his room instead of going out.
And we all wait with him while someone, somewhere decides that he really isn’t as important. He doesn’t complain, he can’t be fixed so he can wait a bit longer.
So think about it and don’t condemn me for wishing that my son had cancer…..
Yes, this story could have been shared verbally in a workshop or public meeting, but how much more powerful is it now that it has been written down and can be shared over and over again to ground a theoretical conversation about disability insurance.
Using online forums as a conversation documentation tool is one of the key benefits our clients gain from online engagement processes. That the comments are captured verbatim and can be downloaded, archived and made readily available to the public or for analysis purposes presents enormous analytical, administrative, governance transparency benefits, as well as significant cost savings.
#4. A-synchronous online discussion forums encourage deeper reflection than fast paced f2f processes
Participants don’t have to contribute until they’ve thought about the issue and feel ready.
Research into the use of online discussion forums by University students has found that they:
“…provide expanded opportunities for students to share their thinking with each other and the instructor. Consistent with existing research evidence, these results confirm that reflective thinking cultivates meaningful interactions in online discussion forums. These results are important [because earlier research]suggests absence of reflection in face-to-face classrooms compared to online discussions.”
My sense is that this is one of the key benefits from a methodological viewpoint of using online engagement systems. Overwhelmingly, the comments that we see are of a very high standard in terms of the value of the qualitative data. They are what I would have described as “rich” data in my University days. The quality and nature of the discussion ranges from discussion, through debate to constructive dialogue.
In an article largely critical of online discussion forums as public policy engagement tools, the authors found that:
Arguably the most challenging of our findings for those who wish to design effective online engagement strategies is that, even if we accept that there was a modest change [eds. note: Which there was.] in preferences among strong compliers, this change was not driven by increases in knowledge acquired from the background materials provided, but rather by observing the posts of others or simply being asked to reflect on the topic.
I find it passing strange that the authors are (1) surprised by this finding, (2) at all concerned by it, and (3) begin their research with an expectation that “preference change” is the objective of the engagement process.
It is no surprise at all to me that the forum participants preferred to learn through “dialogue” than through reading public policy documents, however well written or pithy they might be. They are tedious by nature. Chatting with other interested participants, on the other hand, is socially compelling, entertaining and engaging. Peer learning is to be expected in this context. If a group of citizens were brought together for a public workshop they are more likely than not learn from each other and through discussion with subject matter experts in the room. They are very unlikely to have read long policy documents (unless they are involved in a very deep engagement process like a citizens jury), and the subject matter experts would not expect them to have done so. It isn’t their job.
With the right design of both the forum software and the policy content, it is relatively easy to put that content in front of the forum participants – for example, in the form of video, slideshows, images etc. This discussion about protecting the high country of Australia is a great example. Well managed forum facilitation by knowledge based facilitators is a simple solution to provide relevant policy content in context during the discussion, rather than expecting individuals to go offline to read.
My third objection to the researchers statement is their assumption that the success of an online forum should be judged by whether, and to what degree, the participants have changed their positions. Some years ago I blogged about the tension between debate and dialogue in open democracies:
I recently stumbled across another compelling argument for embracing the more, lets call it rambunctious, aspects of online debate. There is a school of thought that argues that the idea that eventually rational consensus on controversial issues is possible – a belief that underpins deliberative models of democracy – is a dangerous illusion. University of Canberra journalism and Communications lecturer, Jason Wilson, writing on the ABC’s THE DRUM website, notes that political philosopher Chantal Mouffe argues that the radical pluralism of modern societies means that liberal consensus can only be imposed. Rather than seeking it, we should institutionalise and channel inevitable conflict in a way that allows us to be adversaries, not enemies, and in a way that reverses the long process of political disengagement in Western democracies:
“Far from jeopardising democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence. Modern democracy’s specificity lies in the recognition and legitimation of conflict and the refusal to suppress it by imposing an authoritarian order.”
In other words, debate, is of itself a very good thing in a free democracy, whether or not it leads to any form of consensus.
#5. Relevant content from the real world grounds online discussion
Online discussion forums provide a place for real life examples and experience to be exchanged.
Public policy can be very high brow and very distant from the reality of everyday lived experience. It can, therefore, be difficult for a regular member of the community to get their head around the issues. Grounding policy is “real life” is therefore a very useful part of the policy development process.
It is also quite common for members of the community to go into policy discussions with fixed views. Sometimes these views are based on personal interests, sometimes on myths, sometimes on personal history. In this context it is very useful to have ordinary everyday citizens to ground a conversation in reality. The comments below are taken from a very large discussion forum that asked community members to talk about whether dogs should be allowed on Sydney’s northern beaches. Anything to do with dogs is always particularly fraught, with dog owners tending to take up arms to protect little Rex’s interests against those who would restrict Rex’s adventures to the backyard. On the other hand, there always seem to be a large group of people who really don’t like dogs very much at all and will take up any line of argument to win their case.
Yes it is 2011, and I think we are capable of accommodating dogs between gates 1 & 3 mid – curly. Naturally during summer on weekends they would be restricted to before 8.30am and after 5pm. As I have observed there very few people on the beach in that area. The kids tend to be up the North or South Ends near the flags. During weekdays I can’t see why they couldn’t be allowed all day as the beach in those areas doesn’t get crowded. What i would like to see is the general public pick up the rubbish ie broken bottles, food wrappers , cigarette butts. As they leave more rubbish than a dog.
My only concern would be allowing dogs loose on popular beaches with lots of kids. Some kids misinterpret dogs playing as aggression and get a bit frightened. Keep them on the less popular beaches during the day. Maybe allow them on more beaches early and late in the day.
Dog poop on beaches could be a concern. However, my experience in other areas with dog beaches shows dog owners are self enforcing. When one owner sees another not picking up after their dog, they jump all over them. Guilt trips do wonders for the very few lazy owners. Dog owners realise that access is a privilege not to be abused.
27 Mar 2011, 09:31 PM
This is one of the most rational statements that I have seen on this site. Great to see
Geese Ron I wish those same self enforcing owners would go up to Tania Park or behind CurlCurl occasionally both spots are a disgrace.
Ron is totally correct about the responsible owners policing the irresponsible. From time to time I see a dog owner pretending not to notice their dog going to the toilet, and I always offer them, in a friendly way, a plastic bag (which I always have on me). I also pick up stray poos if I see them because sometimes even responsible owners might miss one and I figure if I do it for someone, maybe someone will do it for me as well.
#6. Online discussion allows each participant to make a choice about the quality and quantity of their participation
A quick question or comment, or a long reflective account are equally possible.
One of the contemporary obsessions (in my view) of citizen engagement practitioners is often the need to involve participants in deep, rich and therefore time consuming conversation about issues. This presents an enormous barrier to entry for the vast majority of the population. In contrast, the vast majority of visitors to our client’s sites leave one, two or three comments. A smaller group might leave ten or fifteen comments, and a very small group indeed leave over 50 comments. Many of the comments are very short, partly by necessity if they are responding to other forum members and partly by choice if the author feels that they can say all they have to say in just a few words.
Way back in 2010 I put together a conference paper and presentation titled Getting More People Involved: Keeping More People Involved. As part of the preparations, I put together the slide below that that mapped the number of comments by each individual account holder on one of our client’s sites at the time. The y-axis records the number of unique comments by and individual participant. The x-axis maps the individual account holders. The graph shows that while one participant had left 450 comments (!), just ten had left more than 100 comments, and the vast majority have left less than a handful.
The second chart below maps the percentage of participants leaving between 1 and 100+ comments. Just 0.19% of participants left more than 100 comments, 0.34% left more between 50 and 99 comments, 2.32% left between 10 and 49 comments, 4.04% left between 5 and 9 comments, 5.1% left three or four comments, and 19.74% left just one or two comments. [Eds. note: If you’re wondering want the rest of the account holders did, some may have voted for or against particular comments, but not left a comment of their own, others may have registered to use a different feedback mechanism or simply to receive email notifications about projects.]
The clear message here is that most people have a little to say; while just a few people have a great deal to say. And that’s okay.
#7. An online community may arise organically from an online discussion if the context is just right
Over time online discussion forums may develop into a supportive, stimulating communities.
We have seen this happen in only a few instances where an issue has been “hot” enough in a community to drive repeat visitation to the forum by a number of participants. It is not unusual to see one or two participants heavily involved in a forum, it is much less common to see ten or twenty participants repeatedly returning to dialogue and debate the topic. On one occasion when the community were aware that the forum was closing on a certain date, we saw a number of comments from members thanking each other for the opportunity to converse and the quality of the contributions.
Anna Buss and Nancy Strauss, authors of the online community handbook state that:
“Successful online communities don’t just happen by themselves. They’re the result of a carefully executed strategy, solid design and patient nurturing.”
While I generally agree with this statement, particularly in the case of online business communities, it isn’t always so. Just occasionally, online communities emerge from discussion forums completely organically, and in at least one case that I’m aware of, completely accidentally.
A few years ago I met over coffee with a State government bureaucrat to chat about online engagement. As we we were talking he told me a story about website that had been set up to support the government’s problem gamblers program. The site was built on a simple WordPress template. Someone, it turned out, had accidentally left “comments” switched on at the bottom of each page. So, rather than being a simple information source, the site was effectively a series of discussion forums. People soon found the site and started sharing their stories about living with gambling addiction or with a family member with a gambling addiction. This all occurred without anyone inside the organisation having the foggiest idea that anything was going on. No one was moderating. No one was facilitating. The community simply took the opportunity and ran with it.
In general there are seven preconditions for a successful online community:
- A (untapped) niche topic
- A strong and lasting purpose
- Enough interested people to overcome the 90-9-1 rule
- A clear motivator to participate
- An ongoing promotional strategy
- Enough people, time and money to keep it going
- Time to grow
In the case of the example above, none of these conditions applied. The opportunity to share important personal stories was enough.
#8. Flexible boundaries around online discussions allow lateral opportunities to arise
You can never predict where the discussion will go; the unexpected often results in increased incidental learning.
This is the case for online citizen engagement as much as for online classroom learning. We have seen organisations surprised repeatedly by the issues that their community is actually concerned about rather than the issues they believed their community should or would be concerned about. It is not uncommon for policy officers beavering away in their cubicles at work to come to believe that their personal passion (obsession) is, or should be, of similar import to everyone else. Needless to say, this is rarely the case, and online engagement can be a good reality check.
Part 2: Disadvantages of online communication for citizen engagement
Online communication is not without shortcomings, however, many of those are perceived, rather than real. In this second section of this post, I will walk through eight disadvantages of online communication – some real, some perceived – specifically in the context of citizen engagement. Importantly, however, I will also suggest strategies to ameliorate the specific shortcomings.
#1. Text-based online discussion necessarily excludes some people (like all methods)
Online forums predominantly rely on inputting text which can be challenging for those who can’t write, can’t spell, don’t like to write, have poor keyboard skills, have no access to a keyboard, live with a disability that prevents them from reading text and using a keyboard…
With the advance of broadband connectivity and voice and video conference technology, this will gradually become less of an issue to some extent.
This disadvantage is associated with all text based consultation process, particularly the traditional statutory “submission” processes. We noticed that many people choose to “vote” to agree or disagree with other people’s comments rather than leaving their own; this may be a reflection of a lack of confidence in their own language and keyboard skills. We have also noticed that while the majority of the comments demonstrate a relatively high degree of language skills, this is by no means always the case. We have seen comments written in an abbreviated SMS style; comments written in broken English; and comments written using phonetic spelling. All of which indicate that online systems do not necessarily have to present a barrier to entry for people with poorer language skills.
#2. The lack of physical cues in online forums may lead to miscommunication
Without facial expressions and gestures or the ability to retract immediately there’s a big risk of misunderstanding.
This can be a problem. There is not much room for wit and whimsy, humour and satire in the forum environment. Irony is lost on very large proportion of our global population at the best of times (witness Alanis Morisette). Of course people with different senses of humour have been misunderstanding each other forever. The use of “smileys” is not a particularly satisfying solution. The best solution to this limitation is to park irony at the door when you enter a forum. When the visitors are not familiar with each other and have different views about a subject, they are better used as spaces for more serious discussion and dialogue.
On the other hand, the a-synchronous nature of online forums does provide participants the opportunity to be very careful in their phrasing to reduce this problem as far as reasonably possible. Synchronous tools, like chat, present more difficulties because of the temptation to fire off the first thought that comes to mind.Also, the vast majority of comments we see are factual or statements of a position rather than “interlocutionary” in nature. They are made to the client, rather than to fellow participants of the forum. In this regard, issues to do with sensitivity to misunderstandings are much less fraught.
#3. Busy online discussion forums may cause information overload
A large volume of messages can be overwhelming and hard to follow, even stress-inducing.
This is difficult to argue with given the inexact nature of “large volume”. We have had consultations with up to 2500 comments. Is that a large volume? Not if you were running a national consultation on health reform in the US. But for a local issue about the location of railway line, it was HUGE. We’ve seen individual discussion threads get to 4-600 comments. Is this overwhelming? We haven’t seen any evidence that it puts anyone of joining the discussion. If fact we often see the threads that have the most comments attracting a disproportionate volume of new traffic, indicating that like a busy restaurant, people are attracted to the action, rather than put off by the “busyness”.
#4. Participants may accidentally go off-topic within a particular discussion thread
The logical sequence of discussion is often broken by users not sticking to the topic.
This problem only occurs in non-threaded forums, and it is precisely why we prefer to use threaded discussion forums. We also built in the “show replies/hide replies” buttons to allow readers to collapse the secondary comments at their volition when the conversation is not relevant or interesting.
#5. The time lag between commenting and receiving a response can seem an eternity
Even if you log on daily, 24 hours can seem like a long time if you’re waiting for a reply; and then the discussion could have moved on and left you behind.
I’m not convinced about this line of thought at all. A combination of good forum design, notification systems and personal diligence overcome any difficulties arising from the delay in either receiving or posting a response. A threaded discussion forum overcomes the problem of the “conversation moving on” by allowing the individual to jump into the forum wherever and whenever they want to. Notification systems using RSS and direct email provide ample opportunity for the individual to return to the conversation space at their volition.
#6. Online forums may feel inefficient for an individual
It takes longer than verbal conversation and so it’s hard to reply to all the points in a message, easily leaving questions unanswered.
I don’t see any evidence of this. In fact, I would argue that written responses very often provide a much better opportunity to properly construct a much more detailed and expansive response than verbal conversation. The time constraints of a verbal conversation very often place necessary constraints around the depth and breadth of responses.
#7. Online forums can feel isolated and isolating for people who like to learn in groups
Some people prefer to absorb information on their own and don’t participate in the discussions.
The ability to sit back and digest a comment or question and respond in ones own time is one of the great benefits of online forums compared to face-to-face learning environments. Participants who might ordinarily feel embarrassed, nervous or overwhelmed by their interlocutors are freed by the protectiveness of the combination of “comfort” factors – anonymity, timelessness, their own space etc.
#8. Online forums can feel directionless for people used to being spoon fed
Participants used to having a teacher or instructor telling them what to do can find it a leaderless environment and that’s where tutors come in.
This is an interesting point and one where I believe online citizen engagement has a lot of learning to do. I have written before about what I called the various “governance” arrangements for an organisation to interact with their forum communities. It is still very rare, so rare in fact that we have seen it only once, for an organisation to commit the resources to facilitating the conversation within the forum space. The facilitator would review all of the comments once a day (separately from our moderation, which is hourly). He would then either answer questions or ask follow up questions to try to draw the participants into a deeper discussion. Others have developed more sophistication around the online facilitation process, but sector has a lot to learn from educationalists.
Photo Credit: Bad or Good by Mario Mancuso
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