Online participation: the possibilities and the realities

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently building and running online participation websites – or, in English, trying to get people on the Internet learning about and interacting with physical meetings.

Both have been for Internet organisations, which should theoretically make things easier. The first was the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens in early November, and the second ICANN’s Sao Paulo meeting now in early December.

I figured while some things were fresh in my mind, I’d do a blog post about what I’ve learnt. And the title “the possibilities and the realities” took about two milliseconds to pop into my mind.

The site

It is comparatively easy to set up a participation website once you have a basic framework in mind. But it only occurred to me today that I had built this framework in my head through years of working for online publications and following the media side of the Internet, and that much of it was the sort of information that is only obvious once you know it.

Here then is an off-the-top-of-my-head meander about what goes on and what works.

Keep it simple

It is very, very easy to flood a webpage with information for the simple reason that people will all want access to different bits of information, especially at a meeting.

The websites that have to cram as much fast-moving information into one page as possible are news websites. And if you watch over time, you’ll find that more and more links and sections are added to a website over time. Then someone realises it is impossible to navigate, so a designer comes along and stick in some lines and pictures to divide it up a bit. And that staves off the clutter for a bit, but then the page starts getting full again and some sections become less relevant, which starts causing tension.

Sooner or later someone decides there has to be a redesign and the redesign gets back to the lovely position where you were at the beginning – a clean design with minimal clutter. But then the extra sections begin again… And so on, and so on.

Different strokes

With a meeting website, that process happens much faster. Because it is very hard to tell in what direction the meeting will go or what people will be interested in, you have to allow equal room for each element. The funny thing is that people get attached to different elements. So someone could be drawn to the fact that they have their own publishing space (a blog, say), or they find they love commenting on other’s pages, or they find that fast, interactive communication is what does it for them (chatrooms). Each person then finds this element far more important as a result and will push for it to be given greater prominence on the site.

What is odd is that people tend to take to one approach, and at the same time, they tend not to like the other approaches. So it’s not as if you can just offer blogs, or chatrooms, or comments because whichever one you cut out, you are also cutting out that segment of people that are drawn to that approach i.e. if you kill chatrooms, people won’t suddenly start writing blog posts; they just won’t bother at all.

What is strange, I have found, is that people are comfortable with forums – the relatively formal and relatively slow approach to interaction – but ditch them immediately when something more immediate is offered. Rather than forums acting as a combiner of self-publishing, commenting and chatting, they tend to act as the ruiner of each. It pays to offer a choice.

At the same time, most people are comfortable with *not* interacting. In the same way that most people don’t talk up in a meeting, most people are content with watching others interact online. How do you get people that may wish to interact but don’t feel comfortable enough entering into it straight away? Provide anonymous interaction.

Anne Onymous

Now this is a difficult area because if you allow anonymous interaction on the Net these days, within a day you will be flooded with automated spambots and the like. Not only that but there is a perverse type of human personality (and they *love* the Internet) that draws great pleasure from taking over conversations between people. As such, you have to strike a balance.

Some kind of verification process is needed. And the solution is to allow anyone at all to see what is on the site, but only those that are willing to provide at least some detail to be allowed to add to that information. And the most important element of this is to make that verification process as simple and non-threatening as possible.

One thing I’ve learnt from working on numerous online news sites over the years is that you have to leave the doors open for everyone. Once people have got used to you, and “trust” you – i.e. they have invested time and effort in getting to grips with the site and reading what is there – if you then ask them for information about themselves, they will usually hand it over without a fuss.

Getting the info

The absolutely vital job you have to do before telling people about a website is to “populate” it with content. If someone arrives at a website and nothing much is there, it doesn’t matter if the very next day there is 2,000 pages of content, that person won’t bother to return until they are encouraged to by some external force.

People should find something useful in a site straight away. They need to think: this might be handy later. And that usually means acting as a source of information for something that they know they will forgot in a day’s time – like the exact time of a meeting, or the room, or the name of the person that did that thing.

But the complete flipside to this comes in keeping that information up-to-date. Meetings in particular move extremely fast – speakers change, rooms change, agendas change, times change. Anyone who has ever run a conference soon builds a system that deals with sudden changes as just a part of the process – something that will happen.

From the perspective of running a participation website, if you don’t find some way of tapping into that process, you are out-of-date and increasingly hopeless as each hour goes by. One of the odd things about the IGF and ICANN sites I have run is that they have been in parallel with established sites that are plugged into this process. Because of the experimental nature of participation websites in serious organisations, both sites have been loosely affiliated with, as opposed to a firm part of, the process. I believe this is likely to change next time because of the unnecessary repetition and chasing of information.

Call of the wild

The really strange thing is that this process of chasing and replicating information can build up completely non-sensical barriers between people – even when you are sat there and you know it is daft. It is hard-wired into the human brain for some reason and no doubt would have some tremendously useful function if there was a nuclear winter, but the solution to this odd rising sense of aggression is, very simply, to talk to people and prove you are not up to no good.

A good solution is to provide people with their own ability to add information. That way, there is nothing to rub up against. But there is no doubt that if there are two sources of information for the same thing, it requires a concerted and conscious effort for those sources not to end up in competition with one another.

Old habits die hard

Something that has been intriguing to me on one level is how people may not like the system they have, but they would rather stick with it than change. It’s perfectly logical and a part of human nature, but it is still amusing.

The advantages of a something new have to be pointed out. I’m sure a marketing executive could talk for days about this very topic but since I have long considered the modern obsession with marketing the sure sign that we are all doomed, I have never had to consider this element much. It may be worth getting a Net-savvy marketing person to advise on participation websites. Much as it pains me to admit it, they would probably have some useful insights.

Anyway, as a result, the most popular elements of both sites that I have built and run have been those where this is no alternative elsewhere. I am certain that if these sites continue, they will start to bring in more people as they realise they can get everything in one spot, rather than have to jump between different sites, or bits of software. But starting out, people are suspicious.

Get on with it

I’m waffling on, so I will tighten up and get to some points.

  • Government people: I can’t for the life of me understand how to involve government people on the Net. Anyone with any insight please email me. Surely these people have email accounts and buy books on Amazon? An extraordinary low number of government officials will have anything to do with the Internet – even when they are sat in a room discussing the future of the Internet. I find it extraordinary and I am going to discuss it with the people in government that I know. I wish I was in Sao Paulo for just this reason. If there is a government official that knows me that fancies a free, confidential lunch in London in the next few months, just get in contact.
  • Lessons:
    There are lessons to be learnt. Among them are:

    • Get the site up early – as early as possible and advertise it as widely as possible, let people get used to it
    • Give people free reign. But within boundaries. It is very easy to screw up websites if people are allowed to put in code, or add pages to a website – and in 99 percent of cases because they are trying to do something useful but haven’t had the 100 hours of learning you have.
    • Be open and friendly. Saying ‘no’ at any point pisses people off – especially if they are taking a risk and trying something they haven’t done before.
    • Get someone in authority on board. At the IGF, I was I think tolerated because Markus Kummer and Chengetai Masango knew that I had only good intentions at heart. But with ICANN, Paul Levins approached me and we have built up a level of trust that has seen him help smooth over some tensions his end while at the same time making lots of new possibilities open up
  • Possibilities
    And it is those possibilities that are the most marvellous thing about the Net. I think one posting did it for me today and made the whole thing worthwhile.

It was this post from Maria Farrell – an ICANN staffer who I’m sure I’ve met but only very, very briefly. It was about Whois – which has to be the most thrashed-over and done-to-death topic that exists in ICANN at the moment.

Maria managed to get across in just 462 words a heady blend of professionalism, insight and helpfulness that represents exactly what ICANN is capable of. It is this ability that ICANN staffers see every day and so are so bemused when they see outsiders condemning them for being closed and secretive. But the fact is that if you don’t work in LA on the third floor in Marina del Rey, you don’t know.

And this is the big thing – even if you ran into, for example, Maria, at an ICANN meeting, she will have 100 jobs to do, you will have 100 jobs to do and human interaction being what it is, you would most likely fail to impress on one another how either of you function. This is why social events exist. But the enormous possibility of the Net and of participation websites is that they can do the online equivalent of build respect while also breaking the ice.

I should note by the way that there are several other interesting blog posts that offer the same sort of thing: Kim Davies being reasonable about a subject that you can easily see people getting upset about; Jacob Malthouse offering a more academic, practical and far-reaching take on expanding online interaction; Paul Levins being open and honest about what he’s trying to do.

In the spate of just a few hundred words, a human face is given to highly contested issues. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re going to agree with them but it certainly opens the door for more civil interaction and, as anyone who has had to get things done through a treacle of viewpoints, you can achieve it either by having respect for one another and arriving at gentle compromises, or you can do it by tying everyone up and then sneaking through your own solutions.

ICANN has always been an organisation that favoured the latter – and that is behind a huge amount of the mistrust and aggression directed at ICANN. But it looks as if it may finally be growing up and finding how to pull off the former. We shall see. Fingers crossed.

2 Responses to “Online participation: the possibilities and the realities”

  • Kieren,

    You wish to involve government officials in online discussions. The main issue here is that any public statement by an official can be interpreted as an official policy statement, even if it is clear he/she is speaking in his/her own name. This may have serious diplomatic consequences.

    You should not expect an official to put put down in writing anything else that a pointer to an official position paper or press release. If he/she is acting on behalf of a government, personal opinions do just not matter.

  • Hi Patrick,

    In all seriousness, can you explain the logic behind this “anything said is official” thinking? There are big changes afoot, particularly surrounding the Internet, and this is widely understood and agreed by governments. So maybe there should be an actual effort by governments to allow officials to make personal commentary. It is already happening anyway.

    For example, at the public forum in ICANN this morning, two members of the GAC got up, identified themselves as GAC members and then noted they were talking in a personal capacity.

    My real and honest wish is that I can help develop a way in which government officials feel comfortable interacting online. It would most likely need its own set of rules for starters, but what is the start point?

    Are governments not persuaded that online interaction would help? If so, would reports pointing out the advantages help? Or are they persuaded but unsure how to interact? If so, shouldn’t there be a meeting tabled for conversations over how this can start?

    What’s the best start point? I think I will post on the ICANN site raising this. See if it has any effect.


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