Designing Technology for Local Citizen Deliberation 

Andrea Kavanaugh

Center for Human Computer Interaction, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University < >

 Philip Isenhour

Center for Human Computer Interaction, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University < >



Citizen participation in democratic processes in the United States has been facilitated and enhanced since the mid-1990s with the diffusion and adoption of computer networking. In its current form, however, the web strongly favors information consumers over information producers. Emerging technologies, such as web logs and wikis, seek to address this deficiency. In a series of focus group interviews, adult residents in Blacksburg and Montgomery County, Virginia reported on their needs, awareness, and other aspects of the use of these new tools.


Citizen participation in democratic processes in the United States has been facilitated and enhanced since the mid-1990s with the diffusion and adoption of computer networking (Barber, 1984; Coleman and Gotz, 2002; Kavanaugh et al., 2005a, 2005b; Rainie, 2005). Electronic mailing lists and websites pertaining to political interests grew rapidly in the late1990s. Much of this facilitated participation consisted of increased awareness about issues and information, as well as increased capability for coordination, communication and outreach with regard to political activities. Despite these positive outcomes, existing tools are largely used to broadcast information from a few-to-many. There is limited interaction, discussion and deliberation online, except in specially designed centralized forums. These special web sites are very helpful in supporting discussion and even deliberation among interested citizens (for example, in the Minnesota E-Democracy project). Yet they tend to attract and retain the most highly motivated and activist citizens. For the less motivated majority of citizens, there is a need for tools that allow easy authoring and editing and intuitive ways to comment and contribute additional content to a group discussion.

The advent of web logs (i.e., blogs) provides an opportunity to extend the capabilities of traditional electronic mail and discussion lists toward greater social interaction, discussion, and content production. The simplicity of the tools for blogging and their free availability have lowered the bar for users interested in communicating with others in their social networks, their geographic communities and the greater public. Community or group blogs represent a kind of self-organizing social system that allows a number of individuals to interact and learn from each other through the exchange ideas and information, and to help solve collective problems. 

Components of the optimal systems that community organizations seek are in place, such as servers, network connectivity and technical support. But gaps in software technology persist, which can be closed with applications that can be customized to meet the specific and unique needs of these organizations. For example, authoring, publishing, and archiving information; soliciting feedback from organization members and the community; holding discussions, tutorials, and forums; planning and coordinating organizational activities; and managing group resources.

The web, in its current form, strongly favors information consumers over information producers. Emerging technologies such as web logs and wikis (Searls & Sifry, 2003) seek to address this deficiency.  Blogs -- online journals often used for commentary and content aggregation -- have seen an explosive rise in popularity (Rainie, 2005). They have been adapted for diverse uses, but maintain the basic format of a column or journal entry, typically linking to external resources, and often supporting direct posting from a web browser and discussion forums attached to each entry. Wikis (Guzdial, Rick, & Kehoe, 2001) represent a more flexible and open-ended approach to direct editing. On a Wiki, any user can edit the content of any page using a shorthand language that is translated into HTML. A common element of Wiki shorthand is a simplified mechanism for linking, thereby supporting the goal of creating interconnected hypertexts.

The popularity of weblogs and wikis, including a growing popularity of weblogs among content producers outside of technical fields, suggests that there is demand for tools that provide more direct and simplified publishing than is available with desktop web page publishing software. Such tools seem particularly well matched to the knowledge management needs of nonprofit community organizations and small, but distributed, public sector agencies such as the public health district. These groups will often lack the resources to support full-time web maintenance staff.

The relatively primitive nature of blogs and wikis also suggests opportunities for technology innovation. The tools are generally focused on text publishing and often support interactivity only in the form of discussion forums. In this sense, blogs and wikis represent something of a step backwards as end-user development tools when compared to pre-web technologies such as MOOs and MUDs (Bruckman, 1999; Haynes & Holmevick, 1998). They also represent two extremes in their enforcement of structure, with blogs (essentially by definition) having a very specific linear structure, and wikis having a sometimes chaotic lack of structure.

To address these issues, integrated authoring tools must support flexible representation and organization of content with format and structure based on the requirements of specific groups of users. Richer interactive tools will be required to support representation, organization, and sharing of ideas and experiences. Tools that integrate synchronous and asynchronous discussion and refinement of content objects, for example, can help capture informal and contextual knowledge that might not be captured in static web pages.

In a series of focus group interviews conducted with adult residents of Blacksburg and Montgomery County, Virginia (Fall 2005) most citizens seemed only vaguely aware of blogs and wikis. Nonetheless, they were clear about the affordances and functionality they wanted from emerging tools. They want to find diverse information such as news that is missing in local newspapers, and to explore different perspectives on issues of national and personal interest.  Citizens reported seeking greater usability especially for novices and non-tech savvy users, such as senior citizens. They observed that the local groups with which they affiliate act as important mechanisms for sharing more reliable information and sustaining discussion, since contributors are known to each other. They emphasized the need for balance between offline and online political activities, including deliberation. Peer pressure among group acquaintances helps reduce incidences of personal attacks online. Peer reviewing helps participants authenticate information, thereby fostering greater trust. The few local community groups that have set up (or converted) their websites to wiki-styles benefit from simpler and easier content updating and editing, but they typically required some support and guidance in order to get started. The small but growing number of local blogs with at least occasional political content could be potentially more effective in educating and stimulating exchange among community members if there were mechanisms to aggregate similar content scattered across multiple blogs. Aggregators, search engines, and social bookmarking are examples of ways to facilitate the discovery of these potential connections. 



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