Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Case of Minnesota E-Democracy
First Monday

Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Case of Minnesota E-Democracy by Lincoln Dahlberg

Over the last decade a lot has been said about the possibilities of the Internet enhancing the public sphere. The two-way, decentralized communications within cyberspace are seen as offering the basis by which to facilitate rational-critical discourse and hence develop public opinion that can hold state power accountable. However, this potential has largely gone unrealized. Instead, cyber-interaction is dominated by commercial activity, private conversation, and individualized forms of politics. In this paper I investigate how the present Internet may be used to more fully facilitate the public sphere. To do this I evaluate Minnesota E-Democracy, an Internet-based initiative that attempts to develop online public discourse. Drawing upon a model of the public sphere developed from Jürgen Habermas' work, I show how the initiative structures discourse to overcome many of the problems that presently limit democratic deliberation online. While some significant limitations do remain, I conclude that Minnesota E-Democracy provides a basis from which online deliberative initiatives can, given adequate resourcing and further research, extend the public sphere through the Internet.

Contents

Introduction
Minnesota E-Democracy's Shaping of Online Deliberations
MPD and the Six Public Sphere Requirements
Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Way Forward?

 

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Introduction

The Internet's two-way, decentralized communications are seen by many commentators as providing the means by which to extend informal political deliberations. Indeed, a cursory examination of the thousands of diverse conversations taking place everyday online and open to anyone with Internet access seems to indicate the expansion on a global scale of the loose webs of rational-critical discourse that constitute what is known as the public sphere [1]. However, some commentators argue that online discourse is not presently fulfilling its deliberative potential. For instance, Barber (1998, p. 269) argues that on the Net

[i]nformation seekers are mostly after porn and pulp while chatroom visitors, when not also pursuing sex, seem to be asleep ... . Even on the handful of "serious" sites that can be found, what is available is mostly superficial information about political parties, platforms, and candidates of the kind you can get by mail, or polarized debates around the conventional talk radio extremes with little in the way of real facilitation, discussion, or persuasion.

In this paper I ask how the deliberative potential of the Internet can be harnessed so that cyber-forums can more fully facilitate the public sphere. I specifically question if online discourse can approximate the conditions of the public sphere as set out in Jürgen Habermas' theory of rational communication. Habermas' work is an appropriate way to focus my analysis because he offers the most systematic critical theory presently available of the public sphere in democratic society. For Habermas the public sphere is constituted by moral-practical discourse, which is rational-critical interaction oriented to resolving political problems [2]. Habermas' analysis of communication reveals that every participant engaged in moral-practical discourse makes reference to a number of pragmatic presuppositions and thus to a set of normative conditions of the public sphere. This set of conditions can be summarized as follows [3]:

i. Autonomy from state and economic power. Discourse must be based on the concerns of citizens as a public rather than driven by the media of money and administrative power that facilitate the operations of the market and state.

ii. Exchange and critique of criticizable moral-practical validity claims. Deliberation involves engaging in reciprocal critique of normative positions that are provided with reasons and thus are criticizable - are open to critique rather than dogmatically asserted.

iii. Reflexivity. Participants must critically examine their cultural values, assumptions, and interests, as well as the larger social context.

iv. Ideal role taking. Participants must attempt to understand the argument from the other's perspective. This requires a commitment to an ongoing dialogue with difference in which interlocutors respectfully listen to each other.

v. Sincerity. Each participant must make a sincere effort to make known all information - including their true intentions, interests, needs, and desires - as relevant to the particular problem under consideration.

vi. Discursive inclusion and equality. Every participant affected by the validity claims under consideration is equally entitled to introduce and question any assertion whatsoever. Inclusion can be limited by inequalities from outside of discourse - by formal or informal restrictions to access. It can also be limited by inequalities within discourse, where some dominate discourse and others struggle to get their voices heard.

This set of requirements offers a template by which to evaluate the extent to which online deliberation is facilitating the public sphere. I have elsewhere undertaken such an evaluation at a very general level, comparing a whole range of online practices with the normative conditions laid out above [4]. This analysis reveals that exchange and critique of political claims can be found to be taking place everyday on thousands of Usenet groups, e-mail lists, Web fora, chat groups, and through Web publishing. However, my research also found a number of areas where these exchanges tend to fall well short of the public sphere conception. First, the colonization of cyberspace by state and (increasingly) economic interests is limiting the extension and autonomy of online discourse. Second, reflexivity is often a very minimal part of cyber-deliberations. Third, many online forums experience a lack of respectful listening to others and minimal commitment to working with difference. Fourth, there is a difficulty verifying identity claims and information put forward. Fifth, extensive exclusions from online forums result from social inequalities. Finally, discourse tends to be quantitatively and qualitatively dominated by certain individuals and groups.

To explore whether, and how, these limitations can be overcome we can evaluate the success of projects that explicitly attempt to facilitate rational-critical discourse online. Minnesota E-Democracy is such a project. Since 1994 Minnesota E-Democracy has helped foster an "online interactive public sphere" where people deliberate upon issues relating to Minnesota politics. Here I will discuss a case study of the project in which I evaluated the discourse facilitated by Minnesota E-Democracy by comparison with the normative conditions of the public sphere [5]. This comparison will allow me to identify if and how the shortcomings listed above may be overcome and thus how online forums may come to more closely approximate the public sphere conception.

 

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Minnesota E-Democracy's Shaping of Online Deliberations

Since 1994 Minnesota E-Democracy has attempted to develop an "online public commons" where "members have the rights and responsibilities associated with open discussion and highly public exchange" [6]. The discussion list Mn-Politics Discuss (MPD) has been the basis for this deliberative space and now boasts over 400 subscribers. Participants come together through the list to discuss public issues related to the State of Minnesota. MPD is supported by a moderated announcement only list for civic organizations in Minnesota to promote their events. This latter list only split off from MPD in the middle of 1999 but by early 2000 had already gained close to 600 members. MPD has become the model upon which Minnesota E-Democracy has also been developing 'community issues forums' focusing upon political questions related to specific populations within Minnesota. So far four such forums are under way, discussing issues related to Minneapolis, St Paul's, Duluth, and Winona [7]. Minnesota E-Democracy has also run, with the help of partner organisations, electronic-oriented 'special events.' These events offer news, voter information, media coverage and comments, and E-Debates between political candidates [8]. The E-Debate offers a focus for the special event. It consists of questions sent to political candidates followed by their responses and rebuttals. These are posted in a view only list while citizen discussions of the ongoing debates takes place on MPD. The project also has a Web presence where special events and links to the various lists and their archives can be found. It is the MPD discussion list, given its centrality to Minnesota E-Democracy's effort to foster online deliberations, that I will be focusing upon here. I will be looking to see if and how the project can overcome the problems identified above and thereby move online deliberations closer to the public sphere conception. I will first outline the means by which the project attempts to foster online public deliberation, before using each of the conditions outlined above to assess its success in doing so.

Minnesota E-Democracy project organizers aim to shape the resulting form of online dialogue through the particular technology chosen, the management system adopted, the rules of discourse enforced, and by focusing upon issues within a geographically bounded political jurisdiction.

E-mail lists have been chosen over other Internet communications media because they offer a 'push' technology. Clift (1997a) explains that, being push technologies, lists themselves are active, meaning people do not need to make the effort to link into the forum each time they go online (as is required with Web forums, Usenet newsgroups, and chat groups). E-mail is also the most popular and easy to use online tool at present. As Clift (1997b) emphasises,

[t]he lowest common denominator on the Internet is e-mail ... people spend an hour a day on e-mail, two hours a week on the Web. It's relevant and they're interested in it. Getting it into their e-mail box is really important.

In addition, strictly defined forum boundaries (rules) and aims tend to be more acceptable on e-mail lists than more traditionally anarchic spaces such as Usenet. Participants themselves often encourage strong list management, not wanting to waste time dealing with unwanted e-mail. Minnesota E-Democracy also has a Web home page which provides a space where the e-mail discussion lists can be displayed, accessed, and archived and where the purposes, expectations, and rules of the project are formally set out.

Despite the control offered by e-mail list technology, Minnesota E-Democracy project organizers have chosen to have the list 'managed' rather than 'moderated.' The list manager, unlike a moderator, does not pre-approve each e-mail sent to the list. They do not have an 'editorial function.' Instead, they keep an eye on the list and help steer it towards achieving its goals of deliberative exchange. This steering includes helping members enforce the list's rules and guidelines. It also involves providing the encouragement and support that will foster positive contributions. Most importantly, the list-owner encourages forum self-management so that a sense of participant ownership of the forums can develop that will foster self-sustaining deliberations.

List rules and guidelines provide the main tools for management of forums. They have been modified with time, and in consultation with members, to sustain democratic exchange. In his PhD, which includes a case study of the first few months of Minnesota E-Democracy, Scott Aikens (1997) tells of how rules came to be developed in the early days of the forum. He recalls the threat to the forum posed by a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi activist. To protect the group, the rules of participation had to be clarified. "Specifically, it was necessary to codify the rules and institutionalise a procedure for removing list participants unable to accept the rules" (Aikens, 1997, p. 138). A six-month suspension from the forum can now follow from either a breach of a rule after one warning or serious and ongoing violations of list guidelines. However, members are encouraged to take responsibility for guiding each other (particularly new members), via private e-mail, as to what is deemed suitable posting content and style [9]. Guidelines in particular offer a set of standards of online behaviour for the self-regulation of the list: "[t]hey provide a framework for MPD participants to hold each other accountable to the purpose and goals of the forum" (Clift, 1999).

The purpose or focus of the forum is itself an important factor in molding deliberations. Minnesota E-Democracy focuses deliberations upon 'real' political problems of those living within a particular geographically bounded political jurisdiction. Minnesota E-Democracy, Clift (1998a) argues, aims to go beyond the fragmented groups bonded only by shared interest on the Internet. It aims to utilize the Internet to build a civic space based on shared geography and localized politics. By locating deliberations as such, the initiative draws people into discussion who are intimately involved with, and physically impacted upon, the issues at stake, whether they be pollution, roading, or schooling. This focus upon shared and pressing material problems, rather than abstract questions, encourages meaningful and engaged intercourse that draws out participant's real needs, concerns, and interests. By situating deliberations in relation to local politics, participants are also more likely to follow the discursive rules that enable an ongoing dialogue with difference. As Aikens (1997, p. 136) explains, an

emphasis on concrete structures that are local is a powerful mechanism that increases the likelihood of adherence to normative values associated with the status of participants as citizens living within the proximity of these concrete issues, activities and institutions. There is a very real incentive to adhere to normative values if one is involved in a discussion with individuals who are or could be a part of one's community life.

This focus upon issues related to a located political jurisdiction combines with rules and guidelines, e-mail list technology, and forum management to structure deliberations towards the ends intended. What is the success of this structuring? To what extent are the problems facing less formally structured online deliberations overcome and the public sphere conception more fully approximated? I will explore this question now by comparing the Minnesota E-Democracy project, specifically the MPD list, with each of the requirements of the public sphere conception set out above. However, I will do more than simply consider the extent to which MPD approximates the various requirements. In each case I will reflect upon the role and impact on the list of the methods of structuring discourse outlined above, and will also consider how deliberations may be further developed to extend the public sphere.

 

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MPD and the Six Public Sphere Requirements

i. Autonomy from state and corporate power

State and corporate colonization of cyberspace threatens the autonomy of online democracy forums. While state censorship and surveillance has been readily targeted by online civil liberties groups, a possibly greater threat to public online discursive spaces is the increasing commercialization and privatization of cyberspace [10]. The rapid commercialization of cyberspace and increasing control of Internet infrastructure and content by major corporate players, driven by vertical integration such as the massive Time Warner-America Online and Vodafone-Mannesmann mergers in 2000, is leading towards a consumer-oriented cyberspace that promises to either marginalize online public discourse or incorporate it within privatized and individualized forms of interaction: online commerce, entertainment, and business communication. Yet, even a cursory examination of cyberspace can identify a multiplicity of spaces of public interaction that are able to avoid direct corporate and state control while riding on the back of the privatized infrastructure. Of course, given the Internet's embeddedness within the wider socio-political context, cyber-discourse cannot fully escape state and corporate influence. But relatively autonomous interaction can and does take place. Thousands of people every day 'freely' participate in forums debating a wide range of issues through e-mail, e-mail lists, Usenet and Web forums, chat lines, and Web publishing.

Minnesota E-Democracy aims to maximize its independence from state and economic interests and hence offers yet another space of semi-autonomous public discourse. The project's mission statement claims that it is 'a non-partisan citizen-based organization' [11]. It is a volunteer based, non-profit initiative and is not affiliated to any political party, interest group, or private concern [12]. It does not accept commercial advertising or any other promotion unrelated to the forum [13]. The forum's autonomy from direct government interference is largely secured through the U.S. Constitution and its guarantees of freedom of speech and association. Minnesota E-Democracy thus utilizes the commercial and state controlled infrastructure and technologies of the Internet and yet is able to secure significant independence. We can thus conclude that MPD's discourse is indeed of a public nature. A consideration of the other five requirements is now necessary to evaluate the deliberative nature and quality of the discourse that takes place on MPD.

ii. Thematization and critique of criticizable moral-practical validity claims

Minnesota E-Democracy aims to build MPD as an online deliberative forum where reasoned claims relating to the concerns of those living in Minnesota are put forward and critically assessed by others. This aim is promoted by the use of e-mail list technology (facilitating an exchange of positions) and by the combination of guidelines and list management (that encourage high quality and well reasoned debate on Minnesota issues).

From my observations, the dialogue that develops in MPD's discussions generally follows the dialogic structure sought, with participants putting forward for critique well substantiated positions on Minnesota topics and vigorously challenging other participant's positions. Posts on MPD are generally well developed in comparison to Usenet, chat groups, and other more anarchic cyberspaces. Moreover, posts tend to be reciprocated and substantial critical discussion often develops. Topics discussed include: immigration, taxation, gun control, gay and lesbian rights, abortion, environmental issues, freedom of information, education, housing, poverty, and public radio. Debate often ranges over a number of days or even weeks. These debates sometimes stray away from the demand for rational discourse focused upon Minnesota. As Eric Hare notes 'discussions quickly ossify into irrelevance' and 'personalities' [14]. However, when posts do stray from the required format the offending parties are quickly reminded by the list manager and other participants to keep on task. Reasoned discourse, however, requires more than reciprocal critique of political claims. Another central requirement is reflexivity.

iii. Reflexivity

There is plenty of evidence for the moulding of opinions, and thus the presence of reflexivity, within Minnesota E-Democracy's deliberations. Aikens (1997, p. 88) found that 33% of those who responded to his survey of MPD said that the discussions did affect their thinking in some way, including changing the way they voted. In addition, some of those that responded negatively qualified their response by saying that the forum allowed them to become more informed in their decision-making. This survey evidence of reflexivity is supported by personal accounts. Erik Hare, replying (8 May 1999) to concerns expressed on MPD regarding the value of the discussions, wrote:

this list has given me a chance to hear other voices that I don't necessarily agree with who have forced me to change some of my views in the light of powerful arguments.

Many participants come into discussions already with a reflexive attitude, but often it is the online deliberations, and especially the meeting of difference that Hare talks of, that stimulates a reflexive mindset. This tends to be a slow and subtle process. As Clift (1997b) notes:

I think it takes three or four months for someone participating in this to actually change their mindset from, "I'm just going to tell you what I think," to, "boy there are all those different opinions out there, maybe I'll just listen a bit, or maybe I'll think a little more before I push reply and say."

Reflexivity is fostered through deliberations as participants are challenged to rethink their positions when confronted with strong critique and powerful alternate positions. The typical dogmatic squabbles between pre-set left and right ideologies where participants are unprepared to revise their position in the light of what is posted by others has occurred (Clift, 1997b). But such unreflexive argumentation is relatively infrequent when compared to other online forums.

Reflexivity on MPD is fostered by the expectations set by forum management and participants, expectations that are supported by guidelines encouraging participants to present their positions carefully and take time to reply. Another important reason for the relatively high level of reflexivity is the insistence upon, and development of, respect for difference. Participants come to re-think their claims as they carefully listen to and come to understand other positions. I will now consider in more detail the fostering of such 'ideal role taking' within MPD.

iv. Ideal role taking

Minnesota E-Democracy promotes the process of ideal role taking. While facilitating a clash of ideas, the project also aims for a commitment from participants to respectful communication in order to develop understanding and appreciation of different perspectives. Clift (1997c, 1997b) believes that Minnesota E-Democracy's deliberations have been successful in fostering this form of communication. He points to the early days of MPD where a group of libertarians made their mark on the list by their unrelenting ideological rants, paying no attention to the other participants' points of view. However, Clift (1997b) reports that with time and encouragement the libertarians began to tone down their dogmatic posting style and came to show greater respect for other positions.

Mutual respect is fostered by list management and participant appeals to forum rules and guidelines. While explicit abuse is formally ruled out in all forums and can be dealt with by list moderator censure, it is list self-management that is often responsible for the development of respectful behaviour. This is aided by the positive guideline:

Be civil - E-mail unto others as you would have them e-mail unto you. Respect each other's right to express themselves. Personal one-on-one arguments, disagreements, and personality conflicts must be taken from the public discussion forum and dealt with in private. Please avoid personal insults, name calling, and inflamed speech for the sake of argument. If you cannot respond to the issues raised, do not take the easy path of attacking the messenger. Again, discussions should focus on the public policy issues raised and NOT on the participants themselves. Avoid posting when you are generally angry or upset [15].

Rules and guidelines provide a structure by which list managers and participants together can minimize flaming and maximize respectful interaction. However, flaming (posting abusive or attacking messages) is not avoided altogether in MPD. Given the diverse political views expressed and the argumentative structure of dialogue, it is not surprising that things have become over-heated at times. Disputes have developed to the extent that people have chosen to unsubscribe themselves. Generally, however, disputes have been worked through [16]. Despite the differences of political position, the forum succeeds in producing relatively - in comparison to more anarchic spaces like Usenet groups - well-mannered deliberations where people more often than not actively listen to one another. As Clift (posting to MPD on 9 February 1999) reflects,

The most important things I have seen come out of these discussions is a willingness to open oneself to diverse opinions and perspectives as well as a growing respect for people with differing opinions.

An ongoing commitment to working with difference is indicated by the length of time individuals stay posting to the list. On MPD, of the 96 members who posted in April and May 1997, over 50% (49) were posting over a year latter. Of course, posting does not necessitate listening or an attempt to understand others. A further indicator of participant's commitment to understanding other perspectives within MPD is the extent to which posts are read. 88% of respondents to Aikens' (1997) self-selecting survey in the early days of the forum said that they read the list contents either 'all of the time', 'a great deal of the time', or 'a medium amount of time.' For an intense, mediated, and time consuming forum this degree of attention is very encouraging.

How does Minnesota encourage and sustain such commitment to its deliberations? First, the development of respectful listening retains participants who are serious about putting themselves in the position of the other. Second, the use of e-mail lists, compared to other online forum tools, encourages sustained participation. E-mail lists require the most active commitment because one has to deal with all messages to a forum and "once you join a list you have to make the decision to unsubscribe in order to leave the 'online public space'" (Clift, 1997a). Because an e-mail in-box is for many a personal space on one's computer, subscribing to an e-mail list is a personal commitment to the given forum (Aikens, 1997, p. 97; Clift, 1997b). Third, and possibly most important, Minnesota E-Democracy focuses deliberations on 'real' problems faced by those living within a particular geographically bounded political jurisdiction. Participants discuss problems related to a set of physical, cultural, and social realities that they share with others on the list. These common problems make discussions particularly meaningful and motivate sustained deliberations and active listening. As well as by focusing discussions upon Minnesota issues, the sense of 'reality' or locatedness of deliberations is encouraged by Minnesota E-Democracy by bringing civic groups into the forum and encouraging them to publicize their activities on the announcement-only list, and by successfully getting the media and politicians to take notice of proceedings. A number of stories have been written in the main stream press reporting on MPD's debates; politicians have been involved in online election debates and have been known to follow discussions (Clift, 1997b; 1998a). One further way in which respect and commitment has been fostered within Minnesota E-Democracy is by insisting upon sincerity with regards to identity and interests. An absence of such sincerity would make a mockery of ideal role taking.

v. Sincerity

Minnesota E-Democracy expects participants to represent themselves and their interests truthfully. To help ensure this there is the 'signing posts' rule:

Sign Posts - All MPD posts must be signed at the bottom of every message by the author with at least their real full name, e-mail address and city of residence. Use of pseudonyms, anonymous postings or using other people's identities is forbidden.

Despite having to be reminded, participants are reasonably compliant in signing their name, e-mail address, and city. The use of anonymous postings or other people's identities is extremely rare on MPD. Although posters have at times in the past used pseudonyms (see Aikens, 1997, p. 104), forum management and participants tend to challenge those posters who seem to be operating under a pseudonym to verify their identity. This is particularly the case if their posts are attention grabbing or do not seem to be deriving from a Minnesota resident. For instance, in early 1999 a participant signing as Biff Perrywinkle was challenged to verify their identity after some provocative postings, especially given that the posts were sent from the Pacific rather than the Minnesota time zone. Biff argued that s/he was in fact using his/her offline name. But after being challenged by list moderator and members, Biff's controversial postings tapered off which not only indicated that s/he may have been using a pseudonym but meant that the verification of his/her identity was no longer a threat to deliberations.

Few such incidents have taken place on Minnesota E-Democracy's forums. Clift (2000) told me that "no one has ever used a fake or borrowed identity effectively." Up until 1998 there had been no experiences of participants lying about their identity in order to get away with actions unacceptable to list culture (Clift, 1998a). Only two people have been suspended from the list, and only one of these for refusing to sign their name [17]. Warnings have been given to list members who have disregarded the signing rule and other rules, but this has either lead to the person concerned leaving of their own accord or deciding to abide by the rules. Although there is no way of absolutely verifying identity, especially if the poster maintains a consistent 'front', there is really no need to authenticate identity unless the poster concerned is causing disturbance or making 'important' claims, as demonstrated by the Biff Perrywinkle case.

Most participants are happy to reveal their 'real world' identities and interests given the 'real' political nature of deliberations. The forums are about meeting with 'real' people, many of whom already know or know of each other offline, and discussing issues faced within the offline community. There is little point 'faking' identity, or at least, no point performing an identity different to that played out in offline life. The revelation of offline identity and interests has been further encouraged by a relatively new guideline asking people to introduce themselves to the group:

Introduce Yourself - Participants are asked to post an introduction to the forum within one week of their first post and again yearly during the month of their birthday. The introduction need not be extensive, but please share some of your background and issue interests. Full time "lurkers" are encouraged to introduce themselves as well. Please use the subject line: Intro: Name - New Member or X Year Member.

Unfortunately, this guideline has not yet been followed to any great extent (Clift, 2000). However, many participants introduce themselves in some way or other in their initial contributions. They often do so with a 'coming out' statement such as "I have been lurking on this list for some time and ... ." At other times they introduce themselves more formally and may even include a personal history or resume.

The public sphere requirement for sincerity applies not only to identity but also to the sources of information used to support claims. Minnesota E-Democracy is well aware that truthful supporting information is necessary for successful deliberation. The MPD guidelines state that "[a]ll posts should be as accurate as possible and never intentionally false." Of course, such a guideline alone will not guarantee the posting of truthful information. It can be hard to differentiate accurate information from both rumour and conscious fabrication in online postings. However, on the whole deliberations in Minnesota E-Democracy forums are supported by more verifiable information than is the case in other less organized online cyber-forums.

One important reason for the greater verifiability of claims on MPD, relative to many other cyber-forums, is that most forum participants are residents of the geographically bounded political jurisdiction of Minnesota state. This locatedness not only means that the majority of those participating risk their off-line reputations in their claims, but that posters can draw upon shared offline information sources to support their assertions. A number of local information sources are referred to within MPD's discussions. For a start, there are the 'first hand' personal accounts of list participants and those they know. Participants often refer to local events, including public meetings, that they have witnessed or been involved in and people they have talked to - events and persons that cannot be easily fabricated without detection. Then there are media reports and other local secondary sources that can be used for verification. The mass media offers a very important source of information for supporting or questioning claims. Participants regularly refer to television, radio, and newspaper reports on Minnesota issues. Clift (1997b) estimates that about a third of the online discussion is in reaction to what is in the media of the same day. Participants also draw upon information from Internet sources. Minnesota E-Democracy's own Web site provides links to relevant information on the Web, including a guide to media and news sites, directories for access to hundreds of Minnesota political sites, and a list of local political parties. The Project's announcement-only list also provides participants with local political information. This list provides a space for official bodies and civic organizations to post public policy and legislative information, to put forward meeting agendas, and to make presentations on issues of public interest.

Overall, the level of deception of identity, interests, and information on the forums of Minnesota E-Democracy is minimal. As in offline deliberations, there is always the possibility that participants will hold back relevant interests and information that should be open for the rational assessment of claims. All that can be done is to continue to promote a culture of openness and respect. Minnesota E-Democracy participants are generally supportive of this endeavour and are prepared to encourage each other in the development of open deliberations free from hidden agendas. All information, claims, interests, intentions, and identities brought into discussions are examined carefully by list members. Challenge awaits participants who do not reveal their identities or fail to back up their claims with verifiable information or sources. This critical openness is aided by list rules and guidelines and by the fact that the discussions focus on locally situated issues shared by participants in their offline lives. Sincere discourse does not however guarantee discursive equality, which is a further requirement of the public sphere conception that will now be examined.

vi. Discursive equality and inclusion

A central aim of Minnesota E-Democracy is to encourage a situation in which the full diversity of political views in everyday life can be expressed and respected. To help facilitate this goal, a 'two-message-per-day' rule is enforced. This rule was instituted after early experiences of prolific posters dominating the list and has had the desired effect of encouraging more people to participate [18]. As Aikens (1997, pp. 166-167) reports,

after the successful implementation of the two-message-per-day rule, there was a dramatic change in patterns of participation. The length of threads remained consistent, but there was a decrease in the number of messages per thread and an increase in the number of authors per thread.

This rule limits the monopolization of discourse by a few individuals. Unfortunately, participation is still distributed unevenly. A core group of participants dominate posts. Over the year 23 October 1998 to 22 October 1999, ten percent or 28 of the 276 MPD participants posted over 75% of all messages (posting over 50 times each). Only about 50% or 276 of approximately 450 subscribers of MPD's subscribers posted at all.

This uneven distribution of posting between forum participants does not necessarily mean that some participants are inhibiting others from posting their views or that there are inequalities in discursive resources. Some subscribers - particularly journalists, politicians, and legislative staff - have joined MPD simply to keep an eye on public debate. However, demographic disparities between list participants and the larger population indicate further that a lack of full inclusion and equality exists. Gender is the most obvious demographic disparity, generally signified by the poster's signature. Despite approximately equal percentages of males and females within Minnesota's population, there are far more men than women participating in MPD. From the 122 participants who posted between 1 May and 3 August 1998, 74 had male signatures, 19 female signatures, and 29 non-gendered signatures (the last consisting of those that are unidentifiable or belong to organisations and list management). This means that, leaving aside the non-gendered participants, approximately 80% of posters were male. Similar results were obtained for the longer period 23 October 1998 to 22 October 1999, where 72% of posters were male. Aikens (1997, p. 84) reports similar ratios of male to female participants in the forum in 1994. Other demographic discrepancies include educational and occupational background. Aikens' (1997, p. 90) research shows that participants tend to have well above average educational background and are dominated by highly educated professionals employed in information sectors [19]. Ethnic minorities are also poorly represented in MPD postings [20].

The skewed representation of MPD makes it highly unlikely that all possible positions and objections are being equally heard on the forum. To find out how to rectify this situation and ensure inclusion of all positions we must consider the causes of the representative disparities. While the forum offers equal opportunity for subscribers to post, inclusion is inhibited by social inequalities and cultural differences. Despite formal accessibility, the maldistribution of social networking resources (time, money, skills, and community support) and the cultural bias of cyberspace (ways of speaking online) undermine equality and inclusion in online interaction. Minnesota E-Democracy is positioned within the wealthiest nation in the world with one of the highest proportions of Internet-connected citizens. Minnesota encourages public access to the Internet and public access terminals are provided throughout the state (Clift, 1997b). Yet at least half the American (including Minnesotan) adult population still does not have access to the Internet (Weise, 2000) and many more do not have the time, skills, and culture to engage effectively in online deliberation [21].

Those with the most time and skills and the 'right' culture to participate end up dominating online forums like MPD. This is most clearly demonstrated by gender disparities. Although the number of U.S. women online is now approximately equal to that of U.S. men online there are, as shown above, far less women represented in MPD's discussions [22]. Why is this? The answer may be that the form of dialogue prevailing in MPD excludes certain cultural styles of speaking. While the debate may not involve direct abuse of women, men may still dominate the style of discourse and as a result what is said. Women and men tend to communicate differently due to gendered socialization. Research shows that a particular 'male style' predominates in many cyber-forums which can operate to silence and exclude women from participating. Susan Herring's (1993, 1996, 1999) extensive research on gender and online communication shows that online communication remains gendered and dominated by the aggressive nature of the 'male style.' The male style is characterized by messages that are longer and more frequent, issue orientated, assertive, authoritative, adversarial, sarcastic, and self-promoting. The female-gendered style tends to be shorter, personally orientated, questioning, tentative, apologetic, and supportive. These findings are upheld by other research including Soukup (1999), Savicki et al. (1996a), Baym (1996), and Sutton (1994). The 'agonistic male style' dominating many online forums impedes women's participation. Sick of the domination by men of online discourse and the intimidation in cyber-interactions, many women withdraw from cyber-discourse, become passive observers, post self-censored messages, or move to women-only groups (Brail, 1996; Sutton, 1996) [23].

My observations and interviews indicate that this pattern is replicated somewhat within MPD. Women on MPD do, at times, find the list intimidating. Some women fail to post, or do not post often, or change their style of postings, or attempt to join a women-only group, or leave the list altogether because they feel dominated, coerced, or intimidated. Erik Hare admits that on MPD "male-ness is always an issue, as it is everywhere online", but insists that "there's always a woman [or supportive male] to step up on an issue when it gets out of hand" [24]. Renee Jensen, who sees herself as a voice that "won't be silenced", is one such woman. In a post to MPD (18 March 1998) she summarised what she feels is the atmosphere for women on the list:

Most of the time the women's comments on this list are "stepped over" unless the woman says something feisty that raises somebody's blood pressure. Then they're called "cute" or are encouraged to go back to lurking.

The day before this post, Jensen had argued that women on the list were silenced, belittled, or simply ignored, by some of the male participants. She added that some male posters over-reacted to and insulted women. She reveals that although she is prepared to stay and "take the heat", other women on the list are responding by "discussing having their own get together away from the guys who enjoy talking down to us, belittling our input, and telling us to be quiet." Mitch Berg (18 March 1998) and Karl Bremer (18 March 1998) replied to Renee that women should learn to tough it out just as the men have to - "if you can't stand the heat stay outta the kitchen." This challenge seeks to silence other ways of conducting discourse. It may be true that the men on the list have to put up with just as much uncivil behaviour as the women. Yet even if this is so, the argument fails to take into account the fact that women may be disadvantaged by this form of discourse.

The inequalities and exclusions that result from gender differences demonstrate that the discourse in MPD, although rarely involving direct abuse, tends to favour the interactive styles of certain participants. While little can be done by Minnesota E-Democracy about social restrictions to Internet access, it should be possible to foster deliberations that are more inclusive of women and other under-represented groups. Minnesota E-Democracy has already demonstrated ways in which deliberations can be structured to increase equality and inclusion, including offering subscribers equal opportunity to post, explicitly censuring direct abuse, fostering respectful listening, and utilizing user friendly technology (such as e-mail). These efforts must be extended further so that more diverse styles of speaking may be accommodated on the list. The continuing practice of reflexive, respectful, sincere, deliberation is the key to expanding deliberation and developing democratically legitimate (inclusive) public opinion.

 

++++++++++

Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Way Forward?

Minnesota E-Democracy has been able to overcome many of the shortcomings of other cyber-forums and develop a space for online public discourse that in many ways approximates the public sphere conception. It has maximized its autonomy from state and corporate interests, stimulated reflexivity, fostered respectful listening and participant commitment to the ongoing dialogue, achieved open and honest exchange, and provided equal opportunity for all voices to be heard. This has all been accomplished by the use of a structured e-mail list, the formalization of rules and guidelines, the careful management of the forum, the development of self-ownership and self-moderation, and the focus on issues shared by those living within a particular geographically bounded political jurisdiction.

The project has shown how online discourse can extend the public sphere. However, there is still room for greater reflexivity, respectful listening, and discursive equality to be developed. Most significantly, participation fails to be any where near representative of the offline target population. It will continue to be difficult to develop inclusive online forums as long as there are offline social inequalities limiting some individuals and groups from full participation. Yet greater inclusion can be worked towards by developing upon the successful strategies of Minnesota E-Democracy. For instance, greater participation can be encouraged by further developing respectful and sincere deliberations. We can also encourage participation by employing user-friendly and accessible technology [26]. Forums must be made attractive to a public that has been taught to be individualistic, has a shrinking attention span, and is faced with ever more consumer distractions. Making forums attractive includes making them meaningful by linking them into everyday lived reality. That is, deliberations need to be focused upon the offline political problems faced by participants and connected into the networks of informal public debate that already exist, whether at local, national, or international levels. More research is needed to identify ways to improve and extend online deliberations to further facilitate the requirements of the public sphere conception. Multi-disciplinary and multi-perspectival research is required that takes into account the social, cultural, and technological factors impacting upon online deliberations.

This paper has shown how the discourse that exists in many online forums can, particularly through online deliberative projects like Minnesota E-Democracy, enhance the public sphere at large. The task for those concerned about extending the public sphere through the Internet is to research, promote, and resource efforts like Minnesota E-Democracy so they can improve, multiply, and expand within the increasingly competitive and rapidly changing online environment. End of article

 

About the Author

Lincoln Dahlberg has recently completed a doctorate in sociology from Massey University, New Zealand. His thesis focuses on the possibility of the Internet enhancing the public sphere. In his post-doctoral research he is continuing to question the role of new information and communications technologies in local and global processes of democratization.
E-mail: L.J.Dahlberg@xtra.co.nz

 

Notes

1. Proponents of the idea that cyberspace may, under the right social conditions, offer a renewed public sphere include Aikens (1997), Fernback (1997), Hauben and Hauben (1997), Kellner (1999), Moore (1999), Noveck (1999), Rheingold (1993), and Slevin (2000).

2. For Habermas, moral-practical discourse is just one form of problem solving communication. He also refers to theoretical discourse that seeks truth in scientific investigation, aesthetic criticism that seeks beauty in artistic endeavours, and therapeutic critique that seeks understanding in self-reflection.

3. I developed this public sphere model in my doctoral thesis (Dahlberg, 2000). I drew heavily from Habermas' theories of communicative action, discourse ethics, and deliberative democracy. See, in particular, Habermas (1984, pp. 1-26; 1989; 1990, pp. 43-115; 1996, pp. 267-387). Cooke's (1994) illuminating work on Habermas' idealizations of communicative rationality and Chamber's (1996) insights into the conditions of discourse have also been very useful. This is not the place to explore in-depth Habermas' theory of public discourse or to provide a general assessment of the requirements of argumentation in democratic society. My focus here is specifically upon evaluating the possibility of cyber-interactions facilitating the Habermasian model of the public sphere. The formulation of a normative model of rational-critical discourse and the public sphere has been extensively examined elsewhere, particularly within the broader debate on deliberative democracy. See, for instance, contributions to the volumes Benhabib (1996), Bohman and Rehg (1997), and Elster (1998).

4. See Dahlberg (forthcoming). My findings are supported by similar research into the relationship between the Internet and the public sphere by, amongst others, Aikens (1997), Schneider (1997), and Wilhelm (2000).

5. This case study was undertaken in my PhD research (Dahlberg, 2000) and involved observations of deliberations, (limited) quantitative content analysis, and semi-structured interviews with 'key informants.' The main source of participant postings for my observations and content analysis were the archived postings to Mn-Politics Discuss list from 1997 to 1999. The key participants in my research were Steven Clift and Scott Aikens who are central figures in the development of Minnesota E-Democracy. Clift is founder and board chair of Minnesota E-Democracy. I attended and recorded public talks Clift gave in Wellington (Clift, 1997b) and Belfast (Clift, 1998a), interviewed him in Belfast (Clift, 1998b), have followed closely his regular Internet postings promoting democracy online, and discussed this research with him via e-mail. Aikens joined Minnesota E-Democracy in 1984 and wore the hats of organizer, participant, and researcher. In 1994 he configured, created, and managed that year's E-Debates for U.S. Senator and Minnesota Governor. Aikens' (1997) PhD is based on a case study of this early experience. I interviewed him in May 1998 at Cambridge University. I have also followed his public postings on various online democracy e-mail lists and have read his PhD research. As both organizers and participants, Clift and Aikens give a broad perspective on the project. Others who have contributed valuable insight into this research via e-mail dialogue include members of the Minnesota E-Democracy management team Eva Young and Erik Hare. In addition, all posters to the MPD list contributed via the public postings that I observed.

6. Quoted from Minnesota E-Democracy's home page which is at http://www.e-democracy.org/ (last accessed 1 February 2001).

7. The Minnesota E-Democracy model has influenced online projects nationally and globally. It has been adopted by the Iowa E-Democracy project; see http://www.e-democracy.org/ia/ (last accessed 1 February 2001). The model also influenced the United Kingdom Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) project and the Nova Scotia Electronic Democracy Forum (both of these initiatives are not operating at present). Minnesota E-Democracy also inspired the British centre-left online public policy 'think tank' Nexus; see http://www.netnexus.org/index.htm (last accessed 1 February 2001).

8. In 1994 Minnesota E-Democracy became the world's first election-oriented Web site and ran the first organized election-oriented debates. It has held election events nearly every year since. Its 2000 event featured an E-Debate involving most of the U.S. Senate candidates for Minnesota, and also provided extensive links to election information and commercial sites.

9. One guideline specifically asks participants to "guide others "members need to help others get used to the culture, guidelines, and rules of the discussion forum."

10. My conclusions here draw upon my previous assessment of the Internet and the public sphere in the context of the increasing corporate colonization of cyberspace; see Dahlberg (1998). My analysis is particularly influenced by the critical political economy approach. Recent useful work in this tradition that focuses upon the Internet includes McChesney (1999), McChesney et al. (1998), and Schiller (1999).

11. Quoted from Minnesota E-Democracy home page, referenced above.

12. Of course, Minnesota E-Democracy is still political in the sense that it's aim is to promote a particular political arrangement over others.

13. Commercial advertisements became a minimal intrusion into Minnesota E-Democracy's deliberations after it called upon the services of eScribe.com in May 1999. EScribe is a company that organizes discussion forums on the condition that the group concerned accept advertising banners attached to e-mail posts and Web archives. The advertisements sparked some protests but most participants decided to simply ignore the banners.

14. E-mail correspondence, (24 January 2000).

15. Quoted from http://www.e-democracy.org/mn-politics/mpd.txt, last accessed 1 February 2001.

16. See Aikens (1997) for a discussion of how the list worked through flaming and other problems in its 'early days.' Further examples of list members negotiating disruptive postings are given in my PhD thesis (Dahlberg, 2000, pp. 218-220).

17. The other suspension was for intentionally posting three times in one day, an action transgressing the two-post rule which I discuss in this paper when evaluating MPD and discursive equality.

18. As well as reducing the monopolization of the forum by a few individuals, this rule contributes to the reduction of flaming because people cannot carry on a rapid duelling in public (Clift, 1998a). The rule supports the requirement that participants take their personal disputes off the public forum and into private e-mail. For a fuller account of the development of the two-message-per-day rule see Aikens (1997).

19. Aikens (1997, p. 86) sees involvement by occupation as dominated by what Robert Reich calls 'symbolic analysts', those who are involved in solving, identifying, and brokering problems by manipulating symbols. These include, according to Reich, research scientists, design engineers, software engineers, public relations executives, investment bankers, lawyers, strategic planners, systems analysts, publishers, writers, editors, journalists, and university professors. Aikens' sample population from MPD fitted Reich's symbolic analysts with few exceptions.

20. From e-mail correspondence with Eric Hare, (24 January 2000).

21. Access limits reflect socio-cultural divisions in U.S. society. Research released by Jupiter Communications in June 2000 confirms a pronounced gap in U.S. Internet usage based upon age and income, and also points to disparities in Internet usage between ethnic groups, with 60% more white households online than African-American households. See http://www.jup.com/company/ pressrelease.jsp?doc=pr000615, last accessed 1 February 2001.

22. Nielson Netratings survey of Internet users found that by May 2000 as many women as men in the United States were using the Internet, although males still tended to spend slightly more time online. See http://www.nielsen-netratings.com/, last accessed 1 February 2001.

23. Research into online gendered styles is not yet conclusive. In contrast to their previous research, Savicki et al. (1996b) found no significant correlation between the number of males in a cyber-group and the type of language used. Crowston and Kammerer (1998), from their research into gender style in computer-mediated communication, report no difference in the way men and women respond to different styles online; men are equally effected by the 'male style.' Witmer and Katzman's (1997) study, based on the content analysis of 3000 messages from 30 randomly chosen newsgroups and e-mail lists, found that although men tended to use more challenging language women were somewhat more likely to flame.

24. E-mail correspondence, 24 January 2000.

25. There are still problems with e-mail lists (particularly the difficulty of locating them online), problems which are complicated by the different software and standards employed. These problems may be overcome if support is raised for initiatives like Clift's Open Groups which aims to develop a set of 'open standards' by which online interactive hosts can describe their forums in order to help "people search, locate, evaluate, and join ongoing interactive public groups across the Internet." See http://www.opengroups.org, last accessed 1 February 2001.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 27 February 2001; accepted 1 March 2001.


Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Case of Minnesota E-Democracy by Lincoln Dahlberg
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 3 - 5 March 2001
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/838/747





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