Author Archive

Do You Need Comments or Conversation?

February 7, 2010

There’s a big difference between comments and conversation online.  Sometimes comments are more useful and sometimes conversation is more useful– each method has its place, and choosing the right one depends on the purpose of your outreach effort.

Comments are great for brainstorming and getting a lot of ideas quickly; conversation is more appropriate for in-depth problem solving and for helping participants ask each other questions and learn from each other.

(click to enlarge)

With AthenaBridge, we’re focusing on the conversation side of the spectrum, because our national dialogue leaves much to be desired.  Interest groups have no option except to simplify an issue to fit it into sound bites and the subject lines of emails.  This helps get attention for individual issues, but it does a disservice for the health of our democracy in the long-term.

We’re excited to see the possibilities that the Open Government Directive and “Gov 2.0” create.  Government agencies and elected officials can effect lasting change when they open spaces for citizens to connect, converse, and learn from each other. Through conversation, we can learn from each other.

Does the above diagram represent how you see comments and conversation?  How would you improve it?  Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

“Apps for Innovation” 3rd Place Finalist!

January 10, 2010

We’re very excited to announce that AthenaBridge’s OnlineTownhalls tool won third place in the Consumer Electronics Association’s Apps for Innovation Contest.

The purpose of the contest was to evaluate software applications that can help the members of the Innovation Movement advance policy goals that support innovation.

OnlineTownhalls (OTH) garnered attention because leaders of the Innovation Movement can use it to identify the strongest ideas from among its members and then convert those ideas into action.

The Innovation Movement can also use OTH to put a bright spotlight on existing policies and regulations, which stifle innovation, by allowing them to be debated line-by-line. This transparent marketplace of ideas can reveal the weaknesses of these policies and provide highly competitive alternatives that make a strong case for innovation.

We’re reinvesting the prize money into R&D so we can continue to improve our technology.

The Open Government Directive Workshop Series

December 15, 2009

We at AthenaBridge Inc are excited to work with the US Department of Transportation in co-organizing the Open Government Directive Workshop Series.

The purpose of this inter-agency event is to convene great minds both inside and outside government to share effective practices for implementing the White House’s recent Open Government Directive.

If you’re in the DC area on January 11th or if you’d like to watch the streaming video online, please RSVP here.

Protect Anonymous Comments Online

November 30, 2009

Requiring real names may have a significant chilling effect on free speech.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about requiring citizens to use their real names when making comments on government websites.  Further study is necessary, but our preliminary study indicates that far too many voices would be left out of a national conversation if citizens were prevented from participating anonymously.

We believe users should be able to create and control their own persistent online identities.  Identities should be persistent so that websites that allow users to rate/vote can give more weight to users that have demonstrated credibility.  Identities do not have to be connected to a legal name for several reasons.  That is what we mean by anonymous comments.

Here are other reasons why anonymous comments must be protected:

1. As of yet, there’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name.  Half measures would just create confusion.

2. Anonymity isn’t the issue. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and encouraging constructive contributions.

3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.

4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas need improvement.

5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion.  We saw this with members of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps during our survey.

6. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to the controversy– whether justified or not– about the White House collecting email addresses this summer).

7. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can minimize the harms of abusive speech.

8. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.

9. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.

10. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.

11. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.

12. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

13. Site administrators should be careful when writing participation guidelines.  Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place users with pseudonyms in second-class status.

We welcome anyone else’s thoughts on this subject.  Please feel free to comment below.

Online Townhall Meetings: Return on Investment

October 26, 2009
The CMF's report is a great read.

The CMF’s report is worth a look.

The non-partisan and highly-regarded Congressional Management Foundation released a valuable report today which

outlines the tremendous return on investment that elected officials experience after engaging their constituents in online town hall meetings:

  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member. Every Member involved experienced an increase in approval by the constituents who participated.The average net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) jumped from +29 before the session to +47 after. There were also similar increases in trust and perceptions of personal qualities – such as whether they were compassionate, hardworking, accessible, etc. – of the Member.
  • The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member’s position
    on the issue discussed.
    Constituents’ approval of their Member’s position on immigration (the issue discussed in most of the sessions) jumped from 20% to 58%. There were also large shifts in participants’ positions on the issue toward the position of the Member, as well as significant increases in their policy knowledge of the issue.
  • The town halls attracted a diverse array of constituents. These sessions were more likely than traditional venues to attract people from demographics not traditionally engaged in politics and people frustrated with the political system. Of the seven demographic characteristics that traditionally predict participation in partisan and activist politics, six had the opposite effect for participation in the online town halls (only level of education had the same effect).
  • The town halls increased engagement in politics. Participants in the sessions were more likely to vote and were dramatically more likely to follow the election and to attempt to persuade other citizens how to vote.
  • The town halls increased the probability of voting for the Member. The probability of voting for the Member was 49% for control subjects and 56% for people who participated in a session with their Member. The impact was particularly dramatic for swing voters, where a person with a 50% probability of voting for the Member in the control condition was 73% more likely to do so if he or she participated in the town hall.
  • The discussions in the town halls were of high quality. By standard measures of deliberative quality (quality of information, use of accurate facts to support arguments, respect for alternative points of view, perceptions of participants) the discussions in these sessions were of quite high quality.
  • The sessions were extremely popular with constituents. A remarkable 95% of participants stated that they would like to participate in similar events in the future.
  • The positive results were seen even in a larger session. Most of the sessions were conducted by Representatives with small groups of 15-25 constituents. To test the scalability, we conducted one session with a Senator and nearly 200 constituents. We saw the same positive results in this session as those described above.

The Foundation conducted these town hall meetings from 2006-2008.  Today’s technology such as AthenaBridge creates even more possibilities for large-scale, high-quality communication among constituents and elected officials.  Contact us at hello@athenabridge.com.

Creating a New Conversation

September 24, 2009

1. Sign up as an administrator so you can create your own conversations. You can do this by emailing hello@athenabridge.com. Prices are listed on our homepage.
2. Once you are signed in, click on the drop-down arrow near your name in the header and select “New Conversation”.
3. Fill out the information for any of the tools that you want to include in your conversation: brainstorming, deliberation, summarization, or voting.
<!–pencilYou can start your own conversation by logging in and clicking “Create” at the top of any page.

  • Enter the topic. For complex topics, it is useful to make the topic a sentence that participants can agree with or disagree with.  All the points that
  • The background field provides the context for your conversation.
  • Keywords are optional; they help other users search for your conversation.
  • Finally, you’ll see instructions which say “Paste the text of your document in the box on the right.”  You can paste in an entire document and then quickly separate it into individual points by inserting “[[” at the beginning of each point.  This makes them separate blue dots in Column A of your conversation map.  If your topic is a statement with which you want the participants to agree or disagree, all these individual points should be on the side that supports the topic sentence.
  • Hint: It’s helpful to have summaries for each of your points.  If you do not specify a summary, the software will automatically generate a summary from the first 79 characters of each point.  If your summary is short, follow it with a bunch of spaces to take up the remainder of the 79 spaces; this prevents the beginning of the next sentence from filling up the end of your summary.

_____________________________________________________

Example:

[[The summary of the first point goes here. (Put a bunch of spaces here– see the hint above.)

The first point goes here.  The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here. The first point goes here.

[[The summary of the second point goes here. (Put a bunch of spaces here— see the hint above.)

The second point goes here.  The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here. The second point goes here.

[[The summary of the third point goes here. (Put a bunch of spaces here— see the hint above.)

The third point goes here.  The third point goes here. The third point goes here. The third point goes here. The third point goes here. The third point goes here.

_____________________________________________________

Advanced Features

You may use the following advanced commands any time you are adding a point on OnlineTownhalls.

  • To add bold text: [b]Bold text goes in the middle of these characters.[/b]
  • To insert a YouTube video: 
  • To insert a link: [link=http://www.link-address.com]The text you want to display goes here.[/link]
  • To insert a quote: [quote]The quote goes in between these characters. [/quote]

If you have any concerns or suggestions, please feel free to contact us!–>

Data about Anonymous Online Comments and Citizen Participation with Government

August 9, 2009

Whether they may or may not be well-founded in reality, people have very real fears about what government does with private information. If the White House moves toward requiring real names during online dialogue, it will exclude too many voices from the national conversation.

To test this hypothesis, we decided to do a small scientific experiment with a random sample of 50 American tourists in front of the US Capitol yesterday morning (it would be wonderful to see this survey repeated on a larger scale).  We asked whether they are more likely or less likely to participate in a national online conversation about health care if they were required to provide their real name.  Here are the four questions we asked:

  1. President Obama and Vice President Biden may be holding a national dialogue online about national health care.  Would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  2. If it was four years ago and President Bush and Vice President Cheney were holding a national dialogue online about the Iraq War, would you be more or less likely to comment on the White House website if you were required to use your real name?  A lot or a little?
  3. How would you describe yourself on the political spectrum?
  4. How often do you comment on blogs, news articles, or similar discussion websites? (never/rarely/sometimes/often)

These were the results:

  • 38% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Obama/Biden Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 40% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with the Bush/Cheney Administration if they were required to use their real name
  • 48% would be “less likely” or “a lot less likely” to participate online with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name
  • 26% changed their mind depending on which administration was in charge

We find the last statistic particularly important.  26% of the sample population would change their mind depending on who is in charge.  Unfortunately when we make a policy, it doesn’t change as easily as the public can change its mind.  That’s why we must make a policy that all Americans are happy with, regardless of which administration is in power.

The resiliency of our democracy comes from our institutions, and such policies form the foundation of our institutions.  The new administration has fortunately established a precedent which gives equal weight to anonymous comments on the White House website.

The survey allowed people to label themselves however they like or to decline to state where they stand on the political spectrum.  We aggregated the self descriptions into the following broad categories:

broad

  • 53% of people on the left are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 28% of people in the center are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 47% of people on the right are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.
  • 50% of people in the other categories are less likely to participate with at least one administration if required to use their real names.

For the purposes of this survey, we didn’t want to force people in categories so we let them use any words they wanted to describe themselves.  Here is the above chart broken down by self-described categories:

narrow

On the flip side of the discussion– in support of anonymity, 24% would be “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to participate with at least one of the administrations if required to use their real name, some stating that they would “really like to tell them what they think” by signing their real name.

One unexpected benefit of doing the survey was that we interviewed a few officers from the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.  One of them mentioned that their job prevents them from joining political conversations about health care and another from the group disagreed with him.  They had a back-and-forth conversation and concluded that the regulations weren’t clear.  Regardless of what the regulations actually allow, they intimidate health service officers from using their real name in online conversations.

We suspect that the situation above might be more common than we think in many other industries where people aren’t forbidden from stating their opinion, but they surely wouldn’t want their boss to know their political opinion, especially if it goes against the official position of their employing organization.

So we stand for anonymity on the principles of fairness and inclusion, even though it may reduce the quality of discussion.  We also stand against “separate but equal” status for anonymous commenting– our position is that if the instructions in encourage using real names but allows anonymous comments, those making anonymous comments will be relegated to second-class citizens, and their ideas will not be given full weight.

More data about our survey population:

  • 36% female, 64% male
  • 100% American citizens or residents
  • 100% tourists from outside DC with enough time and money to travel to visit the US Capitol building– this indicates that they would probably also have the time to comment on the White House website in a national dialogue; more data is necessary from people that do not have that luxury to find out how they can be included.
  • frequency of commenting online:

chart

If you’re interested in playing with the raw data it is here.  We’re interested in diving into this in a deeper way, so please contact us with your critiques and suggestions.

UPDATE: Here is another post which specifies reasons why anonymous comments must be protected.  Also see Ken Gilligren’s extension of these concepts to include

  • The public case for anonymity in the context of participation
  • The private case for anonymity in the context of mutual respect
  • The corporate case for anonymity in the context of innovation