Here's an insightful article on the creation of one of the world's leading "online public commons" - local online discussions that matter in the real world.
by Steve Kranz
Winona Online Democracy
Nestled in a scenic river valley aside the meandering
Mississippi River and surrounded by tree-covered blufftops, the
idyllic town of Winona Minnesota (pop.25,000) seems an unlikely
place for cutting edge online citizen involvement. But despite
Winona's smaller size, E-Democracy has quickly taken hold and
continues to grow. The techniques used to implement it
demonstrate approaches to starting online civic participation in
smaller communities by making specific efforts to build
credibility, network within existing organizations, and allow
the project to become an outgrowth of the community itself.
Winona Online Democracy is an ongoing, community-wide discussion
via email about issues that affect life in Winona. It began in
mid-August of 2000 and includes a cross-section of community
members, members of the media and local leaders such as elected
officials, school board members, and state representatives. The
goal of Winona Online Democracy is to give everyone a greater
voice in decisions that affect the community, increase civic
participation, and help to encourage more input into solutions
to local problems.
Prior to launching the email discussion, 106 members were
recruited to participate. This included a broad cross-section of
the community as well as a good representation of elected
officials, city administrators and community leaders. Two months
after the launch date, the list has 170 members and has
generated interesting and valuable discussions.
The impetus for WOD began when a local organization, Winona
Community of Learners, invited Steve Clift of Minnesota E-
Democracy to give a presentation about online civic discussion
and the impact it can have on a community. The organizers of
this event sought endorsement/sponsorship by local community and
government organizations and it attracted about forty people.
At the speaking event, organizers collected contact information
(including email addresses) from each attendee. They were then
invited to a follow-up meeting to discuss implementation in
Winona. Eight people attended and the agenda dealt with both the
technical aspects of how an email list is operated and the
practical aspects of what types of jobs need to be done in order
to get the list up and running. Most attending agreed to
participate on a steering committee to help get things started.
It was decided that an email list would be set up for the
steering committee. This would allow them to exchange ideas and
continue to maintain a dialogue as they planned the project. In
addition, it would serve as a learning vehicle to work out the
bugs and make sure the list operated properly before we
recruited others to participate.
One important aspect of starting the project in a small town
that we felt people would be more comfortable if they perceived
it as homegrown. We thought this would increase credibility and
make people more open to participation. To that end, we decided
to call our group Winona Online Democracy and use the
"winona.org" domain name. This "local branding" of our efforts
helped make the project feel more integrated into the community
and not just another dot-com project from the "big-city".
We also decided to develop a website. Our plan was to invite
people to participate and direct them to the website so they
could get more detailed information. E-Democracy can be
difficult to explain concisely, so this allowed people to learn
about it at their own pace and then make a decision.
Next we focused attention on recruiting. The core of our effort
to recruit list participants was the use of the "virtual door
knocking" method (see Steve Clift's article at
http://www.publicus.net). This involves having people send
personal email invitations to people they know asking them to
join. To make this as easy as possible, we drafted a sample
invitation and encouraged people to modify it to meet their
needs (see http://onlinedemocracy.winona.org/invitation.html).
Virtual door knocking is an important concept because it
increases credibility and the likelihood of a positive response.
One virtual door knocking method that was extremely successful
was to work within organizations to gain access to their
membership. We invited local nonpartisan groups to become
"endorsing members" of WOD. This included the League of Women
Voters, the local teachers union, city government and local
universities. This gave us access to about 850 email addresses
in the community. These organizations invited their members to
become part of WOD. They also agreed to allow us to list them on
our website as "Endorsing Organizations.
We made a particular effort to encourage elected officials
other community leaders to join the list. Having these people
involved not only provides credibility and access to additional
resources (such as email lists), but provides value to other
participants in that their ideas and opinions will be heard by
those that make the decisions.
In a small community, it is important to get support from those
who are prominently involved in the community. In order to
leverage support that we received, we asked everyone who joined
the list if we could list them as a "Founding Member". The list
of Founding Members was then placed on our website. People could
then see the names of their friends, neighbors and people they
respected and know that they were supporters of Online
In addition to our online recruitment efforts, we decided to
reach out in offline media as well. We developed a paper
brochure to be distributed to clubs and organizations. We also
appeared on a local cable-access television program and invited
the local newspapers to cover the "launch" our project. This
resulted in a front-page article in one of the local newspapers.
In the months after the list was launched it has sustained
varied and interesting discussion. A "snapshot" shows that in
the first eight weeks there were 238 emails posted by 53
different authors covering 12 different topics. We have had good
participation by a broad range of participants including elected
officials and government administrators. Examples of topics
included the following:
-- A discussion that identified dangerous traffic intersections
in the community (which was prompted by the Mayor asking for
feedback on a proposal to rebuild city streets).
-- A discussion about improving the "digital divide"
in our community. This discussion played a role in our local
County government petitioning the state for authorization to
donate its used computer equipment to local charities. Our
local state legislators also participated in the discussion and
are looking at the issue on the State level.
-- Several thoughtful exchanges about local issues such as
shortfalls in education funding, rebuilding our historic
courthouse and plans to increase railroad traffic through town.
The success and broad participation is due, in part, to
approaching Winona Online Democracy as an outgrowth of the
community and building support for it within existing
organizations prior to actually launching it. By working to have
community leaders take some ownership (or at least endorse the
concept) and using these relationships to network within the
community, Winona Online Democracy has gained acceptance and
continues to become a strong force for positive civic
For more information visit http://onlinedemocracy.winona.org or
email Steve Kranz <firstname.lastname@example.org> or Randy Schenkat
Steve Kranz, the article's author, and Randy Schenkat
are Co-Chairs of Winona Online Democracy
which is affiliated with
Steven Clift's Minnesota E-Democracy
which issues the free "Democracies Online Newswire"
(DO-WIRE) from which this article was taken.
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Feel free to pass this article on to anyone you think is
interested in building a forum with their community. If you do
it right and follow through with the work required, geography,
citizen participation, and the Internet can combine in important
and meaningful ways. If you are ready for the challenge
anywhere in the world, drop E-Democracy a note
<email@example.com> and we will put you on a list for our
future outreach and potential training efforts.
Steven L. Clift - W: http://www.publicus.net
Minneapolis - - - E: firstname.lastname@example.org
Minnesota - - - - - T: +1.612.822.8667
USA - - - - - - - ICQ: 13789183
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