A TWIN CITIES EXPERIMENT IN E-POLITICS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- Looking back to the moment in 1996 when Bob Dole hastily recited a Website address in a presidential debate, then forward to the Dean campaign, it is clear that Internet usage is developing into a significant part of our political system. We might consider an experiment begun ten years ago in Minnesota as the prototype for use of the Internet in politics. The results are worthy of examination.
Tim Erickson of St. Paul, Minn., was kind enough to join a few Los Angeles area political activists recently to talk about the use of the Internet in city politics. What we all have in common is that we are involved with local municipal advisory councils. In St. Paul they are called District Councils. In Los Angeles they are called Neighborhood Councils. All of us have been users of e-mail discussion sites.
In Minnesota, the system developed early, at least by Internet standards. The system known as e-Democracy (e-democracy.org) began in 1994 and developed rapidly into separate discussion groups for Minneapolis, St. Paul and for the state of Minnesota as a whole. It has recently expanded to include a Chicago discussion group.
By now, Internet discussion groups are commonplace, although they may not necessarily be familiar to every Internet user. Prospective users go to a Website such as e-Democracy and find that numerous people are writing the electronic version of notes to each other. People who find the discussion sufficiently interesting can join the electronic group and submit their own little essays.
Discussions are typically divided into what are called "threads," where a thread is a series of comments on the same topic. The discussion group's Website allows readers to access contributions displayed either by thread or chronologically.
This is of course the format pioneered as Usenet, a system that predates the modern Internet by well over a decade and which has grown to include hundreds of thousands of discussion groups.
But our interest here is not the history of the Internet so much as the development of political media and how it is driving the evolution of modern political action.
Is the Minnesota experiment a success? It would seem to be. Erickson explained that the St. Paul discussion group has about 350 members and the Minneapolis group has nearly a thousand. The discussions focus on issues that many of us would find common to our own cities.
The most recent St. Paul discussion involves a proposed smoking ban. Other topics of recent interest are the charge for storm drains, the right to freedom of speech on public property (in this case something called the Farmers' Market), the closing of a local restaurant and the costs of public education.
The Minneapolis discussion group has been arguing the costs of public transit, teacher layoffs, the closing of a library and the crime problem among many others.
In other words, the Twin Cities might as well be Los Angeles or Dallas or Miami in terms of the issues they confront. It is the approach they have pioneered that is of interest, that is to say, the merging of district advisory councils with the Internet with local politics.
What is e-Democracy like? The contributions are rational and polite for the most part, lacking the strings of profane invective so common in other political forums. Arguments are presented in complete sentences, paragraphs are developed, and the misspelling so common in the Internet's nether regions is absent for the most part.
What is of particular interest is that there seems to be some connection between what goes on in e-Democracy and what happens at the City Councils. It is apparent from reading the twin lists of the twin cities that the fight over their smoking ban ordinances has been one for the ages. Discussion group members have been reporting on their telephone campaigns and the meetings they have held, describing how they have been supporting their side and pressuring the opposition. The pro-smoking side has clearly been the minority in this discussion but has been treated with courtesy for the most part.
They are civil. About the worst these Minnesotans can do is to "take exception" or be "offended" by somebody's remarks, a very long shot from the blatant cussing and personal nastiness that goes on in other parts of the Internet.
This delightful situation may have something to do with the cultural or educational gifts of the natives (St. Paul is home to a major university), but I suspect that it comes more from the fact that there are rules which are enforced. Personal attacks are strictly forbidden, and the moderator occasionally jumps in to explain to the discussion members what parts of some newly-controversial posting are, and are not, acceptable.
The most important rule may be the least obvious: Contributors are limited to two submissions per day. It may seem strange to the newcomer, but to those of us familiar with political discussion sites, it is painfully obvious. The typical "flame war" begins innocuously with A making an assertive remark, B responding, A responding back that B is a stupid jerk, B answering that A is an ignorant fool, and then it gets personal.
With the two submission rule, you either make your point convincingly right at the start or you don't. There is no fifteenth or thirtieth chance.
The results, often enough, are well crafted little essays, almost mini-columns or short op ed's, that are informative and sometimes even a pleasure to read. That does not mean that each one is necessarily convincing, but at least the dedicated reader gets some value for the time he has invested.
Has the e-Democracy experiment insinuated itself into the political fabric enough to become an integral part of Twin Cities politics? Are the District Councils becoming farm teams for citywide elective offices? Erickson answers somewhat in the affirmative. One current mayor used to be a member of the e-mail groups and city council staff members read and participate in the online discussions.
Why, you may ask, would your humble San Pedro, Calif., -based correspondent be so interested in far-off Minnesota? In part it is because the distance allows for a little better perspective; I have no personal interest in the Lake Harriet Storm Sewer Project and only an indirect interest in the smoking ban.
In other words, I don't have a team to root for in these discussions, so I (and you) can consider their content, style and rhetorical effectiveness with better perspective. There is actually much to be learned.
One of the first observations, already aired, is that limiting people to two posts per day limits the ability to go nova on your opponents. The corollary is that forcing people to type into a computer eliminates much of the rhetorical posturing that wastes time in live public discussion. We avoid the ever present, "First of all, I want to thank the council for allowing me to speak, and I want to thank the members of the public who braved this awful storm to come out tonight and I want to thank the members of the Academy and ... ad infinitum. On the screen it reveals its essential vapidity.
It is obvious from comparing the e-Democracy site with others just how important it is to be cogent. Readable writing is critical if you want to be convincing. Many people submitting material to political sites aren't capable, or are simply too lazy, or haven't been told to write clear sentences. If it's true for a newspaper editorial page, why shouldn't it be true on a computer screen?
It also becomes clear that certain techniques are counterproductive. The most obvious is the use of hot-button items to advance pedestrian issues. Referring to the Supreme Court decision on the Florida ballot count or snidely referring to the Patriot Act does not advance the case for the smoking ban when it comes to your more conservative readers.
Curiously, my distant perspective offers one additional thought on what has been going on in St. Paul: The arguments about whether the smoking ban will hurt sales in local restaurants or force businesses to flee are like memories out of the distant past here in California. We passed a strong ordinance years ago, to the benefit of my lungs and corneas.
This last observation is meant to illustrate the final point: Many of the questions that have concerned St. Paul residents regarding the effects of a smoking ban could have been answered easily by a Californian, just as we can learn from the Minnesota District Councils and e-Democracy in forming our own neighborhood councils and discussion groups.
Now that we are aware of each others' existence, it may be that Minnesotans and Californians will learn from each others' experience using this new Internet tool.