There’s a very interesting discussion on the how to use the internet to facilitate broader consultations among internet users as part of the UN-initiated Internet Governance Forum’s deliberations. Apparently whatever platform chosen has to meet several conditions:
- Has to be open source – so people can trust the interface as accurately posting their views and votes
- Has to be accessible to people in various environments – low bandwidth, slower computers, multi-lingual, etc.
- Should support both synchronous and asynchronous communications (i.e. real-time chats and discussion board type interchanges)
- Should be welcoming to non-experts and non-techies – i.e. attractive and easy-to-understand interface
Obviously several hurdles to try and overcome. Did I mention is has to be cheap?
One piece of the puzzle that has yet to be mentioned is the importance of giving online participants a sense of actually being present during the discussions. I.e giving people the feeling of "being there." For this goal, there is much that can be learned from our experiences in organizing "multi-verse" events in Second Life.
First a bit more about "being there."
There have been many complaints from NGOs at the United Nations pertaining to our exclusion from certain meetings, whether it be the Security Council’s deliberations, back-room negotiations among governments during treaty talks, or "informal" sub-committee meetings where much of the real work of the General Assembly is conducted. Even when we are in the actual meeting room, there are grumblings about being relegated to the visitors galley or the press box, rather than on the floor with the governments.
Even if we aren’t allowed to say a word, or pass a single sheet of paper around, we still want to be in the room. Why? Because that’s where the action is.
For virtual participants, the same motivations apply. People are not dumb, they know that chats and forums are easily relegated to junior staffers to monitor, rather than being posted to by the actual people that matter. Which is why participation in these sorts of e-consultations is often so poor.
While there are significant technical barriers to holding virtual equivalents to UN meetings, there is one thing that they provide that no web interface can — an immersive sense of presence. I.e. when my avatar is sitting in the same intimate theater with Suzanne Vega or Kurt Vonnegut or Governor Mark Warner, I feel almost like I am actually present with the real human being. If I type something and Governor Warner laughs, I think, "I just made the governor laugh."
IRC, the web, wikis, even video chat can’t really get close to this feeling. It’s one step closer to being in the room. Which in the end, is what people want.
There’s a reason we call it "lobbying." Because we want to be able to catch our representative in the lobby or hallway or restroom and tell him what we want him or her to do. Virtual worlds might be totally pie in the sky in terms of accessibility for people on the other side of the Digital / Metaversal Divide. But they do have lobbies.
Witness the kinds of interchanges that go on between the "God of Second Life" Philip Linden, who routinely holds town hall meetings within the virtual world with his constituents / customers. People pepper him with questions, complaints, flames and praise. He takes it all in and gives back how he and his staff are going to respond. It’s remarkable.
Online forums should endeavor to build in these kinds of visuo-spatial aspects that virtual worlds can offer to help people feel listened to. If you want a "roundtable discussion," it’s nice if you can actually see a table that’s actually round that you are sitting at.