60 responses to The Civic Commons

  1. Dan, this has been great fun! One last thing I wanted to ask is about how people rate comments on the Civic Commons. I mentioned this last week in the thread. You don’t use “like” – rather you ask people to decide if something is “persuasive,” “informative” or “inspiring.” Why?

    • This is actually a feature of the Commons about which I’m most pleased. firstly, rating contributions gives people a way to engage when they don’t want to add a contribution. And it’s a great way to find out what ideas resonate with people. The problem with most rating systems is that very few people like the “Like” button. Thumbs up or down don’t really express the nuance that civil, deliberative civic dialogue requires. Now, we want people to behave in ways that are persuasive, informative and inspiring, so we figured the best way to do that is to subtly encourage people to judge one another with those criteria in mind. When you’re contributing to a conversation at the Commons, it’s hard to do that without feeling like you should try to be either persuasive, inspiring or informative. We feel like those ratings do a ton to help make conversation productive. And I’ll tell you where we stole the idea: At TED.com, you can sort content according to the tags that people ascribe to talks–jaw-dropping, inspiring, etc. It was that sort of feeling we were going for.

      • Interesting Dan, the thought with which your team has designed your platform for affecting change is very impressive, (and inspiring to me personally, if I might add). It’s really important that other communities learn about your efforts so I’d be happy to help in any way I can to get the word out to more people.

      • thanks, Jim! I might be in touch!

    • Emily–thank you for this opportunity. I really enjoyed it. It’s a privilege to be able to share what we’re learning with you and the JA community. I’m looking forward to our joint session at the 2012 Poynter Media Ethics summit at Kent State next week!

      • Me too! Thank you, Dan, and everyone who participated today. Anyone can still chime in with questions or comments, and you can subscribe to this thread to see any new posts.

        We’ll be doing more of these conversations throughout the fall. We welcome your thoughts on other resources listed on the JA you’d like to chat about in depth!

  2. We’re coming up on the last ten minutes of our time with Dan today. So if you’re here and want to share some experience or ask a question, jump on in!

    Remember the comment thread will stay open after this – subscribe to comments and you’ll get a note when there’s something new so you can reply at your leisure.

  3. Thank you so much to the JA team for hosting this conversation. I’ve worked with the Civic Commons first as a project manager for the EfficientGovNetwork (http://theciviccommons.com/egn) and now as Director of Partnerships, but another hat I wear is as a city council person in a small suburb in NE Ohio and it is with that public servant hat on that I most often appreciate the potential of civil discourse: it can lead to better knowing what voters aka taxpayers aka residents want. If elected officials aren’t in touch with and engaging with them, what’s the point, right? So for me, the Civic Commons is no mere exercise to see if we can do *it* i.e., debate with civility. It’s a pragmatic tool for policy making and governing – I hope!

    • Jill, thank you for joining in! Let me ask you this….how would you compare this type of engagement to traditional journalism? As far as communicating with the public goes.

      • This kind of engagement is direct, immediate and, frankly, forces you to think before you write – so the upside is that you can be articulate but the downside is that someone who wants to be vague, may also be vague. But on the third hand? People in an online engagement like this won’t let that vagueness stand! So it takes a bit of courage but ultimately, I believe that you get a much meatier exchange than is currently possible with most traditional journalism outlets and how they handle “interaction” with their readers/consumers/public.

      • Thanks for that – good to remember three hands.

        Would you mind going into a bit more depth on why you put “interaction” of traditional journalism outlets in quotes?

      • I can answer this for Jill. She and I have talked about this a lot. Most media orgs see interaction as simply allowing a space for comments below the content they’ve produced, and they also publish letters to the editor. But the journalists who actually engage in conversation with their readership are few. That’s the case because interaction takes time and because it’s a different way of working. The journalistic tradition with which we’re most familiar is presentational, not conversational. But that’s changing, albeit slowly.

      • Thanks, Dan. Yes, Emily, that was what was in my mind when I used the quotation marks. Very valid question of course. And as Dan wrote, it is changing but not in the dynamic way in which initiatives like the Civic Commons seeks to, ahem, accelerate that change. 😉

  4. Dan, Do you see interest from traditional journalism organizations like newspapers and TV in collaborating on these projects?

    • Let me piggyback on Joe’s question, Dan. I know you’ve done some partnerships with publishers. In those relationships, who does what?

      And why would a news organization turn to something like the Civic Commons, instead of using their own site for a moderated discussion? (And keeping traffic there?)

    • Emily and Joe–that’s a really important question. I’ll start with the obstacle. Most news orgs are reluctant to do anything that might not keep people on their sites. That’s something we’re working on. eventually, we hope to have something that can compete with LiveFyre and Disqus that can be more productive and useful and change the purpose of commenting on content.

      One of the pain points for which we provide much needed relief is at the level of civility and transparency in our online environment. Most commenting environments for local legacy media organizations and even larger ones are characterized by incivility and bullying, in which the loudest, most persistent voice usually “wins.” In our environment, everyone agrees to be civil (interested in understanding one another’s opinions and points of view) and transparent (I am who I say I am; we don’t do anonymity). That changes the tenor of conversation considerably. Suddenly, you remove the fear of being called an idiot, and an amazing exchange of ideas becomes the expectation, rather than the exception. I think that’s the major value we add.

      • Your website also says you “want to make civic involvement easy and fun…something you want to do as much as checking Facebook or — checking Facebook again.” Why not stay where people are – with Facebook as the place for civic conversation to happen?

      • I love FB for a lot of things, but for conversations that last more than two hours, it’s terrible. Ideas disappear, conversations are ethereal, and here in the US, it’s hard for us to convert that space into meaningful civic space. They’ve done that in the Mid-East, but in the US, we prefer it for sharing pictures of family and friends and the occasional piece of political journalism.

        It’s really the way ideas disappear in FB and Twitter that we’re trying to correct with the Civic Commons. But you make a really good point. I sometimes wonder if we made a mistake by trying to create yet another place for people to come to. It’s like putting up a new restaurant next to the one run by an Iron Chef. Kind of a long shot.

      • Or maybe really smart. You know, if you’re going to open a coffee shop, the best place supposedly is right across from (or next door to) the place people already go for coffee. Hmm, how can you be right across the street from Facebook?

      • Ooooh. Good thought…

  5. Dan,
    I’ve heard one common thread in listening to CommonWealth speakers such as Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz when asked about what we (the public) can do to take action in key public issues around the common good; Each stated to “organize” and “get involved”. What do you think are the key process or media hurdles (or other) from engaging the civic-minded among us to get involved in the conversation and take action?

    • Great question, Jim. Thanks for asking. I’ll tell you frankly, when “big thinkers” like those guys say vague things like “organize” and “get involved,” I get a little frustrated, because the public processes in our system aren’t really set up for the civic minded among us. Below, I talked a bit about why school board meetings are so weird, and I think they’re actually a very useful local level illustration of the problem. At school board meetings, the moment for public input is relegated to a tiny portion of any agenda, and in actuality, it functions as a high stakes moment for anxious and upset people to attempt to articulate an important concern and find that their concern is usually ignored by board members, who, because of whatever perceived or real constraints, don’t feel they can respond directly. We’re trying to upend those systems. We imagine a world where citizens and their elected officials talk through issues together in online forums and face to face. Why not? We’re using tools that are centuries old when we could be using Civic Commons, Facebook or Twitter.

      • A great example here in Portland, where the city council just agreed privately to add floride to the water without public discussion. The “public comment period” was jammed with people, but they couldn’t influence the process.

        I know this is perhaps an example that draws emotion from vastly divergent views, and mixes feelings and science. It certainly is an example of little public involvement in a public decision involving health and money. Here’s what I wonder though, would a thorough public discussion on a well-worn topic (over the years, and around the country) like this have changed the vote? And if not, would it be important?

      • Wait, you didn’t have floride in the water? That’s like Dr. Strangelove or something.

        Anyway, my impulse on all sorts of decisions like that is that public bodies and public reps engage their public before getting to the point of having to cast the vote. It just makes sense from every point of view. If I’m a citizen, I know I’ll have a chance to give my 2 cents. If I’m an elected, I’ll have cover and be able to say, we talked to a lot of people and here’s why we’re making this decision. One of the visions of our project is that there be a common place that everyone knows is the place to participate in these sorts of conversations (in addition to traditional public processes).

      • I’m really interested in this question Emily because the point of the debate and discourse is to have the possibility to alter the outcome. If the concerns are heard but no provision for action is part of the process, the participants will become resigned and withdraw no differently than today’s millenial voter

      • So possibility for change or influence has to be built in, do you think? Is there some value though, in “having your voice heard” (and is it measurable?)

      • Jim–you’re absolutely correct. My comments above about electeds having cover are a bit cynical, but our hope is that even if they come to engagement looking for cover, they’ll actually find value eventually.

      • I think there is value in being heard (to me) but I believe the value to the common good might be in how many people I influenced after I was given the floor to be heard. So could there be a mechanism by which the influence I exert in having my voice heard shows up in some type of reputation score for me personally, and/or in voting, e.g. after being heard the vote is “re-cast”?

      • Jill Zimon, with Civic Commons AND a city council member, what do you think?

      • Agreed Dan and Emily, just having an easy way to participate and be heard, and perhaps be known in the local community would be a fantastic start, and if there were a way for the person to connect to others to continue the dialogue afterwards even better. The tangible value then might be the number of new connections made (which JA does so well with the “follow” button on the participating members in these chat sessions) When I was at Yahoo, we used to measure the health and vitality of an online community by the density (number) of connections between its members.

      • In one word? Leadership. But in a few more words, voters who care. Now, any and all eligible voters seem to be able to be drawn into comment on any one of a number of topics. But then if you ask them to take action beyond that input, you have fewer who step up. Then, when it has to do with becoming the one who might be in that local elected body of government so that you have believers in there who prioritize the public voice, you have an even smaller set of people. My belief is that the more comfortable we make the settings in which non-elected members of a community can engage with each other and organize around issues, virtually or in real-time, the more accustomed they then will become to wanting to go past the talk and desire to take action. Simultaneously with that will be an examination of whether they can trust the decision makers to hear what they (that public) has to say about any one issue. And if the decision makers are choosing to ignore? Then the folks in the public, in my opinion, need to realize that they are indeed the ones they’re looking for. We will only see a change in leadership if we actually…change our leaders. And we know that we can do that.

    • I’m not sure that totally answers your question, though. Please push me for more if I’ve misunderstood.

      • Dan your thoughts and comments are giving me extremely valuable insights. Thank you again. I think the school board is an excellent example of the hurdles and limitations of current civic systems. With that said, following Neal Postman’s thinking from Amusing Ourselves to Death, one of the limitations of new forms of media (including online media) appears to be the issues you raise about un-civilized conversations and the challenge of separating facts from the noise and chatter of uninformed opinion.

        – How do you create a respectful environment for civic discourse where all ideas are heard, yet still provide a mechanism whereby those participants whose contributions are the most valuable naturally rise to the top (they “become” influential)?

        – Besides providing visibility to their identity is there a method for building influence or local reputation?

      • Jim, you might be interested in the unique way the Civic Commons ranks comments.

      • Also Jim, in addition to the link Emily provides, I’ll tell you that we’re in the process of putting a badge system in at the Commons, so people who are consistently rated as, say, “inspiring,” can be recognized. As the system evolves, I imagine there might be badges for electeds or public officials in a position to translate the conversation into impact.

      • Thanks Emily for pointing out, very helpful.

  6. Hello everyone. Welcome to the JA live chat about The Civic Commons. This isn’t a typical reporter tool…it won’t dig up an expert source or deliver developments in legislation right to your inbox. The Civic Commons can take your reporting further by getting people talking about a story, in a broad context, supported by other resources and including people with a range of perspectives.

    Dan Moulthrop is Curator of Conversation on The Civic Commons and he joins us today for a live chat. This is part of our ongoing series of chats digging into the potential of the many news publishing resources listed on the JA.

    Hi Dan! Thanks for being here.

    • Hi, Emily! Thanks for inviting me and the Civic Commons to participate. We’re really excited about this, and, frankly, it’s great to partner with you and the JA team.

      • We’ll chat for the next hour, give or take a bit. To talk with Dan, please first sign in. Just go to the top right of this page and click on the icon of a social network where you already have a profile. Write in the comment box at the top of the thread to ask a question or start a new subject. You can reply below an already posted comment.

        To see what’s new, refresh your screen, or subscribe to the thread and check your email box.

        Comments and questions are still welcome after the live chat window! The conversation thread remains open and active, so you can post a question or comment anytime and anyone who’s participated will get an email notification so they can respond.

        If you are a Twitter fan, we have set up #CCommonsJAchat to share there as well.

        Just for some background, Dan, how did The Civic Commons get started?

      • We’re a Knight Foundation project, initially based in the Cleveland-Akron part of Ohio (the northeast corner, near Lake Erie). The Knight family got its start in Akron, with the Beacon Journal, so they’ve got longstanding interests in the region. And leaders there were really interested in a project led by the Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration of a few dozen philanthropic organizations. Among the many projects they had done was a hugely successful government efficiency competition. I won’t go into the details, but it engaged about 30,000 people across the region to care about something as wonky and boring as government efficiency, and Knight asked those folks, what else can you do, beyond government efficiency? Short answer, the Civic Commons was born.

      • It was 2010 when we got started, right after the world began to wake up to Facebook and Twitter, and we realized that what the world–or our community–really needed was a social media environment designed explicitly for civic good. So that’s what we’ve tried to create.

      • You put journalism into that mix. . .your website (quoted above) says one intent of the Commons is to explore ways “journalism can be participatory.” What do you envision?

      • That’s a great question, and I’ll answer it with some examples. One of the experiments we did was over a year’s worth of weekly podcasts about the issues people were talking about on our site and in the community. Our motto for that was “more people, fewer pundits,” and we tried to create a program that was really about explaining and listening. We explored questions such as “Why are school board meetings so weird?” (which they are, by the way); how are ordinary people hacking the economy to make it work better for them? and how does economic development actually happen? (i.e. how do jobs actually get created?). And we invited the community, non journalists, non experts, to explore the issues with us and ask questions.

      • So was that a community discussion, or journalism?

      • By the way, to people signed in to the JA and watching, please just jump in! You can hit reply to keep this in one thread. And if you’re not signed in, it’s easy! Just go to the top right of this page and click on the icon of a social network where you already have a profile.

      • Another way we did this is when we partnered with a local civic organization–the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland–to co-host an online forum for candidates for County Prosecutor. It was essentially like a 3-day debate. What made it wonderful, and better than a two-hour YouTube debate, say, or even a televised debate at a free speech forum like the City Club of Cleveland, was that over three days, the candidates could give very thoughtful answers and everyone in the community who was participating had ample opportunity to ask follow ups and point out if the candidates hadn’t responded. And the candidates appreciated the opportunity to communicate in a way that provided enough room for context.

      • So what types of conversations have citizens had that led to tangible results or even perhaps a news story?

      • My last comment was a followup response to the earlier question. Here’s a response to the “is that journalism?” question:
        I think both of those are forms of journalism, actually. In the role of the 4th estate, our job is to be the forum for the elucidation and illumination of the issues that are important to the community, to involve the community in the conversation and to reflect to the community what it’s actually doing. The newspapers are all taking the time to vet candidates through endorsement interviews, but the public isn’t actually invited to do any of the work of that, and many people would gladly participate in that work. Television stations host debates, but mostly those are vehicles for them to showcase how talented their talent is. And also sell a bunch of ads. What we’re talking about is bringing the public into the conversation in a way that is sophisticated, civil, and productive. The Citizens League used the 3-day forum to help them select a candidate to endorse.

      • Or perhaps the goal is to encourage civic discourse?

      • I definitely agree that the public has a role and even the desire to do some sleuthing about public issues. I am curious how this knowledge gets fed back to the community? What are your metrics for engagement and success?

      • Hi Tyler! A longer response of mine just disappeared in an unfortunate error. You’re asking all the right questions, ones we ask ourselves all the time. To elaborate on the journalism question, I think this is journalism in the same vein as public affairs programs like Talk of the Nation or the Diane Rehm show, but we’re trying to be a little closer to the community and provide, within the context of the conversation, the tools to share resources easily and to even move to action. There are voting tools and petition tools embedded in our environment.

        Among the goals is to encourage civic discourse. We figure if people are spending so much time online on social media anyway, why not direct some of it to civic good and solving civic issues.

        I’m going to submit this and then answer the metrics question

      • We feed the knowledge back to the community in a few ways. Our podcast is one delivery mechanism, though as content, it’s static. The conversation pages remain accessible forever, so they’re always very findable. And then in addition to the conversation space and the action space, there is a reflection space in which we and other members of the community can put the whole conversation into perspective and share lessons learned and consensus gained.

      • As Tyler states, if the public has a role to play, a type of civic duty, today with social and community media the possibility for sharing knowledge for the common good seems more valuable than ever. But what do you think are the key hurdles to reaching and engaging the civic-minded among us to get involved, share and enhance their ability to organize and take action? And as Tyler states what might be measures of success?

      • The ultimate measure of success will be when we can draw a line from online engagement to policy impact. We’re still working on that on the big scale, but on the local scale, we’ve seen it in a city planning project in Cleveland and the schools sustainability plan in Cleveland Heights. I believe it’s coming on a bigger scale, but all of these things take awhile to get traction.

        I also believe there’s a lot to be gleaned from basic web analytics. If we get 1500 unique page views on a given conversation page over three days and people are staying on the page for an average of 4:30 minutes, that’s pretty good, even if most of those people aren’t actually participating visibly in a conversation.

        Also, success is when public agencies start contacting us and saying, hey, we want to engage the community about the future of X. Can you help us? That’s happening, too. (And, incidentally, it presents a source of revenue for us.)

      • That’s great, I see a lot of conversations I see on the site in Pittsburg, are you doing targeted community outreach or are there citizens within a city/state that hope to push conversations here?

        Secondly, my Facebook/twitter streams are full of civic discourse, though sporadic and secondary to the goals for these communities perhaps. What has prompted agencies to reach out in this way?

      • Yes, we are doing targeted outreach in specific communities, some of which involve partnerships with local publishers (PopCity Media, UIX Detroit, to name a couple).

        On your second point, emily asked a similar question above–I responded to it there. But in answer to your specific question, I think agencies are finally waking up to the possibilities of social media tools. It’s crazy to me that it’s taken them so long, but there’s a lot of the old-dog-new-tricks stuff going on there.

  7. What if, instead of just “liking” something, you rated it “persuasive,” “informative” or “inspiring”? That’s one way The Civic Commons brings a new twist to getting people talking about news and issues online. Join The Civic Commons curator of conversation Dan Moulthrop and me for a live chat Tuesday, September 11 at 1:30 PM Eastern about the platform and how news and community organizations use it.

    What extra insight do conversations bring to your news site? Do you ignore your comment threads, or jump into the fray? How might you improve what you get? What would the payoff be?

    Bring any examples of online conversation you’ve seen work powerfully – or fail miserably, and get practical insights from Dan’s experience.

    You can comment ahead of time if that is more convenient – or see you at the live chat!


  8. Big thanks to Emily and Lisa for listing The Civic Commons as a resource. Above, we talk about new models of journalism that can be more participatory. A couple of examples are a recent forum we did on natural gas development and fracking (http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/charting-the-future-of-fracking) and another forum on the Cleveland, Ohio, plan for transforming public schools (http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/the-future-of-cleveland-schools-transformation-and-response). Another great example was an online political debate we sponsored for candidates in the local county prosecutor’s race (http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/candidates-forum-for-the-cuyahoga-county-prosecuting-attorney-democratic-primary–2).

    One of the exciting facets of our work is that the same tools that can be directed toward these kind of journalistic purposes can also be harnessed by elected officeholders seeking public input (http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/how-heck-should-we-fund-public-education) or individual citizens seeking to spark change in their community (http://theciviccommons.com/conversations/school-facilities-planning-true-sustainability-or-lip-service–2).

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