Encouraging online dialogue

In conjunction with a project called Web Lab, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) are facilitating peace-building discussions among those in faith-based communities about marriage and gay and lesbian rights.

As interesting as the discussions themselves, to me, is how Web Lab and AFSC are going about this. We all know that most web discussions about heated subjects generate more heat than light. The forums here are working to reverse that by structuring their conversations in specific ways:

  • Discussion group size is kept small, so that even if those involved start as strangers, they don’t remain so
  • A time limit is set on discussions, encouraging the group to find ways to come together
  • Group member bios and self-introductions are given before discussion begins, reducing the feeling of anonymity

    All of which seems to result in far less of a shouting match than is often common online.

    When I took AFSC’s Alternatives to Violence workshop a few years ago, I was struck by how good AFSC was at encouraging real discussion, real listening, and the finding of points of connection. It’s fascinating–and heartening–to see them applying these techniques to online communication.

    I’ve seen some online communities do this, limited-size email lists in particular, but those lists have generally been focused on professional development or support group issues, rather than on social and political issues.

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