Snarkiness and the Internet seem to go hand in hand, as the city of Edina recently found when it tried to engage residents in an online discussion of housing redevelopment policies.
After a civil start, a few outspoken participants dominated the discussion, which became a back-and-forth between a man posting detailed complaints about construction and people who used sarcasm to poke fun at him while hiding behind online aliases or first names.
When the city stepped in and asked everyone to keep their comments constructive, the discussion ground to a halt.
Preserving civility online without censoring speech is a new puzzle for cities like Edina that are turning to technology to involve residents in policy decisions big and small. City Manager Scott Neal recently wrote about the issue in his blog under the heading “Civility.” That generated online discussion about First Amendment rights, with one resident saying the city doesn’t need “snarky czars.” Others argued that sarcasm to make a point is not bullying.
Neal said the city’s Speak Up! site, www.speakupedina.org, has been useful in giving the city feedback. But he doesn’t think it has fulfilled its promise.
“Certain people seem to dominate the conversation by weighing in again and again, or by popping in as hecklers …We haven’t yet figured out how to modify our systems to help those conversations along.”
Brendan Watson, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, said setting up an online dialogue about contentious issues without active moderation is a mistake.
“A misconception about public participation online is that if you build it, they will come,” he said. “The reality is that getting people to participate online takes intentional design and keeping the conversation on track ... The idea that you just throw up a site and let it live on its own is not well-advised.”
Edina staffers monitor the Speak Up! page, but they have been reluctant to step in unless there is profanity or vulgarity, in which case comments would be removed. Neal’s blog about civility was written after the city received e-mails from residents disappointed in the tone of the online redevelopment debate, which centered on trying to prevent big new homes from overwhelming their neighbors.
Some want more policing
“They were lamenting, ‘Don’t you think the city is obligated to police it a bit so it fulfills the function you set it up for?’ ” Neal said. “While I’m sympathetic to that opinion, the government telling you that your speech is unwelcome because it is argumentative seems like a slippery slope.”
Edina has been a technology pioneer among Minnesota cities, leading the way in use of social media and having city department heads blog. The city previously experimented with an online discussion site with an active moderator that focused on specific issues, but it got little use outside a circle of involved residents.
The city’s Speak Up! page is built on a civic engagement platform run by Granicus, the same firm that provides the Metropolitan Council with its Thrive MSP 2040 website, which invites ideas to shape the Twin Cities’ future. The site, which was launched last summer, has about 400 users and has not needed to be policed so far.
“The conduct that is expected of participants is avoiding vulgarity, and ... this is no place for violence or threats,” said Michelle Fure, the Met Council’s outreach coordinator. When unconstructive comments have been posted, she said, other participants corrected mistakes or added context that blunted the out-of-sync comments.
“It’s sort of a self-policing thing,” she said.
Like the Met Council, which is using its website to reach a broad audience that doesn’t have the time or inclination to come to meetings, Edina hoped to draw new voices into the city’s hot debate about residential redevelopment. The city also has held public meetings on the issue, which the City Council will revisit this month.
To post on the Speak Up! site, people must register with a valid e-mail address. They do not have to use their real names, though some have.
Jordan Gilgenbach, the city’s communications coordinator, tries to check in on the site daily. Neal said that for himself and City Council members, the site is “bedtime reading.”
After the city gently reminded people to keep posts “respectful, constructive and on topic,” discussion stopped. Were people put off, or had the debate simply reached its end? Gilgenbach isn’t sure.
“We want it welcoming and useful,” he said. “Our hope was that … it would stop the negative discussion and foster more constructive discussion. But, unfortunately, once people see [sarcastic posts] it becomes ... less inviting.”
Watson said he didn’t find the Edina dialogue particularly hostile by Internet standards.
“If a point of view is not well-represented or people are upset about a particular topic, just having an outlet for being upset can have value for that person,” he said. “Civility is important, but it should not be the only value for the discussion.”
More art than science
Still, snark can drive away the timid and cheapen what is meant to be a serious debate. Watson said clear rules for participation can help the tone, and an active moderator helps. While city interference makes it easy for people to begin crying about their First Amendment rights, he said, “it’s good to have formal participation from the city to moderate and guide discussions when people get emotional about a topic.”
Intervening early by thanking people for their comments while reminding them about the intent of the dialogue can calm things down before things get out of hand. There are technical tricks, too, like pushing unhelpful comments down in a thread to draw attention to more on-topic comments. But, Watson said, “dealing with online communities is more art than science.”
Neal said he wants to keep using Speak Up! but will explore ideas about how to manage the site. An older discussion about establishing neighborhoods in Edina did not draw the same kind of snark that redevelopment did.
Neal said the ability to reach out to residents makes the online effort worthwhile.
“I am committed to keeping it and figuring out how to surmount the various challenges,” he said.