In Edina, civic discussion can turn uncivil

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2013 - 9:15 PM

Reaching out to residents via the city’s website draws snark.

 

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.

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