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Fostering Civic Participation and Engagement—Online Forums

Not all web activity is designed with a profit motive. Many blogs and mailing lists are started to further social causes or provide support and information to communities. Numerous online forums are non-profits: They generate no profit to people that start and support them; they simply disseminate information on topics of interest. For example, new mothers living in Brooklyn, New York, organized a neighborhood mailing list using the Google Group application to set up the mailing list and invite people to join. The list quickly grew to 120 mothers who all had babies around the same time and who lived in the same neighborhood of mostly townhouses and a few apartment buildings.

Town E-Mail Lists to Keep Communities Informed

Other examples of e-mail lists that provide a community forum are those organized around city and local services. One New England city, Framingham, Massachusetts, uses E-Democracy software to support citizen discussions. E-Democracy forums now host 50 forums in 17 locations across three countries: the United States, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The first one, a forum with information about elections, was started in 1994 in Minneapolis.

The city of Framingham has three E-Democracy e-mail forums: Framgov (Framingham government), Frambors (short for Framingham Neighbors), and Nobscot Neighbors to which residents can subscribe.

  • Framgov is a forum in which people express opinions about upcoming votes by City officials, including taxes and recent government decisions. It is additionally a forum in which news and announcements about local government and schools as well as opinions about ordinances up for a vote are posted.

  • Frambors is a forum for subscribers to ask for recommendations for service providers such as plumbers, contractors, electricians, beauty shops, and nearby restaurants. It provides a place to post opinions about services with which locals are happy as well as those they feel are unsatisfactory. Service providers often respond on Frambors to these comments. Frambors has more than 1,700 subscribers.

  • Nobscot Neighbors is a forum at which people that live in the Nobscot section of North Framingham discuss zoning, new building permits, and traffic in their neighborhood.

The following is a quote from the moderator, Linda Dunbrack, who established the Frambors, Framgov, and Nobscot Neighbors online forums after the founder of the original forum died. At that point maintaining the forum founder’s server was no longer feasible. The statement was written when the forums were established.

  • After Founder Steve Orr’s unexpected death, we wanted to find a way to carry on the legacy of his community email list Frambors. After considering a variety of options, we decided to move the list to a non-profit host called E-Democracy.org.

  • Steve Clift, Executive Director and Founder of E-Democracy, was a huge support as we made the transition, and helped us to make the transition as smooth and as painless as possible. According to the E-Democracy web site, “It is an organization dedicated to promoting civic engagement.” It seemed to be a perfect fit, and comes with software and support that is customized to the needs of local issues forums.

Creating the policies that govern it are critical. On Frambors, Framcom, and Nobscot Neighbors, the policy is that posts may not make personal slurs about another person that has posted a comment. Another example of such a policy decision is that all messages must be signed in the body of the message. This is different from the comment sections of newspaper articles where virtually all messages are anonymous and people feel free to say anything that’s on their minds, often with little consideration. On the one hand, signing can inhibit those people who are uncomfortable with the loss of their anonymity, resulting in lowered written participation. On the other hand, signing messages has resulted in changing the whole tone of the conversation; civility, care in detail, and a number of other subtle characteristics all contribute to a marked degree of integrity in the list as a whole. The moderator of each forum first warns, and then disallows people from a list in which they post disparaging remarks about a specific person.

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