EDemocracy U.S.
Start an Online Public Commons  
New Version Available

By Steven Clift, Board Chair, E-Democracy
Revised and Updated, May 2003

Many-to-Many E-mail Discussions Start Here

Despite thousands of political online discussions across the Internet, an active "online public commons" e-mail list probably does not -yet- exist for your town, region, or nation. 

Most online discussions are based on a specific topic, cause, or hosted by someone with an ax to grind or secret agenda.  What we need are geography/democracy-based multi-topic online public spaces sponsored in a non-partisan way (by a group of individuals through a club, non-profit, or community partnership, etc.) where citizens from across the political spectrum gather for online discussion and deliberation on real public issues. 

E-mail discussions work because subscribers only have to make a commitment once when they join. With the web, people must proactively decide to visit a forum every time they go online.  The job of the forum host or facilitator is to build and maintain a participatory audience by keeping message volume in check and mediating disputes in a fair manner.

Step-by-step.  You can do it. 

1. Your Democracy - Pick your geographic area according to a political jurisdiction.  Democracy is based on geography - so your town, county, state/province, or country would work.  Consider starting with an area under 6 million in population. This just seems to work better. Neighborhoods are also a natural starting point, but try starting city-wide first and encourage others to establish neighborhood e-mail lists.

2. Charter - Draft a discussion charter, rules, and guidelines.  This is essential.  Your two paragraph description of the forum will set the tone for the e-mail list.  It is much easier to start with good rules than to add them later.  We have found great success with two rules - 1. No one may post more than twice a day.  2. All posts must be signed with the participant's full real name and city.
See the Background Resources in the right column for models to use.

3. Working Group - Create a working group or club to serve as the non-partisan, likely non-profit, trusted, neutral host for the discussion list.  The host organization must be issue neutral for a true online public commons to develop.  Get your working group to discuss in detail and agree to the draft charter.  Develop and assign specific list management roles.  If you have an interest, not just in Minnesota, E-Democracy can serve as your legal host and provide technical support. Contact us.

4. E-mail List - Set-up the e-mail list and web archives.  If you can find a local site to donate services all the better.  If not try one of the recommended free services in the right column or contact E-Democracy to join our efforts.  With these free services it only takes a few minutes to technically set-up a list.  Don't let this fool you.  The hard work is yet to come.  You might consider one list for unmoderated discussion and one for moderated announcements if your area has a large population or lots of subscribers.  Be sure to place a text footer at the bottom of each list message that tells someone how to subscribe/unsubscribe.  This will reduce the number of technical requests and turn every forwarded message into a marketing tool to promote the forum.

5. Recruit - Your discussion subscribers must be recruited one at a time.  Period.  Build it and they will never come unless you tell them it is there.  Set a minimum number of subscribers you want (say 100) before opening the discussion for postings.  Develop a recruitment list with the help of others and e-mail, call, and physically visit community leaders, elected officials, and local journalists to get them on the list.  Average citizens will not waste their time presenting their views if they feel no one who matters is listening.  However, don't put the success of the forum on the shoulders of elected officials - invite everyone to join as citizens.  Politicians will talk because, like other participants, they will see the discussion as an agenda setting tool.  Also, the more people subscribed when you open the list for posting, the broader and deeper the sense of community ownership. Consider other in-person recruiting events in the community and have a sign-up sheet with plenty of room to clearly write an e-mail address.

6. Publicity - Be sure to open with a coordinated publicity campaign in the early stages.  Use your initial pre-opening recruited members to help recruit others and to develop a regional press list.  Be sure to get the full e-mail subscribe instructions everywhere.  Only sharing the web address for the list information/sign-up will greatly limit the number of people who sign up.  You will get one major press hit.  You might try special online events, like a candidate E-Debate or other online events/consultations to generate publicity and awareness of the forum.  Celebrate list anniversaries by encouraging in-person picnics and happy hours at local venues.

7. Facilitate - Make all subscribers feel welcome.  Send private encouragement to those who participate.  You will have much better success gearing the forum toward local issue discussions and away from flame wars if you first get on their good side by building a trusting relationship.  Send public decorum notes on an occasional basis and seed new topics to keep the discussion interesting or to shift attention away from a negative thread. On rare occasions you will need to publicly ask people to stop or better yet move it to a different forum.  Try to address the abstract discussion trend or group as a whole whenever possible. Be firm, be fair, but remember the interests of whole instead of worrying about a few individuals who think it is their right to talk about whatever topic they want. Keep people true to the scope of the forum outlined in the charter.

8. Reminders - Send monthly reminders about the list charter and rules and encourage the subscribers to recruit more participants.

9. Join Others - The best way to connect with others around the world who are building online public commons in their democracy is to join the Democracies Online Newswire. Please share your public announcements and send queries to your peers.

Background Resources Diagrams
Click image for larger size.

Interactive Public Commons - Agora

Web is Passive - Demo Online

E-mail is Active - Demo Online

Technical Resources -  E-mail Lists

Once registered with these services you can start your own free e-mail list with web archives:

  • YahooGroups
  • Topica
  • SmartGroups
  • CommunityZero
  • GroupCare
What about newsgroups?  Political newsgroups do exist in many places around the world. Visit Google Groups to find groups of interest.  While the web has democratized access to newsgroups, local groups tend have a limit audience at the local level.  Few people with political power or influence use newsgroups.  They are the best place to send unruly e-mail list members who can't swallow your two posts a day rule.

What about web forums? Newspapers tend to host the most active online discussions on local and regional issues.  Discussions tend to be in response to specific stories and the online space tends to function as a privatized discussion connected to the news outlet.  Useful, but generally not a place for people to organize new efforts politically.  Web forums also are used at a more local level for organizing and hosting online special events.  Read some hosting advice from David Woolley. Our friends with e-thepeople are doing a good job with policy discussions on the web as of late.

What about chat?  Chat is almost entirely useless for many to many political discussions.  Useful implementations tend to be moderated live interviews with candidates, elected officials, and guest experts.