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Online Discussions—Old Dogs Do Learn New Tricks

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced a surge in online activity as scores of in-person meetings have been canceled or delayed because of social distancing requirements. Some are happy to not spend those hours in airports, conference centers, or behind the wheel on the interstate. A few miss those times (you know who you are!).

One of the many consequences of seeing this shift to online interaction is the opportunity for those of us in the public participatory field to observe and comment on the process and practice of online discussions. To be sure, I’ve seen a fair amount of stumbling and bumbling in some of these transitions to online discussion. Bad habits are still bad habits when they are transferred to a new platform. But I’ve also seen a great deal of humility and willingness to experiment and adapt.

In the last month I’ve had the opportunity to observe six significant online discussions that provided some useful lessons for me:

  • A “business” meeting of a large non-profit that used a form of deliberative polling to get a sense of what its members wanted to see as far as directions for the group during the time of pandemic.
  • Use of online “break-out” rooms for specific work groups and issue development.
  • Online presentations by spokespersons of various perspectives followed by a link to a survey device to probe both up and down preferences and qualitative assessments of the approaches put forth by presenters.
  • Online presentations by candidates for office, followed by Q and A, followed by ranked choice voting for endorsements on a separate platform.
  • Large scale (national) group discussion online that built upon previous online state and regional discussions that had brought forth priorities and had selected representatives to bring forth those preferences.
  • Novel uses of the “chat function” of online meeting platforms (principally Zoom).

I was fortunate to see this latter point on enlargement of the chat function brought to a high level of practice. In one memorable meeting (an online day-long affair with a lunch break) I saw the following new chat practices:

  • Co-moderators “tag-teaming” and taking turns actively facilitating the on-screen discussion and monitoring the chat.
  • Use of a “vibes checker” to take the “temperature” of the chat and intervene to head off problems and misunderstandings.
  • Fully developed chat rules and process that brought order to getting in line to comment or ask questions (called “in the stack” in the meeting I observed), raising process issues, and pointing out oversights or lapses.
  • Using the chat to raise and record matters that were left unresolved at the end of the allotted time.

Few who know me well would accuse me of being a bubbly optimist, but I do see some bright spots in these transitions to online activity. It can be organized in ways that “flatten” hierarchy. Skilled moderators are more orchestra conductors and less leaders. Online discussion also shows the possibility of overcoming much of the problem of geography in continental nations like the U.S. and Canada. It was a privilege to be in an online discussion with someone who was an hour ferry ride away from a regional airport and with someone who still milked their cows before and after the meeting.