The meeting was remarkable not because any consensus emerged
on how the area should be rebuilt ("It's so elitist," a Greenwich
Village resident said of Mr. Lenahan's position), but because
this physical gathering in Lower Manhattan arose from a debate
"We wanted to visualize it for ourselves," said Maria Grieco,
a music teacher from Queens who took part in the online discussion,
organized by the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York
as part of its Listening to the City initiative.
Known to one another only by online aliases and argument,
the members of the group - one of 26 in the program - stayed
in touch by e-mail after their two-week discussion ended in
early August. And if consensus did not emerge from their field
trip, at least the perspective from Battery Park was clarified.
"Maybe it doesn't have to be a physical reconnection," conceded
Margaret Duffy of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who sympathized
with Mr. Lenahan's desire to be done with construction as
the group watched dump trucks negotiate the hole below. "Maybe
it could be a visual reconnection."
A meeting at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in July
at which 4,000 New Yorkers gathered to pass judgment on the
original six plans for rebuilding the World Trade Center has
been cited as an exercise in the very principles of participatory
democracy, in which informed public discussion leads to the
Less chronicled is the experience of 800 people who could
not make it to the Javits Center that day but instead convened
over the Internet over a two-week period to discuss many of
the same questions, at more length and perhaps with more nuance.
The results of the online discussion were included with
those of the Javits Center meeting in a report that the Civic
Alliance submitted this week to the agencies responsible for
the redevelopment, which have promised to study them closely.
But the 10,000-odd messages produced by the online groups
are also being scrutinized as a model for civic engagement
on local and national issues. Some who have monitored the
process suggest that online discussion may be a more promising
way to promote democratic debate than a Javits-style town
hall - in part because it is more practical.
"You don't have to buy people lunch on the Internet or get
them a free pass on the ferry to get there," said Robert D.
Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, one
of the organizers of the Javits Center event and a member
of the Civic Alliance. "And people could do this at 3 in the
morning if that's when they were free."
The Javits Center meeting cost about $2 million to produce;
the online discussions cost about $120,000. Although the online
dialogue was skewed toward computer users and involved fewer
participants from ethnic minorities, it attracted a significantly
higher percentage of people under 34. More than half of the
participants in online and offline groups said that their
opinions had shifted over the course of the discussions.
Some organizers who tracked both processes say that by prolonging
its discussions for two weeks, the online group allowed diverse
points of view to be more fully explored. Rapport often developed
instantly in their virtual communication, seemingly from the
sense of safety people feel as they type into the ether.
"At Javits, there was no bouncing of ideas: we just went
around the circle and each person had their say," said Cynthia
Schmae, a consultant for Web Lab, a nonprofit organization
that specializes in online communication and ran the Web discussions.
"You didn't have time to get to know each other so you don't
have that flow."
The meetings in Lower Manhattan and in cyberspace were organized
against a civic backdrop in which Americans, particularly
the young, are voting less, volunteering less and paying less
attention to public affairs than those before them. Some advocates
see the Internet as a potential lightning rod to encourage
more civic involvement.
"In a democracy you want people talking about public issues,"
said Michael X. Delli Carpini, director of the public policy
program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is sponsoring
an online discussion about volunteering this fall for high
school students. "There is a hope that the Internet may be
a tool that can allow people to talk in a structured way about
things that really matter to them and revive the impetus to
say, `I want to be involved.' "
If there is such potential, government agencies have not
paid much attention to it. Only 10 percent of government Web
sites offer citizens a way to comment online on issues, according
to a study released this month by the Taubman Center for Public
Policy at Brown University. Almost none have sponsored online
"Government planners have a service-deliver vision in which
what they want to do is let people do tax filing, order licenses,
get business permits online," said Darrell M. West, director
of the center at Brown. "But they're not really envisioning
the Internet as a tool to alter the relationship between citizens
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the Internet's
power to usher in a new era of Jeffersonian democracy. For
now, the medium cannot replicate the visceral thrill of being
at the Javits Center as thousands of people saw their votes
tallied on a big screen and cheered or booed accordingly.
Such emotion may ultimately drive civic participation to a
degree that semi-anonymous interactions on a computer screen
Online forums are also notorious for destructive "flame"
wars, a hostile form of exchange rarely seen in face-to-face
settings. Stable virtual communities - Work-From-Home Moms
at Ivillage.com or MSN.com's Seed Swappers, for example -
tend to focus on narrow areas of noncontroversial interest.
Web sites like CNN recently abandoned their political forums,
where genuine debate was rare and grandstanding was frequent.