The New York Times The New York Times Technology September 26, 2002  

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Vox Populi, Online and Downtown

(Page 2 of 2)

"It is often said that online communities are good for discussing issues but terrible at resolving them because no one ever concedes the last word," said Cliff Figallo, a former manager of The Well, one of the earliest and longest-running online communities, which has had its share of blowups.

But Mr. Figallo, who helped Web Lab recruit about a dozen volunteer moderators for the Listening to the City discussions, said that those forums were far more cohesive and productive than others he has observed, largely because they were "communities with a purpose."

The online version of the Listening to the City discussions was an afterthought. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, the president of AmericaSpeaks, had been planning the Javits Center meeting for months on behalf of the Civic Alliance when she met Marc Weiss, the founder of Web Lab, at a conference. Intrigued by the notion of an online meeting that could handle the overflow from Javits — and by the Internet's potential for promoting the kind of grass-roots participation that her group advocates — Ms. Lukensmeyer asked Mr. Weiss if he could raise funds for an online dialogue.

Securing small grants from AOL Time Warner, the Surdna Foundation and the family of one of his volunteers, Mr. Weiss began registering participants in a matter of weeks. With virtually no advertising, the response was impressive.
Based on personal information required for registration, the 26 online groups were organized to be geographically and demographically diverse. Anyone from New York City and the surrounding counties could take part. Participants received an agenda item by e-mail every few days and responded to polling questions on topics like whom a memorial should commemorate, whether housing should be incorporated on the site and how much green space should be included.

Many participants said they were motivated by a desire to find out what others thought about a subject that they themselves felt strongly about. Others said they hoped somehow to influence the decision on what was built. A driving impulse to contribute almost as a sense of obligation surfaced in many online comments.

"I wanted to participate in what's going to happen next," said Ellen Datlow, 52, a science fiction editor who became the de facto leader of Group 4, the one that met downtown. "This is all I can do — there is nothing else I can do to make this happen. I'm not a government official. I'm not someone with any say except a New Yorker who cares very much about what happens to the city."

Whether people could be inspired to take part in online discussions on issues that inspire less passionate feelings is unclear. Organizers also wonder to what degree the sense of common purpose arising from the events of Sept. 11 softened and civilized the online interaction.

But the discussion was certainly not bland. The groups, which had an average of about 30 members, exhibited the gamut of online behavior. There were members who never posted, showoffs who competed for the longest and most articulate posts, and one flamethrower who was barred from his group midway through the discussions for disruptive behavior, including posting "Rebuild the towers exactly the way they were" over and over again.

Civic activists debate whether discussion in itself helps shore up democratic ideals, or if influencing policymakers must be the goal. An informal poll of several participants indicated that as much as they enjoyed the back-and-forth, they would like their words to have an impact rather than simply occupying cyberspace.

"Who am I?" said one, Vincent Pecoraro, a bank manager who works in Lower Manhattan. "The Port Authority owns the land. Larry Silverstein owns the lease. But there's a slim chance of hope that they're going to listen. That will be wonderful if I could have been a part of that."

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IN PERSON - From left, members of a discussion group on ground zero's future: Maria Grieco, Debra Lott, Margaret Duffy, Ellen Datlow, Vincent Pecoraro and Bill Love.

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