To solve problems, we must be able to discuss them. When it comes to problems affecting our cities, states and the country; any discussion quickly becomes political. Raise your hand if you shy away from talking about politics. You’re not alone. Political talk brings out the worst in people. Besides creating discomfort, many worry about damaging relationships. But does it have to be that way?
Back in 2009 I was becoming increasingly frustrated with how people discussed political issues, particularly in online forums. Maybe I was hanging out in the wrong places online, but it seemed like the goal of many sites was to purposely rile people up. And from what I could see, some writers were awfully good at meeting that goal. The comments posted on our local newspaper’s web site, startribune.com, were prime examples of how ugly things were getting.
Then one day I had an idea. I would start a web site with a goal to discuss political issues in a reasonably civil and respectful manner. We wouldn’t be perfect, but we’d work together in pursuit of something new, different and hopefully better.
I started thinking about what needed to be different in order for this to work. Here’s what ended up on my list.
- Everyone had to use their real name. Most of the ugliest comments in online forums are flung by people hiding behind pseudonyms. I was absolutely convinced that 90% of what gets put into writing wouldn’t be shared if the commenter was identified. I knew anonymity allowed more people to enter into the conversation who wouldn’t otherwise do so. Forcing people to identify themselves would limit participation, but I was willing to sacrifice participation for hopefully higher quality conversations.
- Needed to include more than just hardcore political junkies. I also wanted to broaden the conversation to more people. There were plenty of websites that seemed to attract only the most extreme combatants. I wanted something that would be accessible to people who were willing to be more reasonable. My assumption was that those folks would not go looking for the conversation, so the conversation had to come to them. That’s when I had the idea to use Facebook. Lots of people used it and many looked at it every day. While Facebook had plenty of limitations, it did have the audience. It seemed like the only viable platform for pulling in more than just a couple people.
- The site would need to be moderated. The moderator’s job would be to start discussions and keep people following the site’s guidelines. I thought I could moderate it all myself, but what I discovered was that multiple moderators from differing political perspectives worked best. Ideally the site would be moderated by someone who was completely neutral. My guess was that those folks didn’t exist and if they did wouldn’t be interested in moderating a political discussion site. And even if they were attempting neutrality, participants still wouldn’t believe them to be neutral. The answer was to use moderators who liked politics and were open about where they stood on the issues.
- Make the site local. This was my second best idea, after making people use their real names. National political issues are too big and seemingly too far removed from our ability to influence. Plus they are extremely well covered. So I decided to make the scope of the site conform to the city in which I live, Edina. The posts would have an Edina angle. We would focus on schools, city government, and locally elected politicians in the state legislature. Keeping it local would mean participants might know each other or at least have common acquaintances. My belief was that people would be on their best behavior in front of friends and neighbors. In addition, it was my hope that local politicians would follow the discussion and might even be influenced by it.
- We would need to establish some expectations. People were so used to nastiness in political discussion, I knew I’d have to make our goal very clear. I asked people to keep their posts friendly and respectful, telling them to ask tough questions, point out inconsistencies, challenge ideas, promote their favorite candidates, but to refrain from taking pot shots just to rile people up. I suggested that they get beyond opinions. I wanted people to learn something, so I encouraged participants to provide links and data that backed up their conclusions.
I launched the site, giving it the name Politics In Edina. I purposely focused on promoting it’s nickname, PIE. After all, what’s more friendly than a nice piece of pie. I started off inviting people I knew, which I found out was mostly people who shared my political beliefs. Over time people of all political beliefs began to “like” the page.
So far it seems to be working reasonably well. We have our good days as well as those moments when we could have done better. There are people from both sides of the political spectrum who before may not have talked to each other at all. Now they do, albeit possibly only on this forum. Most of the posts and comments are being generated by about 25 people. And yet there are 357 people who have “liked” the site and are seeing posts in their news feeds whenever they catch up with Facebook.
My sense is that few if any of the “regulars” are changing their minds about much, but I do think they are at least learning to better understand how the other side sees things. I know I am. I would like to think the 325 people who just read from the sidelines are learning more about the issues and feeling more connected to what’s going on in their community.
The site continues to evolve, and I’m learning a lot everyday. I get plenty of feedback from folks. They tell me what they like and what they don’t. I do my best to listen and incorporate their suggestions. I think the idea works well enough that every community ought to have a site like this. It just needs someone willing to bring it to life and nurture it as it grows. Maybe that’s you. Pick a name, set up some rules, invite a few friends. Who knows what will come of it.
And if you do, stop over at PIE and let us know how things are working out on your site. Maybe we can learn something new.