Winter 2004-2005

e-Liberate — A New Tool for Online Deliberation
by Doug Schuler
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Since its inception the Internet has been touted as having revolutionary potential for democratic communication. Although other media including television and radio have not lived up to their democratic potential, it is too early to dismiss the Internet as being merely a tool for the powerful. Certainly civil society has been extraordinarily creative in using the Internet for positive social change over the past few years. Although a very large number of communication venues exist in cyberspace, one critical function – deliberation – has been largely ignored. The need for computer support for online deliberation can be shown by the fact that many online discussions seem to have no resolution at all. Some seem to sow more confusion while others degenerate into "flame wars" that make it difficult for anybody to get any work done.

Motivated by a desire to help make online discussions more productive— particularly among civil society groups who are striving to create more "civic intelligence" in our society—Nathan Clinton and Doug Schuler of CPSR's Public Sphere Project have developed e-Liberate, an online tool for group deliberation based on Roberts Rules of Order. Roberts Rules of Order was developed by Henry Robert in the late 1800s to provide an orderly process for people meeting together face-to-face to make decisions fairly. Robert labored over his "rules" for thirty years and they are now in daily use by tens of thousands of deliberative bodies worldwide. One of the interesting things that we have learned about Roberts Rules is that the process seems to scale up: small groups of five or so can use Roberts Rules of Order – as can groups numbering in the hundreds. We of course hope that e-Liberate will prove as versatile. E-Liberate is intended to be easy to use. It employs a straightforward user interface which is educational as well as facilitative. The interface shows, for example, only the legal actions that are available to the user at that specific time in the meeting. (A user can't second a motion when there is no motion to second!) At any time an "about" button can be clicked to explain what each particular action will accomplish thus providing useful cues that aren't available in face-to-face meetings, one of the things that can be seen in the transcript of a sample session.

We at CPSR's Public Sphere Project are now beginning to work with groups who would like to use e-Liberate for actual meetings. Although we believe that face-to-face meetings are very important, it is our hope that non-profit groups will use e-Liberate to save time and money on travel and use the resources they save on other activities that promote their core objectives. We are enthusiastic about the system but we are well aware that the system as it stands may have problems that need fixing. For that reason we plan to host a small number of meetings over the next few months and gather feedback from attendees. If you are a member of an organization that uses Roberts Rules of Order to conduct meetings and you'd like to try e-Liberate for a "real meeting," please be encouraged to pre-register.

Although it is our intent to make e-Liberate easy to use, some knowledge of—and experience with—Roberts Rules of Order is critical to successful participation in e-Liberate meetings. Groups intending to use e-Liberate should work to ensure that all meeting attendees have basic understanding of the various motions and the basic rules; we have developed an online manual for that purpose. Additionally, the meeting chair should be prepared to assist attendees whenever possible. Finally, the developers will also be available to assist even though everybody currently working on this project is volunteering their time.

The system in its current form can support meetings that take place in real-time over an hour or so and, also, meetings that stretch out over days or even weeks. Over the next several months we hope to study a variety of online meetings in order to adjust the system and to develop heuristics for the use of the system. After this trial period we plan to make e-Liberate freely available for online meetings and to release the software under a free software license.

We hope that e-Liberate will help you and your organization as you strive to build a better tomorrow. The Public Sphere Project is dedicated to developing information and communication systems that help people deal with social and environmental problems. We welcome your questions, concerns and ideas related to the Public Sphere Project and the e-Liberate deliberation system.

Doug Schuler is a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College in Washington State, and Program Director of the Public Sphere Project of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.




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