Archive for the ‘Background-PPSEL’ Category

Online-Offline Community and Saving The Bus

April 9, 2007

In January 2007 a group of riders on the Wheatland Express bus launched a campaign to save the bus from possible demise due to University of Idaho cancellation of funding. You can see the website at SaveTheBus.org

This is my reflection on what I learned in the project and the role of blending online and face-to-face communities in its success.

As with most things, it starts with Theron Desrosier and his analysis for me about Noam Chomsky’s comments about new political communities. Chomsky spoke at Washington State University April 22, 2006 and in his remarks Theron heard ideas about a new political process where the community develops its “platform” and then seeks candidates to implement it (as opposed to candidates declaring a platform (competing platforms) and then forcing the electorate to choose the lesser of evils among them). As Theron and I have come to understand some of Chomsky’s ideas they involve facilitating a community talking to itself about what it feels is important.

A key assumption that SaveTheBus faced relates to local politics and online community. Local communities think of themselves as face-to-face and in this mode they perceive that they talk among themselves. But face-to-face communities are limited by logistics of meeting one another. Online communities are assumed to suffer from lack of attention due to their ethereal nature, but they have the advantage of being attended on an asynchronous (when you can) basis. Our challenge was to learn how to mix these modes of community so that the online one could help overcome the limitations of face-to-face meeting.

The bus is a unique face-to-face community. It is fairly small, and its members attend it on a regular basis (while riding between campuses). But, at the same time, its a fragmented community. Riders are on different schedules and some riders never see or know one another. Further, the seating arrangement is conducive to 1-1 conversation, but not to mixing or group discussion.

Theron and I believed that an online community could be joined to a face-to-face one in ways that could overcome the limitations of each, and in ways that subscribed to Chomsky’s ideas about a community building an agenda and taking it to leaders.

To explore those ideas, I created an online space where bus supporters could email why they valued the bus and why it should be saved. Using small signs on the bus, riders were informed of the site, encouraged to subscribe to updates from the site and visit it regularly. A logo was created out of the site’s URL. The press was directed to the site, and when particularly compelling letters arrived they were forwarded to press and radio reporters as story ideas.

Periodically, the emails were compiled and printed, four to a sheet of paper, and distributed on the bus. This served two purposes — it brought the website to the people and it gave the community something to talk about as they rode.

Some of the most compelling authors to SaveTheBus were encouraged to resend their letters to one of the local newspapers (two campus papers and a city paper). When possible, letter writers were encouraged to add a sentence reference to SaveTheBus.org in their letter to the editor to market the site.

For me, the most compelling evidence for the success of the strategy is not the saving of bus funding (which did happen) but the richness of the site and the multiple conversations that were triggered around the community. The letters from riders provided a rich context in which to understand the importance of the bus to multiple constituencies. They also served as a means to further conversations, as when readers would comment to authors “I saw your letter…”

Further, the effort developed momentum in larger face-to-face audiences, as when Tom Lamar opened his comments on the role of mass transit at the MoscowClimateChange forum ( http://www.moscowclimatechange.com/) with the comment “We have to save the [Wheatland] bus.” Radio Free Moscow and KUOI radio each aired stories, as did the Daily News, UI Argonaut, and Daily Evergreen newspapers.

The site was also used to post data about the bus and its riders. This helped the community frame the discussion around evidence that it found important and provided a single place for new visitor to the community to find both context and perspectives. To bring the data from the site to a face-to-face community, we created a two page flyer that listed key data and quotes, which was distributed at a public forum.

The site was a Google Group threaded discussion, and as it grew, it became somewhat jumbled and reading became more difficult. To reach the important audience of university decision makers, a community member compiled all the letters into a printable anthology. This document, by its size, carried its own rhetorical weight.

The current status of the project is that the bus funding appears secured for another year and, more importantly, the community knows its voice and understands the multiple reasons why the bus is an important resource.

An important conclusion that I draw from this work is that the web can be integrated into a local community’s political organizing. It requires effort to make the site participatory, with multiple perspectives and authoritative, with data that has been collected about the problem and is open to inspection, support or refutation.

Another conclusion is that the web site needs to be brought back to the community through active agency. This can include email updates by subscription, redirecting key documents from the site to the press and other key communicators, and by bringing the contents of the site to the community in print and other media. Finally, as a matter of reader logistics, the Google Group failed because it quickly became cluttered. An RSS feed from the community site to a more managed web presence could help readers new to the site get oriented to key documents as well as the current discussion.

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