Icelandic Citizen Engagement Tool Offers Tips for U.S.

Zack Quaintance at Government Technology: “The world of online discourse was vastly different one decade ago. This was before foreign election meddling, before social media execs were questioned by Congress, and before fighting with cantankerous uncles became an online trope. The world was perhaps more naïve, with a wide-eyed belief in some circles that Internet forums would amplify the voiceless within democracy.

This was the world in which Róbert Bjarnason and his collaborators lived. Based in Iceland, Bjarnason and his team developed a platform in 2010 for digital democracy. It was called Shadow Parliament, and its aim was simply to connect Iceland’s people with its governmental leadership. The platform launched one morning that year, with a comments section for debate. By evening, two users were locked in a deeply personal argument.

“We just looked at each other and thought, this is not going to be too much fun,” Bjarnason recalled recently. “We had just created one more platform for people to argue on.”

Sure, the engagement level was quite high, bringing furious users back to the site repeatedly to launch vitriol, but Shadow Parliament was not fostering the helpful discourse for which it was designed. So, developers scrapped it, pulling from the wreckage lessons to inform future work.

Bjarnason and team, officially a nonprofit called Citizens Foundation, worked for roughly a year, and, eventually, a new platform called Better Reykjavik was born. Better Reykjavik had key differences, chief among them a new debate system with simple tweaks: Citizens must list arguments for and against ideas, and instead of replying to each other directly, they can only down-vote things with which they disagree. This is a design that essentially forces users to create standalone points, rather than volley combative responses at one another, threaded in the fashion of Facebook or Twitter.

“With this framing of it,” Bjarnason said, “we’re not asking people to write the first comment they think of. We’re actually asking people to evaluate the idea.”

One tradeoff is that fury has proven itself to be an incredible driver of traffic, and the site loses that. But what the platform sacrifices in irate engagement, it gains in thoughtful debate. It’s essentially trading anger clicks for coherent discourse, and it’s seen tremendous success within Iceland — where some municipalities report 20 percent citizen usage — as well as throughout the international community, primarily in Europe. All told, Citizens Foundation has now built like-minded projects in 20 countries. And now, it is starting to build platforms for communities in the U.S….(More)”.