AR: Online vs face-to-face deliberation: effects on civic engagement

Seong-Jae Min‘s article, published in the JCMC (Vol. 12. (2007), pp1369-1387), is quite about what you would expect from the title; it compares online to face-to-face deliberation in an experimental setting. It concludes saying that “online deliberation is not necessarily inferior to face-to-face deliberation,” and that “both online and face-to-face deliberation can increase participants’ issue knowledge, political efficacy and willingness to participate in politics.”

In the experiment, one group of participants (divided into smaller groups) deliberated offline, in face-to-face conversation, while another group (also divided into smaller groups) did the same online, in chatrooms set up especially for the occasion. Both groups discussed the same topic; in fact, all factors affecting the deliberation were the same for them, except that communication in the latter group took place online (but the group members were actually sitting in the same computer lab, albeit without being able to see each other).

I’d like to make two quick points about the experiment and its results.

First of all, Min’s study claims that the above described experiment setting makes face-to-face and online deliberation comparable. The issue at hand is the same, preparatory material provided for the participants is the same, even the moderator is the same – really, the only difference is that in online deliberation, the small-group discussion takes place online, in a chatroom. This does ensure that the effects of this particular type of online communication can be measured against its face-to-face counterpart

but on the other hand,

this way of setting up the experiment seems to miss somewhat the point of online deliberation altogether. What I mean is that if there is a democratizing potential in the internet, it is that it allows to expand the concept of deliberation, so that it incorporates asynchronous communication (and not just real-time conversation), taking place among a large number of people (and not just in small groups), and among people who are physically not co-present. I think Min is right in saying that this way of deliberation is, because of these differences, not comparable directly to face-to-face deliberation; but making the two comparable via devising an experiment where none of these factors come into play will produce results that are of questionable relevance from the point of view of the original question.

I mean, from the point of view of communication studies in general, it is interesting to see that apparently it doesn’t really matter if in goal-oriented small-group discussion the exchange of information takes place online, not offline. But since online deliberation hardly takes place in this setting, this is probably rather of theoretical than practical importance.

Second, in making sure that the setting for on- and offline communication is the same, Min runs through a checklist of what constitutes good deliberation: free and open discussion, careful consideration of views, equal opportunities to speak for everyone, and civility – not described in detail but implying respect for the other participants and their points of view.

However, in a different article (New Media & Society) Zizi Papacharissi found that “civility” is best understood in a different way in online than in offline settings. Most importantly, it shouldn’t be confused with “politeness,” as impolite messages can indeed be civil, and verbally polite messages might be uncivil (threatening democracy, attempting to deny other people’s personal freedoms or sterotyping social groups):

The anonymity of cyberspace makes it easier for individuals to be rude, although not necessarily uncivil. Because the absence of face-to-face communication fosters discussion that is more heated, cyberspace actually promotes Lyotard’s vision of democratic emancipation through disagreement and anarchy. (Papachrissi 2004).

…which I think is a good point. Anyhow, disagreements from my part notwithstanding, overall quite an inspiring article. Kudos, as my friend Sven would say.

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