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by scott wright at 15:03 19/05/04 (Forum::Online Communities)
Downing Street, Europa and Online Communities
Hi Simon, I hope this is in the right area. I will not write any more now in response to you email just in case. However, suffice to say those stats are shocking.

You have such an interesting background! We will definitely have to think about writing something together if you can fit it in with your work. Though I would hope such a project would support rather than hinder this.

Many thanks,


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Hi scott wright - 15:03 19/05/04
Re: Hi Simon - 17:19 19/05/04
Hi Scott,

Yes, this is the right place. As I said in email, if you think we need a private area we can easily set one up but for now I'm happy to discuss things in this public forum - with luck we'll be able to get some input from other users of the site (many of whom have been involved in online communities as long or longer than I have).

I've attached to this message the PowerPoint slides of a talk I gave at the Institute of Business Adviser's annual conference last year.

(Note for other readers: Scott is researching online communities, with a particular focus on how they can be useful for local, regional, national and international governmental bodies).

PowerPoint file (131 K) "Trusting the Network"
Re: Hi scott wright - 23:35 19/05/04
Hi Simon, I think it is fine in the open and, as you say, it will be good to get the other people's opinions.

You have an extremely interesting background - I have no clue about programming so please bear with my ignorance!

I am in contact with the Futurum administrator (civil service - not the web-designer which I believe was not done internally). I am not sure whether they would be willing to co-operate or not - though it would do no harm to ask. The thing is, they currently do nothing with the posts apart from an internal summary which has no influence. The statistics would be very interesting for them. But the problem is that I don't think they really want stats because this would create a pressure to use them! There are also institutional complications for the Commission more generally, which "feels" that citizen communication should come at the national level/EU Council/European Parliament.

The second factor is that I've already undertaken a considerable amount of work on this (I've got two co-authored publications forthcoming - once they are in draft I will try and post them here or email them). This also makes getting funding to pay for your code etc difficult. Bearing this in mind, and your other commitments, I think a collaboration would be more fruitful elsewhere. There are so many possibilities - the discussions featuring MP participation on local business issues that you spoke about for example - as well as non-political communities. I am flexible on topic but can offer advice on what is more likely to get published. As I say, I am conscious of your outside (paid!) work. It is really how keen you are.

There is also the possibility that I can get funding to pay for some work. This is a strong possibility for the future, but will be difficult for the next year as I'm starting an Economic and Social Research Council post-doc and the research funding is limited.

I've heard of the Wiki approach, it is a growth area for analysis - I think a book called "from usenet to coweb" has some material on this. Marc Smith and Peter Kollock's edited book on On-line Communities is also interesting on earlier versions of this - you may have come across them? If not, it is worth getting them from the library. Though I say that as a boring old social scientist!


I hope these references are not patronising: I am worried you've read all this stuff!

The deletion statistics are crazy - the forums where no posts remain must have something to do with the forum being taken down or something? Whatever other explanatory factors there are, they must still have removed a large proportion of posts because of content. This is really, really interesting because I've never seen any stats on censorship before - at least not ones that do not rely on the censor's own figures. Thank you so much for going back and producing these - they are great!

I can't go into details because it was off the record, but one senior person I spoke to who saw some of the moderating on Citizen Space said thousands of posts were deleted every week. But they had far worse problems with "abuse" than on the Downing St. website - and this was actually a problem of structural design.

Anyway, some food for thought.

I look forward to your comments - and if anyone else is interested it would be great to hear from you.



Re: Hi Simon - 20:10 20/05/04
You make a telling point about the unwillingness of (for want of a better word) authority to sanction the independent inspection of their initiatives - that seems to be a fundamental failing of the system. At the recent meeting of the APPSBG (reported here)...

Professor Francis Chittenden of Manchester Business School gave a critical presentation of the burdensome compliance costs, Red Tape and ineffective Regulatory Impact Assessments which impacted adversely on small businesses ... the Government over-regulates and fails to adequately review and check the accuracy of their RIAs and their cost:benefit ratios (my emphasis)

... which is essentially this problem in a nutshell. No independent review (and no review at all, in most cases) means no way for the public to discover the accuracy of what authority has to say.

With the Downing Street forums, there was definitely an element of political censorship involved - perfectly polite messages were being removed. As ever, determining motive is a difficult task, and we've all heard the "overzealous civil servant" excuse before.

the forums where no posts remain must have something to do with the forum being taken down or something?

I think that's the case - they had a few abortive attempts at one stage to hive off certain types of discussion.

Anyway, enough of all that :-)

I've invited Susie Hughes (from Shout99) to take a look at this thread when she gets a moment. Her community is both politically interested and of large enough size (23000 registered users, over 1000 of them contributed something to the site in the last year) to be an reasonable sample.

If it turns out that the next forum you want to analyse could take advantage of some coding to gather statistics, we can worry about any funding issues as and when.

Thanks for the pointers to the books - I hadn't come across them previously (being buried up to the ears in any number of actual communities leaves little time to read about them too!)

Kollock's paper you referenced is interesting - in the last 8 years since it was presented the growth of virtual worlds has happened in the gaming, rather than the conferencing, community. Hugo spends a fair amount of time in an enormous virtual world system (I forget the name) so he can talk more knowledgably about them than I can.

(While I think on - don't forget to set up your email subs on this site so you get alerted when something new gets posted that's *not* a direct reply to one of your own items. You'll find the facility on your admin screen, just click the 'Logged in: scott' underneath the logo in the top left, and then go to the 'Receive automatic emails' page)


Re: Hi scott wright - 20:16 24/05/04
Sorry for not posting for a few days - very busy right now...

I have some understanding of how small businesses suffer as my mom owns one - she has all sorts of hastle be it tax, employment regulations, the books and so on.... crazy, crazy world. I always say to her that I wish I had her tax bill - but I don't think she appreciates this! Actually one of her businesses is in need of a new website - the current one is awful - but she will not spend much at all on it as she has no clue about such things.... do you have any friends that do generic-ish websites? (www.druidinnbirchover.co.uk) the place looks totally different too as we've spent a fortune giving it a complete refurb....

Our government is just slightly more efficient than the EU on watching these things (and I am pro-EU - but they pour so much money down the drain on dubious RD exercises - and academic networks for that matter! I wont get into that....

I make this point in the Downing St. article - websites change rationale yet noone reviews or questions whether it is worth fublic funding and I also dont think anyone checks to make sure they are meeting their own guidelines....

I am trying to get my head around a moderation question right now - what is legitimate? There is obviously a big theoretical debate between free speech and regulation which for forums comes down to no mod, pre-mod, post-mod and then if you are moderating how do you determine the level of this?

This is the Hansard Society's review of Citizen Space:

"The disastrous policy of ‘silent’ moderation prevented the moderators from either responding to direct questions or explaining why they were not responding. The moderators, an independent company appointed by the Cabinet Office, were seen by users as arrogant and unlistening. Furthermore, in deciding a policy of never responding to any comments, the moderators are unable to explain their operational management of the site, so there is no proactive attempt to steer the discussion, appeal for better behaviour by participants or explain deletions of messages. Users of the site have developed a conspiratorial picture of the moderators. Much of the discussion is about the moderators and how to beat them. On one occasion personal information about moderators appeared online. This is unavoidable unless the current policy is abandoned and the moderators become vocal participants with an accountable role.

Ultimately, the Citizenspace experiment lacked a clear purpose or connection to Government policy-making. For a handful of enthusiasts it provided an outlet for ill-informed opinion, prejudice and abuse. For most users, it held out the promise of interaction with Government, but proved to be a one-way street leading nowhere."

So this was taken down and for the e-democracy consultation the forum was set up differently with pre-mod. this time moderated by Hansard themselves - this is what they said in their findings:

"Once the forum was seeded with a number of SERIOUS messages, a number of contributors entered the forum to complain about the closure of the old Citizenspace forums and to express a good deal of distrust about the Government’s commitment to using the internet to hear the voices of the public. As moderators, the Hansard Society made a policy decision to allow such comments to be made once or twice, but then to CLOSE THE DEBATE about the previous Citizenspace forum and try to focus discussion on developing an e-democracy policy for the future. This led to a number of messages being classified as off-topic and excluded from the forum. This exacerbated a sense of cynicism and paranoia amongst these few contributors who genuinely felt that the Government was determined to ignore them. As moderators, it was our sense that these contributors failed to distinguish between a focussed, democratic discussion and a free-for-all. Had this vociferous minority been allowed to dominate the forum [ASSUMPTION] it is doubtful whether the several hundred constructive comments from other contributors would have appeared."

There are just so many assumptions in this.... but aside from that - is it legitimate to not post those messages? They want to focus this discussions which has benefits in a consultative setting but when they analyse the results all the complaints are not taken into account so this skews their results....

Great to have those invites - hope to hear comments from other people!

I've never partaken in a MUD myself; I guess I don't have the time. I am partially to a spot of yahoo pool and poker though!

I will keep you informed if I come across any up-to-date practical initiatives for e-forum design. Did you see that Hansard offer a fee-based moderation course?

Take care,


Being in and of a community Hugo van der Sanden - 12:45 25/05/04
"The disastrous policy of ‘silent’ moderation prevented the moderators from either responding to direct questions or explaining why they were not responding. The moderators, an independent company appointed by the Cabinet Office, were seen by users as arrogant and unlistening. Furthermore, in deciding a policy of never responding to any comments, the moderators are unable to explain their operational management of the site, so there is no proactive attempt to steer the discussion, appeal for better behaviour by participants or explain deletions of messages. Users of the site have developed a conspiratorial picture of the moderators. Much of the discussion is about the moderators and how to beat them. On one occasion personal information about moderators appeared online. This is unavoidable unless the current policy is abandoned and the moderators become vocal participants with an accountable role.

You cannot have a healthy community - whether in real life or online - unless those in authority are part of, and answerable to, the members of the community. Without that you have a dictatorship or police state, and in such climes a rebellious underground is naturally fostered.

There is a saying derived from the original goal for the Internet, to be very fault tolerant, and even in principle able to survive a nuclear attack: The Internet treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. .. and the preservation on an independent system of deleted messages from a forum is a perfect example of this.

As moderators, the Hansard Society made a policy decision to allow such comments to be made once or twice, but then to CLOSE THE DEBATE ...

There is an alternative, much easier to achieve in online systems than in real life: move the debate elsewhere. It is perfectly reasonable to say "such discussions are off topic in this area, and will be moved to the 'CitizenSpace - what went wrong?' area by the moderators".

The social aspects of MUDs are a very fertile area for study, and much has been written about this field already: see Measuring Bartle-quotient as a useful starting point for links.

In my experience, there are two quite distinct climates: traditionally, all MUDs were free. The authorities called themselves "the gods", and had godlike powers within the scope of the game. The majority of players accepted that the entertainment was free, and that the gods can be capricious.

More recently, a number of pay-to-play MUDs have sprung up, and I've been active on one of them (Runescape) for the last 12 months or so. The tenor here is quite different: people have paid to play, and the attitude to the authorities is far less forgiving; it is telling, too, that here the authorities once again call themselves "moderators".

While I have never encountered such a thing on a free MUD, Runescape instituted an automatic censor shortly after I first found it: all messages from a user, whether a private message to another player or something more public, are subjected to the censor which replaces anything objectionable with asterisks. Surprisingly I've noticed few objections to this, notwithstanding its unexpectedly wide scope (censoring for example rude words, anything that looks like an email address, a telephone number or a website, and the individual names of several games in direct competition to Runescape) and its zealousness (rendering for example "latitude" as "la***ude").

Perhaps the reason for the relaxed attitude of the players is that, once again, it is nothing that can't be worked around - small modifications can usually defeat the censor without obscuring the sentiment, and everyone knows what "fyck you" means.


Re: Being in and of a community scott wright - 13:08 25/05/04

I will reply to the rest later but for now I just want to come back on your comments about moderation and communities, which I agree with. The question I have, though, is whether these are actually communities? Most users treat them like this - but is that what the government (or Hansard) wants? While they have no policy influence they do little more than bring some people "closer" to each other and this has democratic output benefits in terms of Habermas and the public sphere. And thus the Community side is important. But if we are to use such fora at a policy level then we want "serious" contributions and for these not to be dominated by a small minority. I guess it is possible to have both at the same time.

I've read quite a bit about MUDs but as a supposed political scientist I've never written about them. Though I am becomming more and more sociological so who knows! The Marc Smith book has a great chapter on this....

Re: Being in and of a community scott wright - 14:32 25/05/04

a colleague of mine here at UEA is undertaking an ESRC-funded research project into online shopping habits. As part of this she has an short online survey. It would be greatly appreciated if you could fill the questionaire in and pass the website details onto as many friends as possible!


Many thanks


Questionnaire Simon - 14:39 25/05/04
(I've made your link clickable, by the way).

I'm filling the the questionnaire now, and question 1 doesn't have the option I want to tick:

Q: How often do you buy online?

A: Infrequently, but it's whenever I need to.

... as is quite often the case with these things, I end up doubting the analysis done when the options don't fit the answers I want to give!



Re: Questionnaire scott wright - 15:07 25/05/04
haha, well I am not a big fan of surveys myself! I tend to prefer focus groups.

I will pass your comment and this link along to Joanna...

The survey is really just a mechanism to create an interested audience for a follow up, more in depth analysis....

Re: Questionnaire Simon - 15:13 25/05/04
I've completed and submitted it, and said I'm willing to take part in phase 2.

In completing the questionnaire, I discovered that my primary gripe about certain online shopping sites is about discovering that they either don't work at all, or break at the crucial step, just because I'm not using Windows/Internet Explorer.

Re: Questionnaire scott wright - 14:32 27/05/04
Simon, I am hoping that Joanna will post to this forum later today - she mentioned a simon using the email address shoppingforum.org - do you have a background in the field or did you just create this?

Email addresses Simon - 15:56 27/05/04
I'm able to set up new email addresses on the fly for my personal domain, and I invented "simon-shoppingforum.org@(my domain)" in this case.

I find it handy to be able to tell the source of any inbound email to me just by looking at the To: line - if everything came into my main personal account's address, I'd have to filter by subject line instead.

Very handy to be able to tell that the email address you used to get a car insurance quote, for instance, has been leaked by the company you gave it to.

I adopt a similar approach with traditional mail - Mr. J.E. Banton (one of our cats) has been a long time subscriber to MacUser magazine and I'm glad to say he's never received any junkmail, which means Dennis Publishing have honoured their committment not to sell his details on to third parties.


Re: Email addresses scott wright - 16:19 27/05/04
That is great! I love it. Alas, I dont have the capacity for such things and thus I have a junk mail account whose address I use when I fill anything out... It is amazing how much cr*p gets sent to it!

Re: Email addresses Simon - 15:11 28/05/04
You might have - if your address is, say,


try sending an email to:


If whoever's providing your email service is using a fairly standard flavour of mailserver software, then it should end up in the mailbox for scott@somewhere.domain.

Basically, the plus sign and everything between it and the @ is ignored when working out which mailbox to put the email into at your ISP's mailserver.

If it does get through (as opposed to bouncing 'user unknown') then the "To:" line of the email you get will have the scott+testing@somewhere.domain address in it, which you can then filter by.

NB: This all works fine until your mail provider changes to use software that doesn't operate in this way, at which point all the addresses with plus signs in them that you've invented over the years will bounce - so this approach isn't perfect. Useful in certain situations though.

Re: Questionnaire Joanna Robson - 16:39 09/06/04
Thanks for taking time to respond to questionnaire (and for volunteering for phase 2 - I'll be in touch shortly). I'm not particularly a fan of surveys, but I was hoping that this survey might just create some interest as well as some interesting data. I take the point about the responses seeming inappropriate - that's usually the point when I give up. I think 'infrequently' in this case covers it, but accept that you feel it is inadequate. I hope you find phase 2 more satisfying! (sorry for slow response - holiday time and registration process - I'm a newbie when it comes to discussion groups!)
Re: Questionnaire Simon - 17:26 11/06/04
Dont worry about tardily responding - we're all busy in one way or another, and the good thing about this kind of online forum is that discussions can be stretched out over time and still make sense (being 'threaded') when you come back and re-read them later.
Re: Being in and of a community scott wright - 13:48 30/09/04

Just came across... it appears that the deadline has passed. It might be worth making contact with them though - there is a launch event in October which I may go to...

Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) Simon - 14:31 25/05/04
I sympathise with the busy-ness, one reason why I like threaded discussions with the conversation all in one place, makes it easier to go back and refresh your memory. I know Susie's busy too, which is probably why she's not managed to get here yet.

Moderation is a difficult one to resolve, so much depends on the community, and the best run ones can fall foul of troublemakers at one time or another.

Silent but obvious "moderation" (removal of posts with no justification) is about the stupidest approach I've ever heard of - of course it leads to conspiracy theories - and Hansard were on a hiding to nothing trying to take over afterwards, though I admire them for trying.

You can't pre-moderate every comment, it's an hopeless task on a really busy forum.

You can moderate the starting points for new discussion, but once something's posted up you've got to let people say what they think about it.

A somewhat more effective strategy is to prevent further comments being made in a destructive thread ("No more replies"), which can help to restore order.

In mature systems, the moderator stopping by and posting "[cough] end of thread please" is usually sufficient unless the flamewar's completely out of hand, but only if the moderator is respected by the participants (which means they've previously shown themselves to be even-handed, reasonable, etc).

What Hansard should have done is to create a new area specifically to discuss the whole aspect of Government-Public internet communications, and had someone with authority engage in the debate and answer the points made by people complaining about previous problems.... but then we're back to the unwillingness of Authority to try to justify its decisions in the face of keen questioning.

Better still, they need a system where entire threads can be moved into another area, while preserving the discussion intact for further responses. Or some kind of flexible access control system. Or a clue.

The idea that Hansard offer a fee-based moderation course is amusing to me, in fact the whole idea of outsourcing the moderation of as forum is daft in the extreme - you absolutely must have someone in control who gives a damn about the subject matter under discussion, not just whether someone's managed to construct a message where the first letter of each line read downwards spells out an obscenity!

I remember AOL trying to ban dubious words - it just lead to more inventive attempts to get around the automatic censorship (and had a nice side effect that no-one with an address in Scunthorpe could register an account with them).

(Aside: Paging Dave Crowson - do you still moderate the "TVR Gassing" list? What's your style of moderation like these days? Are you still nuking people from orbit, and how's that alternative list that sprung up in competition doing?)

Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) scott wright - 15:35 25/05/04
I am interviewing the head of the e-democracy team in the E-envoy's office tomorrow - if anyone has any specific questions about this I will try and work them in though no guarantees!!!

Will let you know how it goes...

Simon, I am taking your censorship stats along - will be interesting to hear what he has to say!


Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) Susie Hughes - 16:35 25/05/04
Hi Scott
Sorry I've not popped in before now. I'll put up some suggestions later. However, thought you might be interested in a press notice the Cabinet Office has just put out (if you haven't already seen it).

CAB 026/04 25 May 2004

The Prime Minister Tony Blair, with the agreement of the Minister for
the Cabinet Office, today welcomed the appointment of Ian Watmore as
the new Head of e-Government.

Ian Watmore will be accountable to Douglas Alexander, Minister for
the Cabinet Office, and report to Sir Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet
Secretary. The e-Government Unit, which will be based in the Cabinet
Office, will work with departments to deliver efficiency savings
while improving the delivery of public services by joining up
electronic government services around the needs of customers. It
will also provide sponsorship of Information Assurance.

The Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Tony Blair, said:

'I am delighted that Ian Watmore is to take up this role. He will be
playing a pivotal role ensuring that IT supports the business
transformation of Government itself so that we can provide better,
more efficient, public services.'

Ian Watmore said:

'The Head of e-Government is one of the biggest and most challenging
IT positions in the UK today. Douglas Alexander and Sir Andrew
Turnbull have set a formidable challenge in not only driving up use
of Government services online but also driving change, reform and
efficiencies throughout the public sector by using IT. I'm looking
forward to starting in the position and supporting all the work that
Departments are delivering.'

Minister for the Cabinet Office Douglas Alexander said:

'Ian has the task of leading the work of the e-Government Unit, whose
remit we are also announcing today. The achievements the Government
has made so far have been notable. Already 71% of Government services
are available online. Indeed, only last month we launched Directgov
which has the potential to transform the way that citizens interact
electronically with Government. The change to e-Government Unit
represents a development from the original e-Envoy's task of "getting
the UK online", to ensuring that the Government capitalises on the
potential of ICT to both transform service delivery and achieve a
step change in operational efficiency across the public sector.'

Andrew Pinder the outgoing e-Envoy said:

'Over the last four years the Office of the e-Envoy has worked in
partnership with other Government departments, the private and
voluntary sectors in helping to make the UK one of the world's
foremost knowledge economies. A lot has been achieved, but there are
still huge opportunities for further progress, particularly in the
effective use of ICT by the public sector. I am delighted that Ian
has been asked to take on the job of leading this major strand of

The major part of the Office of the e-Envoy will start its transition
into the e-Government Unit from Wednesday 2 June in preparation for
Ian Watmore taking up the post in September. Specific
responsibilities of the e-Government Unit will be:

* strategy: developing policy and planning for ICT within Government
and providing an element of programme management for implementation,
to support the Government's objectives for public service delivery
and administrative efficiency.

* architecture: providing policy, design, standards, governance,
advice and guidance for ICT in Central Government; commissioning
Government-wide infrastructure and services; and addressing issues of
systems integration with other levels of government (e.g. EU,
Devolved and Local).

* innovation: providing high-level advice to Government bodies on
innovative opportunities arising from ICT to improve efficiency.

* IT Finance: in partnership with OGC, monitoring major IT projects
in Government and advising on major investment decisions.

* IT HR: Head of the IT Profession in Government and leading its
professional development.

* projects: undertaking ad hoc policy and strategy studies as
necessary to support Ministers, the Prime Minister's Office, Cabinet
Office or the Treasury.

* research: identifying and communicating key technology trends,
opportunities, threats and risks for Government.

* security: overseeing Government IT security policy, standards,
monitoring and assurance, and contingency planning for the critical
national infrastructure (the functions of the Central Sponsor for
Information Assurance, a responsibility of the current e-Envoy).

* supplier Management: in partnership with OGC, managing the
top-level relationship with strategic suppliers to Government and
conducting supplier analysis.


Notes to Editors

Ian Watmore is UK Managing Director of the global management
consultants and technology services company Accenture Having joined
Accenture in 1980, Ian became a Partner in 1990 and was elected UK
Managing Director in 2000.

He has worked in both the public and private sectors, mainly in the
UK and Ireland but with spells in South Africa, New Zealand, United
States and mainland Europe.

Ian is a past President of the Management Consultants Association,
Chairs the IT Industry Board of eSkills UK (the Sector Skills Council
for IT and Telecommunications) and represents Accenture on various
external bodies such as the Council for Industry and Higher Education
and Business in the Community.

In a personal capacity he is on the Board of the English Institute
for Sport, a Lottery funded institute focused on serving high
performance athletes in preparation for Olympic and other major
sporting events.

Users of the present e-envoy website should note that from 2 June the
Unit's URL will be www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/e-government. The
e-Government Unit's address and telephone numbers remain the same.

Susie Hughes

Points for the e-envoy office Simon - 16:45 25/05/04
(Somewhat 'stream-of-consciousness' I'm afraid, due to time pressure)

I'd like to know whether they understand the importance of having active participation by genuine 'important' people in any webforum discussions.

Alistair Darling (I think) actually popped up on the Number 10 forums once, *and* answered one of my questions about StakeHolder pensions, which fairly knocked me over with shock, but was an excellent example of what is needed if this kind of thing is going to be taken seriously by the public.

The opportunities are there for the 'Big Conversation' to actually take place *between* the people themselves, with the politicians (and aides) stepping in from time to time to deal with specific points raised.

Crucially, it's got to be more than a one-shot response to a single question or thread - at the very least they need to be prepared to respond to the response that their original reply is practically guaranteed to elicit.

If they choose only the better (ie non-vituperative, well considered) postings to engage with, then that will be a natural spur to the onlookers to moderate their own language and attitude in the hope of getting their own posts replied to.

Imagine a pub with an MP in it and a crowd surrounding them, possibly all talking at once. If one person makes a good point, then the MP should ignore any ongoing abuse from the sidelines and answer that person directly, ideally allowing the point->response reaction to develop into point->response->conversation.

Another thing worth mentioning would be the need to allow opposing authorities to engage. Recent Question Times have become more interesting than hitherto because Dimbleby has allowed the panel to debate at length with each other, on points raised by the audience. The presence of *one* non-party-political individual prepared to discuss the issue itself has led to some useful enlightenment.

Therefore, any e-democracy forum *must* allow members of the opposition parties to take part (which implies a way of telling that the user with, eg, the 'nickname' Menzies Campbell *is* really who they claim to be). It's not necessary (particularly) for the public to be identifiable, but the authority figures should be.

MPs will naturally claim to have so many demands on their time that they couldn't possibly engage continuously with the public in such an arena. The point is, they don't need to engage *constantly*, just regularly. And by regularly, I mean "when they discover something that deserves a response", not "once a month".

I wonder if the way to develop the right sort of e-democracy is for the opposition parties and all back-bench MPs to take the lead - after all, they have more time to gain the experience of interacting in this way than Government ministers. Once in government themselves, it might be that they'd have come to appreciate the benefits of the idea.

Naturally, we'd be more than happy to give them the benefit of our experience for a small consideration! ;-)

Re: Points for the e-envoy office scott wright - 14:20 27/05/04

I've not had chance to look at the interview, and obviously I am somewhat restricted in what I can say, but there were some points of interest.

It appears to me that there is a lack of focus or at least certaintly as to where exactly we are going with e-democracy (and from my perspective what exactly they do). This might be because of the changes to the unit (thanks for posting this, it came in very useful!)

They are emphasising the need to develop an idea of what the particular department wants to achieve through the use of technology and then devising a plan (and if applicable designing technology) to achieve the aim. The problem in the early days was that they tended to go "we can do this - let's do it" without much thought for the implications. This fits into my argument...

They are aware to some extent of all the issues you mention, Simon, but they cannot subscribe a standard method to solving them as each discussion board, consultation or whatever has a particular context and this needs to be taken into account. There is more I can say but it would be better in a private thread....

When senior people appear in forums, it is usually because they are asked to appear by the cabinet office.... this is also an interesting discussion about the extent to which ministers should be involved in discussions - who is the right owner - and this again is case-specific....

Sorry that is a bit half-hearted but I've got a lot on my mind today, and I am restricted as to what I can say for ethical reasons....

I agree totally with need to identify key figures - I think you can design into the presentation of a persons nickname font colour or some other recongnition to show that this is who we think it is (for gov. ministers on government-run discussion boards this would not be problematic).

I also agree with the opposition argument - it is something I only briefly mentioned in the Downing St. piece (it may have been cut, actually!) I think it is a big concern that the government gets direct and publicly-funded communication channels yet the opposition does not. They either need to be directly involved in the same forum (most useful but politically very sensitive) or by being given mirror forums....

I did ask them about their future plans and whether they are working on new designs and so on and he either did not really answer it or he said that they were not working on this directly (other groups were and they advised them....) I did mention your company and how there was a lot of work going into online communities which I thought they should be aware of... and it might be feasible to arrange a presentation of your work and what you can do for them, but I am not sure you would be interested in this... actually I am thinking of ways to drum up some business for you!

Has anyone looked into getting funding from the EU for research into online communities? They have all sorts of rules but it worth considering.... how much does it cost for one of your discussions roughly? (you might want to email that!)


ps. Can I attach a word document to a post?

Word attachments Simon - 15:37 27/05/04
Sure - I've now granted your account permission to do so in Public forums.

Now, when you preview a post, you'll see there's a new 'Attach' button at the bottom of the preview page.

Just click that, and select 'Word document' from the drop down list. It's important to select the right option from the drop down list of available filetypes. There's a filesize limit of 1MB, so let me know if you need that increasing.

Put in a short description of the file, hit the 'Browse' button, find the file on your machine and upload it.

Then hit the "Go back to display of content" link (which will return you to the preview screen) and publish in the usual way.

Re: Word attachments scott wright - 16:25 27/05/04
I am attaching a draft of a paper I've co-written with Ruth Wodak, a visiting Leverhulme Professor. It is quite *academic* and long so please bear with it as, if you can cut through to the meat of the piece, I think it is interesting. Put it this way, it does not follow my usual style of writing!

This is still a first draft, so any comments would appreciated.

Many thanks,


Word document (604 K)
Couple of comments Simon - 20:08 27/05/04
The problem is that although our analysis has shown that the discussions offered considerable potential for reducing the democratic deficit in terms of the nature of the discourse, they are not used in any way. Thus, while the discussions 'help fuel the debate' and bring citizens closer to each other, they do not bring 'the European Union closer to its citizens and reduce the perception of a democratic deficit'

On the *nose* - exactly! From the extracts quoted, what seemed to be missing from the debate was anyone able to state either what the EU's agreed policy was (authoritatively) on the subject of the ideas proposed by Fettes or to offer, from the perspective of someone intimately engaged at the political level, an idea of what the various currents of thought might be.

It appears that certain sections of the EU citizenry may be capable of drawing together to discuss politely, even in debates where such a potentially explosive statement as

German as European working language would be an additional victory from Hitler and therefore has to be refused.

is made.

You may want to reference Godwin's Law in relation to the mention of Hitler in the thread started by Fettes on the Europa website. Interestingly, this particular thread seems to violate the Law - which is encouraging, I think.

Fettes apologises for his translation software, which raises an interesting point about machine-translation.

In Vernor Vinge's novel "A Fire Upon the Deep", a galactic communications network relays messages from civilisation to civilisation, using machine translation of language along the way. Anticipating the problems with the automated translations, the extracts of the 'newsgroup messages' included in the book have additional 'headers' which try to convey the degradation in meaning that has occurred as a result. Here is an example:

Crypto: 0
As received by: Transceiver Relay03 at Relay
Language path: Firetongue -> Cloudmark -> Triskweline, SjK units [Firetongue and Cloudmark are High Beyond trade languages. Only core meaning is rendered by this translation.]
... etc

Later, this point is made more explicitly:

And some messages were patent nonsense. One thing about the Net; the multiple, automatic translations often disguised the fundamental alienness of participants. Behind the chatty, colloquial postings, there were faraway realms, so misted by distance and difference that communication was impossible - even though it might take a while to realize the fact. For instance:

Crypto: 0
As received by: OOB shipboard ad hoc
Language path: Arbwyth -> Trade 24 -> Cherguelen -> Triskweline, SjK units
From: Twirlip of the Mists
Key phrases: Hexapodia as the key insight
Text of message:
... is it true Humans have six legs? If these Humans have three pairs of legs, then I think there is an easy explanation for -

Hexapodia: Six legs? Three pairs of legs? Probably none of these translations was close to what the bewildered creature of Twirlip had in its mind. Ravna didn't read any more of that posting.

I guess the key evolutionary selection pressure for any truly global online community members is going to be an ability to communicate concepts in spite of the limitations of machine, and any natural, language translation capabilities.

A "language-independent" representation of communicable concepts would be a very handy tool to have (the alleged downsides of a "babelfish" notwithstanding).

Re: Couple of comments scott wright - 11:07 28/05/04
Simon, thank you for your comments! I was not aware of Godwin's Law - in fact I was not aware that there was such a huge and systematised dictionary of terms/phrases etc. We are already well over our word limit - but I think this is certainly something that I would be keen to include in the piece. We will be presenting this paper at the BAAL (brit. assoc. applied linguistics) conference in september and a revised version of the attached piece will go into a journal special issue so I will get it included in that.

I will have to get a hold of that book - I just had a look on amazon and it seems very interesting. All this is making me realise that there is so much that we should know about going on that we simply do not know about - that is the advantage of the net - it makes it much easier to learn about such things...

What you say about needing an offical to inform people of EU policy is interesting. I think that such structures are more suited to specific policy forums - where relevant documents are presented and people are asked to discuss these. That was (if it had worked properly) the advantage of the Downing St. discussions - an area to think out of the box and an area to be more directly policy-orientated.


Go to where the conversation is taking place... Simon - 11:39 28/05/04
I feel that EU officials/MEPs/researchers should be tasked with seeking out places where conversation about Europe are taking place online and actively engaging "on the participants' own turf" as it were.

This would:

a) Allow them to gain an appreciation for the varied types of community that exist

b) Come to a better idea of what is being discussed in the overall scheme of things

c) Discover what kinds of online forums, moderation styles etc work best for encouraging debate

I revert to an analogy I've used in the past - it's unlikely you'd take yourself and your friends off to a specific pub to talk about a topical issue, chances are you'd usually discuss it in your local with whoever happened to be there at the time.

If an EU official/MEP/researcher happened to show up in your local and engaged with any groups that were discussing Europe already (or just interjected with authoritative corrections to factual errors), then - provided they were prepared to properly engage - they'd likely achieve far more than simply waiting in their own pub for someone to talk to.

It's almost the same as being a missionary - The Catholic Church might still be waiting for South American members if they'd sat in Rome waiting for the Maya to come to Italy (not that I'm advocating EU officials decamp en masse to UseNet and burn all but 4 of the traditional books!)

Once they're actually in conversation with people interested enough to be discussing the subject in the first place, it's easy enough to say "We're hosting a policy debate online at http://..... about this in a week's time" - ideally, having garnered enough knowledge from interacting with the various groups of people who are experiencing the democratic deficit to work out what topic the forthcoming policy debate should actually be about.

The great benefit of the Net is that you can be in several pubs at once engaging in any number of conversations at once, and there are a growing number of software tools to make this process simpler than having to sit on dozens of websites hitting 'reload' on the forum index page every five minutes.

What are the chances of getting a paid job in the EU performing this kind of task for them, I wonder...

(Dave - I might have invented a new career for you! Forget that Oracle database stuff - get paid to show people how to participate in dozens of online communities effectively.)


Re: Couple of comments Hugo van der Sanden - 14:12 28/05/04
A "language-independent" representation of communicable concepts would be a very handy tool to have

Handy, maybe, but I believe intrinsically impossible - even mathematics is a language, with its own dialects to help obscure meaning.

Language is the medium of thought as well as of communication. To pick a language is to constrain the concepts you can consider and communicate. To pick no language is to throw out thought and communication altogether.

Note also that "language" is not just words; consider a simple image:

To a mathematician, this may be a simple Venn diagram representing a single non-universal set; to someone from Japan it might be a stylised representation of the flag, with overtones of nation, history and the Emperor. The observer cannot avoid imbuing the message with their own knowledge and their very self.

The best we can hope for, I believe, is to develop a language that is richly expressive yet easy to learn; part of my hopes for future software development is to move toward that goal by throwing off the linguistic shackles of a linear stream of words.


GIF image (0 K) image
Re: Couple of comments Simon - 15:15 28/05/04
...throwing off the linguistic shackles of a linear stream of words.


History of Computers scott wright - 14:09 24/06/04
Dear All

I've got a question/problem which I would like some help with. It relates to the history of computing, so I thought there might be someone on here who would have some answers!

I am interested in police services using an IBM punch card system to keep track circa 150,000 people between 1959-62 in France. This is something we came across in archive, which we have not heard much discussion about anywhere else.

The question I have is what kind of advantages would such a system have over manual file systems. Does anyone know about such punch card systems from this period, even if not used by the Secret Services, then any other groups - or police in other countries for example....

Many thanks for your help,


Re: History of Computers David Crowson - 15:35 24/06/04
Not quite the period you're looking for but the systems I was working on in the 1980's for the Admiralty still used punch cards (for the results of compliation of code on a VAX/VMS system that could then be ported to the transistor and valve computers the Navy were still using back then, which were resilient to EMP).

I also did my O level in computing via a golfball teletype machine and an ICL2904 mainframe. The results of which were sent back to us as a stack of punch cards.

The reason punch cards are faster than a manual system is that they allow cross-tabulation of results very quickly and without the man-power necessary in a manual system. They also allow you change the program code easily by substituting cards.

Sorry if this a bit vague, but I'm a bit rushed for time atm.....


Re: History of Computers Simon - 16:54 24/06/04
IBM made the Hollerith punch card system something of a business standard in the 50s and 60s - and I've dug up one reference to them being used by a police service.


and, from http://www.firethistime.org/fearusgovt.htm (quoting a BBC documentary)

In a savage irony, Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution, many of whom later moved to the Israeli 'homeland', are now firmly allied to the US - the same country that may have partially contributed to their terrible fate in the first place. The American IBM corporation was instrumental in providing a prototype 'punch card' system the Nazi party to collate information on the Jews. This early computer alllowed high speed information processing of the 'Final Solution'.

As to advantages, well, the ability to more quickly re-run a task repeatedly with different parameters is the obvious one.

...and the disadvantage, of course Simon - 17:05 24/06/04
... of any computer system is "GIGO" (garbage in, garbage out), as this very recent example shows.


Re: ...and the disadvantage, of course scott wright - 11:42 25/06/04

not funny if you are the one on the end of it though!

Reminds me of Enemy of the State!

There is a very good academic book called the electronic eye which is very interesting on the field of e-surveillance


Is that this one? Simon - 21:49 25/06/04

... looks interesting, thanks for the pointer.

Re: Is that this one? scott wright - 12:20 05/07/04
yes this is the book.... get it from the library; it is a bit out of date.... it comes from a sociological perspective, see also:




w. russell newmann, who I shared a panel with in Seattle, has a team undertaking research into censorship:


is his homepage.... I dont know if they've published anything yet, but it will be worth keeping an eye on...



Re: History of Computers scott wright - 11:51 25/06/04
Thanks for these comments...

the story of this is as I guess you have both heard, IBM are being sued for providing the machines which allowed the Nazis to make such an effective system for killing Jews....


well, a friend who is a specialist in Algeria/racism



discovered in the "secret service" archives (which he amazingly got access to) in France that they used the same machines to systematically track the movements of Algerians.... (worried about the FLN terrorists) the police would stop the Algerians at every opportunity and quiz them and this would all go onto a record sheet.... this was they built up a complex picture of their movements.... they had over 150,000 algerians on file....

All very interesting....

And I now officially hate Swiss referees; I hope that does not make me a racist!


Hmmm Simon - 21:58 25/06/04
Bit of a non-sequitor here, but does your friend in France happen to know if there any of Picasso's fingerprints in that archive?
Re: Hmmm scott wright - 11:52 05/07/04
Hi Simon, I've been waiting for him to get back so I can get his comments, but I've not seem him (he retires this year...)

However, I doubt he came across anything like that, though you never know! I'll ask him when I next see him...


Moderating Censorship scott wright - 15:52 22/03/05
Here it is.
Word document (163 K) Scott's paper on moderatorial censorship
Re: Moderating Censorship Simon - 17:07 22/03/05
Fascinating so far - just had to note that this is my favorite official posting ever - and so appropriate for this Government!

‘The Magna Carta was deleted in error, I know that it has caused a lot of irritation and please accept my apologies for the mistake.'


Re: Moderating Censorship scott wright - 21:23 22/03/05
I was a bit worried you'd be upset. I really hope you like it as I know you've invested a lot yourself. I've been so busy I've not had as much time as I would have liked to work on it (esp the zip file you created). The more I've looked at it though, the happier I got. What do you think to my concluding suggestion?
Re: Moderating Censorship Simon - 09:33 23/03/05
I found it a very interesting paper and I caught myself nodding in agreement at the points that were made throughout.

I think separating the roles of facilitator and moderator in the interactive model would have addressed many of the concerns of the No.10 forum participants. I also think many of the causes for those concerns wouldn't have arisen in the first place with such an approach.

One further thing does occur to me - if the originals of any censored messages were preserved in the system for review by anyone who cared to look, then people would be able to come to their own view as to the balance and effectiveness of the moderators. That's essentially what you've actually done by analysing the quiscustodiet cache.

Moderators could tag messages that they removed from general view ('obscene', 'contravenes rule 6', 'off topic', 'spam', etc), possibly with a brief note attached where clarification was required.

Of course, then you get into the whole meta-moderation game.

Slashdot has the concept of moderation and meta-moderation carried out by the community itself, and has a sufficiently large community to mitigate against the Daily Me effect. It also embodies the concept of tagging messages in a positive way ('interesting', 'funny', 'insightful', etc). eg For me, reading Slashdot at 0 threshold is time consuming and annoying, so I usually read at threshold 4 - which cuts out the vast majority of the crap.

I really look forward to learning what the reaction to your paper is!

Re: Moderating Censorship scott wright - 11:28 23/03/05
Hi Simon,

glad you like it. I agree with your comments about the separate cache, and I will add this to the conclusion. I think the Edwards article makes reference to this issue of preserving them. Of course, the FOI has implications for this.

BTW, I hope you dont mind if I use your earlier comments about the role of the designer in another paper for the same conference....

Equally, I agree that peer reviewing of messages is a great idea - but not sure I would want this on a government-run forum as it could raise its own set of issues - more appropriate for community style sites.


Re: Moderating Censorship Simon - 12:02 23/03/05
Happy for you to use my comments.
Re: Points for the e-envoy office Simon - 15:41 27/05/04
but I am not sure you would be interested in this... actually I am thinking of ways to drum up some business for you!

Always keen to talk to people about the benefits (and pitfalls) of hosting an online community, and if anything should turn into paid work then we have a 'finders fee' commission structure to reward those who give us the initial contact.

Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) Susie Hughes - 09:05 26/05/04
Hi Scott
Good luck with the interview. Some general thoughts in no particular order of priority.

1.It seems to me that the Gov is tackling this from the bottom up rather than the top down. They are keen that no-one should be 'disenfranchised' because of lack of computers. Hence the various initiatives like computers in libraries and the other outlets. But putting a PC in a battered wives refuge doesn't empower people any more than giving them a pen and paper if 1) they are disenfranchised anyway because of educational, social or just not being able to get into 'the system'. And 2) there is no visible result from being about to communicate directly.

2. Spin over substance. There are numerous examples, No. 10 website being one online initiative; the 'Big Conversation' being an off-line initiative, which have been seen as a 'marketing' exercise to make it look as if the Gov is listening but in reality there is little confidence in the democratic process. Difficult to think how you can have a democratic process with a Gov. with this scale of majority.

3. Buying-in to it. With a few exceptions, MPs are not a technically literate bunch. They are also busy people who, in the real world, don't want to make it easier for them to be at the beck and call of their constituents. Apart from their fortnightly surgeries, most contact comes via letters from constituents to their secretaries. On a national issue, MP's secretary receives letter; sends acknowledgement to constituent saying MP will riase it; forwards letter to the relevant Minister; Minister passes letter to relevant Civil Servant who drafts standard reply to such queries; Minister returns it to MP; MP forwards it to constituent.

4. The technology is available for every MP to talk to their constituents on local or subject matters. Or to consult widely on subject issues. But that MP has very little power or influence or desire to be 'instructed' by constituents when he/she has got to follow the party line in most cases.

5. The consultation process for legislation is well-established and dominated by the 'big players' eg corporates and trade associations. Also worth considering that trade associations, the very organisations which *should* be promoting consultation have a vested interest in maintaining their position, eg if members of trade associations can make their views known directly to the powers-that-be, what role does a trade association have.

6. Following on from that, trade associations could do more to facilitate direct contact. On Shout99, we don't 'represent' the views of members of the network, we have the ability for them to make their own views known. eg if a Select Committee is examining something relevant, I'll post a story and collate the replies/comments and submit that.

7. Trust. For people to use an online system, they need to have faith in its (and the Government's) transparency and honesty. They need to see results.

8. Big players. To date, the Government's IT is dominated by the same big names and there has been a catalogue of IT disasters which has eaten away at the confidence of the end-users.

9. Opportunity. There is an opportunity if the Gov was genuinely motivated to 'e-enfranchise' the population and engage in real dialogue. But it's is hard to see the results coming through.

Susie Hughes

Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) scott wright - 14:40 27/05/04

I agree with pretty much everything you say. It is all quite depressing. As Brian Winston shows, revolutionary technologies have, and will be, absorbed by the system to effectively neuter them of their revolutionary potential. There are things that can be done, but even after the interview, I am not quite sure what is being done. I would say that one big area is working with organisations like the BBC to push this forward. I am still confused (and I think they are too) as to exactly what e-democracy is and what they want to get out of it. In fact, they see it as open-ended and almost undefinable and that this is a positive because they do not want to limit it. WHile this is noble, it creates many difficulties when it comes to laying foundations because we dont know whether we are building on sand or stone - and we also do not know what the weather conditions are like - any construction can be "blown down" very easily.


Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) David Crowson - 16:45 26/05/04
I'm just a member of TVR gassing, but I do moderate the Trumph Tiger list on yahoo (1500+ members)

My style of moderation, hmmm, some would say excellent, other would say 'list nazi', but only those who don't read the small amount of posting rules we send them upon joining and that are laid out in the FAQ.

I can only judge my succes as a moderator by looking at other offshoot groups that were set by those who didn't like our rules. After several years those groups dwindle(300 or less members) whereas our slightly more controlled group flourishes. up from 600 when I took over to 1500+ and growing.

PS Just had a phone call from an agency who supply BT with poeple, and was told I fit the profile opf the the job they have in mind, but if they can get someone in from India they will do so as they make more money. Furious doesn't even begin to describe how I feel. Surely this is illegal.


Re: Moderation (and paging Mr Crowson) David Crowson - 16:48 26/05/04
additonal: they make more money as the Indian guys charge less then us locals, so their margin is larger.


Globalisation... Simon - 16:01 27/05/04
... it's a fact of life, and when the people doing the hiring are only concentrating on the immediate costs then they tend to overlook the potential downsides of having their work carried out thousands of miles away.

For some reason, no-one seems to give a toss about the implications of offshoring a load of potentially personal information to countries outside the jurisdiction of the DPA.

Heck, if there's organised identity theft going on inside the Post Office I hate to think what might be going on in various banks' overseas call centres.

Re: Globalisation... David Crowson - 16:27 27/05/04
but this isn't offshoring, it's inshoring, physically shipping people into the country to do the work that someone who already lives here can do. Which is much more scary.


Erk! Simon - 16:46 27/05/04
I hadn't realised that - I believe that may be dodgy under the Work Permit arrangements, but you'd have to check.

I guess it depends whether the inbound worker was in fact employed by a UK company who "just happened to have" had an office somewhere in a far off foreign land, so they could claim it was in intra-company transfer.

Re: Erk! David Crowson - 16:57 27/05/04
that's what had me gobsmacked initially, this consultancy supply BT, and made it sound like this was their standard practise.


Re: Erk! David Crowson - 17:00 27/05/04

This is them.

Disquiet about this in the past Simon - 18:45 27/05/04

BT sub-contracts work to Mahindra, who can then bring its Indian employees to the UK on Intra Company Transfers, BT sees all round benefits to this arrangement, including for BT's British workers, Mahindra's Indian employees, and BT's customers and shareholders.


Re: Hi scott wright - 16:06 16/08/04
Hi Simon, I came across this paper, which I think is interesting, on deliberately designing a deliberative discussion space:


Maybe you could work with them? Send them an email... might be an interesting collaboration.



Re: Hi Simon - 10:16 17/08/04
Wow - they've gone into that in some detail.

Thanks for the pointer.

Re: Hi scott wright - 00:03 21/09/04
Hi All!

Long time since I've been here! Simon, given your love for stars etc, you will be happy to know that I got to visit Space Centre Houston at the end of August! What an amazing place - I just loved historic mission control! Well worth a visit - well if you happen to be in the area - not wotth the flight just for that! One piece of advice - do not fly Air France - as they were awful. Never again.

I am still grinding away here in Norwich. Had to move house and office, so all rather stressful. Alas, students are now back so the peace and quite is broken as well. Actually, in some ways it is nice, as it is a ghost town over the summer.

How is everything with you?


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Houston Simon - 09:23 21/09/04
Excellent pics - I've been to Canaveral several times, but never to Houston. The Saturn V they have at the Cape is probably the most impressive piece of kit I've ever laid eyes on.

Things are busy here, Hugo's in the midst of a major project for one of our clients and I'm in the early stages of talks with a number of other organisations about the possibility of them using Novacaster for their new websites.

There's also renewed activity with the politicians, and a chance of an increase in momentum with the All Party Parliamentary Small Business Group towards a more dynamic discussion area on their site (which we host).

journal access scott wright - 12:09 12/10/04
Hi All, I thought I would let you know that Sage (www.sagepub.com) is offering free full text access to all its online journals until the end of the month. I know there are literally tonnes on online communities and I am sure there are lots on comuter science. Well worth a look.


Re: journal access Simon - 14:28 12/10/04
Ta for that - I've got a load of reading to do, as a search for 'online community' returns 3022 results!