When the Internet expanded to the broad public in the mid-nineties, many predicted that it would give everyone the ability to express their opinion, knowledge and interest to the world.  While this was possible for some users, running a website and keeping it updated requires hard work and technological knowledge (Quiggin, 2006).

Organizations able to hire IT staff, marketing managers, and professional designers were able to capitalize on the Internet and help usher in the Information Age.  For the most part, though, the amateur user wanting to interact globally was pushed aside.

In the last couple of years, however, technology has advanced to the stage that websites can be made and updated instantly, with little technological know-how required. Easy interfaces and everywhere accessibility has given the power of the world-wide-web to the layman.  Any user with the basic knowledge of how to write an email has access to millions of potential readers and viewers. 

Additionally, websites dedicated to social networking, such as Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook have gained in popularity worldwide, connecting millions of users daily.  Hundreds of social networking sites (SNSs) exist that support a wide range of interests and practices, and are increasingly becoming integrated into user’s daily lives as communication tools (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). 

In his book, The Great Turning, David Korten (2006) observes that the increasingly interactive Internet is “creating the possibility of a democratic media network in which every voice has its potential outlet” (p. 83).  Lappe (2007) labels the movement “a communications-knowledge revolution” that defies the top-down control model of hierarchical organizations (p. 64).

This “revolution” however, has been slow in coming to the Mt. Tabor Planning Group, and though there are a few members who are proponents of the technology, attempts at expanding our communication via the Internet has been slow.  The group’s use of technology has been limited to email and the PPR website.

Email

There is no mistaking how valuable email has become in quickly communicating to a large audience, but email also has baggage that the Mt. Tabor Planning Group recognized immediately, and went so far as to set protocols to limit “reply-all” emails and group discussion over email.  Individual email discussions were encouraged, but anything that needed to be shared with the group was to take place at the in-person meetings. 

Inbox clutter can often serve as a detriment in communicating over email.  This was often the case for me during the mediation process, where if I wasn’t online in the first 12 to 24 hours when a group email came through seeking certain information or input, the original email was buried in a list of responses that were confusing and spun off into countless side conversations.  The email flurry would produce dozens of additional emails, and I found it easier to not respond rather than wade through the chaos.

Individual emails between members brought their own frustration because they inevitably left people out of the conversation that should have been invited to the share their thoughts.  Mt. Tabor neighbors often used email among the neighborhood contingent to discuss strategy and air discontent, of which I was often privy to, but this led to only a handful of people being fully educated on an issue or perspective.  At the group meetings, the dynamic that played out was that this group was secretive and kept others out of the loop, though this was far from the case.  The ban on mass email effectively shut out all members out of these discussions.  The only solution was to manage several email “side conversations” with smaller groups simultaneously, distributing information back and forth to the appropriate people, but for reasons such as email clutter, this solution was unrealistic. 

Additionally, group emails can have consequences that aren’t foreseen, even by the savviest Internet users.  In early April, three meetings into the planning process, I had a request for the group that couldn’t be shared at the group meetings due to lack of time.  I’d had several opportunities to share with the group my role as a researcher in this planning process, but time to explain the details of my project was limited to a few brief announcements.  One of the details I wanted to share with the group was an invitation to each of them asking for a definition of their relationship with Mt. Tabor specifically, and public parks in general, in a creative way to be included in my project on how public space is important to them.  

To further explain my idea, I made the decision to send a group email asking for creative submissions of images, artwork, poetry, songs, stories, dreams, visions, etc. from group members.  I sent it knowing that group emails were frowned upon, but looking at the protocols, there was leeway for group emails if they were necessary, which I felt this was. 

One unintended consequences came up almost immediately.  I had hit “reply-all” to a group email from the support team – members who had authority to send out weekly group emails – without inspecting the distribution list.  My personal invitation not only went out to planning group members, but also to Commissioner Saltzman’s Chief of Staff, the executive board of Courtyard Plaza (a retirement home and neighbor of the Mt. Tabor Yard), members of Warner Pacific, and several others who I’d had no contact with.

Other unintended consequences came up a week later in our group meeting.  Though I took comfort that the group email protocol stated “unless necessary,” members made a point to express, again, that group emails were frowned upon.  Additionally, one member of the group, a dear friend of mine, was livid with me because my email took her an hour and half to open.  Apparently she has dial up Internet access, and attached with my email was a PDF file that was rather large (Figure 8.1).  As well intended as my invitation was, I didn’t distribute it correctly, and I believe this factored into receiving limited submissions from members.

The planning group isn’t unique in their disenchantment with email.  We can all relate to the intense amount of email calling for our attention, whether it’s from our colleagues in the workplace or school, advice needed from friends and family, invitations to social events, and, of course, spam – both solicited and unsolicited.  Email is adept at giving us access to multiple conversations and projects at one time, but this access can be a double-edged sword.

In a case study involving MMW Group, a public relations firm in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Jones (2008) describes how the company found email increasingly inefficient to communicate both internally and externally with clients as different versions of documents sat in people’s inboxes.

Email has revolutionized business and society by making everyone with an inbox immediately accessible.  Unfortunately, people are “immediately accessible” at different times. Replies trickle back slowly and for a variety of legitimate reasons.  Whether those receiving the email have countless other emails to reply to, have so many that yours got pushed to “Page 2”, never to be seen again, or if they even received it in the first place, the tool has its limits in keeping everyone on the same page.  Having designated point people in charge of distributing information through group emails was a feasible solution, but a solution that limited conversation.

World-Wide-Web

The planning group’s support team kept a website up that detailed the progress and accomplishments of the group.  Located on the City of Portland’s website, http://www.portlandonline.com, under Parks and Recreation in the “Agencies Menu” and accessible by clicking on the “Projects” tab, the site is extensive.  Aside from updates, PPR uses the site to post announcements, such as the community gatherings, and links users to important documents and relevant websites.

One drawback of the planning group’s site is that it is buried deep in the City of Portland’s website, drawing little attention from those not close to the project.  The second drawback is that only PPR has access to posting information.  There are, however, links to the group’s Wiki, which can be updated by group members.

Wikis

When the committees were formed, the project manager offered each group the opportunity to participate online through a collaborative website called a Wiki.  He made it known that he didn’t have any experience with the technology and that there weren’t any established parameters from the City on how to proceed, so we would essentially be “guinea pigs” to test how this approach worked (Makler, personal communication, March 18, 2008).

A Wiki is a collection of web pages that allows anyone who accesses it to post and modify content using a simple interface designed for any user (Wikipedia, 2008).  Users gain access by logging in with a username and password, typically given to anyone worldwide who registers for the page.  In the case of the Mt. Tabor Planning Group Wiki, however, access to contribute and edit was given only to planning group members who requested it and were approved by the project manager.  All other users could view content, but couldn’t contribute.

The Wiki site initially challenged users to answer four questions: what do the architects need to know before starting, what issues are present outside of the structural design, do outside experts need to be brought in to consult the process, and what are the important products that need to be delivered?  The same questions were posted under each committee header, so each group had the same baseline to start from, but individual groups were encouraged to take the conversation in the direction they felt was best.

Four out of the five committees initially grasped the idea of the collaborative website and nearly one third of the planning group members were successful at posting their assessment.  Half of the members from the Sustainability Committee, the committee I am most heavily involved with, expanded on the initial framework and broadened the discussion to delve deeper into issues, such as comparing the green building standards of LEED certification with the Living Building Challenge, a new green building certification system that goes beyond setting minimum standards.

For me, the opportunity to tie relevant information from my academic work to the discussions taking place in the planning group during my “free time” was a breakthrough. I would bring my experience and understanding of sustainability to each meeting to share with the group, but the opportunity to provide insight that was beyond a few sentences, or a few buzzwords, was limited because of the short amount of time available and the various opinions that needed to be shared.  The Wiki allowed for relevant expansion without taking time away from others and without bogging down email systems with lengthy posts and reply-alls.

A website capable of instantaneous, two-way communication seemed an ideal solution to keep information transparent and free-flowing outside of the meetings, yet except for the initial postings by a third of the group, collaboration on the Wiki fizzled. Contributions by the majority of the group stopped all together after the first two weeks of activity for a couple of reasons.  First, the site – or more specifically the web address for the site – experienced technical difficulties that discouraged users from visiting. Second, except for the initial invitation from the project manager to participate online, leadership and direction on the technology was nonexistent, so comprehending this relatively new medium was left to the user.  Observing that the group, as a whole, is technology challenged, this was a major misstep, but one that can, and should be righted.

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