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Web Conferencing Systems Are Not Providing Virtual Communities with Proactivity:

Some Methodology Is Required!



The article was written to answer the call for papers launched by the Internet Society for the INET'99 event. The abstract was accepted, the paper rejected. Nevertheless, we wanted to like to make it available on the Web. If you are interested in publishing it, please write us (<pimienta@funredes.org> and <catherine@funredes.org>, we will forward to the other ones).


Author Listing

Daniel Pimienta (<pimienta@funredes.org>)
FUNREDES (Network and Development Foundation)
Dominican Republic

Catherine Dhaussy (<catherine@funredes.org>)
FUNREDES
Dominican Republic

Franck Fourmental (<franck@mail.com>)
FPH (Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Humanité)
France

Ricardo Gómez (<rgomez@internet.idrc.ca>)
IDRC (International Development Research Center)
Canada

Senaida Jansen (<sjansen@funredes.org>)
FUNREDES
Dominican Republic

Marina Urquidi (<marina.urquidi@wanadoo.fr>)
FPH (Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Humanité)
France




Table of Contents



Abstract

Performing virtual communities has been a natural asset of the first age of the networks and a building stone of their culture. The recent changes towards mass access and business have coe together with a lost of netiquette and a dilution of Internet culture; this have changed the conditions and called for new approaches beyond list servers and Usenet newsgroup. The last years experiments with elegantly designed web conferencing has opened new paths but most of them come short in the communication aspects: the proactivity of community members is what makes the whole difference. The nice web interface are too time-consuming for very active users who know by experience that computer accessed information, even if nicely organized, cannot replace person to person communication.

The paper claims for a different approach focusing more methodology than software tools. The two main objective of the methodology is to decrease the level of the barriers (language, information overload, time, know-how, access) and increase the incentive for proactivity.

Four main methodological areas are studied and experiences are underway within the frame of a project (funded by IDRC and FPH and coordinated by FUNREDES) which aims at empowering the community of the NGO's and individuals dealing with the social impact of the Internet in Latin America & the Caribbean:

  1. Making more efficient the use of listserv based virtual community.
  2. Allowing remote participant to be involved by email in a physical meeting.
  3. Allowing people without Internet access to participate in a virtual community.
  4. Structuring physical and virtual meeting to facilitate the democratic process of decision.

The proposed methodology makes a coordinated use of a variety of skills such as: moderation/facilitation, human-assisted machine translation, information professionals for abstracts, training. This in turn allows a better focus of the community themes and the best respect of people times, cultures and languages.

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Introduction

The paper claims for a different approach to the handling of virtual communities focusing more methodology than software tools. The main objectives of the methodology set are to decrease the level of the barriers (language, information overload, time, know-how, access to technology, access to face to face meetings), and to increase the incentive for proactivity while allowing a democratic participation of the members.

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Diagnostic

The mass marketing of the Internet leads to a growing proportion of new subscribers in existing e.conf. The majority of newcomers have not passed through the appropriate apprenticeship of the social rules which implicitly or explicitly apply to e.conf communication. This, in turn, generates a statistical increase of posting which are inappropriate for the e.conf (unsubscribing, discussion of point addressed by the FAQ , out of focus opinions or questions, junk mail). Also, the trend is notable (and explainable for the same reasons) of the increase of the average posting length. Many attempts to reduce the occurrence of these symptoms by moderation are sometimes rejected because of a common and erroneous confusion between moderation and censorship. The global increase of the number of e.conf induces a greater number of e.conf. with similar objectives and hence increases the chance for the user to receive several times the same announcement posted in various sites. The new role of the Internet for business, combined with the previous one, provokes a new trend for massive posting of messages with advertisement purposes, too often without the knowledge of what is allowed and what is not, in terms of posting in e.conf.

All that factors together produce a less and less acceptable amount of wasted time for subscribers only to decide what is relevant and should be read and what is not and should be deleted. The dramatic reduction of the density of the useful information provokes a weakening of the attention for the important messages which are mixed within the incoming flow and get diluted with the too high proportion of irrelevant messages, hence threatens the efficiency of what remains the main tool of the Internet for professional exchanges. More and more, experts leave thematic conferences being invaded by large public which in turn contributes to the loose of the average quality of information exchanged.

Other contexts exist and should be taken care of, calling for new approaches:

All these situations and contexts share a requirement for establishing democratic rights and obligation for the member of the communities to participate in a fair and equitable fashion to their debates.

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Elements of the Methodology Package

A set of methodology has been designed or field tested to address the situation described in the diagnostic chapter. On the one hand, FUNREDES (http://funredes.org/english), an NGO dealing with the dissemination of the Internet in the South, has designed a methodology called EMEC for "Efficient Multilingual Electronic Conference" which is applied on the top of moderated distribution lists and includes a component of language translation. On the other hand, the Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Humanité (FPH - http://sente.epfl.ch/fph/), a Swiss NGO pushing a world wide community called the Alliance for a responsible and united world (http://echo.org) has experimented for a while with "computer translation assisted by human" and made a first experiment of "Distance Participation" (via listserv to a face to face meeting), taking the opportunity of the All iance meeting in Bertioga, Brazil, at the end of 1998. Funredes, with the support of the IDRC (http://www.idrc.ca), a Canadian Research and Cooperation Agency, and the FPH, is starting the experimentation of a mix bag of methodological elements, within a common framework of focus on democratic participation, in a project named MISTICA, for the Spanish acronym of "Methodology and Social Impact of ICT in America" (see http://funredes.org/mistica).

The methodologies which are dealt with are presented independently of any possible Web implementation. The design of a web based system capable of automating the methodology could be considered at one point of time in the undergoing research, but is right now beyond the scope of this paper.

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FPH Distance Participation for the Alliance

The scheme set up by FPH has allowed remote persons gathered in a limited number of physical sites (in five different cities all over the world) to participate in the face to face conference being held in a single place. The operation scheme that allows people to participate in a conference at a distance has been designed as follows:

Infrastructure

Each parallel discussion hall of the physical conference has a terminal and a printer connected to a local network towards a central facility where stands a computer server with a connection to the Internet and a fax. Each city offering distance participation has a meting room with a terminal connected to the Internet, a printer and a fax.

Logistics

Each discussion hall has a person responsible for creating, in a live and online way, a synthesis of what is being discussed. In the same hall, there is another person, the local facilitator, who is responsible for introducing to the attendees the comments and questions originated in distant places. The central facility has personnel for coordination and a person responsible for handling and controling the translations made by software. In the remote meeting rooms, there is a person, the remote facilitator, responsible for the channeling of the comments of the participants. All documents related to the conference are timely organized in free access via the World Wide Web.

Dynamics

During the conference, the person reporting the synthesis issues reports at frequents intervals. These are processed by translators and resent immediately to remote discussion halls via electronic mail (or fax if no installations for remote electronic mail exist at the remote location). Remote participants have local discussions based on the synthesis and express their questions and comments that are also summarized and issued by the facilitator. Upon reception the remote reactions are provided to the local facilitator, who decides and determines the appropriate moment to proceed to feedback the face to face discussion with the distance participation. All exchanges of information and the synthesis are discussed and included in the minutes of the meeting.

Limitations

Experimenting with this valuable methodology allowed the discovery of certain weaknesses or limitations that could be improved during the next experiment:

The first conclusions of the experiment are that unless the entire procedure is strategically integrated to the design of the conference, the risk of lack of coordination are high; also, feedback must not address details of the debates in order to be useful; it should focus high level points of the agenda.

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Funredes Adaptation of Distance Participation for Mistica

Based on these observations and experimenting in a different context, with less dispersion of community members, Funredes has designed a second trial to be executed in April 1999, within the frame of the Mistica project. Observations and results are not part of this paper but will be identified by the time of the INET'99 conference. Here, the design of the face to face meeting has strategically incorporated the distance participation and some simplifications of the method have been adopted in order to concentrate in distance participation and avoid side effects from other requirements:

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EMEC

Unlike the other elements of the package, EMEC is a conceptual design and has not yet been experimented. The laboratory for EMEC will be the third step of the Mistica project starting in June 1999. EMEC deals with the creation of a moderated electronic conference system based on list servers with added value elements to remove existing inconveniences that limit participation:

The EMEC methodology is the organized implementation of a set of services conceived to ease the communication flow of the e.conf, to reduce the amount of unsolicited received information while offering easy retrieval of the original contribution. The central elements of the methodology are the creation of contribution headers with a documentation management orientation and the organized archiving and retrieval of the contributions. An EMEC management team with a structure answering efficiency is the process part of the methodology.

Methodological Devices

Two types of devices are considered:

Moderation and systematic animation, delivery through the net of structured summaries compatible with documentation standards associated with web filing for voluntary and easy retrieval are the main ingredients from the focus point of view. Translation of messages, support for users and training to reinforce network culture are the basis of the facilitating component.

Requirements

Human resources

Services

The different services involved in the methodology are organized in a matrix format, following main functional blocks and main focus. The ordered combination of all these services constitutes the EMEC methodology.

TECHNICALUSERCONTENT
MEDIA MANAGEMENTDefinition
Error mgt.
Subscribe/UnsubPromotion
FACILITATIONTranslation by soft.Subscribers profiles
Support
Training
E-conf. rules Moderation
Animation
Contribution header
Translation
FAQs
INFORMATION MGTArchiving
Associated Web design
Hypermail definition
Assoc. Web accessProceedings
Surveys
Statistical analysis

Each functional unit is defined hereafter, in alphabetical order, some of them are optional (O):

Animation (O): if required, the moderator gives life to the e.conf by posting relevant information obtained by a research activity on the e.conf. field.

Archiving: the past contributions are kept in an archive format based on hypermail. The methodology considers 5 categories for archiving:

Associated Web access: the user access to the Web associated to each e.conf will be specially prepared to ease the use. The access will allow queries by keywords.

Associated web design: each e.conf. will have an associated website offering an easy access to all the relevant information (rules, FAQ...) as well as an organized access about the e.conf different hypermail archives.

Contribution header: see moderation

E-conf. rules: this is a key piece of the methodology. For each e.conf. a set of precise rules will be defined stating the scope, focus, acceptable policy and all the parameters relevant to the conference and its subscribers. This information will be used by the moderation process to dispatch the contribution in the appropriate category. A special effort will be made to make this part a friendly accessible information for the subscribers.

Error management: the screening of transitory bounded mails and the cleaning of addresses with permanent errors.

FAQ: Frequently asked questions about the EMEC system (generic) and about each specific conference are pre-organized for easy retrieval and queries.

Hypermail definition: the set up of the hypermail archives.

Media management technical definition: The decision for the e.conf software management. The set up of each e.conf with its parameters relative to the software.

Moderation: this is the central element of the methodology. The process is the following:

Proceedings (O): if required, a periodic proceeding of the most relevant contribution is prepared and included in the associated web site.

Promotion (O): If required the service of announcement and promotion will be organized.

Statistical analysis (O): if required, some type of analysis can be performed on the contribution content based on the frequency of usage of words or set of words.

Subscribers profile (O): if required, each subscriber is invited to fill a profile form and the forms are organized for easy access in the associated web.

Support: the facility of user support will be offered to assist the subscribers in their decision-making.

Surveys (O): if required, some type of survey is conducted about the e.conf. parameters (subscriber, frequency and length of posting, etc.)

Susbscribe-unsubscribe: the process of subscribing new users and unsubscribing will be assisted so to decrease the inconvenience usually linked to that device, both for the concerned user and the subscribers disturbed by inappropriate administrative messages. A special effort will be made to make this process as friendly as possible for the subscribers.

Training: on line training in matters relative to netiquette and the efficient use of the Internet resources will be a permanent offered activity.

Translation: see moderation

Translation by software: the selection and use of a software to help translation.

EMEC Management

The management of the methodology requires a team composed ideally of 5 specific skills:

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Conclusion

The experiments conducted to design appropriate methodology for virtual communities started as a will to create an environment of fluid and efficient performance for virtual communities, which protects the members from information overload, and, through the panoply of methodological devices, helps develop the proactivity within the community. What is at stake in fact goes much beyond good management: it has to do with the building blocks of the participative democracy that the Internet should contribute to strengthen.

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