Winona, Minn. — Terri Hyle first joined Winona Online Democracy a year ago. She says initially she was a lurker, scanning dozens of e-mails from others who live in her small community on the banks of the Mississippi River. One day Hyle says she got up the nerve to post her own note to the forum. The mother of four has been a regular contributor ever since.
"Right now there's a discussion going on about health care insurance. It was spurred because the teachers have tentatively settled their contract," explains Hyle.
Hyle sits in front of a lap top computer in her upstairs bedroom. The family's Old English Sheep Dog sleeps at her feet. But this quiet restful scene is actually one half of a hot political dialogue. Hyle disagrees with a recently posted message on health insurance.
"OK, so I'll just start saying my understanding of the Robinson-Patman Act is that it was specifically designed to exclude... both legal and medical services," says Hyle, frowning slightly as she begins to type out a response.
Winona Online Democracy is considered one of the most successful online community forums in the country. Its 250 members represent a range of opinions and political beliefs. Elected officials, law enforcement, and school administrators are also frequent posters. Winona is home to fewer than 30,000 people. So the forum is considered to have a strong following given the city's size. Discussions have ranged from health care, to WalMart, to how to replace a school roof.
Anyone can join the debate provided they have access to a computer. However critics point out that most members are like Hyle, long-time voters with a history of political involvement. While Winona Online Democracy offers ongoing and lively discussion, it's struggled to attract new voices.
That troubles Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. He researches how Americans communicate about civic issues.
Jacobs sits in the bar at the Lexington, a well-known political watering hole in St. Paul, where people have hashed out issues of community importance here for decades. Jacobs says there was hope the Internet could help people reengage in the political process. But he says so far that hasn't happened.
"So what it looks like is the Internet is becoming another mechanism where we amplify the voice of one part of the electorate at the expense of another," says Jacobs. "What does this mean? This means that there is already a bias in the voice in our political system."
Jacobs says research shows a correlation between education and Internet use. Just as education seems to increase a person's Internet use, it also increases the likelihood of a higher salary, an inclination to vote, and to contact elected officials.
Jacobs says instead of evening things out, the Internet has given a powerful segment of society one more tool for communication.
"The Internet has not proven itself to be this new populist vehicle for bringing in truckloads of alienated disadvantaged, disenchanted voters who are outside the universe of our politics," he explains. "So these new forms of the Internet are great and they are bringing people out, but I'm afraid for the most part it appears to be the same crowd."
Jacobs has reason to be concerned. Roughly one-half of Americans don't vote in presidential elections and even more don't vote in congressional elections. Jacobs says it not that people aren't interested in what's going on around them. He says studies show more than two-thirds of Americans say they regularly discuss current events or community issues. It's just that many never make it to the polls.
Steven Clift hopes to change that. He's a founder of E-Democracy, a non-profit based in Minnesota. He travels the world speaking about the advantages of online community forums.
Clift agrees there's a need for greater diversity online. But he says that shouldn't discount many of the important conversations that are going on. He also says the online world needs to build expectations for people using the Internet.
"When somebody gets online I want them to think, 'of course I can discuss issues with my neighbors, of course I can interact in a public way with my mayor or my elected officials,'" says Clift excitedly. "That expectation has not been built yet, but we're trying to build it because if we don't and wait for everyone to get online, it's not going to happen."
Clift calls himself a cyberoptimist. He says forum discussions are kept friendly. Personal attacks and nasty comments are banned. As a result he says conversations are in depth and respectful. Clift says he sees limitless online possibilities. He says he's been amazed by responses to some of his own posts.
"I posted to the forum once about squirrels getting into my house and it must have been two weeks later and the control division called me on the telephone and said, 'we hear you're having problems with squirrels.' When, when, does the city call you?" asks Clift.
"So through experience people have found if you talk to each other you can set agendas, you can create public opinion, and you know what? A lot of people in government want to help and if we engage with them and don't put it on their shoulders, it can actually have an impact," he says.
Already much has been made of how the Internet has ignited at least one presidential campaign. Backers of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean used the online meeting facility called meetup.com to build support for the Democratic contender. However political science professor Larry Jacobs says he thinks it may be years until the long-term impact of the Internet is clear.