In preparation for our potential panel at SXSW 2010 and in an effort to give people a better understanding what our topic is all about, I’m putting together a mini series of posts around some of the recommendations we plan to share. This post is the second part of this series and addresses the importance of keeping participants informed as an e-participation initiative progresses.

One of the challenges we’ve seen with many of the recent e-participation initiatives at the national level is the fact that they tend to produce more raw content in a short period of time than any single participant would ever be able to digest. From what we’ve observed, this problem starts to occur at fairly small group sizes of several hundred participants and up, and the sheer volume of the participants’ collective input can quickly become overwhelming (for details, see here, here and here).

At the same time, it is safe to assume the following (we don’t have hard data to back this up, but reading through the discussions of any of the above projects provided plenty of anecdotal evidence):

  • Overall, the average participant will have a fairly limited amount of time to spend (participation is not their full-time job, far from it)
  • She may only check for updates occasionally (not, say, several times a day)
  • She prefers to “get in and get out” to make her contributions (not hang out and linger for hours on end)

The resulting lack of overview — knowing where things stand and how the project is progressing — can cause unnecessary friction, for example:

  • Less grasp of the overall discussions or any other ongoing activities and the content they produce, which may impact the quality of a participant’s contributions
  • Not knowing something is already being discussed elsewhere leads to repetition
  • Not being aware of the sections or threads that are most relevant to a participant personally may mean missed opportunities to make valuable contributions
  • No “contextual” navigation (knowing what is being discussed where, but also which sections or threads matter and why) may mean too much time spent on random browsing and search rather than meaningful contributions
  • All of the above can frustrate participants, and participation may be perceived as a waste of time

Keeping participants in the know about the bigger picture, on the other hand, can make participation a lot more convenient and fruitful and hence marks an important opportunity for the convener to create a better overall participation experience.

Some of the ways the convener might decide to address this challenge:

  • Provide short summaries on a regular basis (e.g. daily, depending on volume, in text, audio or video format)
  • Provide alerts for certain interesting developments (e.g. sudden sharp spikes in volume, highly active threads etc.)
  • Allow participants to subscribe to these digests and alerts via their preferred channels (e.g. via email, via RSS from an accompanying blog or wiki, or via satellite sites on other social networks)
  • Highlight the most valuable participant contributions (incl. convener responses, explain why)
  • For additional perspective, encourage participant to create their own digests and reference them generously

From a technology standpoint, these recommendations should be easy to implement on the web today. Many web-based tools for participation already support some aspects of participant information services. A wide array of supporting tools (many free and open source) is available to fill any gaps.