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What is Reality Check?

Reality Check is many things in one.

It is a non-partisan public interest resource to counter the effect of media saturation and model a new kind of public discourse on public issues.

It is a community composed of small, online discussion groups, developed as an experiment to overcome some of the limitations of online discussion.

And, finally, it is a place to jump into the mess that is the impeachment hearings (and everything leading up to them) and come away with a clearer head.

Reality Check is not a place to rehash partisan politics or obsess over the details of another media explosion that has overwhelmed us all. Instead, it's a place to sort out what we think about an event (or a set of events) that is so heavily covered by the media that we've lost track of what's important. We believe that people with divergent beliefs -- given the time and space to connect in a safe environment -- will be able to move beyond rhetoric and rediscover the complexities that are obscured by polarized positions. They might not agree with one another in the end, but hopefully they will come away with a deeper understanding of the issues and their own positions.

The Dilemma of the Invisible Man Culture

Reality Check is also implementing a unique experimental technique in on-line dialogue and community building. Although Web-based discussions offer users the ability to connect with each other -- one of the most powerful things any technology can do -- they often create a collection of people making drive-by postings, rather than a community.

Most on-line discussions are based on several unwritten rules, which tend to hinder the development of conversations:

    1. There is no limit to the number of participants.
    2. There is no set starting or end point for the conversation, and members can join or leave at any time.
    3. A participant can remain completely anonymous.
    4. A participant need have no responsibility for the discussion nor his/her contribution to it.

As a result, on-line users are often put in a difficult spot. H.G. Wells wrote in his story The Invisible Man about a man who had to negotiate on a daily basis how much of himself would be visible and how much to hide. The Internet puts its users in a similar situation: the more they show, the greater the risk, and the less they show, the shallower the connection. What often results is a community of people who want to see but not be seen, ultimately permitting most of us to see nothing. We refer to this as the dilemma of the Invisible Man culture.

A New Model for Web-based discussion

Reality Check's Dialogue Groups were developed to challenge the assumptions generated by this culture and its structures -- to experiment with an alternative model. Each group is a forum in which there is a small, set number of conversants, who agree to participate for a defined period of time.

A member can decide how anonymous he or she wants to be, deciding for example whether to use his/her real name or a screen name, and deciding how much to disclose when writing a short bio and participating in the discussions. But, on the theory that our perspectives are shaped by our background, participants are encouraged to ground their discussion in what they've learned through personal experience.

When a group gets under way, all of the members are introduced to one another, and throughout the discussions, members hold each other accountable for their comments and interactions with others. While the dialogues are available to the public for reading, only members can initiate new topics of conversation or post messages in their group.

The details are, on the surface not remarkable, perhaps seemingly not worthy of an experiment of this nature. But when considered in the context of the Web and its Invisible Man culture, what they present to the users is quite radical indeed.

This structure is built upon our belief that one of a Web site's greatest assets is its users. And, as well, one of a Web site's greatest sources of content is its users. A site that values this relationship can seek to create an environment on-line that advocates for and assists the users to develop on-line relationships and generate content out of what occurs among them.

The Rest of the Site

To support this, Reality Check will offer a frequently updated section, Featured Posts, which will highlight some of the most interesting exchanges or perspectives from the active groups.

For those interested in the topic, but not ready to make the commitment required by a dialogue group, there is another feature on the site open to contributions from any visitor.

Open Letters asks, "If you could speak to any player or organization involved in this event, and you knew they were giving you their full attention, what would you say to them?" A representative group of these letters will be posted in their own section of the site, and will hopefully serve as both the subject of small group discussions and models for the kind of thoughtful dialogues we hope will develop.

Who Created it and How?

Web Lab, the creator of Reality Check, is a not-for-profit that develops, supports, and champions innovative uses of the Web to enhance public understanding of -- and participation in -- the issues of our times. This site went from conception to launch in one month, with the help of many volunteers who worked mornings, evenings, and weekends. Web Lab partnered with Global Media Design, an Orlando-based new media development company, to develop and automate the software that runs the dialogue groups. WebPromote, a leading provider of targeted Internet web site marketing and promotion, is providing extraordinary promotional support.

The Origins of Reality Check

In February 1998, a blip of an idea developed at Web Lab and then, like many like it, was neglected as we moved on to other projects. The story about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had just emerged as the major media event of the year and we thought there had to be a better resource available, somewhere, to help people come to terms with the exhaustion such media overloads create and reinvigorate public discourse about public issues. Perhaps a Web site could serve such a purpose.

While the idea faded, the scandal, of course, did not.

That summer, in our role as on-line consultants for the public TV series P.O.V., we decided to experiment with small group discussions on-line, just to see what might happen. It was more of a gut feeling than anything that led us along that path, but the further down the line we went, the more we figured out how significant this experiment could prove to be, and what made it so effective. We called it the P.O.V. Salon.

In the course of 4 months, 9 salons were developed, with 20-25 members in each one, built along the structure described above. Limited membership. A dialogue defined by the members but with a set open and close date. Low anonymity and high expectations.

When it didn't work, nothing happened. When it did work, we saw things we had only dreamed about in the most utopian descriptions of on-line communities:

    1. Members with conflicting opinions communicated across their differences.
    2. A strong sense of group identity emerged.
    3. Members developed enough trust to be willing to talk about very personal aspects of their lives and looked to one another for advice and support.
    4. Members valued their relationships and dialogues, continually seeking to strengthen both, any way they could.
    5. The salons always addressed their shared common experience of the P.O.V. films, but spent as much time, if not more, discussing issues raised through their interactions with each other.
    6. Flaming was non-existent, constructive criticism and appreciations abounded, and members generally treated each other exceptionally well.

As the P.O.V. season was coming to a close, we decided to explore how we could continue to experiment with this format but on a larger scale. We realized the next step might tie in to our earlier plans for a site about media obsessions.

But what news event should the site focus on?

Then the Starr Report came out and we realized it was "a natural."

Reality Check: An Experiment

Reality Check, like the P.O.V. Salon, is an experiment, and the dialogue members are as much running the experiment as they are a part of it. While the P.O.V. Salon was most interested in developing meaningful dialogue and on-line relationships, Reality Check is interested in focusing this technique on a particular topic, in an attempt to offer the public a way to reinvigorate public discourse about the issues of our time.

Will it work? We hope so. But the answer is up to you and others who decide to participate in this site and make Reality Check real.


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